Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

Highland Fling was Nancy Mitford’s first novel and while not as sparkling as her later works there’s still much to enjoy here. It’s familiar Mitford territory: insane upper classes, Bright Young Things, serious issues treated lightly, light issues treated seriously, and it all works out in the end.

Walter is married to Sally and is entirely useless with money, powering through both their allowances so that he has to ponder “why shouldn’t I do some work? If you come to think of it, lots of people do. I might bring out a book of poems in handwriting with corrections.”

Thankfully for the reading public, they are asked instead to look after Sally’s relative’s enormous country pile in Scotland. They take their friend Albert, who has no idea what to do with himself after Eton and Oxford until “It had come to him during the night that he wished to be a great abstract painter”; and Jane, who “had taste without much intellect, her brain was like a mirror, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of her more intelligent friends and the books she read.”

Keeping company with these Bright Young Things are all the ancient types who descend on Dulloch Castle every year for the shooting season.

“Lord Prague, it may be noted, was to all intents and purposes dead, except on shooting days when he would come to life in the most astonishing manner”

There’s also the massively racist General Murgatroyd who is violent to his dog and didn’t get the come-uppance I’d hoped for (his racism is never condoned, although some portraits of Scottish locals leave a lot to be desired), Lady Prague who is astonishingly rude to all, and Lady Brenda who has the appearance of “an overbred horse”, not helped by her habit of blowing smoke through her nostrils.

What follows is this unlikely crowd getting on each other’s nerves, lying about a missing picnic, getting pregnant, getting engaged…

Thankfully the blood sports are not described in great detail, it’s more about the ridiculous antics of people on the shoot. I do wish someone had rescued Murgatroyd’s poor dog though.

Obviously you need a high tolerance for silly toffs to read Mitford. I enjoy her writing and I did think this was fun, but as I said at the start, not quite as incisive or as funny as she would later achieve.

“Nobody dies in childbirth now, my dear. It’s considered quite vieux jeu.”

To end, something that was absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but did make me smile. For those of us irritated by schoolkids playing music out loud on their mobile phones on public transport, Albert has this experience on the train:

“They then began to play vulgar jazz tunes on a portable gramophone, a noise which Albert found more supportable than their chatter.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose 😀

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Novella a Day in May 2019 #17

Crimson – Niviaq Korneliussen (2014, trans. Anna Halager, 2018) 175 pages

I think Crimson might be the first ever literature I’ve read by a Greenlandic author, and as such its  another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Unfortunately, I think I might be a bit too old for this novella. My twenties were a lot of fun and a lot of stress; I have colleagues in their twenties and I enjoy their company but I’ve absolutely no desire to recapture or relive that time. So Crimson’s tales of five Greenlandic twentysomethings getting drunk, sleeping around, falling in and out of love and desperately trying to work out who they are held my attention, but didn’t really engage me beyond that.

Each section focuses on a different character. Fia is repulsed by her boyfriend’s penis and dumps him, but it is only when she sees Sara that she admits she is attracted to women.

“ ‘It’s over’ were my final words.

Then, just like that, I was free.

But the word ‘free’ didn’t bring with it ‘relief’.”

Instead Fia finds herself in the bewildering situation of living temporarily with her brother’s best friend, and trying to manage her feelings for Sara, who has a partner.

Inuk is Fia’s brother. He feels stifled by his home and flees to Denmark after his affair with a famous married man is exposed:

“Greenland is not my home. I feel sorry for Greenlanders. I’m ashamed of being a Greenlander. But I’m a Greenlander. I can’t laugh with Danes.

[…]

I’m terribly homesick but I don’t know what sort of home I’m longing for.”

Arnaq is Inuk’s best friend and Fia’s flatmate. She’s relentlessly social and struggling:

“My chapped lips are the colour of red wine, My hair is still partying. My makeup is smeared all over my face and I have huge bags under my eyes. My body is trying so hard to stay alive that I can’t concentrate on my polluted mind. I drink what’s left of the Coke, lie down on my bed and take out my mobile to check the time.”

Ivik is Sara’s partner and struggling with gender identity. Their story includes graphics of phone screens, showing how the drama of young lives is often played out by technology. But this prosaic language exists alongside the poetic as Ivik works out what they need:

“The sun brightens my eyes, which have only seen the world in black for a long, long time. I can smell the previously frozen earth melting. The warm breeze sounds like a song.”

Finally Sara, partner of Ivik and lust-object of Fia, tells her tale and brings the stories together. Sections of her narrative end with meaningless hashtags which was really annoying, e.g. #dontgotogether or #1#2. If the hashtags had been witty or expanding the perpsective this could have worked better.

Sara, who until this point has been somewhat idealised through the eyes of others, is shown to have her own problems, with feelings of dirtiness and unworthiness. Her sister has just had a baby and Sara notices the obsession with gender that this involves. It’s also a very modern birth announcement via Facebook, where Sara stalks Fia:

“She finally changed her profile picture. I’m unable to see all her photos because we’re not friends on Facebook, so I gaze at her new profile picture for quite a while. I catch myself smiling. I hover over ‘Add friend’ for a long time. No, if she was really interested, she would have sent a friend request. I log off. Go to Google. Google knows everything.”

I only write about books I recommend and it’s undoubtedly great to hear a young Greenlandic voice. Korneliussen was only 24 when she wrote this and she translated it herself into Danish. The writing sometimes seemed to me naïve and bit clunky, but as I said, I’m probably not the target audience for this novella. I’m grateful to Virago for giving English-speaking readers this opportunity to hear her, even if the subject matter bored me slightly. I’d definitely still be interested to see what Korneliussen writes in future.

To end, the title comes from the Joan Jett classic which means a lot to Fia and Sara:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #14

The Spinning Heart – Donal Ryan (2012, 156 pages)

I was first made aware of Donal Ryan on Cathy’s blog when she reviewed his short story collection, A Slanting of the Sun and the writing sounded wonderful. The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s first novel and was longlisted for the Man Booker and Guardian First Book Award, winning won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It reminded me of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, in that it builds a picture of a community in quiet crisis through a variety of viewpoints. However, whereas McGregor uses omniscient narration, Ryan has each of the 21 chapters narrated by a different person. He manages this brilliantly, keeping the story flowing but still managing to convey different voices without jarring.

The story begins with Bobby Mahon:

“My father still lives back on the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead.”

This opening paragraph introduces many themes in the novel: families, abuse, inheritance (financial and psychological), uncomfortable but inescapable feelings. Each person in the story is linked to the others either directly or indirectly, and through their individual stories we get a rich portrait of a town, the people in it, and their shared lives.

It is a resolutely contemporary story. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger has had a devastating effect, and everyone is reeling. Bobby was foreman for Pokey Burke, the local building contractor who has fled leaving unpaid builders, unregistered for government help, destitute. There is a ghost town of a new estate with only two residents in it.

Young Brian is thinking of trying Australia for work. He has a good mind but sees no future in study, nor in Ireland itself, especially since breaking up with his girlfriend.

“On an intellectual level, I couldn’t give a shite about her. It’s a strange dichotomy, so it is; feeling and knowing; the feeling feels truer than the knowing of its falseness. Jaysus, I should write this shite down and send it Pawsy before I go.”

Ryan never deals in stereotypes despite many recognisable characters. There is Brian’s postmodern musings, and Lily, the aging town prostitute’s poetic and tender feelings for her children.

“I love all my children the same way a swallow loves the blue sky; I have no choice in the matter. Like the men that came to my door, nature overpowers me.”

The character studies are individual and collective, like the town. So we learn more about how highly Bobby is thought of in the community, despite him introducing himself to the reader in that first chapter as damaged and failing. The builders respect him, women find him attractive, he’s a sporting hero and his wife is devoted. Long-time resident Bridie sums it up:

“There’s something in that boy, the way he looks at you while he’s talking, sort of embarrassed so that you want to hug him, and with a distance in his eyes even when he’s looking straight at you, that makes you think there’s a fierce sadness and a kind of rare goodness in him.”

It is what happens to Bobby that forms the plot of the novella.

The Spinning Heart ends on a note of hope but you still know things could go badly wrong. Ryan manages to convey the toughness of contemporary lives in dire straits caused by family histories and contemporary political mismanagement, without ever being didactic or depressing. It’s unflinching but hugely compassionate.

“the dead stillness I’d assume, the way I’d almost hold my breath while he spoke, it was the very same as when I’d be trying not to startle a wild animal”

And now I really must get to A Slanting of the Sun which I’ve been meaning to read ever since Cathy’s post…

Novella a Day in May 2019 #3

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (2017) 127 pages

The End We Start From is poet Megan Hunter’s first novel, and she brings a poet’s precision to her longer-form writing. The words on the page are sparse and she knows how to use them to convey maximum meaning and build atmosphere.

The narrator is a young woman who has just given birth. The day her son arrives in the world is the day London disappears in floods, and so the newly-expanded family head north to her in-laws.

“R’s father N will not turn the television off. I stay in the kitchen, the only screenless room, with my smarting pulp on a cushion and the baby mushed against my breast.

R’s mother G will not stop talking. This not-stopping seems to be the first side-effect.

Everything has been unstopped, is rising to the surface.”

Referring to characters just by their initials adds to the general sense of disorientation as the woman adapts to her wholly new life. She views the horrors of what is happening to society at a step removed, aware but also wrapped up in her new baby. This means that while the novella is dystopian, it doesn’t have the relentless quality of some dystopian fiction. Instead it feels quietly unsettling and unnerving.

“It is bad, the news. Bad news as it always was, forever, but worse. More relevant. This is what you don’t want, we realise. What no-one ever wanted: for the news to be relevant.”

There is also a dark humour at moments, in the contrast between their old and new lives.

“He has not researched the best camp. He has not spent hours poring over comparative reviews of refugee camps. He wants none of them.”

The stark style of Hunter’s writing captures the fractured experience in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The reading experience is a series of startling images and arrested sentences that build to effective portrayal of new motherhood in extreme circumstances.

“Whatever I imagine, it is something else.

Where I expect desolation there is the atmosphere of a jumble sale.

Where I envisage welcomes and tea, smiles and Blitz spirit, there is grey concrete, wailing people dragging themselves across the road, photo-boards of the missing.

Our city is here, somewhere, but we are not.

We are all untied, is the thing.

Untethered, floating, drifting, all these things.

And the end. The tether, the re-leash, is not in sight.”

Colette Week: Day 1 – Claudine at School (1900)

Last year I undertook to blog on a Novella a Day in May, which I really enjoyed. I’m hoping to do it again this year, but I fear I may end up delaying it until 2020. To tide me over I’m going to do a mini-version with a favourite writer who wrote short novels: Colette each day for a week, starting today as it’s her birthday.

Image from here

I’ll begin obviously, with Colette’s first novel, Claudine a l’ecole which I read in English translation, Claudine at School (trans. Antonia White 1956). Claudine is fifteen and in her final year at school. She lives in Burgundy with her father, who is distant but loving, interested mainly in slugs. As a result, Claudine is left to her own devices; her voice is strong and distinctive but she can also be something of a bitch, manipulating people and freely giving out slaps and other violence to her classmates.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside which Colette clearly had great feeling for:

“The charm, the delight of this countryside composed of hills and valleys so narrow that some are ravines, lies in the woods – the deep, encroaching woods that ripple and wave away into the distance as far as you can see….Green meadows make rifts in them here and there, so do little plots of cultivation.”

A new teacher arrives at the school, Aimee Lanthenay, and Claudine is immediately entranced:

“My English mistress seemed adorable to me that night under the library lamp. Her cat’s eyes shone like pure gold, at once malicious and caressing, and I admired them, not without reminding myself that they were neither kind nor frank nor trustworthy. But they sparkled so brilliantly in her fresh face and she seemed so utterly at ease in this warm, softly-lit room that I already felt ready to love her so much, so very much, with all my irrational heart. Yes, I’ve known perfectly well, for a long time, that I have an irrational heart. But knowing it doesn’t stop me in the least.”

Claudine is aware of her own attractions and confident in them, including her appeal to the school’s District Superintendent Dutertre, who she sees clear-sightedly as something of a lech. Ultimately however, she loses Aimee to her Headmistress:

“The class was well-trained now. All the girls even down to those in the Third Division knew that, during recreation, they must never enter a classroom in which the mistresses had shut themselves up… we found them so tenderly entwined, or so absorbed in their whisperings, or else Madame Sergent holding her little Aimee on her lap with such a total lack of reserve that even the stupidest were nonplussed”

The treatment of sexual attraction between women is dealt with frankly in the novel. It is never apologised for, explained away as schoolgirl crushes, or treated as anything extraordinary. Claudine is at once inexperienced but wise and somewhat cynical beyond her years:

“In a week she will possess another fiancée who will leave her at the end of three months; she is not cunning enough to hold the boys and not practical enough to get herself married. And, as she obstinately insists on remaining virtuous, this may go on for a long time.”

The plot is minimal, the novel is Claudine’s diary of her final school year and all that entails. Yet Claudine’s distinctive voice propelled me along as I wanted to see what the precocious teenager would do next.

“Papa was sending me to Paris to a rich childless aunt… How should I do without the country; with this hunger for green, growing things that never left me?”

The answer to that question tomorrow 😊

Novella a Day in May #27

Today I’m looking at two novellas by Willa Cather, which were my first encounters with this legendary author of frontier life.

Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_Jewett

Alexander’s Bridge (1912, 176 pages) was Willa Cather’s first novel, although she was already an established journalist, poet and short story writer.  Apparently she didn’t think much of this first attempt at long-form prose, but I thought it had much to recommend it.

Bartley Alexander is an engineer who, it will surprise you to learn, builds bridges.  He has a huge project happening in Canada, but it is when he is London on business that he runs into an old flame, Hilda. Although he is married, an affair begins. The focus is not the romance or betrayal, but rather Alexander’s futile attempt to recapture his youth that is the focus of Cather’s writing:

“Solitude, but not solitariness; for he walked shoulder to shoulder with a shadowy companion – not little Hilda Burgoyne, by any means, but someone vastly dearer to him than she had ever been – his own young self, the youth who had waited for him upon the steps of the British Museum that night, and who, though he had tried to pass so quietly, had known him and came down and linked an arm in his.

It was not until long afterwards that Alexander learned that for him this youth was the most dangerous of companions.”

I think had I known what this was about, I would have been put-off reading it. A deceitful man having a mid-life crisis is not a subject matter that I have a great deal of patience with. What engaged me was Cather’s beautiful writing and her psychological insight.  She also managed to bring an impressive depth to the story considering its short length.  Overall I was left with a sense of the sadness of lives wasted in a search for meaning when not knowing where to look.

“Something had broken loose in him of which he knew nothing except that it was sullen and powerful, and that it wrung and tortured him. Sometimes it came upon him softly, in enervating reveries. Sometimes it battered him like the canon rolling in the hold of the vessel. Always, now, it brought with it a sense of quickened life, of stimulating danger.”

I suspect if you’ve read some of Cather’s  classic work such as My Antonia or O, Pioneers! you might find this a disappointment. However, it left me eager to read more of her work to see how she developed into a writer so greatly loved.

 

A Lost Lady (1923, 178 pages) was where I went next. It tells the story of the beautiful Marian Forrester, a rich (at first) young woman married to the older Captain Forrester, living in the West in a town called Sweet Water:

“She never stopped to pin up a lock; she was attractive in dishabille and she knew it. She had been known to rush to the door in her dressing-gown, brush in her hand and her long black hair rippling over her shoulders, to welcome Cyrus Dalzell, president of the Colorado & Utah, and the great man had never felt more flattered. In his eyes, and in the eyes of the admiring middle-aged men who visited there, whatever Mrs Forrester chose to do was lady-like, because she did it.”

However, following crop failures, the town starts to go downhill. It is close to the Transcontinental railroad, but the trains start passing through. Captain Forrester has a lot of money sunk into the railroad and an idealised view of this capitalism:

“All our great West has been developed from such dreams; the homesteaders and the prospectors and the contractors. We dreamed the railroads across the mountains”

Niel Herbert, from whose viewpoint the story is mainly told (although it remains in third person) has a different view of these dreamers:

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence, a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything… The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factor splinters the primeval forest.”

Ivy Peters represents the move to a capitalist industrial economy and he is truly despicable. At the start of the story he is a young boy too, slightly older than Niel, and he commits an act of vindictive cruelty on a bird; it truly made me feel sick. As an adult he sexually blackmails Mrs Forrester. Niel witnesses this as he witnessed Marian’s affair with a man named Ellinger. The feeling this raises in Niel are complicated; he does not quite have a crush on the woman, it’s more that he idealises her as a representation of the pioneer spirit, and so when he feels she is debased, he is angry that she has let down this broader ideal.

“It was not a moral scruple she had outraged but an aesthetic ideal”

The presentation of Marian Forrester is intriguing. Her beauty mesmerises people and places her in the more elite society, but Cather shows that she is a woman of flesh and blood, with both sexual desires and a desire to live. She will do what it takes.

This meant that while I could not embrace the romanticised notion of the pioneer (I think we now know enough of what happened to First Nations Peoples during the period for any romanticism to have well and truly died –briefly touched upon in this story) I thought there was a great deal of interest around the role of women. Marian is a lost ‘lady’ but she is a woman who knows herself and knows that as a woman in this period she does not have the freedom or choices of men. They will use her, but she is not a victim, although she self-medicates with alcohol at times. She endures, and so as a representation of the west, and pioneer spirit, I think Cather chooses to personify how times change and are lost forever, but the only choice is to keep on.

 “It was what he most held against Mrs Forrester, that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”

It’s a bittersweet novella, and Cather packs huge themes into a small space. Truly impressive.

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!