“They let you dream/Just to watch ’em shatter/You’re just a step/On the boss-man’s ladder” (Dolly Parton, 9 to 5)

I’ve not done too badly with contributing to November’s plethora of reading events, despite my snail-like reading speed. Unfortunately I’m not going to manage a #MARM post, but I did find a short novel by an Australian author to squeeze in, so here on the final day of the month is my hastily written contribution to AusReadingMonth hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. At 204 pages it is just a teeny bit too long to count for #NovNov though…

I went into Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett (1958) with quite low expectations, set by the author herself 😀 In her introduction to my 1985 VMC edition, she explains “looking back on the 36-year-old Communist who wrote Bobbin Up, I am embarrassed by at her proselytising, stubborn blindness, this Antipodean Alice in Wonderland who had a protracted love affair with an idealised working class.”

However, she also acknowledges: “Sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic, sometimes clumsy and overwritten Bobbin Up was the work of a still young writer struggling to find her own style and voice. Its form, which was criticised at the time as too episodic, seems to me to suit the subject perfectly”

As a middle-class woman who chose to work in a factory and then write about it, I was put in mind of Nell Dunn.  While both authors are open to accusations of class tourism and exploitation, I think they wrote with the best of intentions, attempting to shine a light on ignored and marginalised female workers. The novels are sixty or so years old, and these days we understand allyship differently.

These disclaimers out the way, I really enjoyed Bobbin Up. I thought it was stronger than Hewett suggested and was a compassionate portrait of the lives of women on low incomes in 1950s Sydney. Although she sets in the fictional Jumbuck Woollen Mills, the frequent references to songs playing on the radio and the sputnik gliding overhead root it firmly in a specific time.

Hewett captures the work environment in broad strokes before focussing in on particular workers:

“Women came in from everywhere, laughing and chiacking down the long, slippery aisles between the rovers, spinners, and winders. Relief healed their aching backs, relief loosened their tongues, they ran and pushed and scurried, jamming into the washroom, five minutes to change and scrub up and catch the bus to Redfern, Marrickville, Paddo, Woollahra and all points north, south, east and west.”

Their lives are hard and the women’s bodies are broken by tough, unrelenting work.

“Violet McHendry, forty-five, sharped tongued, hard as nails, was always fighting a losing battle with life in the grey, warped, weatherboard semi in Maddox Lane. But she still kept, until the day she died over her washtubs, ten years later, that peculiar girlishness, that grace of face and voice, that has nothing to do with time.”

The best time they can hope for is when they are young, still fit and might have some energy to enjoy the times when they’re not at work.

“[Beth] passed proudly and yet compassionately, conscious of her youth and motherhood. The old men stared after her, jealous of the radiance they could never share again, loafing on borrowed time, unwanted, under the dapple of poplar trees.”

There is domestic violence, self-medicating with alcohol, sixteen-year-olds being told they’ll be raped if they ‘lead men on’. But also some tender relationships, resilience and hope.

“Upstairs Lil had a view. Across the crooked slate and corrugated iron roofs of Waterloo and Redfern the Housing Commission flats stood out like a dream of luxury amidst green lawns. The sunlight slanted golden against their solid brick walls, a rainbow of mist from their water sprinklers circled them with enchantment.”

For Nell, the committed communist (presumably based on Hewitt, and she does seem to make her the most self-critical character), the hope is for a better society:

“Everything fell into place like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and the best part of it was she knew she had always been right. There was something more than the narrow, bitter, cranky world she’d been reared in. There was another world to be built, here on earth, based on the kind of brotherhood and selflessness and energy she’d seen displayed long ago in the strike in the textile mills.”

I do agree with Hewett that Bobbin Up is somewhat overwritten and clunky in places, but it wasn’t particularly torturous. Amidst the bleak subject matter, it balanced the story somewhat, without obscuring the difficulties the women face.

“You could never be lonely in Waterloo, always conscious of the myriad lives woven and interwoven with your own, breathing, battling, loving, fighting, suffering in the stifling summer dusk.”

To end, a song about the charms of women who work in factories:

“Vienna is just the best place to be.” (Conchita Wurst)

It’s November, so ‘tis the season of many wonderful reading events. Margaret Atwood Reading Month is being hosted by Buried in Print; What’s Nonfiction is hosting Nonfiction November; AusReading Month is being hosted by Brona at This Reading Life. I’m hoping to join in with them all, but I doubt I’ll be able to because my reading and blog writing is still positively sloth-like.

However, with this post I’m managing to contribute to Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and BookishBeck; and German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy  Siddal, and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. And I’m only cheating slightly by counting the same book for both 😀

Week 1 for German Literature Month is focussed on writing from or set in Austria, so I’ve picked two novels by Austrian authors who have also set their stories in Austria.

Firstly, The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (2012, trans. Charlotte Collins 2016) which at 234 pages is a short novel but a wee bit long to count for #NovNov. Set in 1937, teenage Franz leaves his lakeside home for the hustle and bustle of Vienna:

“the noise – there was an incessant roaring in the air, an incomprehensible jumble of sounds, tones and rhythms that peeled away, flowed into each other, drowned each other out, shouted, bellowed over each other. And the light. Everywhere a flickering, a sparkling, flashing and shining: windows, mirrors, advertising signs, flagpoles, belt buckles, spectacle lenses.”

He has a job as an assistant to old friend of his mother’s, working in the tobacconist’s shop. His boss Otto is non-smoker with a rather unique approach to his job:

“Reading newspapers was the only important, the only meaningful and relevant part of being a tobacconist; furthermore if you didn’t read newspapers it meant the you weren’t a tobacconist”

Despite this unpromising start, Franz’s horizons begin to widen. The newspapers give him a burgeoning political awareness, and the vibrant city offers opportunities for romance. Even the shop stock suggests vistas unknown:

“Each brand had its own particular smell, yet they all had this in common: they bore within them the aroma of a world beyond the tobacconist’s, Währingerstrasse, the city of Vienna, beyond even this country and the whole wide continent.”

Franz is a sweet and endearing character, but not sentimentalised or idealised. His earnestness and energy can be somewhat tiresome, if entirely believable. He even tests the patience of his most famous customer:

“Freud sighed. For a fraction of a second he considered yielding to the sense of anger that was welling up deep inside, and stubbing out his Hoyo on the brow of this impertinent country lad. He decided against it and puffed smoke rings into the air instead.”

I’m not usually a fan of fictionalised real people, but the friendship between the eminent psychoanalyst and the young Franz is subtly evoked and not remotely heavy-handed. Seethaler doesn’t try and shoehorn in loads of Freudian references to demonstrate how much research he’s done; Freud is shown as an aging man and very vulnerable as a Jewish person amongst the escalating political situation in Austria.

“the colossal difference between their ages automatically established the distance Freud found agreeable and which was, indeed, the thing that made close contact with the majority of his fellow humans tolerable”

The focus is primarily on Franz as he ricochets around the city, falling in and out of love, writing to his mother and growing up, all while Nazism tightens its hold. The insidious nature of this is brilliantly done through incidental details:

“In front of the town hall, children and youths were gathering in small groups. They were hanging around on corners, standing arm in arm, blocking the pavements or running across the square, laughing and shouting, waving hats and swastika flags.”

Until suddenly it’s not incidental anymore. Violence explodes, Franz has to deal with the Gestapo, people disappear, and Freud is persuaded to leave his home forever…

The Tobacconist is a tragedy that never portrays itself as such. It tells a deeply ordinary story – despite the famous person in its midst – and uses the reader’s knowledge of history to fill in the gaps. It’s a brilliant technique, because it takes a protagonist we all recognise, having all been teenagers discovering a wider world at some point, and places him inescapably within the brutality of a genocide, making historical events resonate on a personal level.

There is an ambiguity to the ending of The Tobacconist which rather than being frustrating I thought entirely apt. Under a brutal regime, so often people have to live with not knowing.

“For it was well known that waiting and seeing was always the best, perhaps even the only way to let various troubles of the times flow past and leave you unscathed.

Secondly, I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, (1933, trans. Ignat Avsey 2013) which in my Pushkin Press edition is 203 pages but they are not standard size, and when it was published in a Pushkin Vertigo edition it was 160 pages, so counts for Novellas in November – hooray!

A disclaimer to start, because although I enjoyed I Was Jack Mortimer a great deal, I thought the fundamental premise was completely silly.

Spooner is a young cab driver who at the start of the novel is stalking a young woman – so far, so yuck. Then a man gets into his cab, but by the end of the journey the passenger has been shot dead, without Spooner hearing or seeing a single thing.

“Spooner stood in the middle of the room, and the events of the past minutes raced through his mind, like short, randomly edited film clips; the dead man, the speeding cars, the news stand, the dead man, the carriageway, the blood, the dead man, the streets, the dead man.”

What would you do? I think almost entirely everyone would go to the police. But this wouldn’t make much of a thriller, as the police would take the story out of your hands and you’d have to go back to smoking with the other cabbies, boring them with the story, and being creepy towards women.

So instead, for reasons best known to himself, Spooner disposes of the body and starts to inveigle himself into the man’s life.

“he was pretty sure that as soon as the crime was discovered it’d be put at his door, so that in the end he began to feel as though he had in fact perpetrated it himself. And had he really been the murderer, in all probability he wouldn’t have been behaving any differently from the way he was now.”

I Was Jack Mortimer is a really enjoyable thriller, if you can get past the unbelievable set-up of Spooner’s decision-making. I just put that element to one side and allowed the pacy writing to carry me along as Spooner gets increasingly out of his depth. The 1930s and the city of Vienna are beautifully evoked with a wonderful sense of time and place.

The trouble with writing about thrillers is that you can say practically nothing for fear of spoilers. What I will say is that towards the end Spooner has the following epiphany:

“All I needed to do was go to the police and report I had a dead person in the car and didn’t know who shot him, and in the end they’d have had to believe me and I’d have been released. Instead, I’ve done just the opposite and have landed myself in no end of a mess.”

Well, quite.

“One doesn’t step into anyone’s life, not even a dead man’s, without having to live it to the end.”

To end, I tried to find a trailer for one of the film adaptations of I Was Jack Mortimer, but failed. So instead a chance for me to totally indulge myself with the trailer for my most favouritest-ever film, which is set in post-war Vienna:  

“I got a brand new combine harvester.” (The Wurzels, 1976)

My blogging is still decidedly patchy but I really enjoy Kaggsy and Simon’s Club weeks, so I was determined to take part in this week’s 1976 Club. So far it’s shaping up to be another excellent selection so do head over to their blogs to see all links to reviews 😊

I decided to go with two authors I’m very fond of, but who perhaps don’t provide the sharpest contrast… these are two short, spiky novels, darkly humorous and incisive in their portrayals of ordinary lives.

Firstly, A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge. The cover of my edition has a quote from Hilary Mantel calling it ‘one of the funniest books I have ever read’, which tells me that Hilary Mantel and I have very different senses of humour. There are definitely funny moments in A Quiet Life but, like a lot of Bainbridge’s writing, I found it pretty bleak too.

Set just after the end of the Second World War, it tells the story of a family from the point of view of the eldest son Alan. Living in a coastal town near Liverpool (probably Formby, where Beryl grew up), his parents are very much unhappily married.

Once well-off, they now live in straightened circumstances. His mother expected more, going to a finishing school abroad and marrying a self-made man, who now unfortunately, has lost all he made. Theirs is a house of loaded silences, resentments, bickering, secrets and frustration.

“The marble statue of Adam and Eve, recently brought down from the landing, was shaky on its pedestal. Even the row of decorative plates, painted with roses and hunting scenes, might roll on their shelf above the door and bounce upon the red carpet. Madge said it was like walking through a minefield.”

Bainbridge captures perfectly the constant repressed tensions of living in such a situation. There is no honesty here, just lives of quiet desperation as his mother reads romantic fiction and his father struggles in isolation.

“Though the war was over, Father was still caught in a cross-fire, harassed by battles, by phantom cities tumbling about his ears. This moment – as then – he could be slumped over the driving wheel, hands raised in an abject gesture of surrender.”

Meanwhile their two children muddle through. Depressingly, Alan sees his future playing out just like his parents. This doesn’t particularly bother him, despite the fact that:

“He always did as he was told and he resented that no-one noticed.”

Meanwhile, Madge his sister runs wild, doing exactly what she likes and knowing how to manipulate her way out of any repercussions. She isn’t remotely vicious, she just knows what will enable her to do what she wants.

“She didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past marshalling the reasons for his parents behaviour […] All he wanted was for Madge to stay indoors at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.”

The dejection and anxiety of all their lives – except possibly Madge, who seems determined to carve out something more – is brilliantly captured by Bainbridge in small, telling details. In a world where no-one says very much and very little happens, she manages to build the tension to breaking point, to an ordinary, sadly predictable tragedy.

‘We had a garden when your father and I were first married, big enough for a game of tennis. We had a maid called Matty. We had so much space…You have no idea what it was like.’ She stood by the hearth, one foot resting on the cracked tiles.

‘We’ve got space now,’ said Madge from the floor. ‘You won’t let us use it.’

Alan thought suddenly it was why Madge went out so much, why he did himself. There wasn’t room for them. If he had his way he’d light a fire every day in the lounge and lie full-length upon the good-as-new sofa.”

Secondly, Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden. The titular woman is Penelope, ironically named as she herself observes, as she is not a faithful wife but plans to leave her husband Eddie and her two daughters for her lover, after she has finished her afternoon’s work as a Justice of the Peace.

“Will they blame me? I hope not. I have taught them to be tolerant as I have taught them regular habits and sound ethical principles. The only thing I have failed to teach them, I sometimes think guiltily, is how not to be boring.”

The afternoon she spends in court sees her reflect on her life so far, her choices and attitudes. It is not only her major life-altering decision that is prompting this introspection:

“Someone has sent me twenty aspirins in a brown envelope, and that anonymous accusation rumbles on in the depths of my mind like a monotonous menacing drum, sharpening my sympathies with all accused persons, alerting my memory, forcing me to examine my own failures, seek out my own guilt.”

This unnerving situation adds a sense of foreboding, or even slight menace, to the day. Yet there is insidious violence throughout Penelope’s experiences, which gradually emerge.

Penelope sees herself at the more liberal end of society’s views:

“ ‘Do you think old, respectable aunts should not be listened to?’ The Judge smiles politely. He knows about compassionate lady magistrates, that smile says; all their soft-hearted arguments.

I am stung. Does he think I am not worth listening to?”

Yet some of her views expressed in this novel are deeply disturbing: “Some women invite [flashers] behaviour”; “Girls often pretend to be more upset than they are. It’s expected of them.”

As well as her internalised misogyny, Penelope has to manage the daily sexism of a 1970s workplace, a mix of being patronised and/or lusted after. The condescending Judge invites her to a lunch that is clearly more than a meal…

As she reflects on her relationship with her step-brother Steve, step-sister April’s violent marriage, and her step-mother Eve’s mental ill health, I think Penelope is supposed to be callow and unthinking, certainly in terms of how she viewed April’s violent marriage when she was younger. However, Penelope is not wholly unlikable, mainly because she doesn’t cut herself much slack and she does try to help people, however misguidedly. She doesn’t justify what she’s doing or try to make it better than it is. She simply explains how she reached that point:

“My life, my active, happy, purposeful life suddenly seemed empty to me, dreary and useless. The speed with which this had happened was terrifying. One minute I was walking calmly along, feet on firm ground, the next I had tumbled into this frightening black chasm. How had it happened? Why did I feel like this? It was more than unhappiness.”

Afternoon of a Good Woman feels like a snapshot in time, not only of Penelope’s life but also of 1970s attitudes to women, violence, crime, sexual behaviour (Eddie’s preferences are detailed and Penelope’s affair is a somewhat contentious relationship, even without the betrayal), sexual assault, work and family, public versus private personas. For a short novel it covers a lot of ground, and manages to do so with ease. I’m really glad I read it for the 1976 Club as it felt very much of it’s time.

“And indeed, to be fair to myself (and if I can’t be fair to myself, how can I be trusted to be fair to others?), in the magistrates court, where I sit almost weekly, the margin of error that puts me on the side of the judges and not of the judged sometimes seems very narrow.”

To end, of course the 1970s give me an opportunity to indulge my love of David Bowie. In 1976 he starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #14

No Signposts in the Sea – Vita Sackville West (1961) 156 pages

Continuing with the Virago theme from yesterday, here is another of their delightful offerings. I do enjoy Vita Sackville-West’s writing and I feel like she never gets the recognition she deserves. I suppose when your name is forever linked with the genius of Virginia Woolf, you’ll always suffer by comparison… No Signposts in the Sea is her final novel and it’s a brittle, slightly flawed gem.

Edmund Carr is a successful journalist and self-made man, who knows he doesn’t have long to live. As a result, he has followed the woman he loves from afar, Laura Drysdale, onto a cruise to unnamed places which seem to be southern Pacific islands.

The narrative is entirely from Edmund’s viewpoint, and at first I thought I’d struggle because that viewpoint seemed to be relentlessly bitchy one:

“ ‘it is lucky for some people,’ I say to Laura, ‘that they can live behind their own faces.’”

However, Edmund’s incredibly painful situation – both in terms of his life nearing its end and his unspoken love for Laura (possibly a reference to Petrarch?) means that he is more vulnerable than he has ever been.

“Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”

As he reflects on life and on the nature of romantic love, Edmund does develop as a character and begins to soften his brittle, urbane exterior:

“I realised for the first time how greatly our apprehension of people depends on the variation of conditions under which we see them, and thought it possible that we may never truly perceive them at all.”

Certainly the reader sees more of Laura than he does. In our objectivity something is obvious to us that Edmund remains unaware of, caught as he is in his obsession, his jealousy, and his confusion. Sackville-West shows how much those early romantic feelings can often be a reflection of the lover’s insecurities, fantasies and desires, and very little to do with the loved one.

“I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund, my darling, I love you.

Love does play queer tricks.”

No Signposts in the Sea is a romantic novel in its way though, because it suggests that by moving beyond these infatuated feelings, a deep love and rewarding companionship – such as Vita enjoyed with Harold Nicholson – is possible.

Less romantic are the racist views in evidence among the white, privileged, cruise passengers, sadly of its time but surely beginning to be outdated in 1961.

I didn’t think No Signposts in the Sea was a strong as some of the other novels I’ve read by Sackville-West. The characterisation is a bit thin, especially regarding Edmund’s love rival, Colonel Dalrymple. Vita Sackville-West was extremely unwell as she wrote this so could not have been at the height of her powers, but there is still much to enjoy.

“Dusk began to fall; I wished never to arrive; I wished to continue forever between land and water in a dream region so wild and beautiful.”

Novella a Day in May 2020 #13

The Aloe – Katherine Mansfield (1916, this edition 1983) 79 pages

The Aloe was Katharine Mansfield’s first punt at writing her short story Prelude, and so while it’s not entirely satisfactory as a fully realised story in its own right, there’s still a lot to enjoy here.

It begins with the Burnell family moving to a new home further out in the New Zealand countryside. The opening is told from the children’s point of view as the three of them are old enough to realise what is happening but too young to take an active part. I thought Mansfield captured the detailed minutiae of children’s lives so well:

“Kezia liked to stand so before the window. She liked the feeling of the cold shining glass against her hot little palms and she liked to watch the funny white tops that came on her fingers when she pressed them hard against the pane”

Once they arrive at the larger, more remote house, the attention shifts to the adults. Mansfield is incredibly subtle in her characterisation, drawing psychologically astute portraits but leaving the reader to work out what it means for this group of people to be living together.

Stanley Burnell is optimistic and eager about the move, little realising the various pressures it places on the women of the household, mainly because he is out in town all day:

“He was enormously pleased – weather like this set a final seal upon his bargain – he felt somehow – that he had bought the sun too and got it chucked in dirt cheap.”

His wife Linda is neither entirely happy nor completely unhappy, but certainly she is part of a generation of women given to mysterious ailments like headaches which enable her to spend a day in a room closed off from the rest of the household. She able to do so because her mother Mrs Fairchild is so capable and domesticated:

“There was a charm and grace in all her movements. It was not that she merely ‘set in order’; there seemed to be an almost positive quality in the obedience of things in her fine old hands.”

One piece of characterisation I really liked was Beryl, Linda’s sister. There is a hint that she may be trying to seduce her brother-in-law, mainly through boredom and a need to feel loved. As she writes a letter to her friend full of news that she knows is insincere, superficial prattle, she has this insight:

“Perhaps it was because she was not leading the life that she wanted to – she had not a chance to really express herself – she was always living below her power – and therefore she had no need of her real self – her real self only made her wretched.”

In lesser hands Beryl would just be a flighty, flirty, dreamer with the potential for real destruction, but Mansfield shows how all the women are forced into certain roles because society doesn’t give them the choices it affords to men. This is never didactic though; the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

The Aloe only covers two days in this family’s life (though Mansfield ultimately wrote three short stories about the Burnells) but so much is explored, reading it is still a rich experience. My only reservation is that my delicate sensibilities could have done without the duck-killing scene (which I skimmed.) The novella does end rather abruptly but then it was never quite intended to be read as it is now.

Novella a Day in May 2019 #30

Sleepless Nights – Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) 151 pages

Sleepless Nights is a fictional autobiography, told by a woman with the same name as the author. It begins:

“It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and grey squares and diamonds. How nice it is – this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home.”

The distorted memory means the reminiscences, memories and life story are like the crochet blanket: a series of separate pieces that come together to form a whole. So what we have are memories that dart back and forth across the woman’s life, a memory from marriage prompting a memory from childhood, prompting a memory of a neighbour, interspersed with a letter to a friend, prompting a memory of a bohemian young lifestyle in New York…

It is very cleverly written. It feels more coherent than I expected when I began the novella, and it effectively conveys the way memory works: we don’t sit and remember the beginning of our lives, working through sequentially to the current day.

“I like to remember the patience of old spinsters, some that looked like sea captains with their clear blue eyes, hair of soft, snowy whiteness, dazzling cheerfulness. Solitary music teachers, themselves bred on toil, leading the young by way of pain and discipline to their own honourable impasse, teaching in that way the scales of disappointment.”

I sat and read this straight through, but you could also just dip in for a paragraph and out again. Hardwick is master of the astonishing image:

“It has happened that someone I do not know is staying in the apartment with me. One of those charitable actions insisted upon by a friend. The stranger, thin as the elegant crane outside the window, casts a shadow because she has arrived when I was thinking about the transformations of memory. She fills the space with both the old and the new twilight, the space reserved for thoughts of my mother.”

Sleepless Nights has been published by NYRB Classics, always a reliable choice. I read it in an old VMC edition, which told me it was hailed as a literary masterpiece. I think if I was being super-picky, this might be my slight reservation. Its hugely impressive as a piece of writing but it didn’t fully move me. This is obviously a very personal thing, but for me to love a book I need strong characterisation. The narrator remained slightly enigmatic: she emerged to a degree from her memories but often she was in the shadows of them, the light cast on other people.

While enjoying a somewhat grim, dingy time as a young woman in New York, there are memories of seeing Billie Holliday live. Hardwick captures her talent, the tragedy, glamour and grit of her life very effectively. While she doesn’t shy away from what addiction did to the singer, she allows her some beautiful images too.

“Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café, the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make up, in long silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.”

And so to end, here is Lady Day herself:

Novella a Day in May 2019 #24

Family and Friends – Anita Brookner (1985) 187 pages

Many years ago I read Anita Brookner’s Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and although I remember very little about it I remember that I didn’t like it much. Recently I’d begun to think I should give her another try; I suspect my early 20s was a bit too young for Brookner and her incisive consideration of loneliness and disappointment. I was discussing this with a colleague, and so she lent me Family and Friends, Brookner’s follow-up to Hotel du Lac. A novella seemed a perfect way to dip my toe in again, and I’m so glad I did. I loved it.

It is the study of the Dorn family: matriarch Sofka and her children Frederick, Alfred, Betty and Mimi, beginning in the 1920s. The unnamed narrator is gazing at a wedding photograph of them all:

“I find it entirely appropriate that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. If this implies something unfinished, as if the process were omnivorous but static, that too would be characteristic. Sofka sees her children’s futures as being implicit in their names, and she has given much thought to the matter; indeed, one wonders whether she thinks about anything else.”

Throughout the novel this device is repeated: the photograph with the aging subjects and their relationships unwittingly captured over the years. Brookner’s portraits of her characters are unflinching:

“Betty is one of those women who believe in acting out a passion before they really feel it […] Mimi is not the type of girl who will, or indeed, can, do anything independently. But Betty knows that her mission in life is to be a woman who prevents men from staying with their virgin loves, and she is eager to embark on this career.”

Betty is keen to escape and uses one man to get to Paris – thwarting Mimi’s delicately-held fantasies in the meantime, and being quite aware of doing so – and then another man to get to the States, from where she never returns.

Likewise, Frederick, who is supposed to be running the family empire, flees to the French Riviera with a woman deemed wholly unsuitable by Sofka, but who makes feckless Frederick quite happy and contented. The responsibility of the business therefore falls to Alfred before he is out of his teens:

“He has, above all, obeyed his mother in everything. He does not yet know that men who obey their mothers in everything rarely win the admiration of other women.”

Over the years, perhaps only Frederick is happy. Betty is selfish and untalented, with zero insight and so unable to work out why her life is not evolving as she hoped. Alfred is disappointed in life generally, and delicate, beautiful Mimi is prone to depression.

“She has been questing unconsciously for that man, that alien, that stranger, that appointed one, who will deliver her, the sleepwalker, from her sleep. Thus, in the bosom of her family, Mimi, the good daughter, has been one of the most ready, the most willing, to defect.”

Family and Friends is about precisely what the title says. It is a study of these people over several years, with very little plot other than the typical events of people’s lives, and sparse dialogue. Although Brookner is unflinching, she is not without compassion. She sees plainly, but doesn’t sit in judgement on her characters, despite her clear-sighted discernment of all their weaknesses and the hurt they cause one another and themselves.

Anita Brookner is the ideal writer of novellas. She is so concise, not a word is wasted and every word carries its full weight. Her skill is astounding.

Despite only starting to write novels at the age of 53, Brookner was prolific and produced around a book a year for the rest of her writing life. I’m looking forward to exploring more of these now I know what I’m missing. And first on the list is a re-read of Hotel du Lac 😊

Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” (Rebecca West)

A definite theme of the blog this year has been me being late for reading events. This will probably be my final post of 2018 so it’s apt to end on yet another belated entry, this time for Rebecca West Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which was 21 December.

I’d hoped to do a post on two books, but the second half of this year has also seen me sluggish in both reading and blogging, so it’s just the one novel, The Fountain Overflows (1956), the first in the trilogy about the Aubrey family.

The story starts in 1900 and is narrated by Rose, one of four children of Piers and Clare. Piers is a gambling addict, and so although he and his wife are from genteel backgrounds, they survive on the brink of absolute destitution. The children grow up moving from place to place.

“We were experts in disillusion, we had learned to be cynical about fresh starts even before we ourselves made our first start”

Despite this, the children are not timid or anxious, but rather self-reliant and independent. Their mother is devoted to their father, as they all are, and the children clear-sightedly see their struggles.

“But I did not trust her. I loved her. Still I could see that she had been tripped by the snare of being grown up, she lay bound and struggling and helpless […] we children could always deceive her. Had it not been so we could not have provided for her happiness half as well as we did.”

West achieves a delicate balance in the portrayal of the Aubrey adults. It would be very easy to create to caricatures of a selfish, wastrel father and downtrodden female victim:

“ ‘Oh I am getting old and ugly, but it is not that. I cannot compete with debt and disgrace, which is what he really loves.’ “

Yet Clare never seemed especially weak to me. Her focus is music, and this takes priority over everything else. Rose and her sister Mary are gifted and practice incessantly, their brother Richard Quin is also talented but more interested in juggling and sports; their poor sister Cordelia has no talent and refuses to acknowledge it, egged on by a music teacher who is in love with her and so blind to her faults.

The Aubrey household is an intellectual one, with priorities very different to those around them in the south London suburb where they live.

“’You are allowed to read the newspapers now. I hope you will not attach too much importance to them. They give you a picture of a common-place world that does not exist. You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.’”

West can be a colourful writer and there are elements of that here, with supernatural events and poltergeists related as matter-of-factly as trips to the House of Commons and music concerts. There isn’t a strong over-arching plot but enough to pull the reader along. The story has sadness in it, as any family with an addict in it will know, but it is not depressing because Rose’s voice is strong, unapologetic and funny in it’s unblinking assessment of those who surround her:

 “Her colouring recalled a doll left out in the rain, she had the dislocated profile of a camel”

However, as a reader I found it very hard to indulge Piers as much as his wife and children did. To me he was utterly selfish and self-focussed even without his gambling, without the slightest scruple as to the risk he placed his family in.

“I had a glorious father, I had no father at all.”

The Aubrey’s practical cousin Rosamund and Aunt Constance frequently live them as they are also subject to a husband who refuses to provide, although in a very different way to Piers. There is plenty here about what led to first-wave feminism in the UK without being didactic. The men are fairly appalling but not judged harshly (except by me). Rather, West’s focus is the constraints which prevent women being able to sort things for themselves. There’s also a recurring focus on women’s clothes and how the start of the twentieth century saw female oppression made explicit through the fashions:

 “ ‘Any tragic scene in those days necessarily appeared grotesque, because of the clothes worn by the women […] Today she would have the right to look like that, plain and distraught and like a hen, but she was compelled by the mode of the day to make herself as absurd as a clown by wearing a hat the size of a tea-tray, which dipped and jerked and swayed as often as she did, which was perpetually.”

Hence the Virago cover:

All in all I greatly enjoyed meeting the idiosyncratic, independent-minded Aubrey family. The characters were wholly believable, the evocation of a lost time done without nostalgia, and West had plenty to say about wider Edwardian society. I’ll look forward to spending more time with the Aubreys through the two sequels.

“We had very often been sharply warned against sentimentality, and though we might have been able to define it only vaguely as the way one should not play Bach, we recognised it.”

And so it just remains for me to wish you all the festivities of your choosing and leave you with a non-Christmassy song (because you may well be sick of them by now) from a great Christmas film which I watched yesterday, Scrooged:

“I loved Mr. Darcy far more than any of my own husbands.” (Rumer Godden)

Today is Rumer Godden Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’m so grateful that this prompted me to read the two by Godden I had in the TBR, as she’s quickly become a new favourite.  Godden is such an accomplished writer; her books are so readable and her use of language is stunning.

Image from here

Firstly, Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953), which I started reading with some trepidation. I expected a novel about a 1950s English woman living in India to be filled with white entitlement and comic/exoticised portraits of the locals. Thankfully, Godden is far too sophisticated an author to do anything so crass, and the comic portrait is resolutely reserved for the clueless but well-meaning white foreigner, Sophie.

“To the Pundit, Sophie was precisely like any other European or American, only more friendly; the friendliness alarmed him. ‘These people are poor and simple…’ he began, but Sophie interrupted him.

‘We shall be poor and simple too,’ she said with shining eyes.

[…]

Sophie would not listen. Like many people there were some words about which she was sentimental; one of these was ‘peasant’. ‘Peasants are simple and honest and kindly and quiet,’ she said. ‘They don’t want what they don’t possess. They have the wisdom to stay simple. They don’t want to change.’”

This idealistic young woman crashes into Kashmir with her two children, estranged from her husband and determined to establish a life for herself. Yet the portrait of Sophie is a subtle one: she is oblivious to the needs of her children and to the cultural differences between her and her neighbours, but somehow not arrogant, just hopelessly naïve.

“Teresa could not count how many times they had moved, but each time the small ballast of hopes and plans they had collected was thrown overboard and everyone they had known was left behind.

Moo did not care. Like a little seed that is blown and can grow anywhere, on a rocky ledge, in a crack of earth, he lived a contained contented small life of his own no matter where he went. To Moo it did not matter but Teresa had roots, they were tender, soft and trailing…”

Poor Teresa. She is sensible and understands so much more than her adult parent. She also cares for Moo, who is probably on the autistic spectrum and in his own world.

In describing how Sophie and her children live in Kashmir, Godden adopts an interesting approach by having the story interjected with later reflections from Sophie and her family. So the narrative will be interrupted with comments like “‘But you were not qualified to teach Urdu,’ said Toby afterwards.” It’s not a technique I’ve seen before and it doesn’t jar as much as I would expect. The effect is to temper Sophie’s idealism and blind actions. It works to offset what sceptical readers (ie me) might be thinking: ‘but that’s just ridiculous, she’ll never make that work…’ etc. It keeps the story grounded even when the main protagonist ricochets from one ill-conceived action to the next.

Godden wrote Kingfishers Catch Fire based on her own experiences of India and her love of the land is obvious:

“There were no ceilings, only cross beams stuffed with dried furze as in most Kashmiri peasant houses. There was no glass in the windows, only hanging window shutters, no water system of course, no lighting, but it was a rarely beautiful little house. In summer it was hung with vines and honeysuckle and white-scented roses, and all around it were flowering trees….Above it all the mountain reared its head while below, lay the lake and its reflections and, far, the horizon of snow peaks.”

The plot is a deceptive one. I was enjoying what I thought was comic novel about the escapades of a fairly clueless woman; then suddenly things took a very dark turn and I found myself racing towards the end, desperate to know what happened and for things to work out well.

I loved the ending. This pithy comment on stealthy imperialism summed it up for me:

“The missionaries worked for the people but did not respect them. For all their love and zeal the wanted to bend them, bend them out of their own truth”

The message I took from Kingfishers Catch Fire was one of resolutely sticking to your own truth, whilst acknowledging and respecting other people’s. I just loved it.

Behold my slightly battered, kitschy-covered editions:

Secondly, China Court (1961). This is another story of a dilapidated house and the woman who loves it, but otherwise very different to Kingfishers Catch Fire. The titular pile is the Victorian home of five generations of the Quin family set in the Cornish moors and built on the proceeds of china clay works.

“When one of the…rose bowls or vases is rung it gives off a sound, clear, like a chime, the ring of true porcelain, so China Court gives off the ring of a house, a true home.”

The story begins with the death of Mrs Quin, the matriarch who has resolutely stayed in China Court against all her family’s wishes (except her granddaughter) and looks at what happens after her death as her family besiege the house for the reading of the will.

The story moves back and forth across the generations. There is no indication when this will happen; scenes cut between the various family members, all in present tense. Again, this stylistic experiment doesn’t jar nearly as much as I would expect. Instead it captures a sense of the house holding all the members of the family at any one time, the echoes of their steps and their voices all layered upon one another.

“Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations as she cannot follow Mcleod the Second or Anne or Jared – no one can follow Eliza. Mr King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her, just as Groundsel only half guesses Minna’s; Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together are always separated by Borowis

[…]

Loneliness can be good. Mrs Quin learns that in the long companionship of the years after Tracy goes, when she and Cecily are alone in the house; companionship of rooms and stairs, of windows and colours; in the gentle ticking away of the hours, the swinging pendulum of the grandfather clock. ‘I was happy,’ Mrs Quin could have said. Contented loneliness is rich because it takes the imprint of each thing it sees and hears and tastes”

This for me was the central theme of China Court: the value of everyday domesticity. The characters who recognise it are fulfilled and live rich lives that outwardly appear narrow but in reality connect with something fundamental that enables a wider kinship with others.

The portraits of the individuals run seamlessly and as the novel progresses they weave together for a complex depiction of family, and how histories are cyclical, building on what has gone before.

Mrs Quin is an avid gardener, and as in Kingfishers…there are beautiful descriptions of the natural world, but also of food and the various meals the family have taken together over the years.

“Now Cecily brought in saffron cake, buttered scones hot in a silver dish, brown bread and butter thin as wafers, quince jelly and strawberry jam from China Court quinces and strawberries; she had made shortbread, fruitcake and because Tracy likes them as a child, thin rolled ginger-snaps filled with cream.”

Gradually the family histories build towards a brilliant denouement in the present day of the novel. It’s dramatic but believable and once again I found myself racing towards the end. And the end is where I encountered my first reservation about Godden’s writing. To discuss it I’ll have to include a SPOILER so skip to the end of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Here it is: an act of domestic violence takes place, an act which is quickly forgiven and leads to sex. I think it’s a dramatic device to shock a couple who aren’t communicating well (a recurring theme in the novel) towards honesty and resolution, but reading this almost 60 years after it was written was just horrible. I know from films of the time that slaps and spankings were freely given, but I’d be very surprised if this worked for modern readers.

This one incident aside, China Court is a wonderful portrait of a house and a family, beautifully evoked and fully realised with fondness but without sentimentality.

“ ‘We were truly kin,’ says Mrs Quin, and it is true that Tracy is like her grandmother in many ways; for instance, both, from the moment they first see it, are enslaved by China Court.”

To end, regular readers will know there are no depths to which I won’t sink in order to shoehorn in an 80s pop video. So please pardon the pun that has enabled my childhood hair icons to be this week’s choice: