“In springtime, the only pretty ring time,/When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding” (William Shakespeare)

Things are not going well, reader. I won’t bore you with details, but as I survey the Beckettian wasteland that is my life (never piss off a bibliophile, we can exaggerate and self-pity in such literary terms) two things bring me solace: one, that the forty minute commute to my circumlocution-office job gives me fixed time to read (apart from one particularly bad day where I spent the journey staring out of the window into the abyss of my existential crisis gardens of south London); and two, that my favourite season is finally here. Hooray for Spring!

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So this week I thought I’d look at novels that are linked with Spring in some way.  Firstly Haweswater by Sarah Hall (2002). The connection to Spring is tenuous at best – I chose it because it’s set in the Lake District, which thanks to Wordsworth is irrevocably linked with this time of year. Hall’s highly accomplished first novel centres around the true story of the valley of Mardale being flooded in 1935 to create a reservoir to supply water to Manchester.

“This valley, with its own natural shape, created as the earth’s muscles cramped and pulled with ferocious sloth millennia earlier, was perfect.  Six miles down, at the bottom of the dale, where the fells curved towards the ground and flattened inwards, hard volcanic rock came to the surface, and it would be possible to lay down a flat arm of cement and brick.”

Images from here and here

The Lightburn family work the land, raising sheep and living lives deeply connected to their environment. Janet, their daughter, works as hard as anyone, refusing to let her gender limit her. She is formed by her strong independent nature and the land that surrounds her:

“There are deaths that have made more sense than lives here. But nothing hangs in the balance. She has been pressed between two vast mountain ranges without claustrophobia or repression; each year she is re-forged. She accepts the weather and the ability of the rain to overwhelm all else. It’s inconsequential. This is a sacred place.”

The charismatic and glamourous Jack Liggett arrives from Manchester to tell the villagers that their entire lives are about to be literally swept away, and Janet’s pious mother has a horrible sense of what is to come:

“There was a vast black bird in her heart, she said to him, foreboding. It warned her of sickness and ill change, lifting its morbid wings. And with the dark man in their midst there was danger, she knew it. But Samuel could not understand. And how could he see fear taking shape or feel its feathery wingtips along her ribcage?”

Haweswater is a beautifully written account of ordinary lives caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Hall has a deep understanding of landscape and a sensitive approach to her characters. It is a sad, poignant novel, but not depressing: people, like the land, mostly endure.

“He was here, within reach. The landscape had him enfolded, safe, like bark holding back the spreading rings of a tree. She put her face in the grass and her tears swept down concave blades and soaked into the dry earth, into the fossils and claws and muscles of rock from thousands of years ago.”

If that all sounds a bit depressing, my second choice may be more to your liking: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922), which I was inspired to rescue from the depths of my TBR by reading Shoshi’s wonderful review.

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This novel is an absolute joy: a heartwarming, silly, acerbic, funny, insightful joy.  Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are drawn to an advertisement in The Times which promises “wisteria and sunshine” at an Italian medieval castle for the duration of the titular month.  Mrs Wilkins is in need of a change:

“She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.  Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation reluctant; she was shy. And if one’s clothes and face and conversation are all negligible, thought Mrs Wilkins, who recognised her disabilities, what, at parties, is there left of one?”

While Mrs Arbuthnot needs space to work out what on earth to do with her marriage:

“And Frederick, from her passionately loved bridegroom, from her worshipped young husband, had become second only to God in her list of duties and forebearances. There he hung, second in importance, a bloodless thing bled white by her prayers.”

They decide to take the plunge, and advertise for two more women to join them, ending up with young and feckless Lady Caroline and older and self-absorbed Mrs Fisher. The women take a while to adjust to one another, but the magic of Italian Riviera is impossible to resist (as is von Arnim’s writing, permit me a lovely long quote):

 “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she was there to see it. Such beauty; and she was alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.”

Surrounded by this picturesque scene, all the women, wanting to escape their lives for a variety of reasons, undergo a healing process, a regeneration. If this makes the novel sound worthy and heavy-handed, it really isn’t.  It’s a wonderful study of group dynamics and how what we need can be brought to us by the most unlikely people. Even Mrs Fisher is powerless to resist:

“She knew the feeling, because she had sometimes had it in childhood in specially swift springs when the lilacs and syringas seemed to rush out into blossom in a single night, but it was strange to have it again after over fifty years. She would have liked to remark on the sensation to some one, but she was ashamed. It was such an absurd sensation at her age. Yet oftener and oftener, and every day more and more, did Mrs Fisher have a ridiculous feeling  as if she were presently going to burgeon.”

Von Armin doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of life: “She felt small and dreadfully alone. She felt uncovered and defenceless. Instinctively she pulled her wrap closer. With this thing of chiffon she tried to protect herself from the eternities” but what she suggests is that if we open ourselves to possibilities, the insurmountable becomes surmountable, our fears conquerable. If you need a lift; a fun, escapist read that still has something to say but does so with the lightest of touches, then The Enchanted April is for you. Enchanting indeed!

To end, there has been Shakespeare galore this weekend as it is 400 years since his death, and I opened this post with some of the weakest lines he ever wrote 😀 To redress the balance, here are some of the greatest lines he ever wrote:

“The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.” (Benjamin Disraeli)

This week I’ve been thinking about what goes on behind the scenes of things.  There’s been the Edward Snowden/Stephen Lawrence bugging stories running on in the press, and on a much lighter note I’ve been watching Scandal (about a political fixer), which has replaced a certain epic fantasy drama as my conflicted- inner-monologue programme of choice. My conflicted-inner-monologue goes thusly: “Why am I watching this?  Its fluffy drivel…I’m not watching this…I have to wait how long for the next episode?” ad infinitum until the end of the series, followed by googling to see what happens in the next series & how long I’ll have to wait before its screened.  Anyway, my psychological torments aside, I’ve branched out a bit this week by making a diary one of the choices, rather than sticking purely to fiction.  Jeanette Winterson once said: “There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” so I think a diary fits into this category and isn’t so out of place in a blog about fiction. Both the diary and the novel are told from the point of view of someone in the background of another’s fame, bound up in their domestic life and the intimacy that necessarily entails; behind the scenes of their public life.

Firstly, sister of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal (my copy Oxford World’s Classics, 2002).  William and Dorothy were separated as children but once reunited as adults they lived together in the Lake District, even after his marriage, until her death.  They were incredibly close (weirdly close, rumours of incest continue to this day) and she is thought to have been his muse.  Coleridge and De Quincey both rated her writing and her intellect.  Certainly Dorothy had a big influence on her brother’s writing; she was his scribe, as Wordsworth became ill in the through the physical act of writing, so it’s not too much of a stretch to assert that if it wasn’t for her we probably wouldn’t have Worsdworth’s poems, either in terms of their inspiration or the words on the page. The diary details the minutiae of their life together, but she writes very little about what she feels, only what she sees.  While at times this can make the writing a bit limited, at other times her powerful observations are beautiful, as this famous passage from “Thursday 15th April 1802” shows:

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the sea had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and above them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway.”

Guess which monumentally famous poem that inspired?  Yup, if it wasn’t for Dorothy, Wordsworth would never have “wandered lonely as a cloud”. Some of you may think that’s no bad thing, and I have to confess I would be amongst you – I am really not one for the Romantic poets at all.  But even if you don’t like the poetry, Dorothy’s diary is still worth a look as firstly, it’s not Romantic poetry so it’s very different, and secondly, she’s a brilliant nature writer.  She has great feeling for the Lake District, and if you’ve ever been there you’ll find yourself transported back through her writing.  Here she is writing not about the Lakes, but on a rare trip away (to Calais, to see Wordsworth’s French mistress and his daughter), gazing back towards England:

“We had delightful walks after the heat of the day was passed away – seeing far off in the west the coast of England like a cloud crested with Dover castle, which was but like the summit of the cloud – the evening star and the glory of the sky. The reflections in the water were more beautiful than the sky itself, purple waves brighter than precious stones, for ever melting away upon the sands. The fort, a wooden building, at the entrance of the harbour at Calais, when the evening twilight was coming on, and we could not see anything of the building but its shape, which was far more distinct than in perfect daylight, seemed to be reared upon pillars of ebony, between which pillars the sea was seen in the most beautiful colours that can be conceived. Nothing in romance was ever half so beautiful.”

Finally, she’s worth reading for the small domestic scenes that remind us all that even great poets have to eat.  “I went and sate with W & walked backwards and forwards in the Orchard till dinner time – he read me his poem.  I broiled beefsteaks.”  I love that – the orchard, the declaiming of poetry, all very idyllic and impressive, followed by the mundane detail of what happened next.  Poetry, then beefsteaks.  It’s not just Wordsworth we see in this light.  On “Monday Morning 1 September 1800” Dorothy documents “I broiled Coleridge a mutton chop which he ate in bed.” Another time she has letters from the great poet and mutton chop consumer: “very melancholy letters, he had been very ill in his bowels”.  (I’m not a doctor but I’d suggest being a massive opium addict is not the best for one’s melancholia or one’s bowels).   There’s plenty to Dorothy’s short journals, and while the feeling of getting behind the scenes of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry is enticing, her writing stands on its own as an intriguing observation of the natural world and early nineteenth century domestic life. 

Before I discuss the second book here’s a picture of the Lake District (or at least one lake in the district) to keep you going.  This is a long post, I’m sorry…

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Secondly, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 2010).  Yes, it’s a well-known and much debated story told from the point of view of a dog.  If that sounds like a premise that would make you want to poke your own eyes out, stay with me.  It’s not a novel I would have read either, except it’s by Andrew O’Hagan, who is a terrific writer, and who dealt with the dark side of fame and its repercussions on the famous so brilliantly in his 2003 novel Personality. If you thought the dog thing sounded like quite a fun and original way of telling the story, well, you were right, and I shouldn’t be so jaded and blinkered. Maf (there’s no way I’m writing that title out in full again)tells the story of Marilyn’s last few years through the eyes of her Bichon Maltese dog, Mafia Honey, given to her by Frank Sinatra.  Except it sort of doesn’t.  Marilyn was placed under intense scrutiny and yet still remained an enigma, and Maf doesn’t seek to change this.  By the end of the novel she is still a mystery, O’Hagan doesn’t have a “Marilyn theory” to put forward.  Instead, through Maf, we take a look at Hollywood, and to wider extent the USA, on the brink of change, as the Golden Age of the 1950s fades and the momentum for immense change in the 1960s builds.

“There was a neon halo over Times Square.  The puddles were lighted pink and the bulbs made a cartoon beauty of Midtown, pulling shadows and poor men out of the alleys…bright commerce took advantage of the dark, the changes in colour feeling like events…in the middle of all those twinkles, you might wonder if people even had a chance of spending their lives wisely.”

It’s a comedy in the main though, and there’s plenty of whimsy which plays with the unusual point of view but never overdoes it:

“We usually hate cats, not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose.  No cat ever spoke for long in the warmth of good prose.  A dog’s biggest talent, though, is for absorbing everything of interest – we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet.”

This psychic device means Maf is able to speak with knowledge on a wide range topics, particularly philosophy.  Apparently most dogs are socialists, and Maf particularly loves Trotsky.  This I felt was the weakness of the novel; Maf is an engaging and unique voice, but a little pompous.  Generally this doesn’t stop him from being likeable, but at times I felt the philosophising and intellectual name-dropping could have done with a more heavy-handed edit.  Still, the descriptions of Marilyn are sympathetic and delicate:

“She found it hard. Many of the old bids for independence had fallen short.  She was tired.  When she hugged me, her comforter, her guardian, I felt a weight of disappointment about her, as if the stands she had taken in life, and in love, had only revealed her personal shortcomings and the impossibility of respect.”

While Marilyn struggles, Maf is her constant companion and goes everywhere wither, meaning we learn about Sinatra’s temper tantrums, JFK’s shoes, George Cukor’s interior design…  When he accompanies her to Lee Strasberg’s famous actor’s studio to learn about method acting, Maf takes on board all the techniques:

“I reached inwards. All the way in.  I recalled some humiliation I once suffered at the hands of Evelyn Waugh and a croquet ball.  I must have been the merest puppy and was pootling on the lawn […] Evelyn was making a point, a facetious point, naturally, about the ugliness of George Eliot, and when I tried to correct him along Latin principles he knocked a croquet ball across the lawn at vicious speed and it struck me in the centre of my infant forehead…I used it to deepen my performance on the table at the back of Jack’s Bar.”

The great Strasberg takes notice and asks someone to fetch the dog some water.  A method acting dog – brilliant.  Along the way there are other light comic touches – rats with Brooklyn accents, an Old English Sheepdog who speaks like Boris Johnson (only more coherent), the fact that Lady from Lady and the Tramp is the dog of his dreams, and he congratulates himself on seeing beyond her typecasting as the love interest: “If only she had met me things would be different.” Over the years many people seem to have felt that way about tragic Marilyn, but she wasn’t saved, and the book isn’t so funny as to downplay this part of the story.  Marilyn comes across as vulnerable and damaged, and her little dog, like so many others around her, can only watch her self-destruct.  Maf is an original take on a behind the scenes story, one that respectfully leaves the same questions unanswered as to why Marilyn’s life ended the way it did.

Originally I planned to write “the scenes” on a piece of paper and photograph the books behind it (fnar fnar) but I decided against this marvellous visual pun and instead opted to photograph them with a picture of the peerless Sir Humphrey Appleby (Sir Nigel Hawthorne) from Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, master manipulator of behind the scenes political power wielding: 

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