“The pollen count, now that’s a difficult job. Especially if you’ve got hay fever.” (Milton Jones)

Normally I celebrate the end of June thusly:

Unfortunately due to the weird summer we’re having (unseasonably hot/unseasonably cold on repeat) the scourge of my life, the devil’s seed, aka grass pollen, is still in abundance and I am refusing to go anywhere that isn’t made of concrete/steel/brick, or some combination thereof.

Well, I’ll tell you, Leo. You live through books of course, same as always. So this week I’m visiting my favourite London park, Regent’s, via two wonderful novels.

Firstly, The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948), where protagonist Stella lives near Regent’s Park and where the opening scene sees counterspy Harrison flirting with Louie, an ordinary young woman who is open to affairs while her husband is away fighting the war.

“The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs – drifts of leaves in the empty deckchairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes – presented, between the railings which still girt them, mirages of repose.”

This eerie quality pervades the whole novel. While there is a plot – Harrison wants Stella to spy on her lover Robert, who is spying for the Germans – I felt this was not the driving force of what Bowen is writing about. Instead I think what she is considering is a very specific generation of people at an extraordinary moment in time.

 “Younger by a year or two than the century, [Stella] had grown up just after the First World War with the generation which, as a generation, was come to be made to feel it had muffed the catch. The times, she had in her youth been told on all sides, were without precedent – but then so was her own experience: she had not lived before.”

There is a sense throughout the book of things left unsaid, sentences unfinished, and yet a deep understanding that exists between everyone living through the war.

“So among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time. The wall between the living and the living became as solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just dark flicker of their hearts.”

People behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally, but they can barely remember what normal is, or why they would behave that way in the first place. Bowen tends to overwrite, but as with the other novels of hers that I’ve read, this quality didn’t bother me as much as it does usually, and I felt it particularly apt here. I just let the writing and the atmosphere wash over me. Thankfully, I’ve not lived through that type of war, but to me Bowen seemed to have done an incredible job at capturing the heightened yet oddly detached experiences that would have occurred:

“But they were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love. Their time sat in the third place at their table. They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day”

The Heat of the Day is about the tragedy of war in the widest sense, where no guns go off and people carry on whilst feeling torn apart. Sad, desperate, quiet, and beautifully evoked.

Regent's_Park_bandstand

Next, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) and my shortest review ever. Here it is: Virginia Woolf is a genius and Mrs Dalloway is pretty much a perfect novel. That is all.

I really don’t think I can review Mrs Dalloway. I find Woolf’s writing so rich, multi-layered and complex I feel I can’t possibly do it any kind of justice. Woolf’s treatment of a day in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and shell-shocked Septimus Smith is so sensitive and sophisticated, I feel like a gibbering idiot.  Instead here are some passages:

Clarissa: “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together.”

Septimus in the park with his wife: “Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight on his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight and the colour thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly, would have sent him mad. But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.”

The recurring motif of the chiming of Big Ben: “The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Finally: “It was a splendid morning too. Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

*Sigh* Even if you’ve already done so, please read Mrs Dalloway. And then read it again.

To end, the most wonderful cinematic ending: Withnail and I, and the wolves of London Zoo viewed from Regent’s Park.

 

“A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.” (Lord Byron)

This week I thought I’d look at book recommendations from my celebrity friends.  That’s a total lie of course, I don’t have any friends.

Youve-ended-friendships-over-book-disagreements

Stylist magazine is given out free on public transport, and a couple of weeks ago it featured an interview with Hayley Atwell, where she recommended The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

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As we are all in thrall to celebrities these days and do whatever they suggest (is there any woman left alive who doesn’t regularly steam her vagina, as recommended by our favourite emotionally labile conscious uncoupler, Gwyneth Paltrow?) I thought I would follow Hayley’s suit.

The History of Love is Nicole Krauss’ second novel, a multi-layered story set predominantly in modern-day New York, but with frequent reminiscences back to pre-war Eastern Europe. Leo Gursky is an elderly man who lives alone and has a chronic fear of not being noticed, leading him to small acts of flamboyance: deliberately knocking over things in stores, nude modelling for an art class. Many years ago, the Nazi invasion of Poland separated him and the woman he’d loved since he was 10 years old.  He follows her to the US, but they cannot be together:

“The truth was I’d given up waiting long ago.  The moment had passed, the door between the lives we could have led and the lives we had led shut in our faces.  Or better to say, in my face.  Grammar of my life: as a rule of thumb, wherever there appears a plural, correct for singular.  Should I ever let slip a royal We, put me out of my misery with a swift blow to the head.”

Meanwhile, across the city, teenage Alma’s grieving mother is translating The History of Love, a book Leo wrote but is unaware was ever published.  As Alma becomes drawn into the history of the manuscript and the real people fictionalised therein, the stories interweave, expanded by the surrealism present in the translated manuscript:

There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations […] Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said.  In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.”

There is also a great deal of gentle humour, such as Leo’s description of his aged best friend:

“the soft down of your white hair lightly playing about your scalp like a half-blown dandelion. Many times, Bruno, I have been tempted to blow on your head and make a wish. Only a last scrap of decorum keeps me from it.”

The History of Love crams a lot into a short space (less than 260 pages in my edition). It is a warm, humane contemplation of love, loss, the ties that bind, memory and identity.  Krauss does all this with a light touch which keeps the novel highly readable, and truly moving.  Nice recommendation, Hayley Atwell.

As I was thinking about books and Hayley Atwell, this reminded me of the TV adaptation of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, in which she starred with Matthew MacFadyen.

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Image from here

A quick google of “Matthew MacFadyen favourite novel” and I have my second recommendation, A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre.  A Perfect Spy is Le Carre’s most autobiographical novel, telling the story of Magnus Pym, the eponymous agent:

“In build he was powerful but stately, a representative of something. His stride was agile, his body forward-sloping in the best tradition of the Anglo-Saxon administrative class.  In the same attitude, whether static or in motion, Englishmen have hoisted flags over distant colonies, discovered the sources of great rivers, stood on the deck of sinking ships.”

Following the death of his shyster father Rick, Pym retreats to the Devonshire coast to write the story of his life. Meanwhile, his controllers try to piece together the same story. What emerges through his damaged childhood, private school, Oxford and the secret service is a man with a permanently shifting sense of self, a tenuous identity that makes him so perfect for duplicity:

“Never able to resist an opportunity to portray himself on a fresh page, Pym went to work. And though, as was his wont, he took care to improve upon the reality, rearranging the facts to fit the prevailing image of himself , an instinctive caution nevertheless counselling him restraint.”

A perfect spy indeed. But A Perfect Spy is not an espionage thriller.  Instead it is a detailed portrait of a man who struggles within the forces that surround him: his dodgy father, his spymasters, his country, and tries to find intimacy and meaning whilst utterly defeating himself at every turn.  Pym’s feelings towards his spymasters are those of fear, contempt, hero-worship and love:

“a handsome English warlord who served sherry on Boxing Day and never had a doubt in his life” who summarises Pyms life as “concentric fantasies…defining the truth at the centre”

and across the Iron Curtain “Axel was his keeper and his virtue, he was the altar on which Pym had laid his secrets and his life.  He had become the part of Pym that was not owned by anybody else” who says of Pym “sometimes I think he is entirely put together from bits of other people”

What Pym is left with is a life built on so many versions of the truth that he’s forgotten which hold true meaning for him.  A Perfect Spy is bleakly funny and sad, a deeply felt study of what it means to be a man at a certain time in British history. Its elegiac quality is not only for Pym, but for a nation, and the damage inflicted both by people on each other and by governments on citizens, at home and abroad.

“Putting down his pen, Pym stared at what he had written, first in fear, then gradually in relief. Finally he laughed. ‘I didn’t break,’ he whispered. ‘I stayed above the fray.’”

You can listen to John Le Carre discussing A Perfect Spy by downloading the podcast from BBC World Book Club here.

To end then, something that captures my own conflicted feelings about being British.  On the one hand I’m glad I live in a country where this is a thing, on the other hand I think every last participant is completely insane: