“It’s not often one needs an elephant in a hurry.” (Phileas Fogg, Around the World in 80 Days, 1956 film)

I’m starting to write this post at 7pm on the final day of the1956 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. There used to be a time when I wrote my Club posts in advance of the week, so it’s fair to say my blogging still hasn’t quite got back on track yet😊

Unusually for this blog, my first read is a non-fiction work, My Dog Tulip by JR Ackerley, a book which took me by surprise. The blurb on the back of my NYRB Classics edition describes it thus:

“The distinguished British man of letters J. R. Ackerley hardly thought of himself as a dog lover when, well into middle age, he came into possession of a German shepherd […] she turned out to be the love of his life […] a bittersweet retrospective account of their sixteen-year companionship, as well as a profound and subtle meditation on the strangeness that lies at the heart of all relationships. In vivid and sometimes startling detail, Ackerley tells of Tulip’s often erratic behavior and very canine tastes, and of his own fumbling but determined efforts to ensure for her an existence of perfect happiness.”

So basically I was expecting a period piece Marley and Me. The trailer for the 2010 film did nothing to dissuade me of this:

Yet my experience of reading this was of a deeply eccentric and sometimes quite unnerving narrative. I didn’t dislike it, but it just wasn’t what I expected at all. I should have paid more attention to the use of ‘strangeness’ and ‘startling’ in the blurb. I think Ackerley was probably quite an independent thinker and so he writes about Tulip in really quite astonishing ways. He clearly adores his dog and captures her in almost poetic blazon style:

“these dark markings symmetrically divide up her face into zones of pale pastel colours, like a mosaic, or a stained glass window; her skull, bisected by the thread, is two primrose pools, the centre of her face light grey, the bridge of her nose above the long, black lips fawn, her cheeks white, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set.”

That’s lovely, but for much of the book Ackerley is quite determined to Tulip mated and pregnant, and I could have done without similar dwelling on the state of her vulva. I’m not a prude, and my job means I spend most of each day talking about human anatomy in very frank terms, but I was truly taken aback.

I guess if you have a pedigree dog you do have to concern yourself with such things. Every animal I’ve had has been resolutely mongrel and neutered/spayed and therefore unable to pass on their moggy/mutt genes 😊

Being an animal lover I am used to vet visits, but this book made me very glad I’m not taking my furry family members to the vets in the 1950s. The beginning of the book describes some truly distressing experiences and I am so grateful times have changed. Ackerley shares this view and can’t believe what is happening, until he and Tulip meet the lovely Miss Canvey. Tulip is untrained and appallingly behaved (according to the introduction Ackerley became something of a social pariah for the 16 years he spent with Tulip) and Miss Canvey tells it like it is: “ ‘Tulip’s a good girl. I saw that at once. You’re the trouble.’”

As an aside, I had to say goodbye to my sweet wee boy this June, and the vets could not have been kinder, or more respectful and caring. They even relaxed their own lockdown rules so I could be with him when he died (still all very careful and socially distanced). This was the last picture I took of him, just before he became unwell:

So I’m very glad Ackerley and Tulip find Miss Canvey, but unfortunately her insight doesn’t result in any changes and Ackerley observes: “people seem to resent being challenged whenever they approach their own sitting or dining rooms.”

He does feel some sympathy for the local shop owners though (somewhat surprisingly, as he does come across as a terrible snob), when Tulip fouls their frontage:

“True they were horrid people, but no doubt they had their burdens like the rest of us, and Tulip’s gift would not help to uplift their hearts to a sweeter view of life.”

Ultimately what Ackerley captures in My Dog Tulip is the close bond that is unique to every human and animal relationship; and what us animal lovers know for sure, that they behave infinitely better than humans:

“But if you look like a wild beast you are expected to behave like one; and human beings, who tend to disregard the savagery of their own conduct, shake their heads over the Alsatian dog. ‘What can you expect of the wolf?’ they say.”

Secondly, Emma at Book Around the Corner suggested reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin  and I am so glad she did. You can read Emma’s review here. This was my first James Baldwin and on the strength of this novella I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his work. He is a stunning writer: precise, poetic, insightful and so deeply moving. I knew from the opening lines, told from the point of view of young blond American David, that I’d found a writer to love:

“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me towards the most terrible morning of my life. I have a drink in my hand, there is a bottle at my elbow. I watch my reflection in the darkening gleam of window pane.”

It’s a terrible morning because Giovanni, the man David loves, is going to be executed. They met in Paris in a gay bar where Giovanni was a barman, and quickly became lovers. Giovanni’s dilapidated lodgings provide the suffocating background to the most profound experience of David’s life:

“I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long – we met before spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me I spent a lifetime there.”

It is David’s self-hatred and wish to not be as he is that casts a shadow over their relationship. He longs for a fantasy life of heterosexual conformity:

“I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. It had been so once; it had almost been so once. I could make it so again, I could make it real.”

(David has a girlfriend, Hella, who is exploring Spain and deciding whether to accept his marriage proposal when he meets Giovanni.)This self-hatred means David is not always likeable but he is always believable. It makes him very judgemental towards how other gay men lead their lives, and he has horrible attitudes towards anyone he views as effeminate. His older friend Jacques picks him up on his behaviour, in an eloquent plea for humanity:

“There are so many ways of being despicable, it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”

The story unfolds towards its inevitable tragedy that we know from the start is looming over the characters. It’s a heartwrenchingly sad tale that captures the deep and profound damage that can occur when the pain and frustration of a life unlived is inflicted on others.

I could have quoted so much from this novella. It is full of passages breathtaking in their beauty and wisdom. Effusively recommended.

“But people can’t, unhappily, invent their own mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”

To end, I’d normally pick a song from 1956 but none of them really took my fancy. So instead, a song for the year we’re in now. I’ve mentioned before that at times of trouble in my life there is one man I always turn to. That man is David Bowie. During the weirdness of 2020, he has not let me down. Yet also this year I’ve found myself seeking solace with another…

Bruce Springsteen has jokingly said that he writes the same song over and over. The song he’s referring to is about feeling powerless, trapped by circumstance, wanting to escape and still trying to reach out. That pretty much sums up the current situation doesn’t it?

I think so many of us are waiting on metaphorical sunny days. Here’s hoping they’re not too far away. At least I’ve managed to stop bursting into tears when he sings ‘everything’ll be ok’ which is a marginal improvement:

(Also at 4:25 Bruce does a knee slide, which contains the important message that you can be a 70 year old rock god but you’re never too old or too cool to launch yourself across a temptingly shiny floor like a giddy child…)

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 😊

“Don’t let people know the facts about the political and economic situation; divert their attention to giant pandas, channel swimmers, royal weddings and other soothing topics.” (George Orwell, I Have Tried to Tell the Truth: 1943-1944)

How depressing is it that Orwell not only hasn’t aged at all, but seems more pertinent than ever? Let’s distract ourselves from the dystopian nightmare we’re living with a few books… here is my contribution to the 1944 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Do join in!

Firstly, The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann. Told from the point of view of 10-year old Rebecca in the years just before World War I, it is the story of a captivating older woman, Sibyl Jardine and her extraordinary family. Sibyl was friends with Rebecca’s grandmother, and invites Rebecca and her siblings to pick primroses on her property. Rebecca is entranced by the charismatic Mrs Jardine from the start:

“It sounded strange to us that a person should so reveal her feelings: we did not say things like that in our family, though I dreamed of a life where such pregnant statements should lead on to drama and revelation.”

But Mrs Jardine’s magnetic nature comes at a price. People are manipulated by her, dominated by her, and subdued by her:

“Now that Mrs Jardine had gone, the electrifying meaning with which her presence always charged the air began to dissolve. The arrows of her words fell harmlessly out of the copper beech on to the grass around us, and we kicked them aside and drew together, an ordinary group of children going for a picnic.”

Yet because it is told from the point of view of a child, we never quite get to the core of Sibyl Jardine. She remains enigmatic, always slipping out of reach:

“Mrs Jardine, pausing at the end of the herbaceous border, mused. For the first time in her actual presence the sense pierced me directly: that she was wicked. A split second’s surmise. But when next moment I looked up at her, there was her profile lifted beautifully above me, serene and reassuring as a symbol in stone.”

The Ballad and the Source is an odd novel. The child’s point of view is not child-like; the events of Mrs Jardine’s life are melodramatic to say the least (abandoned children, incest, mental illness) and much of the novel is reported speech as Mrs Jardine and her maid Tilly tell Rebecca the life story which is wholly unsuited to a child’s understanding. It has also dated: regional accents sound stereotyped and the portrayal of mental illness is clumsy.

Yet the novel is beautifully written and highly readable. It demonstrates the high price paid by women for emancipation when they have no power. Ultimately what propelled me through the novel was the character of Sibyl Jardine. Like Rebecca, I found her complex and compelling, and I couldn’t wait to see where this intriguing woman took me next.

Secondly, The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault. Set between the wars, it follows seventeen-year-old Elsie Lane as she leaves her Cornwall home to find her older sister Leo. Elsie’s parents are in a deeply toxic marriage and Elsie escapes into fantasy, trying to make herself invisible. As a result she is immature and naïve:

“She was a dim, unobtrusive girl. One might conjecture that she had been afraid to grow up, lest the change should attract attention to her […] The fact that she went nowhere, met nobody but her mother’s friends, and lived in a world of her own imagination had suspended her in the most awkward stage of adolescence for quite three superfluous years.”

It is a visit from locum doctor Peter which spurs her into action. His half-baked ideas about psychology means he seduces timid female patients to cheer them up, not noticing the heartbreak and disappointment he causes when he fails to follow thorough on the fantasies he has encouraged. He is not cruel or vindictive, but he is vain and self-centred:

“His dislike of hurting anyone was entirely genuine, as traits which people use for effect often are; and from this it followed that if anyone insisted on being hurt by him, he found the injury hard to forgive.”

Elsie thinks the drama of running away will bring her and Peter together. When she finds Leo, her sister is living on a houseboat on the Thames outside London, with the lovely Helen. Leo dresses boyishly and writes Westerns for a living; to the reader it is entirely obvious how Leo is living her life but Elsie never realises what her sister’s sexuality is. The Friendly Young Ladies is quite progressive in its portrayal of how sexuality is not fixed, and how being gay is not a source of torture and self-loathing (it was written as an antidote to The Well of Loneliness):

“Her way of life had always seemed to her natural and uncomplex, and obvious one, since there were too many women, for the more fortunate of the surplus to rearrange themselves; to invest it with drama or pathos would have been in her mind a sentimentality and a kind of cowardice.”

(Interestingly, my Virago edition, published in 1984, still referred to Mary Renault as emigrating to South Africa ‘with her close friend Julie Mullard’. I wouldn’t have expected such coy obfuscation from a progressive late-twentieth century publisher.)

Peter ends up visiting the houseboat and trying to seduce both Leo and Helen. He knows they are in a relationship, but his vanity knows no bounds:

“Eccentricity in women always boiled down to the same thing. She wanted a man.”

What ensues is a comedy but one that contains sadness and hurt. The delicate balance of relationships in the houseboat is upset and changed irrevocably by Elsie’s naïve blundering and Peter’s vain manipulations.

I really enjoyed The Friendly Young Ladies. Elsie and Peter are both infuriating, but also funny and fondly drawn. The relationships between the four and the neighbour Joe are shown as complex and subject as much to what is not said as what is voiced. The character studies are carefully drawn and wholly believable.

My edition of this novel included an Afterword by Mary Renault in which she observes:

“on re-reading this forty-year-old novel for the first time in about twenty years, what struck me most was the silliness of the ending.”

So, not a flawless novel, but very much a readable one.

To end, 1944 was the year my mother was born. It was a home birth (no NHS!) and my grandmother heard this song being whistled in the street outside the window. Mum’s a big Johnny Cash fan so this is the version I’ve plumped for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?” (Alice Walker)

October is Black History Month in the UK, so here is a little contribution, two wonderful novels by black women that I want to gush about 😊

Firstly, Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (2015), a remarkably accomplished debut novel, set in the years during & immediately after the Biafran civil war.

Ijeoma loses her beloved father in the war:

“Uzo. It was the kind of name I’d have liked to fold up and hold in the palm of my hand, if names could be folded and held that way. So that if I were ever lost, all I’d have to do would be to open up my palm and allow the name, like a torchlight, to show me the way.”

Her mother struggles to cope with her grief and so Ijeoma is sent away, and it is then that she meets Amina. The young women’s mutual attraction is problematic within their highly religious society (not only are they gay, but Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo while Amina is a Muslim Hausa), and so their secret romance is always tempered with the knowledge that they could be torn apart at any moment:

“When our lips finally met, she kissed me hungrily, as if she’d been waiting for this all along. I breathed in the scent of her, deeply, as if to take in an excess of it, as if to build a reserve for that one day when she would be gone.”

Ijeoma’s sexuality forces her to question much that forms the foundation of her life in Nigeria, not least the religion she has been brought up to and educated within.

“Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable.”

Being gay is a dangerous thing for Ijeoma and the threat is very real; at one point a club she is in is raided. The women hide in a bunker left over from the war, but one who doesn’t make it is brutally murdered. Okparanta captures the fallout from the war and the ongoing violence faced by gay Nigerians in a dramatic but never sensationalist way. Under these pressures, Ijeoma tries to lead a conventional life but it unsurprisingly leads to true misery for all those involved:

“I acknowledge to myself that sometimes I am a snail. I move myself by gliding. I contract my muscles and produce a slime of tears. Sometimes you see the tears and sometimes you don’t. It is my tears that allow me to glide. I glide slowly. But, slowly, I glide. It is a while before I am gone.”

Under the Udala Trees is very much rooted in a particular country at a particular time, but it has something to say as well that is beyond the specific. It is most definitely about the continued criminalisation of gay people in Nigeria, and it is also about how all of us have to question the beliefs and structures we are raised within, and find our own way to be free:

“That tethering way in which the familiar manages to grab ahold of us and pin us down.”

This is an accomplished first novel, and Okparanta is a wise writer. She creates beautiful prose, compelling characters and a well-paced story, and she has important things to say about the world and those of us in it.

“Sometimes it is hard to know to whom the tragedy really belongs.”

I’m excited to see what she does next.

Secondly, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972, trans. Barbara Bray 2015), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

I wanted to read this after seeing Claire’s wonderful review at Word by Word (over a year ago – I get there in the end…) My copy is the New York Review of Books edition, which I recommend for a sensitive, enthusiastic introduction by Jamaica Kincaid.

Narrated by Telumee, it tells the story of her life on the island of Guadeloupe, and the women she is descended from. The opening paragraph is just beautiful:

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept, mosquito-ridden island.  But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, til death comes and takes me as I dream. Me and all my joy.”

Part One tells the story of her mother Victory, and her grandmother, Queen With No Name, who raises Telumee. Her great-grandmother was a freed slave and her descendants have lives which are hard and with more than their fair share of grief, but also with moments of love and joy.  After her father is stabbed, Telumee’s mother is swamped in grief, until she falls in love again. She doesn’t want her young daughter living with them, and so Telumee goes to live with Queen Without Name:

“Grandmother was past the age for bending over the white man’s earth binding canes, weeding and hoeing, withstanding the wind, and pickling her body in the sun as she had done all her life. It was her turn to be an elder; the level of her life had fallen; it was now a thin trickle flowing slowly among the rocks, just a little stirring every day, a little effort and a little reward.”

Telumee grows up in the loving home of her grandmother but Queen Without Name cannot protect her from making a disastrous marriage. Telumee survives though, and The Bridge of Beyond is a tale of overcoming adversity, of finding strength within yourself that you didn’t know you had, and of drawing on the strength of other women to help you endure.

“Through all her last days Grandmother was whistling up a wind for me, to fill my sails so that I could resume my voyage.”

Schwarz-Bart is a beautiful writer who captures an individual voice compassionately without descending into cliché. I’ll definitely be looking to read more of her work.

 

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” (Groucho Marx)

I’ve decided to give into the inevitable and make the theme of this week’s post politics. *sigh* But unfortunately it is what dominates just about everything at the moment. I went to a lecture last week which was supposed to be about The Merchant of Venice, but turned out to be about tolerance, accessibility of the arts and the power of the humanities to understand nuance, subtlety and multiple viewpoints and how this is needed now more than ever. The speaker was genius American academic Stephen Greenblatt who I’ve seen before but he’s never made me blub like a baby (my friend was also a total mess, I’m hoping he’s short-sighted and didn’t notice). The previous week I went to a talk about nineteenth-century European theatre, which included a determined assertion from a British playwright that he too was a European writer (cue cheers from the audience, I’m guessing there weren’t many Brexiteers present). Unfortunately at the moment, all roads seem to lead back to the horror show we’ve found ourselves in. In the words of Cher:

(Note to my brother: Cher is AWESOME. Accept that I am right on this.)

So, two novels about politics. Firstly, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2012, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2014), a satiricial novel which looks at what would happen if Hitler woke up in 2011 Berlin. Naturally there is fun to be had at his misunderstanding over modern life:

“ ‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere, Have you a card? Any flyers?’

‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

And there is also poking fun at the self-aggrandizing former Fuhrer:

“Now my razor-sharp gaze pierced the darkness between a jar of bulls-eyes and one of sugar drops, where the bright light of the moon soberly illuminated my brainwave like an icy torch.”

But the bulk of Vermes’ satire is reserved for modern society, for this Hitler becomes a star. He appears on an alternative comedy programme and his rants become huge hits on YouTube. People think he is satirising Hitler and yet this means Hitler’s rhetoric is once again endorsed by the masses. Vermes challenges what we laugh at and why, and the unquestioning nature of modern media. As Hitler becomes more popular, it is so easy to see how he, or someone like him, could rise again, and also that some of what happened has never gone away.

“It still remains a mystery to me why that relationship never worked. How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realised that they were our friend?”

Satire is a demanding form and Vermes is not entirely successful. Look Who’s Back is a bit overlong and flags in places. Considering it’s about a fascist despot it all feels a bit too restrained at times and the plot doesn’t really develop beyond the original premise. But still a worthwhile read, and – in terms of showing how easily an insane media personality can achieve real power *cough* – a little bit terrifying too.

Secondly, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker in 2004. Set in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Maggie Thatcher’s government is systematically destroying Britain to extent from which it will never fully recover  elected by overwhelming majorities and Nick Guest is down from Oxford to stay with his friend Toby’s family, headed by an ambitious Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden.

 “Gerald was a knowing, self-confident speaker, trained at the Oxford Union, polished at innumerable board meetings, and his tone combined candour and insincerity to oddly charming effect.”

The ruling class, ladies and gentleman.

Nick is from an ordinary family and grew up in an ordinary town. He has a strong aesthetic sensibility and is carried away by the glamour of the Fedden’s money and power, and ability to surround themselves with beautiful things.

“Nick felt he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista of the night, and then held there.”

Nick is also gay, and the story is about his sexual development within a backdrop of thinly disguised homophobia and fear of AIDS, which cut a swathe through the gay community during the decade.

 “It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know – Nick couldn’t tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never benign, since they were the aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit.”

Despite being a fairly long novel (501 pages in my edition), The Line of Beauty is not overly plot-heavy. Nick stays with the Feddens and struggles for a sense of purpose beyond pursuit of various lovers, Gerald gets elected MP and enjoys his life of extraordinary privilege, and the 80s rumble on with cocaine fuelling a deregulated City. The novel is a mix of pithy attacks on political elites and the shallowness of relentless acquisition, whether of power, money or the next high:

“Gerald had still not received the accolade of a Spitting image puppet in his likeness, but it was one of his main hopes for the new Parliament.”

And a broader, more melancholy consideration of love and loss. The descriptions of the characters who succumb to AIDS are truly moving, and unexpected in this novel populated by self-interested self-promoters.

“He commanded attention now by pity and respect as he once had by beauty and charm.”

Like Look Who’s Back, I felt The Line of Beauty was overlong, and not the strongest Booker winner there’s been, but at the same time the characters were recognisable and fully realised, the 80s were brilliantly evoked in all their horror, and Hollinghurst is capable of writing truly stunning passages:

“He caught the beautiful rawness of those days again, the life of instinct opening in front of him, the pleasure of the streets and London itself unfolding in the autumn chill; everything tingling with newness and risk, glitter and frost and glow of body heat, the shock of finding and holding what he wanted among millions of strangers.”

To end, despite the horrific politics of the time, I’m finding 80s YouTube videos a good respite from all the madness of the world at the moment (as you may have gathered from the one at the start where Cher wears a costume made of black dental floss and sits astride a giant canon – what’s not to love?)  Here is another one I employ to great effect, but a word of warning: I am a hardened user of 80s pop-culture. If this is one of your first forays, you might want to ease yourself in by watching Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video first, or else your eyes might start crying deely-boppers and mismatched fluorescent socks, or something. I’m not kidding – there’s a blouson leather dinner jacket at one point…

“Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.”(Dorothy Canfield Fisher)

Last week I saw The Dresser with Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.

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Image from here

Reece Shearsmith in particular gave a really moving performance. The cast were universally good and it was an interesting exploration of love in various guises amongst a group of people who are no longer young. For this reason,  I thought I’d look at novels exploring love later in life.

Firstly, Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013), which is a simple novel in some ways, the coming-out tale of 74 year-old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, and I loved it. Firstly there is the cover, which absolutely captures how I saw the main character:

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“Still spruced up and sharp-suited with rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely  clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly older) Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry. Bring it on…”

Then there is the character of Barry himself: intelligent, witty, kind, selfish, self-centred, sexist. A mass of compelling and endearing contradictions. A sexist who uses the word “mentalate” rather than menstruate, yet who supports a lesbian he barely knows through a degree in Woman’s Studies. A flamboyant, confident, outgoing man who cannot come out through fear of judgement; unapologetic of his sexuality yet resistant to certain labels “I ain’t no homosexual, I am a ….Barrysexual!”, despite the love he feels for his partner of 60 years, Morris.

“He is my Morris and he always been my Morris. He’s a good-hearted man, a special man, a sexy man, a history-loving-man, a loyal man, a man who appreciates a good joke, a man of many moods, a drinking man and a man with whom I can be myself, completely.”

Barry has been married to Carmel for the majority of their lives, a woman with whom he has little in common:

“Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.”

Yet Evaristo shows Carmel’s side of the story brilliantly, and cruelty of Barry’s lies and deception. The impact on Carmel, though she remains oblivious and thinks him a womaniser, is considerable and destructive. While we root for Barry, we are also aware of his disregard for other’s feelings, including his two daughters, especially the eldest with whom he has a strained relationship. And yet just at the points where I would be close to losing all sympathy for Barry, Evaristo would remind me of all he had to contend with:

“All of my life I’ve watched couples holding hands, kissing in the street, on the bus, in pubs. I’ve watched couples walking arm in arm, ruffling each other’s hair, sitting on each other’s laps, dancing closely…

And never, not once, have I ever felt able even to link arms with the man I love.

Me and Morris exchange sidelong glances, and flicker.

He grabs my hand and squeezes it for a few seconds.

It is our first public display of physical affection in sixty years.”

Mr Loverman is also a story of identity, colonialism, immigration first and second-generation, and prejudice in many forms.

“And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop prepositions with our panties, piss in the pot of correct syntax and spelling, mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?”

Barry is an intelligent, well-educated ( devoted to his various night school classes), well-read and funny guide through these issues, who provides plenty of food for thought whilst suggesting love always wins out, and there’s plenty to go round.  A brilliant character study which engages with huge themes in a compelling but never didactic way, Mr Loverman, like Barry himself, is an absolute gem.

Now would be an opportunity for the song from which the novel takes its title, but I am less forgiving than Barry regarding Mr Shabba Ranks’ homophobia. So instead here is a pop video interested in addressing the issue:

Secondly, Our Souls at Night, the last novel by Kent Haruf (2015). Unlike Barry and Morris, Addie and Louis become lovers later in life, although they have known each other for years. The novel begins with Addie visiting Louis to make a proposition: that he visit her at night so they sleep together. It is not a request for sex, but for companionship, conversation, and comfort. They live in small town and know from the outset that their arrangement will not go unnoticed:

“It’s some kind of decision to be free. Even at our ages.

You’re acting like a teenager.

I never acted like this as a teenager.  I never dared anything. I did what I was supposed to.”

The short novel (179 pages in my edition) follows the tender, tentative relationship that builds between Louis and Addie. Haruf’s writing is sparse and he hammers nothing home.  Instead he presents moments in unadorned prose, leaving the reader to recognise the meaning.

“Addie turned off the light. Where’s your hand?

Right here beside you where it always is.”

The moments layer into a narrative which presents a touching, believable relationship between two strong, independent individuals who also recognise their need for intimate human contact. Haruf is interested in what human beings can give to each other in the simplest, most fundamental terms. This is further explored through their relationship with Addie’s grandson, a boy traumatised by his parents acrimonious split, who is healed through humble activities with Louis (ball games, camping) and adopting a rescue dog.

“The boy was asleep. The dog lifted her head from the pillow, looked up at Louis and lay back again.

In Addie’s bedroom Louis put his hand out the window and caught the rain dripping off the eaves and came to bed and touched his wet hand on Addie’s soft cheek.”

Haruf is a wonderful writer, presenting moments of extraordinary delicacy and complexity distilled to their essence. Beautiful.

To end, a picture of Ruth Gordon (I don’t know why I don’t do this every week). Because her face is amazing, and one of her most famous roles was in Harold and Maude, a controversial older person romance. In real life she was married to the same person for 43 years and he was with her when she died. Also, completely unconnected to theme but just because I think it’s awesome, when she died aged 88 she was planning the next play she was going to write.

 

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Image from here

“One fine day.” (Carole King)

Last week I mentioned that 2016 has been a terrible year so far. I don’t follow sport in any shape or form, but even I know Andy Murray has done his best to cheer up a post-Brexit UK by winning the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Congratulations to all the winners!

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Image from here

Obviously these wins are the result of years of dedicated training, but we all experience things that culminate in one day now and again. So to celebrate I’ve picked two novels that deal with the events of one day.

Firstly, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:

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This novella details the morning of a wedding: the preparations, the arrival of guests, the bustling of servants. The bride doesn’t make an entrance for a while, instead we are treated to her mother, Mrs Thatcham, giving contradictory instructions to all and not seeing that this why things are not organised as she expects:

“with a look of sharp anxiety on her face as usual – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her. She stopped and looked at the clock.

‘I simply fail to understand it!’ burst from her lips.

She trotted briskly out of the drawing-room in the direction of the kitchen.”

Apparently this woman, who veers between being frustratingly tedious and a downright bully, was based on Strachey’s mother-in-law…

Meanwhile, the guests start to arrive. There are some lovely character sketches of family members and assorted hangers-on, told with gentle – in the main – humour.

“a tall, grey-haired man, in black clerical clothes, with a gaunt white face reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Dante. It was Canon Dakin, or Cousin Bob of Hadley Hill as the family called him.”

There is a hilarious description of a lampshade wedding gift and Aunt Katie’s verdurous wedding hat. My favourite little scene was between deluded Aunt Bella, who is busy boring her nephew Lob with tales of how her servants “simply cherish me”, and is met with the following non-sequitur:

“‘My dear lady,’ replied the cheerful Lob, speaking unexpectedly loudly, and holding his glass of wine up to the light for a moment, “I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?’”

When we finally meet the bride, Dolly, it is clear all is not well. For starters, she has put away most of a bottle of rum to enable her to stagger down the aisle:

“At this moment Dolly was trailing slowly down the back staircase (which was nearer to her part of the house than the main one), her lace train wound round and round her arm. From out of the voluminous folds of this there peeped a cork and the top of the neck of the bottle. In her other hand was her large bunch of carnations and lillies.” 

As Dolly is unsure of what she is doing and why, simultaneously there is an admirer of hers, Joseph, who may at any minute stop the wedding, though he is not sure of his motivations for doing so. Apparently Strachey was a fan of Chekov, and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding shows this influence in domestic subject matter and conflicted characters unable to take action. The humour is bittersweet: while the preparations and family members are portrayed with a light irreverence, the drunk bride and her inert friend? lover? – we are never told – bring a genuine sadness to proceedings. I couldn’t help feeling they were both on the brink of disaster.

“Dolly knew, as she looked around at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was going steadily forward.”

Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was high: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ Strachey doesn’t explain everything and leaves many questions in the reader’s mind as to what is going unsaid and undone on this nuptial morning (looking at the trailer for the 2012 film it looks as if everything is spelled out, so I will not be watching the film version – why? WHY??)  While it is short, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not slight – witty, sardonic, sad and wise – it is a fully realised portrait of everyday tragedy.

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Image from here

Secondly, A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) tells a day in the life of George Falconer, an ex-pat English professor living alone in California just after the Cuban missile crisis, and grieving the loss of his partner Jim, killed suddenly in road traffic collision.

“And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.”

In the midst of this enormous pain, George carries on with his life: teaching a class, shopping, going to the gym, getting drunk with a friend.

“In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.”

A Single Man is perfectly paced, capturing George’s numb putting-on-foot-in-front-of-the-other coping without losing narrative drive. The tone is gentle, treating George kindly, but without sentimentality – he is not always kind himself, and his views on those he encounters are unblinking. However, as we spend the day with George, we start to get glimmers of his desire to keep living, a sense that he will find meaning in carrying on. But then his grief completely side-swipes him:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home…only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of the other’s presence.”

There is sadness in A Single Man but it is not depressing. Rather it shows how life goes on in all its messy imperfection, and that can be OK, even when you are feeling far from fine.

 A Single Man was made into a film in 2009, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. It certainly looked amazing and had some wonderful performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, but the screenplay made some significant changes and unsurprisingly, I prefer the book for its subtlety and nuance. Kudos to Ford though, for filming a book that takes place almost entirely within one man’s head.

I hope you all have a great day ahead 🙂

“If you were gay, I’d shout hooray” (Avenue Q)

London Pride, the LGBT+ festival which runs for 3 weeks in June, culminated with a parade this weekend. The Orlando shootings had already given this year’s festival an added poignancy, and after the week we’ve had in Britain, a joyful parade celebrating diversity warmed my battered heart. My favourite thing at this year’s festival is undoubtedly this – we should keep it all year round.

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Image from here

In this post I’m going to look at two classic novels which explore an experience of being gay at the start of the twentieth century. They are both set in Britain, where at the time being a gay man was illegal (repealed in 1967). Lesbians weren’t acknowledged in law, but being gay of gender was broadly speaking, socially taboo.

Firstly, Maurice by EM Forster, which was written in 1914 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Maurice grows up in an England where sex education involves conversations like this:

“To love a noble woman, to protect and serve her – this, he told the little boy, was the crown of life. ‘You can’t understand now, you will some day, and when you do understand it, remember the poor old pedagogue who put you on the track. It all hang together – all – and God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!”

Good grief. Maurice blindly follows the path laid out for him: prep school, public school, Cambridge. Forster is rather scathing towards his protagonist, emphasising his lack of intellect and inability to question his life in any way. Events force him out of this spiritual somnambulism when his best friend makes a confession:

“Durham could not wait. People were all around them, but with eyes that had gone intensely blue, he whispered ‘I love you.’

Maurice was scandalized, horrified. He was shocked to the bottom of his suburban soul, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, rot!’”

Gradually however, Maurice realises what the reader already knows, that he is sexually attracted to men and loves his friend. This is the start of him living consciously and becoming generally more pleasant:

“After this crisis, Maurice became a man. Hitherto – if human beings can be estimated – he had not been worth anyone’s affection, but conventional, petty, treacherous to others, because to himself. Now he had the highest gift to offer.”

Maurice isn’t totally redeemed: he can still be selfish and a terrible snob. This is one of the novel’s strengths – he isn’t idealised, he isn’t better or worse than most people, he is just an ordinary person with the need to love and be loved, but because “England will always be disinclined to accept human nature” Maurice suffers greatly, because he is forced to try and supress such basic human needs.

“He lived on, miserable and misunderstood, as before, and increasingly lonely. One cannot write these words too often: Maurice’s loneliness: it increased.”

Meanwhile, heterosexual couples are welcomed and celebrated, able to live openly.

“They loved each other tenderly. Beautiful conventions received them – while beyond the barrier Maurice wandered, the wrong words on his lips and the wrong desires in his heart, and his arms full of air.”

However, this isn’t a sad novel – apparently Forster was determined it would not be so as he didn’t want a gay protagonist to appear to be punished. It is about how accepting who we are enables us to live better lives not only for ourselves but for those around us, and it is about the damage that can be done when society attempts to force a predetermined conventional ‘norm’ upon people. Maurice is also beautifully written and highly readable; never preachy and emotionally affecting.

There was a Merchant Ivory adaptation of Maurice in 1987, which I’ve never seen, but looks like a faithful adaptation, starring many of the Merchant Ivory regulars:

Secondly, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Unlike Forster, she published at the time, but given the novel was subject to an indecency trial, it seems Forster judged correctly that Maurice would cause outrage. The Well of Loneliness tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a daughter to landed gentry who were so convinced she’d be a boy that they give her a masculine name. As Stephen grows up, she struggles against the gender expectations placed on her.

“And Stephen must slink upstairs thoroughly deflated, strangely unhappy and exceedingly humble, and must tear off the clothes she so clearly loved donning, to replace them with the garments she hated. How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets, too, and these were forbidden”

The novel follows Stephen through her young life, isolated from her peers, distanced from her mother who is revolted by a difference in her daughter she cannot name. Stephen’s solace is her kind father and her horses. She gradually realises that she is attracted to women, and that this is unacceptable to the society in which she lives.

“What remained? Loneliness, or worse still, far worse because it so deeply degraded the spirit, a life of perpetual subterfuge, of guarded opinions and guarded actions, of lies of omission if not of speech, of becoming an accomplice in the world’s injustice by maintaining at all times a judicious silence”

The wiki page about this novel tells me it’s been criticised by people who see the difficulties experienced by Stephen as encouraging shame, but I think this is a bit unfair. Written in 1928, I suspect living in a society where you had to hide a fundamental part of who you are, where “Love is only permissible to those who are cut in every respect to life’s pattern” could be a bit bloody at times. Stephen is never portrayed as needing to be anything other than she is: the fault is society’s not hers, and she remains defiant to the end.

“She must show that being the thing she was, she could climb to success over all opposition, could climb to success in spite of a world that was trying its best to get her under…Yes, it was trying to get her under, this world with its smug rules of conduct, all made to be broken by those who strutted and preened themselves on being what they considered normal.”

The Well of Loneliness could do with being about 100 pages shorter (Sarah Waters judges The Unlit Lamp as a much stronger novel) but I still found it very readable and whizzed through it. It’s somewhat depressing stance may mean it’s controversial amongst critics, but love it or hate it, it remains a highly significant novel of the time.

To end, a chance to indulge my slightly baffling but most enduring Danny Dyer obsession. Often cast as the stereotypical uber-straight macho man, here he is getting an opportunity to perform gender in a much broader way:

“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no one” (Jules Verne)

Despite not thinking of myself as a remotely patriotic person, there was a 3 part programme on TV recently that was probably the most British thing ever, and I am so sorry it’s ended. Paul Merton travelling around the island by train (is it me or is he turning into Ian Hislop?), only getting off at request stops and chatting to those he meets. That’s it. Result: pure brilliance.

I share Mr Merton’s love of trains, and so this week I thought I would look at novels where they feature heavily.  This also enables me to fulfil the requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit, to include a book about travel.

Firstly, Compartment No.6 by Rosa Liksom (2011, tr. Lola Rogers) which I was alerted to by Sarah’s review at Hard Book Habit and also by bookarino, where I was sure I had read a review but now I can’t find it on her blog – bookarino, if you reviewed please leave a link below!

The novel details the journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Mongolia undertaken by the two inhabitants of the titular compartment. Liksom describes the landscapes they pass through simply but evocatively, and succeeds in capturing a sense of place and of travel:

“An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts. The train throbs across the snowy land.”

The atmosphere in the compartment is intimate and oppressive:

“All of Siberia slowly brightened. The man in his blue tracksuit bottoms and white shirt did push-ups between the bunks, sleep in his eyes, his mouth dry and smelly, the mucousy smell of sleep in the compartment, no breath from the window, tea glasses quietly on the table, crumbs silent on the floor.”

The man Vadim is repugnant: misogynistic, violent, anti-semitic, anti anyone who isn’t him. His attitudes and behaviour are repellent. Yet as they are forced together, a comradeship builds between him and the female traveller. She is presented a step removed: we never know her name, her direct speech is given only once and then she is quoting. Yet this works brilliantly at evoking the girl’s slightly numb, detached state as she runs away from her troubles and works her way back to facing them, with the help of the dreadful Vadim.

 “The girl looked out of the window at an entirely new landscape…she thought of that July day when she came back from her summer vacation in Finland and Mitka was at the station to meet her. She thought about how they had gone to the boarding house, run up the nine flights of stairs hand in hand, how the hallway had been filled knee-high with the fluffy heads of dandelions, how they’d run up and down the hallway like children, the dandelion fluff drifting in and out of the windows.”

Compartment No.6 is a short but haunting novel which will undoubtedly linger long in my memory.

Secondly, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950), which was adapted only a year later into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, albeit with several changes.

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Sadly my commuter train doesn’t look like this, despite being full of people hatching murderous plots

Successful architect Guy Haines meets bored, spoilt alcoholic Charley Bruno on a long haul train journey. He is reluctant to engage in chat, but Bruno is insistent, and Guy ends up telling him that he is travelling to meet his wife to ask for a divorce. Bruno meanwhile, hates his father and wants his inheritance.

“Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy…it tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.”

It is Bruno who comes up with the idea that they swop murders, Bruno killing Guy’s estranged wife for Guy killing his father. Guy doesn’t agree, but Bruno goes ahead anyway. Needless to say, he is a sociopath:

“whether Guy came through with his part of the deal or not, if he was successful with Miriam he would have proved a point. A perfect murder.”

“So long had he been frustrated in his hunger for a meaning of his life, and in his amorphous desire to perform an act that would give it meaning, that he had come to prefer frustration, like some habitually unrequited lovers.”

Bruno ends up stalking Guy, entirely obsessed with him, and it is this, rather than the murders or closing net of the investigation that provides the thriller element of the novel. Bruno is completely unstable and there is no telling what he might do as he exerts increasing pressure on Guy. Yet Bruno is vulnerable too, childlike and confused, and never admitting that it is sexual desire which draws him to Guy.

“Guy! Guy and himself! Who else was like them? Who else was their equal? He longed for Guy to be with him now. He would clasp Guy’s hand and to hell with the rest of the world! Their feats were unparalleled! Like a sweep across the sky! Like two streaks of red fire that came and disappeared so fast, everybody stood wondering if they had really seen them.”

There are definite overlaps with Tom Ripley, the sociopathic protagonist of several Highsmith novels. Bruno is a much less attractive character than Ripley, but there is the desperation and loneliness of the sociopath, the thwarted gay desire, and the doubling between characters, which Guy realises, much as he is reluctant to admit it:

“And Bruno, he and Bruno. Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.”

Strangers on a Train worked well for me as a thriller, but without any glorification of murder or murderers.  Like The Talented Mr Ripley, what I was mainly left with was a sense of sadness at the destruction that desperate human beings can wreak on one another.

To end, a quick clip to shamelessly indulge my love of Buster Keaton: