“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” (Colette)

Mallika’s annual Book and Author Anniversaries post alerted me to the fact that today is the 150th anniversary of Colette’s  birthday, and the perfect prompt for me to get two of her books out of the TBR (in Women’s Press editions which pleases me – how I regret clearing out loads of my The Women’s Press books when I was trying to streamline before a move one time. Never get rid of books kids – better to die under a toppling pile than live with regret 😉 )

Firstly, Duo and it’s short sequel Le Toutounier (1934 & 1939; trans. Margaret Crosland 1974). Duo follows the discovery by Michel and immediate aftermath of his wife Alice’s short-lived affair with a colleague. They are on holiday in the south of France, somewhat isolated and under the watchful eye of Michel’s family retainer Maria. The novel is primarily dialogue between the couple as they try and decide what remains for them.

Colette’s love of the natural world is very much in evidence as she captures their holiday home and Alice’s feelings of suffocation:

“On the poplars the golden bronze of the new leaves still wrongfully occupied the place of the green. A crabapple tree, its white petals lined with bright red, had defeated the somewhat sickly Judas tree and the syringas in their attempt to escape the destructive shade of the shiny aucubas, extended their slender branches and their butter white stars through the broad grasping leaves, which were mottled like snakes.”

Her precise descriptions of people and their mannerisms also suit this tale especially well, expertly capturing the tension and careful watchfulness between two people fearful of their disintegrating relationship.

“He caressed her with a few crude words, which she heard with a quiver of her eyelashes, as though he had shaken a bunch of flowers over her. They both accepted these exchanges, which were caused by chance, travel, a sudden change of season.”

Michel and Alice don’t tear each other apart, but at the same time their relationship seems doomed. However, the precision and containment of the story to a few days in a specific place, doesn’t make for a heavy or oppressive read. Colette’s humour is always present, with some surprising phrases:

“Out of modesty the servant placed a saucepan lid over the milk.”

During Duo, we learn something of Alice’s family, her sisters Colombe, Hermine and Bizoute.

“When I think about my family as much as that, it’s because I’m finding Michel terribly boring.”

In Le Toutounier she visits their stuffy, smoke-filled Paris apartment with the titular “huge, indestructible sofa of English origin, battered down like a forest road in the rainy season.”

It’s a short novel (80 pages) and I can see why it was put in the same volume as Duo as I think it is best read following on from its predecessor, forming a portrait of an interlude in Alice’s life.

Bizoute is away from home, leaving Colombe and Hermine together with their complicated love lives. Neither of them are with available men and the situation escalates. But the focus in Le Toutounier is not on relationships between the sexes but rather between the sisters, and what it means for women in a family to be close to one another. As so often, Colette focuses her sensual descriptions on women, showing appreciation but not sentimentality:

“The fine woollen dressing gown with a pattern of embossed stitching fell over her quivering shoulders, and it’s pink glow rose to her cheeks, where the makeup had lost its delicate morning colour beneath successive layers of powder.”

Secondly, Break of Day (1928, trans. Enid McLeod 1949) which nowadays would probably be called autofiction, occupying a place between biography and outright fiction. ‘Colette’ spends the summer in Provence, contemplating her past and wondering about the future. All her preoccupations are here – the natural world, animals:

“After dinner I mustn’t forget to irrigate the little runnels that surround the melons, and to water by hand the balsams, phlox and dahlias, and the young tangerine trees, which haven’t yet got roots long enough to drink unaided in the depths of the earth, or strength to break into leaf without help, under the steady scorching of the heavens. The young tangerine trees, planted … for whom? I don’t know. Perhaps for me. The cats will spring sideways at the months when by ten the air is blue as a morning glory. The pair of Japanese hens, perching drowsily on the arm of a rustic arm chair, will chirp like birds in a nest. The dogs, already far away from this world, will be thinking of the coming dawn, and I shall have the choice of a book, bed, or the coast road”

Men and women:

“My true friends have always given me that supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved.”

“When a man’s glance is following certain household preparations, especially those for a meal, there is apt to be a look on his face that combines religious attention, boredom and fear.”

Her mother:

“On an autumn morning she was the first and only one to see herself reflected in the first disc of ephemeral ice in the well bucket, before her nail cracked it.”

“She would, alas, have judged us plainly, with that divine cruelty of hers which was innocent of wrath.”

Break of Day is fairly plotless save for a slight drama with two young people, but not quite stream of consciousness either, written in a more structured style. If you enjoy Colette’s writing then this is a little gem, but definitely not one to read when you want to be pulled along by a cracking yarn.

Overall the sense is of Colette (author/character) coming to terms with the last part of her life, with aging and with what remains. It isn’t sad but it has a melancholy quality, although I sensed few regrets and an acceptance of how her life had been lived so far and how it would continue.

“Everything is much as it was in the first years of my life, and little by little I recognised the road back.”

I loved all of these reads. It’s been a while since I picked up Colette and I wondered why I’d left it so long. She’s funny, incisive, precise, sensual, and absolutely in command of her own voice. There’s no-one like her.

To end, a 1970s performance to match my 1970s editions, about the breaking of day:  

“I finished Ulysses, & think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” (Virginia Woolf) 

Today is Bloomsday, and the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I decided this meant I couldn’t put it off any longer and 2022 would be the year I finally cracked the spine on this tome (metaphorically of course – I don’t crack spines, I’m not an animal.)

When I read War and Peace back in 2017, I opted out of a review-type book post, intimidated at the thought of trying to say anything remotely coherent or interesting about such a revered novel. Instead I opted for a reading diary. Now here I am with a similarly revered, equally intimidating cornerstone of literature. There’s no way I can say anything useful about Ulysses, especially in its centenary year with all the celebratory events happening.

And so I present my Ulysses reading diary, neither coherent nor interesting! In fact, to manage any expectation of intellectual engagement with the genius of Joyce in this post, I should confess that the first hurdle I had to overcome in approaching the text was to get the Ulysses 31 theme tune out of my head (it’s probably unnecessary to explain here that I am a child of the 80s…)

Day 1

“Ulysses, Ulysseeeeees, soaring through all the galaxieeeeees….” Pesky earworm.

Normally if I’m told a book is difficult, I arrogantly assume I can do it. But Ulysses is genuinely intimidating. What I need to remind myself is:

  1. I really love James Joyce. Genuinely, Dubliners is one of my favourite-ever books. So I might even enjoy Ulysses.
  2. Other people have done it. I’ve even met some of them. Lovely bloggers left encouraging comments on my previous post where I explained what I planned to do.  It’s definitely do-able.
  3. I am not going in unarmed. I have The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires (3rd ed. 1996) at my side. I’m almost certain I read on twitter that this was a good thing, and surely twitter is never wrong??

I’ve read the 80+ page introduction to my edition and now wonder if I should gain degrees in Classical Civilisation/Modernism/European History/Religious Studies before even attempting this novel.

I’ll start tomorrow.

Pages read: None. Pages remaining: 933

Day 2

OK, possibly I overreacted. I think maybe I knew too much in advance. In the end, I was amazed I could make it to the end of a single sentence. But so far Ulysses is beautiful yet also sordid, and very readable. I’m glad I’ve got the reading companion though, as there was complex word play around the word ‘melon’ that I definitely wouldn’t have picked up on my own.

Pages read: 140 Pages remaining: 793

Day 3

For such a learned, intellectual novel, Ulysses also manages to be emotionally affecting. Now I’m just under a quarter of the way through I’m finding Leopold Bloom very moving. There’s something pathetic about him, and isolated and sad, even among the crowds of Dublin.

“I was happier then. Or was that I? Or am I now I? Twentyeight I was. She twentythree. When we left Lombard street west something changed. Could never like it again after Rudy. Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand. Would you go back to then? Just beginning then. Would you? Are you not happy in your home you poor little naughty boy? Wants to sew on buttons for me. I must answer. Write it in the library.

Grafton street gay with housed awnings lured his senses. Muslin prints, silkdames and dowagers, jingle of harnesses, hoofthuds lowringing in the baking causeway. Thick feet that woman has in the white stockings. Hope the rain mucks them up on her.”

Pages read: 218 Pages remaining: 715

Day 4

Fair to say my pace has slackened off today. I woke up with the book on my face, which upon removal revealed two hungry cats giving me the death stare.

Pages read: 250 Pages remaining: 683

Days 5, 6, 7

I’m sure a more attentive reader would get a lot more out of Ulysses, but as an inattentive reader I’m still really enjoying it. I especially like the section which the companion tells me corresponds with The Wandering Rocks in Homer. It’s 19 sections where, by following many characters for a short time, Joyce creates the hustle and bustle of the afternoon of 16 June 1904 in Dublin. He does this as much through the inner lives of his characters and their interactions with one another, as with description. Having said that, here are some descriptions which caught me:

“Two carfuls of tourists passed slowly, their women sitting fore, gripping the handrests. Palefaces. Men’s arms frankly round their stunted forms. They looked from Trinity to the blind columned porch of the bank of Ireland where pigeons roocoocooed.”

“Stephen Dedalus watched through the webbed window the lapidary’s fingers prove a timedulled chain. Dust webbed the window and the showtrays. Dust darkened the toiling fingers with their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones.

Born all in the dark wormy earth, cold specks of fire, evil, lights shining in the darkness. Where fallen archangels flung the stars of their brows. Muddy swinesnouts, hands, root and root, gripe and wrest them.”

“Moored under the trees of Charleville Mall Father Conmee saw a turfbarge, a towhorse with pendent head, a bargeman with a hat of dirty straw seated amidships, smoking and staring at a branch of poplar above him. It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people.”

I’m very grateful for the companion guide. I’m reading part of Ulysses then the corresponding section in the guide, and this isn’t nearly as tedious as I anticipated. It reassures me that I’m picking up a lot, and it’s highlighting the things I didn’t have hope of recognising.

Among all this learning, my most significant take away is: I’m going to start using the phrase “I beg your parsnips.”

Pages read: 403 Pages remaining: 530

Day 8, 9, 10

More than 100 pages of very unpleasant scenes, filled with boorish, racist, drunk men. An effective contrast to Bloom’s sober gentleness and moderation, (although also some questionable voyeurism from him) but I was very glad to leave it behind.

I wasn’t keen on the following section set out like a play either, and Bloom and Stephen’s hallucinations weren’t the most pleasant reading.

It’s hot, my hayfever is terrible, I’m sleep deprived and grumpy so not the best reader right now. Don’t listen to me.

Pages read: 704 Pages remaining: 229

Days 11, 12

Thank goodness – back on a much more straightforward narrative (or as near to one as you get with Joyce) and I’m enjoying Ulysses again. (I don’t normally mind experimental narratives so I’m blaming my hayfever brain.) Lovely scenes between Bloom and Dedalus.

“Literally astounded at this piece of intelligence Bloom reflected. Though they didn’t see eye to eye in everything a certain analogy there somehow was as if both their minds were travelling, so to speak, in the one train of thought.”

Which is then followed by 50-odd pages of (surprisingly explicit, even by today’s standards) almost punctuation-free stream of consciousness – a brave choice to end and a masterstroke.

“…I dont like books with a Molly in them like that one he brought me about the one from Flanders a whore always shoplifting anything she could cloth and stuff and yards of it O this blanket is too heavy on me thats better I havent even one decent nightdress this thing gets all rolled under me…” 

Pages read: 933 Pages remaining: zero!

So that’s me all done! And one of the Big Scary Tomes ticked off my Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge. While it doesn’t yet occupy a special place in my heart like Dubliners, I still got so much from Ulysses. It’s such an achievement to be simultaneously so epic and so determinedly everyday. I would definitely read it again, and I’d love to go to the Bloomsday events in Dublin, which I’m sure would mean I’d enjoy a re-read even more.

To end, an opportunity to indulge myself with one of the loves of my life, because here Kate Bush is singing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:

P.S Virginia Woolf did modify her view of Ulysses at a later date: “very much more impressive than I judged. Still I think there is virtue & some lasting truth in first impressions; so I don’t cancell mine. I must read some of the chapters again. Probably the final beauty of writing is never felt by contemporaries”

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.21

Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns (1987) 175 pages

Having read Barbara Comyns recently for the 1954 Club, I was delighted to pick her up again for this reading project. How I loved Mr Fox – there is no-one with a voice quite like Barbara Comyns.

The novella opens with Caroline and her small daughter living in a flat with Mr Fox. They are not romantically involved, but the pragmatic Mr Fox suggests it would work as a financial arrangement. His work is sporadic, varied, and not always entirely legal:

“It wasn’t always holidays Mr. Fox was enjoying when he went away. Sometimes he went to prison, not for crime but because he didn’t pay his rates to the borough council. He thought it a pity to waste money on rates and preferred going to prison – it was Brixton he went to. He once suggested I went to prison instead of paying my rates, but I didn’t like the thought of being shut up and when I made a few enquiries about Holloway I heard it was perfectly beastly there and not to be compared to Brixton.”

I really enjoy Comyns’ characters which she somehow manages to make guileless yet never fey. They are survivors but never in a remotely aggressive or self-pitying way.

Caroline’s husband has left and she’s not sorry. She is caring for her small daughter Jenny and worried about money. Mr Fox is a savvy and useful friend, but can also be moody and unreasonable.

“I hoped Mr. Fox didn’t think I’d runaway and left Jenny on his hands; he might even put her in an orphanage and it would take months to get her out again.”

This is the end of the 1930s, and so we know times are going to get much more difficult for these London-dwellers. Comyns captures the bombing in her own inimitable way:

“So I had to spend the day wandering about without any shoes. I passed some of the time filling sandbags in the street; heaps of people were doing it and it seemed a fashionable thing to do.”

Of course, the war brought opportunities for people like Mr Fox, and essentially he is a spiv. Caroline seems both aware and entirely unaware of what Mr Fox is up to, and helps him in the unlikely trade of second-hand pianos. After a time in the suburbs which makes them miserable, they return to the city:

“I began to enjoy an almost empty London. Shopping became almost a pleasure and sometimes we would go to the theatre and there would be hardly anyone there; and it was the same in restaurants. Often in the evening we would take the dogs for a walk in Hyde Park and it would be deserted and lovely. Once when we were walking home a flying bomb stopped right over our heads, and as we turned and ran in the opposite direction a great explosion came and then an enormous amount of dust. The dogs were more upset than we were.”

Comyns has such a unique and unlikely view on things I’ve no idea how typical the experiences in Mr Fox are, but I understand it was based on her real-life situation during that time. She doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of life but presents them in such a surprising way I’m often astonished rather than saddened. Mr Fox was still an emotionally affecting novel though, and such an entertaining one. I was sorry to reach the end.

“Perhaps it was just as well to get the sad part of my life over at one go and have all the good things to look forward to.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.17

Don’t Look At Me Like That – Diana Athill (1967) 187 pages

I was aware of Diana Athill’s incredible career at Andre Deutsch but it wasn’t until Granta re-issued her only novel in 2019 that her fiction work was on my radar. I have a bias in favour of editors writing novels due to my love of William Maxwell, and Don’t Look at Me Like That is certainly an interesting exploration of character.

It opens with Meg Bailey, daughter of a clergyman, nearing the end of her school career in the 1950s. As she explains: “When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me, and it wasn’t far from true.”

Athill brilliantly captures the trials of adolescence and how the clever and pretty Meg is “aggressively self conscious”, convinced simultaneously of both her inferiority and superiority to everything around her.

It is a time on the brink of huge social change and the difference is between generations is coming into sharp relief. Meg’s parents lead an ordinary life, making the best of their privations.

“Rationing and austerity in general deprived my father of nothing he valued… And my mother who had suffered because of their poverty, hating the drab life they were compelled to lead, felt a release of tension when everyone’s life became equally drab.”

But Meg wants something more. Roxane is probably her only friend and seems to lead a much more glamorous life with her widowed mother, Mrs Weaver. At first entranced by Roxane’s mother, Meg later sees beyond the façade, when she lives with them while studying art.

“There was something feverish in the energy she devoted to her play-acting, and without understanding what longings drove her to it I could feel their uncomfortable presence.”

Mrs Weaver is a brilliant piece of characterisation, a beguiling and somewhat menacing mix of vulnerability and pretention.

Things change when Roxanne marries the man her mother wants her to, family friend Dick. Athill portrays the shifting sexual mores in this time before the 1960s sexual revolution so well. While there is sex before marriage for some, there is still a great deal of naivety, and limited awareness that women are entitled to sexual pleasure. As such, Roxane does not have the best start to married life.

“Roxane had accepted something which I had never before thought of: that life could be as it ought not to be, and that one still had to live it.”

Meg meanwhile begins carving out a successful career in London and starts seeing Dick without Roxane.

“Without knowing it, I had learned what Dick was really like, and he was like me.”

Inevitably they begin an affair. Athill’s subtle writing means that while neither Meg nor Dick are particularly likeable, they are very believable. They are both selfish and weak but also young, naive and a bit lost.

We see the rest of their affair play out within the setting of Meg’s 1950s bedsit London life, and Dick and Roxane’s suburban family life.

“There was no change in my feelings for Roxanne: she was still the girl I knew best and whom I loved for her innocence, affection, and vulnerability. And there was no doubt in my mind about me: I was betraying her. These two facts simply coexisted, without seeming to affect each other. I was appalled by myself, but of course I could meet her.”

Don’t Look at Me Like That is so evocative of a particular time and place. I thought the characterisation was complex but done with a light touch. While I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters in the love triangle, I found myself very affected by Meg’s kind and bewildered parents. The following passage broke my heart:

“When my father got a book on abstract painting out of the library so that he could talk to me about modern art I was so embarrassed that I let some milk boil over on purpose to end the conversation.”

A very readable novella that is brave enough to show its characters with all their flaws and without judging them harshly.

Novella a Day in May 2022 No.9

The Bathroom – Jean-Philippe Toussaint (1985, trans. Nancy Amphoux & Paul De Angelis 1990) 102 pages

A young man decides he’s going to stay in his bathtub. Thankfully, his long-suffering girlfriend Edmondsson is happy to fund this indolent lifestyle. He leaves on occasion to talk to his decorators (who aren’t decorating as Edmondsson is vacillating between white and beige paint) and sit in the kitchen. Otherwise, he’s back in the bath:

“A friend of my parents was passing through Paris and came to see me. From him I learned it was raining. Stretching out an arm toward the washbasin, I suggested he take a towel […] I didn’t know what he wanted from me. When the silence had begun to seem permanent, he began to tell me about his latest professional activities, explaining that the difficulties he had to contend with were insurmountable since they were linked to incompatibilities of temperament among persons at the same hierarchical level.”

The novella is in three sections, each paragraph numbered. This unusual structure isn’t as irritating as it should be. It somehow emphasises the banality of his existence without becoming banal itself.

In the middle section, the narrator heads to Venice. In this beautiful and historic city, he mainly stays in his hotel room, taking up darts:

“When I played darts I was calm and relaxed. Little by little, emptiness would creep over me and I would steep myself in it”

We’ve seen that he can be socially awkward, guiding people into the toilet when showing them round the flat, mildly insulting the previous tenants, but later in the novella it seems this behaviour could be deliberate:

“I left the hotel and, in the street, asked a running man the way to the Post Office. I’ve always enjoyed asking people in a hurry for information.”

In the third section he heads back to Paris although I lived in hope Edmondsson was finally sick of him.

Apparently Touissaint is a fan of Beckett and The Bathroom definitely has the feel of Beckett: nihilistic, unreal verging on surreal, contained environments, experimental forms. It echoes itself and takes the reader in disorienting circles.

“Immobility is not absence of movement but absence of any prospect of movement.”

Not a novel for when you want a ripping yarn, but an interesting quick read.

“I would ask her to console me. Softly, she would ask, Console you for what? Console me, I would say”

“A woman happily in love, she burns the soufflé.” (Baron St. Fontanel, Sabrina 1954)

Trigger warning: mentions suicide

This is my second contribution to this week’s 1954 Club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, and a chance to revisit Barbara Comyns, having really enjoyed Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.

The opening line of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead may have usurped The Crow Road* to become my favourite beginning to a novel ever:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.”

Thus the scene is set for an unsettling domestic tale where nothing can be taken for granted.

The Willoweed family live in an English village where the river has just flooded in June. Then follows pages of dead animals, which I was prepared for, having read Jacqui’s wonderful review but I was exceedingly relieved when it ended (unfortunately there was also a horrible cat death later). Much as I could have done without the litany of death, it sets the tone for the darkness that follows.

In 1911 Emma, Dennis and Hattie live with their father Ebin and their grandmother who rules with a rod of iron. She is permanently furious, which Ebin attributes as follows:   

“It’s all this cleaning, I suppose; but she can’t expect me to help; my hands are my best feature, and they would be ruined.”

Ebin does very little apart from make vague overtures towards his children’s schooling and sleep with the baker’s wife.

“‘Father makes me hate men,’ thought Emma as she pumped water into a bucket.”

This is not an idyllic pre-war rose-tinted existence. Money is tight, relationships are tense, there is sexual deceit, violent undercurrents that threaten to overwhelm, and macabre power games. Grandmother Willoweed treats the servants horribly, but Old Ives the handyman is a match for her:

 “They always exchanged birthday gifts, and each was determined to outlive the other.”

Their lives are disrupted by a mysterious illness that sweeps through the village. People kill themselves following horrific delusions. By the time the cause of the illness has been identified, tragedy has touched the family and violence has ensued. As the title tells us, lives will have changed irrevocably one way or another.

I don’t want to say much more as the joy of reading Barbara Comyns is being so unsettled as to have no idea which way she is going to take you. There’s no-one like her; her view is so singular, so disturbing and yet so compelling. I found Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead brutal and horrifying, and also funny and enchanting. I couldn’t look away.

Secondly, I wrote last week about the middle two novels in Antonia White’s quartet, detailing the early life of Clara Batchelor, and now the final instalment, Beyond the Glass.

The novel picks up precisely where The Sugar House left off, with Clara and Archie having decided to separate. Clara moves back to her parents’ house to live with them and her grandmother in West Kensington. As she packs up her old life, she feels disassociated:

“She had the odd impression that it was not she who was stripping hangers and throwing armfuls of clothes into suitcases but some callous, efficient stranger. She herself was lying on the unmade bed, staring blankly at the cracks in the sugar-pink ceiling.”

This sense of disassociation deepens and broadens throughout the novel. When Clara announces to her mother “It’s a great relief not to have any feelings. I’m certainly not going to risk getting involved with anyone again.”

The reader of course knows what will happen. She attends a party with her friend Clive Heron (an intriguing character, my personal theory is he works for MI5) and falls instantly in love with the dashing soldier Richard Crayshaw.

What follows is such a clever exploration of someone slowly – then suddenly – unravelling. Clara stops eating and sleeping, she has a “strange sense of heightened perception” ever since she danced with Richard. She believes they communicate telepathically, a belief supported by others, but then she thinks the photographs of dead soldiers in her father’s study are speaking to her. She has gone from no feeling:

“Null and void. Null and void. She sat staring at the roses on her bedroom wall-paper, saying the words over and over again until she was half hypnotised.”

To too much feeling. At first her mania is disguised by being in love – plenty of people feel heightened and have reduced appetite and problems sleeping in the excitement of new romance. Certainly that is what Clara’s mother Isabel believes.

But gradually the reader begins to realise that Clara is really quite unwell. As Beyond the Glass is told from Clara’s perspective this takes some time, but it dawns us through others’ responses to her. In this way it is reminiscent of Wish Her Safe at Home, another excellent novel about severe mental illness.

Eventually she is ‘certified’ – made an in-patient at a public mental health hospital. The descriptions of the environment and the practices make me wonder how on earth anyone would have a hope of ever becoming well again. Thankfully mental health services, though chronically underfunded, are very different now.

I was so impressed with how White conveyed Clara’s disorientation and confusion, without making the narrative confusing and disorienting at all:

“Time behaved in the most extraordinary way. Sometimes it went at tremendous pace, as when she saw the leaves of the creeper unfurl before her eyes like a slow motion film, or the nurses, instead of walking along the passage, sped by as fast as cars. Yet often, it seemed to take her several hours to lift a spoon from her plate to her mouth.”

During her deep distress there are also echoes of events that occurred earlier in the narrative, particularly in The Sugar House, showing with the lightest of touches that her severe ill health has been building for a while:

“Since her marriage she had had an increasing sense of unreality, as if her existence had been broken off like the reel of a film.”

The recurring images of mirrors and glass as barriers reminded me of Plath’s The Bell Jar. Like The Bell Jar, this novel is based on the personal experiences of the author.

“She had an instantaneous vision of herself as someone forever outside, forever looking through glass at the bright human world which had no place for her and where the mere sight of her produced terror.”

Beyond the Glass ends on a note of hope, and faith, drawing on the Catholic thread that runs through all four novels. At times Clara’s Catholicism is more strongly felt in the story than at others, reflecting the character’s experience of her faith. I’m not religious but I felt the focus on this theme ended the novel and the series perfectly.

It’s so impressive that all the novels in the quartet are distinct and stand individually, while also developing across the sequence a fully realised portrait of Clara, and her family.

I’ve really enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s life and I’m going to miss her (and her much-maligned mother, a great piece of characterisation). I wish Antonia White had continued writing her story.

“Something told her that, when they saw her again, they would know as well as she did that she no longer belonged to the world beyond the glass.”

To end, I finished my previous 1954 Club post with a filmed musical, so here’s another. The film of The Pajama Game is from 1957 but the Broadway show first appeared in 1954:

* “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.” (Marlon Brando, On The Waterfront, 1954)

The 1954 Club is running all this week, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy. Do take a look at the posts and join in if you can, the Club weeks are always great events 😊

For this contribution, I thought I’d look at two books on a domestic theme. Firstly, The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp. Despite the concerning title I can confirm while there is definitely dated language, it’s not prevalent throughout the novel.

The story is set in the 1870s and told from the point of view of an unnamed cousin of the family, looking back on her childhood as an adult now in the 1920s. This means Sharp manages a 11 year-old’s point of view without getting too caught by it, and it works well.

The child loves visiting her family in Devon, leaving behind the fog and grime of London for a West Country summer. She also leaves behind her cold, distant parents for her beloved aunts, Charlotte, Grace and Rachel. They have all married into the Sylvester family and form a capable team who run the domestic affairs of the farm with good-natured hard work.

“Nature had so cheerfully designed them that even wash-day left them fair-tempered: before the high festivity of a marriage their spirits rose, expanded and bloomed to a solar pitch of jollification.”

At the start of the novel they await the arrival of a fourth sister-in-law, who is going to marry Stephen Sylvester, the kindest of the male members of the family (who feature very little in the child’s world, due to their “effortlessly preserved complete inscrutability”). However, when Fanny Davis arrives, she is very different to the rest of the family – thin and pale rather than hale and hearty.

“She seemed to have nothing to say. She had neither opinions nor tastes. She hadn’t even an appetite. The amount she left on her plate would have fed a plough-boy – I believe often did feed a plough-boy”

The family know very little about Fanny “the most that could be discovered was a sort of shadow-novelette” but they welcome her in. However, it isn’t long before trouble strikes. Although Fanny attends a dance with family, whirling around quite happily, it isn’t long before she enters a Decline, and has to spend her days laying in the parlour.

The 11 year-old enlightens us:

“I knew a good deal about declines. A friend of my mother’s had a daughter who had been in one for years. Declines also occurred frequently in cook’s novelettes


“No common person ever went into one. Common persons couldn’t afford to. Also, there needed to be a sofa. No sofa, no decline.”

As the narrator boldly plans to cure Fanny, in the manner of an Angel-Child in a novelette, the reader knows more is going on than the characters realise. Quite what Fanny is up to only gradually emerges, and in the meantime Sharp shows how destructive one person can be for previously happy family. Fanny may be persistently reclined but she is never passive, and she causes a great deal of stress and heartache for the Sylvesters.

Meanwhile, the narrator back in London is making a great friend of Clara Blow, the sort-of landlady to her handsome cousin Charlie. Despite Fanny’s frequent assurances to the young girl that they are “special friends”, it is loyalty to Clara that causes conflict for the narrator and makes her question what is actually happening back in Devon.

Will Fanny’s machinations come to light? Will the Sylvester family find a way back to happiness? Will everything work out in the end? Despite this being not as broadly comic as other Sharp novels I’ve read, I was never in any doubt that all would come right. Which it did 😊

Secondly, a slight departure, as I’m going to review a cookery book. Except it’s not really a review of the recipes in The Alice B Toklas Cookbook. There are plenty of recipes, but the book is a memoir too, which is what makes it all the more interesting. Alice B Toklas was the life-partner of Gertrude Stein, and as she reminisces about growing and eating food, she records their life together and meals taken with the many well-known artists who crossed their path, such as decorating a bass fish to entertain Picasso (we’ve all been there, desperately trying to create piscine entertainment for a Cubist in a Rose Period).

Image from wikimedia commons

She also recalls living through France during the war: “In the beginning, like camels, we lived on our past.”  They live through rationing: trading cigarettes with soldiers, and Gertrude Stein acquiring food on the black market through force of personality.

“When in 1916 Gertrude Stein commenced driving Aunt Pauline for the American Fund for the French Wounded, she was a responsible if not an experienced driver. She knew how to do everything but go in reverse.”

Aunt Pauline is their Model T Ford, succeeded by Godiva:

“Even though Godiva was what a friend ironically called a gentleman’s car, she took us into the woods and fields as Auntie had. We gathered the early wildflowers, violets at Versailles, daffodils at Fontainebleau, hyacinths (the bluebells of Scotland) in the forest of Saint Germain. For these excursions there were two picnic lunches I used to prepare.”

But just in case this excursion sounds too idyllic…

“Back in Godiva on the road again it was obvious that somewhere we had made a wrong turning. Was Godiva or Gertrude Stein at fault? In the discussion that followed we came to no conclusion.”

One of my favourite stories was of Alice making raspberry flummery for a friend in the resistance who has a sweet tooth. It leads to a conversation about gelatine, the friend borrowing several sheets. Alice later finds out this is because it is essential for making false papers.

This is not the book to read if you want some easy, quick recipes to cook after work (and of course Alice and Gertrude had domestic staff to help them, several described in the book). There is more than one recipe that calls for 100 frogs legs, but as Maureen Duffy points out in her introduction, is that the legs of 100 frogs, or 100 legs in total? There’s also the detailing of how to prepare a leg of mutton by injecting it with orange juice and brandy for a week.

In case it’s not already apparent, this is also not the book to support a plant-based diet. Toklas acknowledges this, naming Chapter 4Murder in the Kitchen.  A vast quantity of eggs seem necessary to many recipes. When I came across a recipe for frangipane tart I thought I’d finally found something I’d enjoy, but it was like no frangipane I’d ever encountered. However, Chapter 5 Beautiful Soup, was quite tempting with its descriptions of various ways to make gazpacho.

I didn’t know this before I read the book, but the interwebs tell me that the recipe for haschich fudge is the most famous. Apparently the first publisher didn’t realise what it was and so allowed it to be printed, perhaps misled by Alice’s mischievous suggestion that “it might provide an entertaining refreshment for Ladies Bridge Club or a chapter of the DAR”.

My favourite chapter was 13, “The Vegetable Gardens at Bilignin”. Alice’s passion for the garden shone through:

“For fourteen successive years the gardens at Bilignin were my joy, working in them during the summers and planning and dreaming of them during the winters”

Her descriptions of the gardens and produce were absolutely lovely:

“The day the huge baskets were packed was my proudest in all the year. The cold sun would shine on the orange-coloured carrots, the green, the yellow and white pumpkins and squash, the purple eggplants and a few last red tomatoes. They made for me a more poignant colour than any post-Impressionist picture.”

Again, the love of Alice’s life undercuts the romanticism:

“Gertrude Stein took a more practical attitude. She came out into the denuded wet cold garden and, looking at the number of baskets and crates, asked if they were all being sent to Paris, that if they were the expressage would ruin us.”

There are a million quotable and notable passages in this cookbook. If you’ve any interest in Stein and Toklas, in interwar France, or in generation perdu, I’d urge you to get this. You can just dip into it and there’s always something to entertain, but probably not much to cook…

“From Madame Bourgeois I learned much of what great French cooking was and had been but because she was a genius in her way, I did not learn from her any one single dish. The inspiration of genius is neither learned nor taught.”

To end, Dorothy Dandridge in an Oscar-nominated performance in 1954’s Carmen Jones:

“I hate the idea of sequels. I think you should be able to do it in one book.” (Jane Gardam)

This week I’m looking at two novels by Antonia White, prompted by the pending arrival of next week’s 1954 Club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy. When I looked at the TBR for 1954 novels, one that I had was Beyond the Glass. However, it’s the final novel in a quartet, and I hadn’t read the middle two…

It’s been six years since I read Frost in May and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to pick up Antonia White again, because I really enjoyed that first instalment. Frost in May was written in 1933, and White didn’t continue the story again until 1950, going on to write the last two in the quartet in 1952 and 1954.

The Lost Traveller (1950) sees Nanda from Frost in May renamed Clara and returning to her childhood home in West Kensington to attend the funeral of her paternal grandfather. Her father is bereft, but in 1914 emotions were to be controlled absolutely:

“Suddenly he was touched by an old fear of which he had never spoken to anyone, the fear that one day he might lose all control of his mind. Against that there was only one weapon; his obstinate will.”

Mr Batchelor is a teacher who harbours academic ambitions for Clara. His feckless wife Isabel wants Clara to be beautiful. She is both of these things, but not to the extent that either of her parents would like. The complex family relationships are brilliantly portrayed by White: the mismatched parents, the passive aggressive power struggles between Isabel and her mother-in-law (“Mrs Batchelor’s face … assumed a look of patient malice.”) and in the middle of it all, adolescent Clara.

“At home, to be silent was taken for a sign one was sulking.”

After her mother is ill with the mysterious women’s problems that were always so common and yet so unspoken, Clara’s father can no longer pay her school fees (the NHS was over 30 years away) and so she has to leave Catholic boarding school to attend a local Protestant school. She’s actually quite happy there, and makes two friends, although neither of them are Catholic, to the concern of her convert parents.

“Isabel, who would never have come to such a decision on her own, was willing to follow him. Catholicism seemed to her a poetical and aristocratic religion.”

Clara’s religion plays a large part in The Lost Traveller, as she tries to establish what it means for her as a young adult, away from the structures of her convent school.

Of course, with the year being 1914, readers know what the family is about to live through. However, when war breaks out, the only person it really affects is Mr Batchelor, as he sees the population of his old boys steadily wiped out.

“If only he could have gone to the front with them, he would have been completely happy.”

Although Clara prides herself on not being as vacuous as her mother, in some ways she is just as self-focussed and oblivious:

“Since she had nobody at the front in love with her and was too young to be a nurse or W.A.A.C, Clara refused to take any interest in the progress of the war.”

So while the war takes place somewhere else, Clara struggles with her sense of self, trying to work out who she is and how to manage the tumultuous feelings of teenage life in a family where so much goes unspoken. Her father is devout, strict, and given to tempers. Clara adores him and yet there is distance between them:

“Why couldn’t he understand without being told that there was nothing she would not do, cut her hair off, hold her hand to the fire, if it would bring any comfort? Why couldn’t he realise that the one impossible thing was to speak?”

Meanwhile her mother is struggling with her life choices – or lack thereof – and is drawn to one of her husband’s colleagues, Reynaud Callaghan, who encourages her romantic fancies.

“‘But I love Versailles,’ she went on dreamily. ‘I had an ancestress at the court of Louis XVI. I should have adored that life. Those exquisite clothes and the balls by candlelight and the masquerades by moonlight.’”

Isabel is great creation: vain, shallow, a snob, and yet in many ways she sees more clearly than anyone else. She tries to talk to Clara about childbirth and sex, but Clara stops her. Clara’s naivete about both is astonishing yet believable.

An opportunity comes up for Clara to be a governess for six months to an aristocratic Catholic family,  which her family are keen she take up. I found her charge thoroughly unpleasant – an over-privileged, spoilt, entitled little brat. The type that grows up to run the country 😉

It’s there that Clara meets Archie Hughes-Follett, injured in the line of duty. He will come to play a much larger role in her life in The Sugar House.

“When she considered her vanity and duplicity and how little her beliefs influenced her behaviour, she began to wonder whether she might not be insensibly growing into a hypocrite.”

The Sugar House (1952) picks up Clara’s story six years later in 1920. She is an actress, having paid for her drama tuition herself with money made from working in a government office. She doesn’t seem wholly committed to her profession, but she is to her older lover Stephen Tye.

Needless to say, the reader may not be quite so enamoured of a man given to pronouncements such as: “‘No female novelist is worth reading,’ said Stephen. ‘Women can’t write novels any more than they can write poems.’” He then wheels out the tired old misogynist cliché that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights. Sigh…

Thankfully we don’t have to endure this awful man for too long, as he ends up on a different tour to Clara. I thought the touring life was wonderfully evoked by White:

“Though towns changed, landlady’s sitting-rooms remained the same. There were always round tables with red or green serge cloths, aspidistras, photographs of seaside towns in plush frames and, in lucky weeks, a tinny, yellow-keyed piano.”

Clara often finds herself sharing rooms with fellow actor Maidie, who is at once much more devout and much more worldly than Clara. Religion is not such a strong theme throughout The Sugar House as it was in The Lost Traveller, but it is there as a constant.

When things fall apart with Stephen – as the reader knows they inevitably will – Clara returns to the security of what she knows: home, and Archie. He loves her, and unlike Stephen he respects her writing:

“I didn’t think even you could write anything which got me so much.”

However, he is conflicted and confused. He has the same childlike quality he had in The Lost Traveller, but his self-medicating with alcohol has worsened:

“Often he had sulked like a schoolboy but never had she seen him in this mood of aggressive bitterness.”

Clara doesn’t love him, but she marries him. Although Maidie has helped Clara to become less naïve, she is still hopelessly ignorant and to a modern reader the whole thing is doomed to failure. Probably to 1950s readers too, as this is Clara on her wedding day:

“She wondered if he had really expected her to run away. Her will was too paralysed even to formulate the wish.”

The titular house is their first married home, as Clara is desperate to leave the stifling atmosphere of her parents’ house. She finds a place in Chelsea, the portrayal of which is amusing for twenty-first century readers. Now it is one of the most expensive parts of London, but apparently in the 1920s it was bohemian and considerably less salubrious. This does not go down well with her upright father:

“ ‘No doubt you fill the place with short-haired women and long-haired men. Archie has all my sympathy if he prefers the public house.”

The horror!

Interestingly, what draws Clara to this atmosphere is the evidence of people working. Artists wander the streets with the tools of their trade tucked under the arms, and Clara realises she is desperate to write:

“Oh, God, don’t let me be just a messy amateur.”

However, her increasingly stressful married life where Archie fritters away money and drinks heavily means that she finds it hard to focus on work. The house, with its distempered walls that look like sugar icing, cramped rooms and two untidy people living it, begins to oppress her almost as much as her parents’ house.

“Once this sense of non-existence was so acute that she ran from the basement to the sitting room full of mirrors almost expecting to find nothing reflected in them.”

Eventually things reach a breaking point, at once dramatic and understated, entirely believable and very sad. I wouldn’t normally read books by the same author so close together, but I’m glad I did here. I’ve felt very much submerged into Clara’s world and completely involved in her story.

“Yet here, as there, she found herself both accepted and a little apart. She was beginning to wonder if there were any place where she did perfectly fit in”

All being well, Beyond the Glass next week!

(I should mention there is antisemitism expressed in both novels, particularly The Lost Traveller. However, the characters stating such views are never portrayed as admirable. I think writing in the 1950s, White was reminding a contemporary readership who would have had the holocaust in recent living memory, of the pervasiveness of racism in society).

To end, a song that sums up Clara and Archie’s situation pretty well:

‘We look to Scotland for all of our ideas of civilization.’ (Voltaire)

After bookish travels (sadly not actual travels) to Ireland and Wales in March, I thought I would start April with a visit to Scotland. As with actual travels, things did not go entirely plan…

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I have piles of Scottish authors in the TBR but my initial choices did not work out. The first novel I chose was excellent but brutal, so I just wanted to leave it behind at the end and not blog about it. My second choice I thought was safe; an established and accomplished author. Unfortunately I chose a novel she wrote at age 21, before she realised that sentences need a coherent structure. I got so sick of re-reading to try and work out which pronoun referred to which character that it was a rare DNF for me.

Given my reading pace is so slow at the moment, I then panicked and chose a novella and a short story to try and get something read. Thankfully these turned out to be enjoyable reads 😊

Firstly, Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark’s final novel, The Finishing School (2005). The titular institution is College Sunrise, on the shores of Lake Geneva, run by Rowland and Nina Mahler, although by Rowland in name only:

“To conserve his literary strength, as he put it, he left nearly all the office work to Nina who spoke good French and was dealing with the bureaucratic side of the school and with the parents, employing a kind of impressive carelessness.”

Feckless Rowland is thrown of kilter by the arrival of Chris Wiley at the school:

“His own sense of security was so strong as to be unnoticeable. He knew himself. He felt his talent. It was all a question of time and exercise. Because he was himself unusual, Chris perceived everyone else to be so.”

Chris is writing a novel about Mary Queen of Scots, unhindered by the actual facts of what happened. Although Rowland is tutor to the young artistic students, Chris keeps his writing progress secret, fully aware that this stokes Rowland’s obsession with him.

In this short novel, the other pupils and staff at the school are sketched in lightly but enjoyably, such as Mary: “her ambition was to open a village shop and sell ceramics and transparent scarves”.

Not a great deal happens, but the tension builds as Rowland becomes more fixated on Chris, and the two end up in a co-dependent relationship, as Chris observes:

“I need his jealousy. His intense jealousy. I can’t work without it.”

This being Spark, I couldn’t guess which way the novel would end as she mixes the very dark with a lightness of touch:

“ ‘Too much individualism,’ thought Rowland. ‘He is impeding me. I wish he could peacefully die in his sleep.’”

I wouldn’t say The Finishing School was Spark at the height of her powers – I found it a diverting read and an enjoyable one, but for me, Spark at her best is breath-taking, almost shocking. If you’re already a fan, there’s still much to enjoy here though. The askance view of human relationships, the morbid alongside the comic, the skewering of pretentious writers, and the arresting non-sequiturs.

Secondly, Until Such Times by Inverness-born writer Jessie Kesson (1985), which I had as part of the anthology Infinite Riches: Virago Modern Classics Short Stories (ed. Lynn Knight, 1993). It was a pretty good match for Spark although I didn’t plan it as such, with some darkly comic characterisation and a very unnerving ending.

The bairn is taken to live with her Grandmother and Aunt Edith:

“But you weren’t here to stay forever! Your Aunt Ailsa had promised you that. You was only here to stay… ‘Until Such Times’, Aunt Ailsa had said on the day she took you to Grandmother’s house…”

We join her with the house in a vague state of uproar trying to prepare for a visit from Aunt Millie and Cousin Alice. There is a suggestion that the visitors are respectable and admirable, whereas the bairn and Aunt Ailsa are somehow disreputable.

The narrative moves back and forth, showing the reader more than the bairn understands about her family situation and expertly drawing the dynamics between Grandmother, Aunt and child. The tension for a child living in a strict household and the manipulations and judgements of the Aunt (who is somehow unwell but never quite clear how; she is referred to by an old-fashioned term no longer used) was so well evoked.

At only 11 pages long, Kesson shows all that can be achieved in a short story: well-drawn characters, social commentary, narrative tension and a recognisable world. The final sentence was a perfect ending. I thought Until Such Times was really impressive and I’ll definitely look out for more of Kesson’s work.

To end, a Scottish treat for my mother, who is a big fan:

“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: