“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:

 

“I don’t know what London’s coming to — the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” (Noël Coward)

It was the autumn equinox last week here in the UK, which means summer for us is officially over and everyone’s back at work. For this reason I thought I’d look at the theme of London as it’s where I live and work, alongside eleventy-million others. Those heady summer days are rapidly becoming a distant memory under the realities of train strikes (salt rubbed into the wound of a service so bad it often seems like Southern rail are running a surrealist immersive art installation they’ve forgotten to tell anyone about) and falling temperatures. For this reason, and after the tribulations of The Notebook last week, I’ve chosen 2 comic novels for a bit of light relief.

Firstly, NW by Zadie Smith (2012) or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Zadie Smith, if you will. This is Smith’s fourth novel (she recently published her fifth, Swing Time) and it’s the first of her much-lauded fiction that I’ve truly enjoyed. Until this point I always preferred her journalism and essays, but NW is the point at which her fiction really grabbed me.

Set in the part of London whose postcode gives the book its title, NW experiments with various forms, hopping between stream-of-consciousness, text-speak, first and third person, diagrams… It is a successful approach, creating the multiple voices and sensory overload that London offers, without descending into a chaotic mess. Edgware Road:

“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life size porcelain tiger, gold taps.”

Leah, Natalie (who used to be called Keisha), Felix and Nathan grew up on the same Caldwell estate and went to the same school. As adults, their lives have diverged, but they all still live in the area (Willesden) and their stories overlap and layer one another, broadening each of their individual tales.  Leah and Natalie are each other’s oldest friend.  Both are married – more or less happily – and employed, building their lives. But whereas Natalie spent the 90s knuckling down to work and is now a successful barrister, Leah spent it enjoying rave culture and now has a socially responsible but low-paid job, which creates a tension in their relationship:

“Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How did you get to be so full? And why so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.”

Of course, when we get to Natalie’s version of the story Leah has alluded to, we realise all is not as it seems. Natalie is not entirely happy; she has not shrugged off Caldwell, nor does she entirely want to. There are areas of her life where she still refers to herself as Keisha, and when she gives birth to the first of her beautiful children it is her childhood friends and family that give most comfort:

“People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people.”

Another section of the novel follows recovering addict Felix around the borough. He is emerging from a destructive life into something more positive.  As he moves around the area, between the people of his old life and new, his story simultaneously captures the transformation which his home town is undergoing:

“He steadied himself with a hand on the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognise it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shops, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pub by the refits.”

Nathan meanwhile, beautiful and talented at school, now a physical wreck, has not managed to pull himself out of the sort of life Felix had been living. NW is funny and sad, effectively capturing born –and-bred Londoners at a specific time in an ever-changing city. As a born-and-bred Londoner myself, around the same age as Zadie Smith and therefore her protagonists, I thought it was highly effective in capturing place, time and voice(s). I still think Zadie Smith’s editor needs to be heavier-handed, and one of the characters makes a leap at the end that I thought didn’t quite hold up, but NW means I’m now really looking forward to reading Swing Time.

Not the only member of her family to engage with ideas around language, here is Zadie’s brother Ben aka comedian/rapper/actor Doc Brown, proving that apparently the whole family are good-looking, talented and witty, damn them (little bit rude and mild swears):

Secondly, Capital by John Lanchester (2012). In 2010 former journalist Lanchester wrote a non-fiction book, Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010) about the credit crunch. This is a fictional look at the same time, through the residents of Pepys Road in south-west London.  Pepys Road, like much of London, has seen the value of the property rise exponentially:

“For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop of their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had already become central actors in their own right.”

Hence Capital is about the capital city, and also about the financial capital which the city propagates and runs on.

“She wasn’t sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes, the shops, the talk, the very air. People got it and spent it and thought about it and talked about it all the time. It was brash and horrible and vulgar, but also exciting and energetic and shameless and new”

In Mr Phillips, Lanchester wrote a slim novel detailing one man’s life over one day. By contrast, this is a 577 page (in my edition) novel takes in the lives of many: Petunia, an elderly lady who has lived in Pepys Road most of her life and her grandson, a Banksy-style artist; Roger and Arabella, a city worker and his materialist wife, their Hungarian nanny and Polish builder; the British Muslim family who run the corner shop; the Senegalese footballer whose club owns one of the houses; the Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden, ticketing the Aston Martins and Jeeps in the road.

Unsurprisingly, it is Roger and Arabella who are most affected by the financial collapse.  At the start of the novel Roger is anticipating his million-pound bonus:

“His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money’, but it did not pay even for his two mortgages. The house in Pepys Road was double-fronted and had cost £2,500,000, which at the time had felt like the top of the market, even though prices had risen a great deal since then. They had converted the loft, dug out the basement, redone all the wiring and plumbing because there was no point in not doing it, knocked through the downstairs, added…”

The chapter continues in the vein, listing all their running costs and conspicuous consumption before concluding “it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Good grief. Arabella’s whole existence revolves around spending money – she doesn’t work, a nanny takes the kids out all day, (“Matya had no theories about children, she took them as she found them, but it seemed to her that many of the children she had looked after were both spoilt and neglected.”) she has no hobbies or interests and seems to define herself through what she owns, so Roger and Arabella’s entire lives pretty much rest on his bonus.

Meanwhile, someone is sending postcards to the residents of the street, which only say “We Want What You Have”. The campaign escalates and the various residents start to feel uneasy:

“the thought of other people wishing they had your level of material affluence was an idea you could sit in front of, like a hearth fire. But this wasn’t like that. This was more like having someone keeping an eye on you and secretly wishing you ill.”

Detective Inspector Mill is called in to investigate:

“His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get into his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.”

Underestimate this unlikely copper at your peril, though.  Mill’s investigation forms the background mystery to the novel, but really this is a story about the variety of overlapping lives that take place in a typical London street: their hopes, triumphs, tragedies and the banal stuff in between. It’s a clever novel and extremely well-written, the pace doesn’t flag and I cared about all the characters (even a tiny bit about Arabella, who is clearly deeply unhappy and has no idea why). Unlike NW, there is one consistent authorial voice, but similarly to NW, Capital succeeds in capturing some of the complexity of a huge city and its many residents.

Capital was adapted into a 3-part BBC drama last year, starring the brilliant Toby Jones as Roger and a great turn by Rachel Stirling as the terrible Arabella:

 

“Middle age is when your age starts to show around your middle.” (Bob Hope)

This post is my contribution to the 1938 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book – do join in! As I rooted through my enormous TBR for books published in this year, I was astonished by the number I owned published in 1937 and 1939 – despairing, I turned to my Persephone pile and found two, hooray! So although it was scary biscuits there for a while, it all came up ticketty-boo in the end…and I promise that’s the last dubious 1930s slang you’ll hear from me 🙂

As it turned out, the two novels were linked thematically too: both are comic portraits of middle-aged women rediscovering themselves and proving that life can still hold surprises. Both were an absolute joy, so thank you Karen and Simon, for moving these to the top of the TBR and bringing them into my life that bit sooner!

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Firstly, Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan. Patricia is a wild, horse-loving redhead, part of the landed gentry but determinedly not a debutante, not wanting to marry someone like her sister’s choice:

“Victor, a pink young man with china-blue eyes and hair as golden as Angela’s, who could and did express all life was to him and all his reactions to it in two simple sentences, ‘Hellish, eh?’ and ‘Ripping, what?’”

Patricia falls for Hugh, a middle-class scholar who offends her mother’s upper-class sensibilities:

“‘it’s the small things that jar – cruets and asparagus servers and ferns..’

‘Patricia,’ said Lord Waveney winking at his grand-daughter, ‘isn’t such a fine piece of porcelain that she can’t stand a jar. If I were a woman, I’d sooner my husband kept a cruet than a mistress. Damn it, I’d sooner he helped himself to asparagus with servers than whisky without discretion.’”

Patricia marries Hugh and as they both change over the years she ends up feeling vaguely disappointed; he is preoccupied professor, she has compromised who she was out of all existence. They have three children and as they grow older Patricia wonders what is left of her life:

“I’ve just got to grow old and feeble and ugly. And what then? She asked, passing the marmalade factory, diving under the bridge, fleeing on between lighted dolls’-houses, and answered herself: some foul disease- a paralytic stroke and your face all sideways, or cancer and your last words on earth a howl for morphia”

I realise this may sound resolutely depressing but it really isn’t. Princes in the Land is written with a light touch and is filled with witty observations. Cannan laughs at human foibles but does so with affection. Patricia soon cheers herself with the thought of her children, the fact that she is:

“Mrs Lindsay with a charming house and three nice children, one going into the Army, one not sure yet but perhaps publishing, one still too young to know but almost certain to do something with horses”

One by one, her children break the news to her that actually, they do not have the remotest inclination to follow the paths she has imagined for them. Patricia is a nice person, she is sensible and she loves her children, and so she steps back to let them make their own choices and mistakes. It means however, that she is not fulfilled through them, and so she is thrown back to thinking about what on earth she is going to do with the rest of her life:

“The kingdoms she had won for them they had rejected. August with his shiny black bag and his bowler hat, his two pounds a week and his gimcrack villa; Giles dispensing God as a remedy for discontent, boredom or sex repression; Nicola without an idea in her head beyond combustion engines – these weren’t the children for whom she’d given up fun and friendship, worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, supressed, surrendered and seen her young self die.”

I hope it’s not too much of a SPOILER to say she works something out – the tone of the novel means I remained hopeful that she would, and it would have been a real shock if a depressing, bleak outcome had won. Princes in the Land is just lovely, and truly moving: I don’t think anyone on the bus noticed me having a little cry as I reached the end…

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Secondly, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Unlike Princes in the Land, Miss Pettigrew is all light and very little shade, but that is not a criticism. It’s a joyous novel: a day in the life of the titular poverty-stricken spinster, a woman society has written-off as having nothing to offer, whose willingness to embrace new experiences sees her reborn.

In desperate need of a job, Miss Pettigrew arrives at the apartment of the glamourous Delysia La Fosse:

“In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify and harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace negligee. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.”

Miss La Fosse has lots of experience but little common sense, Miss Pettigrew has no experience but much common sense. As she gets swept up in Miss La Fosse’s complicated love life, this virtue means she soon becomes indispensable. Rather than sitting in judgement of this Bright Young Thing, Miss Pettigrew finds herself enjoying this foray into a life hitherto unknown.

“ ‘Do you know what that is?’

‘It looks,’ said Miss Pettigrew cautiously, ‘very much like a Beecham’s Powder. Very good, I understand, for nerves, stomach and rheumatism.’

‘That’s cocaine,’ said Miss LaFosse.

‘Oh no! No!’

Terrified, aghast, thrilled, Miss Pettigrew stared at the innocent-looking powder. Drugs, the White Slave Traffic, wicked dives of iniquity, typified in Miss Pettigrew’s mind by the red plush and gilt and men with sinister black moustaches roamed in wild array through her mind. What dangerous den of vice had she discovered? She must fly before she lost her virtue. Then her common sense unhappily reminded her that no one, now, would care to deprive her of that possession.”

As the day progresses Miss Pettigrew dives headlong into events and finds herself forever changed.  This is a novel to read when you need a lift, to be carried along as Miss Pettigrew is on a wave of fun and silliness. It is also a reminder that to open yourself to the unknown is to allow space for hope, and for change, at any time in life.

“She didn’t care what happened. She was ready for it. She was intoxicated with joy again. Past questioning anything that happened on this amazing day.”

I haven’t seen the film of Miss Pettigrew but I definitely plan to – Frances McDormand, wonder of wonders:

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” (Dr Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters)

This week I bought my first Christmas present of the year.  I was really pleased with it.  Then as I gazed at it I realised the first present I’d bought this year was for my brother & sister-in-law’s cats.  From my cats.  I’m gifting between cats.  That’s who I’ve become.

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So I’m sharing my pain as mad cat lady with the interwebs. But I also love dogs, its just I can’t convince one to live with me in my tiny London flat. So in a spirit of inclusivity, and a rejection of the idea that you are either a dog-person or a cat-person, I’m looking at one novel about a feline, and another featuring a sarcastic dog.

Firstly, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (trans. Eric Selland).  This short novel is a delicate, sensitive study of the unspoken ties that bind. A small stray cat, adopted by the neighbours, arrives in the house of the narrator and his wife.  They live a quiet life, he a poet and she a proof-reader, and the cat brings a spirit of unpredictability into their lives:

“Chibi’s dependence would manifest itself in unexpected ways, even while performing acts of incredible athletic skill.  Casting aside the Ping-Pong ball, she turned about at an acute angle, yet in the next moment she had placed her tiny paw on the head of a toad concealed in the shade of one of landscape rocks. Then just as suddenly she flew to the other side of the garden, extending one of her front legs to slip into a clump of bushes.”

The novel is a mix of the closely observed and the philosophical/metaphysical:

“When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug from a prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived, as if the house itself had dreamed this scene.”

Hiraide captures how animals bring their own energy, changing dynamics in relationships, affecting homes and the people therein. They are catalysts (no pun intended) and their full effects can be both quiet and far-reaching:

“I opened the window and welcomed in the guest, accompanied by the winter sunrise, and the mood inside the house was restored. Chibi was our first New Year’s visitor. They call the visitors who go around to all the houses on New Year’s Day to wish everyone happy new year ‘pilgrims’.”

You don’t have to like cats to enjoy The Guest Cat.  Chibi could be any animal or transforming external force; it is her impact rather than her cat-ness that Hiraide is interested in.  The Guest Cat’s story is one of love, change, resilience and loss.

 “’See, I told you. She’s our girl.’

…or so my wife said, although she knew she wasn’t really ours. Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honoured guest bestowing her presence upon us.”

Here are my two, utterly engaged with the whole idea of buying their cousins a gift, and with being part of a blog post:

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It’s quite hard to find a dog in literature which doesn’t end in a way which has me in floods of tears. Thankfully, the full title of the well-known comic novel by Jerome K Jerome is Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog!  It is a blessed relief to tell you that fox terrier Montmorency makes it through in one piece. Thank goodness, because look at this face:

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Image from: http://www.vetstreet.com/dogs/smooth-and-wire-fox-terrier

“To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.”

J and his friends George and Harris are hypochondriacs who are convinced they all have terrible diseases. In order to recouperate they decide to sail a boat along the Thames to Oxford. J’s dog is not impressed:

“The only one who was not struck with the suggestion was Montmorency. He never did care for the river, did Montmorency.

‘It’s all very well for you fellows,’ he says; ‘you like it, but I don’t.  There’s nothing for me to do. Scenery is not my line, and I don’t smoke.  If I see a rat, you won’t stop; and if I go to sleep, you get fooling about with the boat, and slop me overboard. If you ask me I call the whole thing bally foolishness.’

We were three to one, however, and the motion was carried.”

Usually I’m not keen on anthropomorphism, but with Montmorency it really works.  He acts as a slightly detached commentator on his three bally foolish companions and never loses his dogginess – he remains very much the fox terrier. The four of them head off to the water and as anyone who has read the novel will know, very little happens yet much hilarity ensues.  The three men are absolutely useless with any practical considerations, such as putting all their food into one disgusting stew:

 “Towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say”

I love the idea of a sarcastic dog.  Three Men in a Boat was apparently first intended as a travel guide, which seems astonishing for such an unrelentingly funny book.  Attempts to act as a guide remain, but the humour always forces its way in:

“From Abingdon to Nuneham Courtenay is a lovely stretch. Nuneham Park is well worth a visit,  It can be viewed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The house contains a fine collection of pictures and curiosities and the grounds are very beautiful.  The Pool under Sandford lasher, just behind the lock, is a good place to drown yourself in.”

By some miracle they make it to Oxford, and Montmorency shares my love of the city of dreaming spires:

“We spent two very pleasant days in Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had gone to heaven.”

I must admit though, I’ve never fought a dog any time I’ve been to Oxford. It’s also safe to say he would not approve of the theme of this post:

“When Montmorency meets a cat, the whole street knows about it; and there is enough bad language wasted in ten seconds to last an ordinary respectable man all his life, with care.”

To end, a reminder that the dividing line between cat & dog may not be as clear-cut as we think:

“Remember, remember the 5th of November: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!” (Traditional, British)

OK, so I’m a day late, but that’s practically on time compared to how late some of my other posts have been.  I’ve met my own low standards. 5 November is Guy Fawke’s Night in Britain, where we commemorate the foiling of an attempt to blow up the House of Lords and kill the king in 1605 by, er, setting fires and letting off fireworks. We used to burn effigy of the plotter Guy Fawkes (who was discovered with all the gunpowder) but that and kids asking you for “a penny for the guy” doesn’t seem to happen anymore – which is fine with me, it was a bit gruesome for my delicate sensibilities.

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Anyway, the plotters were Catholic and wanted to kill the Protestant James I to put a Catholic monarch on the throne, so I thought this week I’d commemorate the plot through books rather than pyromania and look at work by Catholic writers.

Firstly, Ben Jonson, frenemy of Shakespeare, who actually had dinner with the plotters but somehow managed to duck suspicion and went on to become a writer for the court of James I. Jonson converted to Catholicism in 1598, while imprisoned for killing fellow playwright Gabriel Spencer in a duel (he’d previously been imprisoned for suspected sedition – he had quite the life). Jonson converted back to Anglicism in 1610, but the poem I’m going to look at sees him wrestling with his faith while still a Catholic.  Much of Jonson’s writing doesn’t carry well across the ages – he was heavily satirical and our knowledge of early seventeenth century politics and theatre-life has waned somewhat. However, this poem, written when his first son Benjamin died of plague aged just seven, captures such grief and pain as to be recogniseable today:

On My First Son (1603)

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

O, could I lose all father now! For why

Will man lament the state he should envy?

To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,

And if no other misery, yet age?

Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie

Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”

For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,

As what he loves may never like too much.

There’s a theory sometimes advanced that parents in this period were so used to losing their children that they met their deaths with equanimity.  Jonson’s poem shows how totally misguided this is.  He writes in heroic couplets, showing how deeply felt this is for him; the poem is epic in style, if not in length (the short length thereby reflecting his son’s short life).  Jonson finds himself tormented in faith rather than soothed by it; he knows he should be glad his son has “scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage” but can’t help feeling he has to pay for the sin of loving his son too much, and grieving the loss; he is left with the questions that form the middle of the poem, rather than answers.  The answer Jonson finds for himself means this is a poem that captures two tragedies – the death of the seven year old, and a father so consumed by pain that he wishes he had never known parenthood: “O, could I lose all father now!” determining to close off his feelings in future: “As what he loves may never like too much.” Jonson was egomaniacal about his work, so when he says “Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”” There is no higher acclaim he can give the seven year old. Truly heart-breaking.

Secondly, The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks (1963, Penguin, my edition 2013).  Like the titular girls, this novel is one of slender means, only 142 pages in my edition.  But although it is a short novel and very funny, it is not fluffy or disposable.  It tells the story of a group of women living in the boarding house the May of Teck Club, when “long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor”.  Thus, the slender means, but they also have other slender means; the girls are obsessed with calories and being thin enough to attract a husband.  I would normally find this sort of behaviour intensely irritating, but it is testament to Spark’s writing that I didn’t – it’s 1945, options are limited for women, and they are using the means at their disposal to improve their lot.  They are pragmatic rather than vain and foolish.

“And they realized themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means.”

Selena is beautiful and promiscuous, trying to decide which of her lovers to marry; Joanna has abandoned romantic love for reciting poetry and giving elocution lessons, Jane is fat (which she hates) and intellectual, and writes to famous authors in an attempt to get autographs for her strange employer.  I was quite fond of Dorothy:

“Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of those phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’[…] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers.  Come to the wedding.’”

As this passage shows, Sparks humour is acute, incisive, and packs a punch.  She captures dark circumstances and behaviour with such a light touch that is ultimately a lot more shocking than from within an unrelentingly bleak novel. We know that Nicholas Farringdon, drawn into the May of Teck circle, became a missionary and subsequently died in Haiti, but we don’t know what prompted the conversion.  As The Girls of Slender Means builds towards its denouement, Sparks doesn’t spell out the totality of the impact of the events in 1945.  The novel is more powerful for this; the women and Nicholas remain partly unknown: to themselves, to each other, and to the reader.

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“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” (W. C. Fields)

For those of you that have put up with my posts over the last few months where I’ve banged on and on and on about finals, I promise this is the last time I’ll mention them.  I’ve received my results and I feel like this:

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Hooray! So I thought this week I’d look at times when authors may have felt a similar way: two debut prize-winning novels.

Firstly, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) which won the Goldsmiths Prize last year, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize, both this year.  If you have any interest in books, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this novel.  Aside from all the breathless reviews, I’ve seen buses trundling along with huge posters commanding us to “Read it and be changed” (from Eleanor Catton’s review). Written in about 6 months when the author was 27, she struggled to find a publisher due to its inventive style and uncompromising subject matter.  She shoved it in a drawer, but 10 years later sent it to a small independent publisher.  Galley Beggar Press published the novel, and plaudits galore followed. I hope this signals a less conservative approach by publishers, but I’m sceptical…  Still, at least as far as AGIAHFT goes, they got there in the end (Faber and Faber have partnered with Galley Beggar Press to publish it on a much wider scale).

McBride is a huge fan of Joyce, and the novel is written as a stream of consciousness.  However, while most people find Ulysses unreadable, AGIAHFT is only 200 pages long, and much more approachable.  It is, however, a tough read, both in style and content.  It details the narrator’s relationship with her brother, who is partly disabled from an operation on his brain as a child.

“I sneak. I snuck. I listened at the door. I heard them. I pondered you should send him to a special school.  Those marks aren’t fit for a boy that age.  Oh such clucking and glucking. Snob and preen herself. I hear my two are off to the convent.  Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance.  Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think.  Listening listening.

Life is hard, and although her brother’s scars are visible to all, the narrator has scars of her own.  The stream of consciousness gives her experience an immediacy, unmediated by considered use of language, which places the reader right alongside her, and that is not an easy place to be.  She decides to use sex to get her classmates to leave her brother alone; she is raped by an uncle; she has a fractured relationship with her mother; and through it all is her tender but ambivalent relationship with her brother.

We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped.  I didn’t help it from that time on.  You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no.  That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted.  To be left alone.  To look at it.  To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done….Who are you?  You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

AGIAHFT is as unique and extraordinary as all the hype would have you believe.

Secondly, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, 2003) which won the Booker, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003. Let’s get my wholly unoriginal but unavoidable observation out of the way first: this novel really reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye.  High praise indeed. Vernon Little is a teenager disgusted by the hypocrisy of the society he sees around him “I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge”. He is desperately looking for a place to belong, but it’s not the barbeque sauce capital of Texas where he lives. His best friend Jesus has shot dead their classmates and taken his own life. Vernon is left to take the blame, as the society of the small town look for answers without listening to anything Vernon has to say.

His overbearing mother and her friends are all fat and obsessed with diets, “Leona’s an almost pretty blonde with a honeysuckle voice you just know got it’s polish from rubbing on her last husband’s wallet.”; his psychologist is corrupt and abusive “the shrink’s building sits way out of town; a bubble of clinical smells in the dust.  A receptionist with spiky teeth and a voicebox made from bees trapped in tracing paper, sits behind a desk”; there’s a manipulative journalist unconcerned with truth, setting himself up as puppet-master.  Vernon God Little is scathing in its treatment of contemporary society: its focus on the easily discarded, the scandal-mongering and superficiality of the media, the ineptitude of those in power to exercise it with any integrity.  All this is bound up with a great deal of humour and truly inventive use of language.  As I hope the quotes so far demonstrate, the images throughout the novel are startling and evocative. Pierre uses the adolescence of his narrator to demonstrate how versatile language can be and how it can be reformed for individual expression.  One of my favourite lines was this:

“I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.”

Funny, sad, original and thought-provoking: the entire novel of Vernon God Little held in a single sentence.

I know I said I wouldn’t mention finals again, but permit me, if you will, just one final milking of it:

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Happy weekend everyone!

“They laugh at me because I’m different; I laugh at them because they’re all the same.” (Kurt Cobain)

Dear reader, it’s been so long.  I’ve missed you, but the preparation for finals and my last piece of coursework took over.  Now I have finished writing the definitive essay on Cary Grant’s performance of gender ambiguity (OK, I’ve written an essay on Cary Grant’s performance of gender ambiguity) I have a brief respite which I choose to spend blogging. Away we go:

The Bridge concluded almost two months ago and I’m still bereft.  In my day off between coursework and revision I’ve been watching BBC4’s replacement foreign-language thriller Salamander, and although excellent, it’s not The Bridge:

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(Image from http://www.noblepr.co.uk/Press_Releases/arrowfilms/thebridge.htm )

I love Saga, I love Martin, I love the way their relationship developed in the second season, I love Saga.  I know I’ve said I love Saga twice, but this is because I have a girl-crush, the like of which I haven’t experienced since The Killing’s Sarah Lund:

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(Image from http://www.krishk.com/2014/01/top-socially-challenged-detectives/ )

How I wish I was effortlessly cool and Nordic, with scrappy long hair, Faroe Isle jumpers, leather trousers and emotional reticence.  Unfortunately I’m perennially uncool, I’m British, my hair is an inch long, I look terrible in chunky jumpers and leather trousers and I’m emotionally incontinent.  Otherwise the similarities between me and these two women are really quite remarkable.

Now, I know the socially inept detective is becoming something of a cliché, but I’m a huge fan of many of them (see here for how I excited I became over Sherlock) and I miss Saga.  It was this which prompted me to start reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Penguin, 2013) the day after The Bridge finished.  It’s not a detective novel, but it does have a main protagonist who is highly intelligent, socially awkward, inflexible, unable to read social cues and has a tendency to respond to things that are said literally.  Perfect, just what I needed to fill the Saga-shaped hole in my life. Don Tillman is a geneticist who wants to get married.  Having tried dating and found that “the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences” (how many single people out there can relate to that statement?)Don devises a questionnaire “a purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving, ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a manageable shortlist of candidates”.  Into Don’s life breezes Rosie, who it’s safe to say, does not fit his criteria for the ideal mate. She is chaotic, confrontational, encourages him to drink, watches sport and is a smoker. They are perfect for one another.

““Where do you hide the corkscrew?” she asked.

“Wine is not scheduled for Tuesdays.”

“Fuck that,” said Rosie.

There was a certain logic underlying Rosie’s response.

[…]I announced the change. “Time has been redefined. Previous rules no longer apply.  Alcohol is hereby declared mandatory in the Rosie Time Zone.””

Although Don is unusual, in many ways his situation is ordinary: so many people spend time constructing their ideal mate they forget to think about the relationship they want, missing what’s actually in their lives, and who it’s worth compromising a bit of ourselves for. Simsion looks at this aspect of oh-so-human folly with a comic eye, and there are some hugely funny scenes as Don tries to get to grips with situations where he is hopelessly out of his depth: attending a “formal” function in top hat and tails, practising sex positions with his teaching skeleton and being walked in on by his boss.  Because Don is aware of the humour but doesn’t quite get it, the scenes are told in an utterly deadpan style that is hilarious, but you’re never laughing at Don, just the situations he finds himself in. This is because you are completely rooting for the character. Simsion manages quite a feat with Don: a resolutely pragmatic, measured voice that still manages to create a person that you really feel for, and a novel of real warmth and humanity. Simultaneously, Don exposes the bullshit that goes along with social skills and fitting in – the office politics, the lies and infidelities – that he is incapable of, making you question what is of real value, rather than what just makes life easier.   If you’d told me I’d like a book I would describe as “sweet and romantic” I’d tell you (with a raised eyebrow of scepticism, reader) that it really wasn’t my taste.  But, just like Don, I stepped outside my comfort zone, tried something new, and was completely won over.

For my second social outcast I’ve chosen the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2008). Poor Oscar: he’s massively fat, massively nerdy, and all he wants is to love and be loved.  “Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was part of the family patrimony.  Could write in Elvish, …knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, was a role-playing game fanatic….Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t.  Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light sabre or a Lensman her lens.  Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.” An incurable romantic who dreams of becoming the “Dominican Tolkien”, Oscar’s life will never play out how he wants it to.

He lives with his mother Beli and rebellious sister Lola, and as we learn about all three of them, we learn about the recent history of the Dominican Republic and its impact on a family.  The novel makes frequent use of footnotes, which generally I dislike but which worked well here, detailing political history in the distinctly non-academic (though learned) voice of Yuniour, Lola’s boyfriend, serial womaniser and narrator.  The family are thought to be under the sway of a fuku “the Curse and Doom of the New World”,and certainly all are subject to violence and hardship, Beli in Dominica and her son and daughter in the United States.

There is a touch of magic realism as the family are also protected by a guardian animal that appears to them in times of extreme distress: “there appeared at her side a creature that would have been an amiable mongoose if not for its golden lion eyes and the absolute black of its pelt.  This one was quite large for its species and placed its intelligent little paws on her chest and stared down at her.  You have to rise.”  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has plenty to say about the immigrant experience, the price of assimilation and the inability to assimilate to the societies we find ourselves in, and the self-definition we express through the language we use. The novel has references I didn’t get: Spanish phrases and nerd-allusions, but it didn’t matter.  The refusal to be sentimental and the triumph of human spirit in the face of violence and tragedy meant this novel really spoke to me even if I didn’t grasp all the intricacies. It was funny and tragic, and truly moving.

Here are the books with the lovely Sofia Helin who plays Saga (you can tell it’s the actor & not the character because she’s smiling):

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