“War is Peace” (George Orwell, 1984)

Of course, Orwell’s doublethink, whereby directly contradictory political messages obfuscate any sort of truth, looks completely ridiculous in this day and age…

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(Miss you, Carrie)

A slight departure this week Reader, as rather than two books linked by a theme, for this post its one book only. One novel which is the size of 4 novels and has tested my aversion to e-books to the extreme, as lugging it around town on my commute and various evenings out has seen my back reach a place that even the most experienced osteopath would baulk at.  Look at the size of this beast:

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It is of course, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1865-8) and for once a new year’s resolution fulfilled, as I decided 2017 was going to be the year. Such an epic stretches my limited reviewing capabilities so instead I present my War and Peace reading diary.  Thrills! Spills! Intrigue! Romance! Or none of the above and instead one bibliophile risking permanent musculo-skeletal disfigurement in the name of experiencing a cornerstone of classic literature – you decide! (Warning: this post is nearly as long as the Russian epic itself, my apologies Reader, I think Tolstoy is catching…)

Day 1

I planned to start reading War and Peace 6 days ago. One day I’ll be a disciplined person. Or possibly not.

There are 1444 pages in my Penguin edition (trans. Rosemary Edmonds, 1962-3, revised 1978). There’s a list of principal characters, which I thought was helpful until Wiki informed me that there are nearly 600 characters in this novel. The list names a full 26. What have I taken on?

As a further incentive to get this read I decide to reward completion with the BBC adaptation which everyone seemed to rate so highly:

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Or more specifically, I choose to reward myself with this (shameless objectification alert):

The foil blanket awaiting the end of this marathon….

The foil blanket awaiting the end of this marathon….

Day one and so far I’m finding Tolstoy enjoyably cynical (so long as I forget he was horrible to his wife IRL):

“Never, never marry my dear fellow. This is my advice to you – don’t marry until you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and until you cease to love the woman of your choice and see her plainly, as she really is; or else you will be making a cruel and irreparable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing. Otherwise everything that is fine and noble in you will be thrown away.”

And also a rival to Austen in the bitchy social commentary stakes:

They wept because they were friends, and because they were warm hearted, and because they – friends from childhood – should have to think about anything so sordid as money, and because their youth was over…But the tears of both were sweet to them.”

Both good things.

Pages read: 65 (pathetic) Pages remaining: 1379

Day 2

It’s predictable and trite to moan about the patronymic system in Russian novels so I won’t mention the fact that I’m struggling with the fact that everyone has 27 names. Instead I’ll restrict myself to sharing my frustration that three – three! –  principal characters are called Nikolai and the narrator refers to ‘the princess’ when there’s more than one princess in the room.

These quibbles aside – I’m hooked. War and Peace is completely brilliant.

Total pages read: 204 (better) Pages remaining: 1240

Days 3 – 5

War and Peace should come with a health warning: will induce antisocial behaviour. I’m really annoyed that social engagements arranged BWP (Before War and Peace) are taking me away from my reading time. I look up at the end of my commute disappointed that no-one around me looks even vaguely Cossack-like and apparently we’re no longer at war with Napoleon.

The peace sections are full of astute observations about socially mannered manipulations:

 “Weierother met all objections with a firm and contemptuous smile that was evidently prepared beforehand against any piece of criticism, whatever it might be.”

We’re also getting more into the psychology of soldiering and war, which is bleak and depressing, such as Andrei’s attitude to his loved ones:

“ ‘All the same, the only thing I love and prize is triumph over all of them. I care for nothing but this mysterious power and glory which I seem to feel in the haze that hangs above my head’ ”

Tolstoy is astonishing. Maybe no-one mentions his wit because his psychological insights are so devastating.

Total pages read: 404 (rubbish – stupid social life) Pages remaining: 1040

Day 6 – 7

Is it wrong that manipulative, destructive, serial seducer Dolokhov is my favourite character? (Answer: yes.) I know I should prefer sweet Pierre: “Moscow gave him the sensation of peace and warmth that one has in an old and dirty dressing gown”

or noble Andrei “the chief reason for his wanting to weep was a sudden acute sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable existing within him and the narrow material something which he, even she, was.”

But who are they to this one-man dirty bomb blasting his way through the drawing rooms of Moscow? I wonder who plays him in the BBC adaptation?

I doff my hat to you, BBC casting director.

I doff my hat to you, BBC casting director.

Bitchy social commentary of the day: “He believed that just as a duck is so created that it must live in water, so he was created by God for the purpose of spending thirty thousand roubles a year and occupying the highest pinnacle of society. He was so firmly grounded in this opinion that others, looking at him, were persuaded of it too, and refused him neither the exalted position in society nor the money, which he borrowed right and left with no notion of ever repaying it.”

Total pages read: 702 Pages remaining: 742 (managed to catch up to my goal of 100 pages a day). Nearly halfway!

Day 8

War! What is it good for?

“The forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began: in other words, an event took place to counter all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetuated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regards as crimes.”

Absolutely nothing. Say it again, y’all.

Total pages read: 864 Pages remaining: 580

Day 9

The serious tone continues, with the bitchy social commentary sadly no more, but it does sharpen the focus on the horrors of war and the psychological fallout on the characters.

 “behind the veil of smoke the sun still stood high, and in front… a turmoil still seethed in the smoke, and the thunder of canon and musketry, far from slackening, grew louder and more desperate, like a man who puts all his remaining strength into one final cry”

A man sat next to me on my commute today sporting an enormous white beard and a Cossack hat. He has no idea how happy he made me.

Total pages read: 1006 Pages remaining: 438

Day 10 -11

The final stretch! I can’t say too much about what I’m reading for fear of spoilers.

Instead I’ll just say that I’ll be sorry to see it go, and frankly, I wonder if Tolstoy could have made it a bit longer.

Although I do think most editors today would try and dissuade authors from ending a 1400+ page novel with an abandonment of all narrative for a 40 page philosophical discussion on the nature of power and freewill…

Total pages read: 1444 Pages remaining: none!

So that’s me done, and I can’t quite believe it. There will be no stopping me now from reading other epics which have lain languishing in my TBR. Next: Ulysses! Infinite Jest! The Count of Monte Cristo! A different translation of War and Peace! I think I need a little lie down…

“It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural.” (Margery Sharp)

This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!

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First, Cluny Brown (1944) which portrays one of the most original, idiosyncratic and appealing fictional heroines I’ve encountered:

“She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown, and at the same time, stepping in with the milk, she looked as though she belonged intimately to her surroundings.”

Cluny is a young woman, living with her plumber uncle as both her parents have died. She resolutely goes her own way and harms no-one, and can’t understand why people find her habits – such as the decision to stay in bed all day eating oranges – so objectionable.

“She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea – put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors – and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box – in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.”

After a misunderstanding which sees Cluny fix the blocked sink of an amorous older man in Chelsea, Uncle Arn sends her away to service in Devon.

“She wasn’t resigned, for she was never that, but she felt a certain expectancy. At least something was happening to her and all her life that was the one thing Cluny Brown consistently desired.”

At the country house, Cluny encounters certain types: an upright colonel, a horticulturally obsessed matriarch, the feckless heir, a young society lady leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake… yet in Sharp’s hands these portraits are wholly believable rather than clumsy stereotypes. A tentative love affair begins, and Cluny Brown is nothing if not contrary…

I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. This novel is an unmitigated joy.  Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…

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Secondly, The Eye of Love (1957), the middle-aged love story of Harry Gibson and Dolores Diver.

“For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted from life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.

To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball.”

To outsiders they appear ordinary, and laughable.  But to one another, viewed through the eye of love, they are brave, noble and glamorous:

“ ‘My Big Harry! My King Hal!’ cried Miss Diver.

‘My Spanish rose!’ cried Mr Gibson.

They clung together in ridiculous grief, collapsed together on the Rexine settee.”

The grief is due to Harry needing to marry the daughter of a business rival, in order to amalgamate the businesses and save his shop.

“He wanted her to want to be married, as he himself wanted not to be made a bankrupt; he had an idea that as between man and woman it came to much the same thing.”

And so it is a novel with lovers parted. We follow Harry’s attempts to integrate into a new family, and Miss Diver’s attempts to earn money without his support by taking in a lodger (Mr Phillips, who finds the house – which he believes his landlady owns – very attractive). Meanwhile, around the edge of all this trauma, is Miss Diver’s niece, Martha. A self-contained child who Sharp frequently describes as “stolid” Martha does as she pleases. She doesn’t attend school – Miss Diver didn’t arrange it and Martha has no inclination to go – and instead walks around town, sees her shopkeeper friends, and soon discovers an all-consuming passion for drawing.

“To say she didn’t like the new lodger would have been an over-simplification: and the true root of her malaise lay so deeply entwined with her innermost feelings, she couldn’t bring it to light. Put briefly, while Martha didn’t mind carrying up Mr Phillips tray, to have to look at him and say Good morning represented an imposition of alien will.”

I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George, which I will hunt down forthwith.

Back to the adults. The Eye of Love is quite a feat, because while Sharp does not expect her readers to view Harry and Miss Diver as they view each other, at the same time she does not present them as harshly as the other characters judge them (particularly Miss Diver’s pretensions of Spanishness (real name Dorothy Hogg)). Her writing is acutely observed, with dry humour, but it is also kind.  The foibles of the characters are funny but oh-so-human.

 “At least once a day he took out Dolores’ comb, and warmed it back to life between his hands. He had to hang on hard to his Britishness, not to press it to his lips. A sad and ridiculous sight was Harry Gibson – large, stout, fifty years old – holding himself back from mumbling a wafer of tortoiseshell, as a child hangs back from sucking a forbidden sweet.”

Poor Harry. Poor Dolores.  Will they find their way back to one another? All I’ll say is, as with Cluny Brown, I thought the ending of The Eye of Love was perfect.

Well, it’s early days in 2017 but already things are looking up. I’ve met a new love in my life and I make no apologies for the gushing superlatives she inspires in me. Margery: where have you been all my life?

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If you’d like to know more about this wonderful author, do check out The Margery Sharp blog as well as all the other posts today 🙂

To end, I was going to go for a song from the period, but ultimately I chose this, as I think Cluny and Martha would approve of the sentiment:

 

“Let it snow!” (Dean Martin)

Or, you know, don’t.  A friend of mine from the east coast of America asked me last week why all the weather reports in the UK were focussing on snowmageddon when really, very little happened. A German colleague is baffled every year by our total inability to deal with anything above a flurry. I have no answers for them. What I do have, in honour of the snow that barely made an appearance last week, is novels where there is serious snow. Snow that means business. Snow you have to dig yourself out of. If only because then I get to include this gif:

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Firstly Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson (2010, tr.2015 Quentin Bates 2015). I’m not a huge reader of crime fiction set any time after the middle of the last century, but I was convinced by the enthusiastic reviews of FictionFan and Sarah from Hard Book Habit, and the promise that this was like a golden age crime novel but with a contemporary, Icelandic setting (the author translated Agatha Christie into Icelandic when he was 17).

Rookie copper Ari Thor Arason leaves Reykjavik and his girlfriend behind to take a posting in the remote town of Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. A place so small you don’t need to drive to get around, and only accessible via a mountain pass.

“On the right were the snow white mountains, magnificent and formidable, while on the other side was a terrifying, sheer drop onto the expanse of Skagafjordur. One mistake on a patch of ice and there would be no tomorrow…he relaxed as the tunnel entrance finally approached. They had made it all the way in one piece. But his relief was short-lived. He expected a broad, well-lit modern tunnel, but what lay in front of him looked forbidding. It was a narrow single track. Ari Thor later learned it had been carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago when there were only a few tunnels in Iceland. It didn’t help that water dripped here and there from the unseen rock ceiling above. Ari Thor suddenly felt himself struck by a feeling he had never experienced before – an overwhelming claustrophobia.”

As Ari Thor settles into life in place where everyone knows everyone and no-one locks their doors, a local celebrity falls down some stairs whilst drunk and dies (or did he? or was he?) When a woman is found close to death, bleeding out in the snow in her garden, the police start to suspect that the two may be linked. As “every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjordur”, the mountain pass is soon made unpassable through an avalanche, and so essentially what  Jonasson has done is use the snow to create a claustrophobic, tense, locked-room murder mystery (please commend me on my enormous restraint in avoiding snow-based puns like ‘chilling’ or ‘unsettling’, despite the fact it is both those things).

Snowblind is a short novel (252 pages in my edition) and so I can’t say much more without spoilers. What I will say is that it feels resolutely contemporary with references to the financial crash which devastated Iceland at the time (although for the once-busy port of Siglufjordur, “if there’s a recession here, it comes from the sea”) whilst at the same time being part of a tradition of non-gory, page-turning whodunits. Siglufjordur itself is wonderfully evoked, with a real sense of place created, whilst at the same time becoming a fictional other, and somewhat eerie.

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Siglufjordur

Image from here

“This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before. The white was no longer pure, but tinged blood red.”

Secondly, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (1992, tr. F David 1993) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit (new year’s resolution from now on – stop being so euro-centric with this challenge). I distinctly remember all the hype around this novel when it first came out. Not that I’m slow on the uptake, but 24 years later, I’ve finally read it. These days we are awash with antisocial-genius detectives but back in the day Smilla Jaspersen may have been more of a novelty:

“I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It’s the light of grace for me.”

Smilla does need people, even if she doesn’t like to admit it, and when her neighbour, six year old  Isiah, falls to his death from a roof, she is galvanised to act:

“Isiah’s death is an irregularity, an eruption that produced a fissure. That fissure has set me free. For a brief time, and I can’t explain how, I have been set in motion, I have become a foreign body skating on top of the ice.”

Smilla, half-Greenlandic, can read the snow and she knows Isiah’s last footprints tell a different story to the one the authorities are spinning. This is a theme throughout the novel, which is as much a commentary on post-colonial power structures as it a detective story. Smilla has a history of far left political activism and is not easily cowed by those trying to silence her. I found her a believable, idiosyncratic heroine and really enjoyed her matter-of-fact voice:

 “The knives I keep in my apartment are just sharp enough to open envelopes with… I don’t need anything sharper. Otherwise, on bad days, it might easily occur to me that I could always go and stand in the bathroom and slit my throat. Against such a contingency it’s nice to have the added security of needing to go downstairs and borrow a decent knife from a neighbour.”

My quibble would be that I thought the story lost momentum a bit when Smilla left Denmark and journeyed towards Greenland; I think the return to the land of her childhood was inevitable so maybe it needed a heavier edit earlier in the novel. But overall, an intriguing premise for an intelligent mystery with a strong political message.

“Reading snow is like listening to music. To describe what you’ve read is to try and explain music in writing.”

To end, the unintentionally hilarious trailer for the film adaptation. So very earnest, so very heavy-handed 😀  (and yet still following the Hollywood tradition of whitewashing, unless Julia Ormond is part-indigenous Greenlander?)

“Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.” (Homer Simpson)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about novels featuring dinner parties with truly horrible people. If you thought that post was depressing…welcome to its companion piece, all about alcoholics. Happy New Year!

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So, alcohol seemed an obvious theme for a new year’s post, but I apologise in advance for just how bleak my choices are. Excellently written novels, but on finishing them I did wonder if there were enough kittens on YouTube to aid my recovery…

Firstly, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929-1934) a trilogy of novels about people who work in and frequent The Midnight Bell pub on the Euston Road between the two World Wars. The trilogy begins with barman Bob:

“The gas-lit walls and objects around him were heavy with his own depression – the depression of one who awakes from excess in the late afternoon. Only at dawn should a man awake from excess – at dawn agleam with red and sorrowful resolve. The late, dark afternoon, with an evening’s toil ahead, affords no such palliation.”

Bob is frustrated writer who never does any writing, and he falls for Jenny, a prostitute. As he pursues her, the reader can see so clearly what Bob cannot: that he will never win her, and she will only suck him financially dry. Hamilton is a sensitive and non-judgemental writer, and so the reader isn’t positioned to judge Bob for his stupidity nor Jenny for her avarice. Instead we are shown that Bob is deluded, and pushing his fantasies onto Jenny. For her, this is a common occurrence, she is paid to be what men want her to be.  When Bob comes to his senses, he doesn’t judge her harshly:

“He believed it was not her fault. Existence had abused her and made her what she was; poverty had crushed him and made him unable to help her. He knew he had never made any impression on her, and never would have done so. He knew that it had all come from him, and only the obsession and hysteria of pursuit had given a weak semblance of reciprocation.”

It is a sad tale, about the capacity to lie to ourselves, and the fantasies used to hide from life. Hamilton does inject humour at times to lighten the tale slightly:

“ ‘Talking to those Prostitutes,’ said Ella…

Her violent stress upon the first syllable of this word implied a differentiation between a large class of almost venial Titutes, and another branch of the same class, designated Pros, and beyond the pale.”

Ultimately, though, a sense of sad, quiet desperation pervades.

The second tale goes back in time to show how Jenny became a sex worker. She is frustrated by the restraints on women’s behaviour and life choices at this time. But then Jenny discovers the love of her life, alcohol:

“This was her ruin – she was getting drunk again. This was the turning point of her life. If she lost her will now she had lost all. Yet why not? With one word of assent she could be lifted from undreamed of woe to undreamed of bliss – step out from her deep unhappiness as from a garment. She could be free of all care. She could have a grand time.”

And we know where this takes her. Like Bob, Jenny seeks an escape into something which cannot sustain her. Unlike Bob, she does not move on, and her life becomes hopeless.

The third tale belongs to Ella, running parallel to Bob’s. Ella is different, in that she is a realist, and has somehow managed not to give up all hope. She is in love with Bob but knows he will never feel the same. She is courted by an older man, whom she considers marrying, despite her misgivings, as she knows he will help support her dissolute mother:

“ ‘Call me Ernest in Ernest, eh!’ said Mr Eccles.  ‘That’s rather a good one. I must remember that.’

Oh dear, thought Ella, if that was his idea of a good one, it was a poor outlook for the more frothy side of their proposed future as an engaged couple.”

Hamilton gives Ella the most humour in her voice, and I was really rooting for her not to marry Eccles (despite it meaning she would adopt his excellent cakey name), not to despair and not to give up.

 “The Ring, and after eight weeks, enslavement for life – a life of Sundays in which she walked respectably round Regent’s Park with this rather elderly, rather good-looking, arch, often irritable, self-conscious bowler-hatted maniac who had never rightly understood a single thought going on in her head!”

I finished Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky feeling, frankly, depressed. This is an indication of its excellence though: the characters are believable, the portrayals sensitive, the writing sharply observed.

The BBC adapted Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky in 2006. I saw it at the time and from my memory it was very good. Some kind soul has uploaded all 3 episodes to YouTube and it stars the wonderful Sally Hawkins as the luckless Ella, so definitely worth a look.

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Secondly, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1957-1968) a beat generation classic set amongst the drug addicts, sex workers and hustlers of Brooklyn. Despite being a hugely famous book, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Hence: a trigger warning of extreme subject matter to follow. The lives Selby depicts are unrelenting in their brutality and extreme violence. Each section focuses on a different character, beginning with Georgette, a transsexual prostitute:

“Her life didnt revolve, but spun centrifugally, around stimulants, opiates, johns (who paid her to dance for them in womens panties then ripped them off her; bisexuals who told their wives they were going out with the boys and spent the night with Georgette (she trying to imagine they were Vinnie)), the freakish precipitate coming to the top.”

Poor Georgette is fundamentally a romantic, who desperately wants to be loved, but looks for it in all the wrong places. To be honest, I couldn’t see that anyone would find even a grain of human kindness in Selby’s Brooklyn, let alone love. Selby’s style is stream of consciousness, avoiding punctuation so as not to disrupt the flow, in an attempt to capture the authentic voices of the characters. He does this brilliantly, and his artfulness does not disrupt from the sense of chaos in the character’s lives. The style is perfect for the story he wants to tell.

Selby has great feeling for the people whose lives he wants to depict. He does not judge them, but tries to present their lives truthfully without sentimentality. He certainly has more compassion for them than they have for themselves:

“his disgust seeming to wrap itself around him as a snake slowly, methodically and painfully squeezing the life from him, but each time it reached the point where just the slightest more pressure would bring an end to everything; life, misery, pain, it stopped tightening, retained the pressure and Harry just hung there his body alive with pain, his mind sick with disgust.”

In all honesty, this was nearly a rare DNF for me. Not because it was a terrible book, but because it was just an unrelentingly tough read. There is a horrific depiction of rape at one point, of Tralala, a prostitute, and I just didn’t know if I could go on. Apparently Selby himself had to go to bed for two weeks after writing that story. What kept me going was that Selby is a great writer, and I’m glad I did, (despite then having to read about the crucifixion of a paedophile) because the last section of the book was my favourite. It is a montage piece cutting across various inhabitants in the course of a day, and really gives a sense of the neighbourhood and the lives therein. Ada in particular was very affecting – a grieving, eccentric widow, desperately lonely and sitting outside on a bench all day:

“Ada almost yelled at them, but stopped as she noticed that now women were coming down and people were going to the store and children were running and laughing and the sun was getting brighter and warmer and a few men straddled a bench with a checker board between them and maybe someone would sit down next to her and they would talk.”

So, an incredibly powerful piece of writing, but one that I’m glad is over for me. Last Exit to Brooklyn was also adapted into a film, in 1989. I always try and avoid absolute resolutions, but I feel fairly safe saying there is no way I will ever be watching it…

To end, a question for you Reader: why is it when people say “Why does no-one write songs with stories anymore?” (which is true) they so often follow up the comment with “You know, like Richard Marx?” It’s very distressing, because after I’ve finished rending my garments, I have physically restrain them and force them to listen to Leonard Cohen and Squeeze. Here is a song about an alcoholic by the much-underrated band. Not their finest, but so apt for this post. I don’t really worry about my drinking, but the lyric “Like some kind of witch, with blue fingers in mittens/She smells like the cats, and the neighbours she sickens” does make me worry that Glenn Tillbrook has seen my future… where did I put those YouTube kittens?

“Merry Christmas, Everyone” (Shakin’ Stevens)

After last week’s moany post, I have survived both work dos and I am in the Christmas spirit – joyeux noel!

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I even gifted to myself, in the shape of Karl Ove Knausgaard (if only) by going to see him interviewed for World Book Club, in the rather formal surrounds of the council chamber at the BBC (free wine! and crisps! so that’s where my licence fee goes – I approve). He was every bit as good-looking charming and erudite as I’d hoped so if you get a chance to listen to the show at some point (on in early January) I recommend it. And it warmed my post-Brexit heart to be part of such an international audience, so thank you BBC 🙂

Back to Christmas. At this time of seasonal over-indulgence, I’ve decided to exercise uncharacteristic restraint. Two Christmas stories, but both of them short stories, wee amuse-bouches that can easily be consumed by a brain threatening to slip into a vegetative state from the over-consumption of, well, everything really…

OK, I can probably manage one more Ferrero Rocher...

OK, I can probably manage one more Ferrero Rocher…

Firstly, the titular story from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a selection of entrees by Agatha Christie (1960). Things begin in fine Golden Age form: Poirot is asked by a mysterious government-type to find a missing ruby that a foreign prince has mislaid on Blightly’s shores, in order to avoid an international incident. Poirot is hard to persuade and the government-type is close to losing his cool:

“Mr Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.”

Poirot decides to leave his lovely art deco flat (I want it! I want it!) once he knows his accommodation for Christmas has oil-fired central heating:

“Again Poirot shivered. The thought of a fourteenth-century English manor house filled him with apprehension. He had suffered too often in the historic country houses of England.”

I did enjoy that little swipe at the trope of country house mysteries.  Christie’s clearly having a great time writing this, evoking a traditional country house Christmas and then throwing everything at it, from faked murders to mysterious strangers to anonymous notes left for Poirot:

“Don’t eat none of the plum pudding. One as wishes you well.”

I think I’ve eaten that plum pudding. Of course, Poirot is on top of everything and speedily resolves murder, mystery, missing jewels and that most pressing of seasonal considerations: is the plum pudding safe?

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Secondly, again the titular story of a collection, this time Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1940), set in the time before her famous comic novel, and so the Starkadder family are in full disarray.

“The Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm had never got the hang of Christmas, somehow, and on Boxing Day there was always a run on Howling pharmacy for lint, bandages, and boracic powder.”

In this short story we are treated to a portrait of Christmas at the farm, a Christmas no-one in their right mind would want. Nothing particularly happens, it is more a series of events over the course of the day to display the Starkadders in all their colourful, brutal, hilarious glory.  If you’re not familiar with the family from Cold Comfort Farm, well, firstly, away with you and read the comic treat! But if you decide to read the Christmas story first, all you need to know about the family can be gleaned from the idiosyncratic and truly disgusting charms which grace the Christmas pudding:

“Him as gets the sticking plaster’ll break a limb; the menthol cone means as you’ll be blind wi’ headache, the bad coins means as you’ll lose all yer mony, and him as gets the coffin-nail will die afore the New Year. The mirror’s seven years’ bad luck for someone, Aie! In ye go, curse ye!”

Gibbon’s driest humour is saved not for the family but for those around them, such as the vicar who has been guided to pay a Christmas Eve visit by the crate of British Port-type wine he saw being delivered to the farm (surely there’s not enough port wine in the world to get you through a festive visit with the Starkadders?) If you enjoyed Cold Comfort Farm there’s much to relish in this brief visit to the family.  A treat.

Another treat - Rufus Sewell as Seth Starkadder in the 1996 BBC adaptation. Apparently Kate Beckinsale and a bull are in this photo too - I can't see them anywhere...

Another treat – Rufus Sewell as Seth Starkadder in the 1996 BBC adaptation. Apparently Kate Beckinsale and a bull are in this photo too – I can’t see them anywhere…

To end, proof if proof were needed, that my ‘taste’ in Christmas tunes is very much of an era.  The post began with the double-denim Welsh Elvis that is Shaky, and now ends with the greatest Christmas video ever (non-debateable, as is the greatest Christmas song, Fairytale of New York). There will never come a day when I’ve seen this too many times, I love everything about it. The snow, the ski lodge, the mullets, the meaningful looks over the tinsel, the death stare down the dining table… enjoy 😀

UPDATE: It was announced on Christmas Day that George Michael had died. Rest in Peace George, and thank you for all the tunes xx

“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

‘Tis the season of the works Christmas do, and this week I’ll be stuffing my face at not one but two dinners, as I’m going to both my old job and new job’s yuletide outing. I hate works outings, so I’d be tempted to proclaim that there is no God, but that’s not really in keeping with the season. So I’ll just say I’m not happy about the week’s forthcoming events.

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This week I’m looking at two stories that will help me stop being so ungrateful, as they feature horrific dinners with despicable people. Buon Natale!

Firstly, The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009, tr. 2012 Sam Garrett) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his wife Babette at a swish Amsterdam restaurant. Fairly quickly, it is apparent that Paul harbours a great deal of resentment towards his brother:

“Through and through, Serge remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting”

The dinner begins to unravel from the beginning. Babette arrives visibly upset:

 “Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

As they work their way through the dinner (the different sections of the book are split into the consecutive sections of a menu), Paul reflects on why they are actually all meeting – to discuss a horrific crime which has taken place – and recent events in his life. The further we get into the novel, the more of Paul’s personality begins to emerge, from a slightly controversial take on memorial stones…

 “The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiselled onto the war memorials.”

…escalating to an increasingly apparent violent nature and fascistic attitude to people.  A worrying combination:

“The little hairs on the back of my neck and my tingling fingers had not betrayed me: when the lower intelligences are about to lose an argument, they grasp at other straws in order to justify themselves.”

I won’t say too much more for fear spoilers, but The Dinner is a quick read, its light touch belying its serious concerns: should personal interest ever outweigh societal responsibility and what are the ramifications if it does?

Safe to say you’ll finish the novel mightily relieved that you never have to sit down to a meal with a single character portrayed within. And this is Koch’s master stroke. I desperately wanted the whole family to implode, for justice to be done. In doing so, I realised I wasn’t so very different to these repugnant people and their feeling of moral superiority towards others. It was not a comfortable place to be. The Dinner leaves a bad taste in the mouth, exactly as its creator intended.

Secondly, Festen (2004), the stage play by David Eldridge of the 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg (trigger warning: mentions incest). I was a huge fan of the Dogme 95 films and I saw the play in 2004 where it translated well to the stage. It’s a simple plot but powerful: Christian’s twin sister Linda has killed herself and as the family meet to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday, Christian makes a speech about why Linda would do such thing – the sexual abuse she and Christian endured as children at the hands of their father.

“Christian: I apologise for interrupting again.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’re here today because it is my father’s birthday. We’re not here for any other reason.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry if I led you all up the garden path before. I am sorry. I’d like to make it all up to you all now by asking you to charge your glasses. To my father.

Helmut: Well done Christian.

Poul: Yes, well done.

Christian: If you would all like to stand with me. And raise your glasses.

Everyone stands.

To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Unlike The Dinner, there are people to care about and root for. Despite the horrific subject matter, there are moments of levity and the play is warm towards the majority of the characters.  Reading plays can be an odd business, because it’s not the primary form for the story. I found the playtext of Festen very readable and affecting, but if you don’t fancy it, do give the film a go, as the story is a moving one and brilliantly directed (contains swearing):

What a depressing post this has turned into! ‘Tis the season of being grumpy about enforced joviality 😉 I promise I’ve a much lighter-hearted Crimbo post planned for next week. For this week, I wish you all a lovely load of Christmas parties, may they be as adorable as this dinner:

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“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

Where am I again? Oh, yeah...

Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs: