Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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.

‘But madam, the peasants are rapacious…’

To that 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, times have changed and it 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:

“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:

“Slumps are like a soft bed. They’re easy to get into and hard to get out of.” (Johnny Bench)

Oh dear Reader, its been a long time. Being British, I blame the weather. The hot period we had slowed my reading pace to that of a particularly lethargic snail, putting paid to my plans for the second half of #WITMonth. Then it took me far beyond the hot weather to recover firstly my reading and then my blogging and I posted absolutely nothing in September, despite hoping to participate in the wonderful Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. Thankfully Jessie said I could post ridiculously late, so here is the first of 2 very much belated posts looking at some lovely Persephone reads.

Firstly, Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (1953), which is Persephone No.3. I was trepidatious regarding this novel: a weak man cheats on his wife. Boo-hoo. But so many bloggers love this novel and of course they didn’t steer me wrong. It’s completely wonderful. Whipple is so witty, her writing is so perfectly judged, and her psychological insights so clear, that this novel was a brilliant study of human relationships. This is going to be a very quote-heavy review…

The novel begins with a portrait of an elderly matriarch whose son lives close by with his family.

“ ‘Why don’t you come and live with me? This great empty house…!’ said old Mrs North from time to time.

But her invitation was not accepted and she really didn’t want it to be. As it was she was able to nurse a perpetual grievance against her daughter-in-law for not coming to see her more often, and if she had her on the premises, she would have had to let that grievance go.”

Mrs North decides that she would like a companion though, so she advertises and chooses a young French woman, Louise, from the respondents. Louise is icy and brutal:

“The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered. Her face took on an expression of cold reserve.”

She has been hurt in the past, but all the same, it is hard to feel any sympathy for her. She is shallow as a puddle, only interested in material gain. She cares nothing for people because she looks down on them all.

“She hated men, she told herself. But unfortunately it was through them that women had to get what they wanted, at any rate, women like herself. She was no career woman. No slaving in an office or profession for her. For a woman gifted in her own particular way as she was, there would be no need for that, she remarked to herself, as if discussing the situation with a friend such as she had never had.”

Mrs North adores Louise, because she is charmed by her. The rest of the family see her a little more clearly, but she still becomes embroiled in their lives. Avery and Ellen are happily married, their children are well-adjusted. Ellen is a homemaker while Avery works in town as a publisher; their separate spheres suit both as Avery wines and dines clients and Ellen runs the house and enjoys her garden.

“Ellen was what she was because she had never had reason to be otherwise. She had everything: a handsome husband, money, children, a charming house. All the same, Louise quite liked her.”

Louise returns to England a second time and at this point her affair with Avery starts. Whipple doesn’t demonise Louise, brutal and self-obsessed though she is, because she is a fully realised character. She is wholly believable as a damaged woman who wreaks havoc with total disregard for those who stand in her way. She has an affair with Avery because it suits her. She believes she will gain from it and so she makes it happen.

Whipple is brilliant and capturing the tragedy of lives torn apart when there are no huge scenes and you have to carry on to some degree.

“The first silence fell between them. Although, like an early snowflake, it didn’t lie. It melted away in the morning, and everything seemed as before.”

The tragedy of the disintegration of the North’s home is presented clearly and without sentimentality. Their daughter Anne is perhaps the greatest casualty:

 “Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes so long to recover, if recover it does.”

Yet the adults suffer too. Ellen has had her complacent contentment ripped away from her, leading a life she never imagined.

“She added a boiled egg to the belated tea, to make one meal do for two. She had joined the great army of solitary women who have boiled eggs at night, the women without men.”

Meanwhile Avery, stuck with Louise because his pride won’t let him beg Ellen for forgiveness, soon realises that all he was depended on the bedrock of his home:

“His assets had been self-confidence, ability to get on with people, good looks, good humour, and much charm. Where were they now?”

Someone at a Distance manages to be both simple and hugely complex. The plot is straightforward and the circumstances it portrays are ordinary. Yet the psychology of the characters and the fallout of the betrayal are subtle and multi-layered. There is plenty here about the role of women: Louise feels trapped in bourgeoise circumstance and gets out the best way she knows how; Ellen has to learn to deal with the practicalities of finance while realising all that she did in building a home was so easily overlooked, by both herself and her family:

“She wondered if she would ever be able to take pleasure in things for themselves. For twenty years she had evidently taken pleasure in things so that she could use them for her husband and her children, pass them on to them in the way of beauty or food or comfort.”

This would be a great read for a book group. I can imagine the 3 adult characters would really divide people, with some seeing Louise as an all-out villain, Avery as a spineless creep and Ellen as pathetic. I didn’t feel this way, much as I disliked Louise, thought Avery an arrogant fool, and wanted to subject Ellen to a lecture on female emancipation. I found it very human and very believable, incredibly sad but not without hope.

Secondly, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949) which is Persephone No.28. This short novel is a heart-breaking portrayal of the impact of war on individuals, and how wounds that are unseen can tear people apart.

Hilary Wainwright is a British poet, who lost his wife and child in the Second World War in France. He knows his wife is dead, but there is a glimmer of hope that his son survived. Hilary has been so damaged by the conflict though, that his wish to be reunited with his son is complicated:

 “If only the boy were already found, he thought, if I were married to Joyce, if my life were established, my conscience quieted and the old enchantments finally dead. But to achieve this I must kill the enchantments, myself undergo the agony of their death which will be the final death of the happiness Lisa and I has together. But I have no courage, I recoil from the pains of leaving the past behind.”

On the one hand Hilary makes his son a cipher: a symbol of perfection, of lost innocence, of what can never be regained. He’s not sure he wants him found. On the other hand, he wants his flesh-and-blood son back. The search, propelled by a man, Pierre, who feels he owes a debt to Hilary’s dead wife Lisa, leads to an orphan called Jean. Hilary is never sure the small boy is his, and as they spend time together it is apparent that both are lost:

“ ‘Hardly any boys get presents in wartime, because – because people are busy making guns.’ He meant his voice to sound reassuring but it came out choked with anger. The child looked frightened, but whispered doggedly, ‘The other boys have birthdays, and they get presents.’”

Hilary is far from perfect: he is selfish and not particularly likeable. Yet it is so clear that he is selfish because he cannot get past his own fear that love will open him to hurt again, and any more pain may mean he collapses completely. All the same, I couldn’t really see why, if he liked Jean and felt a connection, he didn’t just adopt him anyway. But then I think genetics are the least of what makes a family. Even without my investment in wanting to know if Jean is Hilary’s son, Little Boy Lost is a compulsive read, precisely written and tightly plotted.

Laski captures the absolute devastation of war: the wreckage of France, the malnourished orphans, the lost souls, without didacticism. She shows the futility of violence, and the struggle for humans to find meaning and integrity in the face of a world that seems intent on blotting these things out:

“The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.”

To end, a tenuous link to say the least. Bing Crosby was in the film adaptation of Little Boy Lost, which by all accounts is pretty dire. So instead of a clip from that, here is Lord High Commander David Bowie singing Heroes on the Bing Crosby Show:

Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

“Writing is a cop-out.” (Monica Dickens)

Today is Monica Dickens Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’d planned for May to be only novellas over here, but I couldn’t resist the chance to dig out 2 Persephone editions from the TBR and join in with Jane’s celebration. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed my first encounter with Monica Dickens.

Image from here

Firstly Mariana (1940) which is part of the Persephone Classics range. On the Persephone website they say:

 “We chose this book because we wanted to publish a novel like Dusty AnswerI Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love, about a girl encountering life and love, which is also funny, readable and perceptive; it is a ‘hot-water bottle’ novel, one to curl up with on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon. But it is more than this.”

That just about sums it up. On the one hand Mariana is a very simple novel, about a young girl called Mary growing up and reaching adulthood just as World War II breaks out. She has various infatuations and gets her heart bruised, if not quite broken, before she meets the love of her life. What raises it above this very ordinary premise is the fond characterisation and Dickens’ wit.

Mary herself is a determinedly independent soul:

“People were kind and friendly and amusing, but they thought that companionship and conversation were synonymous and some of them had voices that jarred in your head. There was a lot to be said for dogs.”

She has been this way her whole life, as her school report testifies:

“Mary is a dear little girl…but we find a tendency in her to resent authority to the point of resistance. Although she is popular with her fellow pupils, I am afraid she is a bad mixer, being at the same time intolerant and unconfident of others and disinclined to enter into the heart of the community.”

She lives with her mother who works in a dress shop, as her father died in the previous war. There is also her reprehensible, indulgent Uncle Geoffrey who leaves her aged 8 to catch the Tube home by herself. He subsequently goes off to Hollywood to make his name in the movies. What stops this being entirely whimsical is the first chapter: we know the adult Mary is waiting for news of her husband whose ship has been sunk in the conflict. So alongside the fun characters and the wit is the background of potential tragedy; things do not seem to bode well for Mary, given the titular reference to Tennyson’s poem.

But in the meantime there is gentle fun to be poked at the trials and tribulations of young love:

“She told herself that she had been through a searing experience which had left her as a woman set apart from love – a tragic figure. This sustaining vision had tided her over the misery of the end of last summer, until the excitement and newness of Dramatic College had given her something else to think about.”

Dickens is a wise writer though, and so while she presents her characters with a slightly askance view, she shows how their feelings make them who they are, and who they will be:

“She had thought that [he]was the answer to everything, and when she had found out that he wasn’t she had been left alone with no one on whom to pin her burden of romantic devotion.”

I really enjoyed Mariana, which I wouldn’t have assumed would be the case given the subject matter. Dickens is very readable and I whizzed through the novel. I enjoyed spending time with all the characters (apart from an awful arrogant Bullingdon club type who seemed to have future-Prime-Minister written all over him) and I enjoyed Dickens unpretentious, thoughtful style.

“A corner of the jigsaw of Mary’s life had been made into the right pattern, by unknown means. It seemed that one had little control over one’s own destiny. All one could do was to get on with the one job nobody else could do, the job of being oneself.”

 

Secondly, The Winds of Heaven (1955), which had far fewer likeable characters and was almost bleak at times, but just saved from being so by the gentle endurance of the main character, Louise, who is widowed and destitute.

“She reached for the ashtray, for she wanted to tap off the ash frequently, as she had seen highly-strung, busy people do. Louise was neither highly-strung, nor busy, but when she was in London, among people who all seemed to be doing something important in a hurry, she liked to try and keep pace.”

The reason Louise is destitute is because her husband, Dudley, who seems to have had absolutely no redeeming qualities, died and left her with all his worldly debts.

“Everyone said Louise was ‘wonderful’ about Dudley’s death, but she could not be anything else, because, shocking though it was to her, she hardly cared.”

“there was nothing for it but that Louise should stay with her daughters in turn to pass the summer months. It was all arranged at an embarrassing family conclave, where no-one could say what they were thinking, and each tried to outdo the other in unselfishness.”

And so The Winds of Heaven follows Louise as she moves from one daughter to another. Miriam lives in a suburb in the Home Counties and is an absolute snob; Anne is the laziest person on earth who has somehow managed to marry a lovely man who runs a smallholding and genuinely cares for Louise; Eva is an actor in London and having an affair with a married man. They clearly all take after their father as they are selfish and self-absorbed.  They are also, in different ways, all quite unhappy, and Louise has no idea how to help.

“she had wanted the futile thing she had made of her marriage with Dudley to be justified at least by the emergence of three happy lives.”

The novel is episodic in nature and through it we learn about Louise and her daughters. It’s a very mid-20th century English family, full of unspoken truths, supressed conflicts, and love. The somewhat depressing state of Louise’s familial relations is lightened by two beacons of light in her life: a friend, and her granddaughter. Gordon Disher is a bed salesman and pulp-fiction author who becomes: “The oddest, but most comforting friend she had ever made”. Ellen is Miriam’s daughter who like Louise, is a misfit in the family (a good thing, seeing as how appalling they all are) and who provides genuine kinship.

“how delightful to be a grandmother with a responsive grandchild, who opened her heart to you without embarrassment, because she had no-one to talk to at home”

The Winds of Heaven captures a particular moment in time, where women had only just begun to stop being exclusively homemakers and enter the workplace. Louise feels she can’t support herself, because she doesn’t believe she has any skills. This leaves her in genteel middle-class poverty, dependent on her daughters. She is part of a vanished world, and is not treated kindly by those who are finding their way in a new one. Dickens handles this social commentary with an incredibly light touch though, and so The Winds of Heaven often reads more like a series of acerbic character studies than a commentary on mid-twentieth century gender roles. It’s always highly readable, quietly building to a dramatic, tragic denouement, where hope survives.

To end, Monica had a rather famous great-grandfather. To tell you all about him, here are the incomparable Horrible Histories, channelling The Smiths: