“Shut up, I’m having a rhetorical conversation!” (Max Bialystock, The Producers, 1968)

This my contribution to the 1968 Club, running this week and hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Do join in!

Firstly, The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf (trans. Christopher Middleton). This is the story of Christa’s life, told from the point of view of a schoolfriend who becomes reacquainted with Christa before leukaemia cuts her life short. The opening paragraph captures the concerns of the novel- the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person, and the fallacy of ever trying to capture them in order to portray them to others:

“The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of hers that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T – that is what these documents have taught me.  Memory puts a deceptive colour on things.”

Christa is an enigma. She is self-contained but within that is a resistance; having survived Hitler’s Germany she doesn’t readily conform to East Germany’s strictures:

“she was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she’d had children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-the-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled newspaper in her mouth and let go with a shout: HOOOHAAHOOO – something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off-duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her.”

This is a watershed moment for the narrator, the point at which she notices Christa and begins to acknowledge her wonder at her friend. However, while Christa is compelling, she also lives a life that is completely ordinary. She grows up, gets married, has children, and works as a teacher.

“Christa T lived strenuously even when she seemed lackadaisical; that ought to be attested, though the point here cannot be attested, though the point here cannot be to justify her…she didn’t attempt to escape from it all, as many people were starting to do in those years. When her name was called: “Christa T!” – she stood up and went and did what was expected of her.”

Despite this, the quest is not one that can be fulfilled – at the end we are in the position of the narrator in that we don’t know who Christa T is either. This is Christa’s final resistance: she conformed exactly how she was supposed to under Nazism and communism, and yet the state, her friends, and the readers of her story cannot box her in.

“There it is again, the language of her sketches, there her voice is heard again.  Yet it will eventually have to stop; the moment is coming where the voice fails, and it can’t be interrupted. Some details pass me by, while I anticipate the end.”

The Quest for Christa T is fragmentary and non-linear, yet it still manages to be a satisfying whole. It is a subtle, beautifully written novel which allows for the reader’s intelligence to find their own meaning. But don’t just take my word for it, take David Bowie’s: The Quest for Christa T was one of his 100 must-read books.

Secondly, the short story collection Tigers are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys, which features two collections, the first 8 stores collected under the titular tale, the last 9 printed from The Left Bank, originally published in 1927. The rest of The Left Bank stories were judged by Rhys to be too weak to merit republication. Surprisingly though, these were my favourite part of Tigers are Better-Looking. While I enjoyed the first selection of stories, I felt they weren’t as strong as Sleep It Off Lady, her final collection of short stories published 8 years after this, which I had greatly enjoyed. While The Left Bank stories are essentially sketches, I thought they had real verve so I’ll concentrate on this section. When read all together they give a wonderful sense of a particular city at a particular time. Rhys captures people with artful description:

Illusion “Miss Bruce was quite an old inhabitant of the Quarter […] one thought of her as a shining example of what character and training – British character and training – can do. After seven years in Paris she appeared utterly untouched, utterly unaffected, by anything hectic, slightly exotic or unwholesome. Going on all the time all round her were the cult of beauty and the worship of physical love: she just looked at her surroundings in her healthy, sensible way, and then dismissed them from her thoughts”

And she is equally adept at capturing relationships, such as that between a painter and ex-prostitute in Tea with an Artist:

“And then I remembered the way in which she had touched his cheek with her big hands. There was in that movement knowledge, and a certain sureness: as it were the ghost of a time when her business in life had been the consoling of men.”

Rhys often drew on her own life and there are certainly stories here that will be familiar to anyone who has read her work: depression and poverty in Hunger, the life she knew as a shop model in Mannequin, but she also broadens her gaze. There is a touching portrait of an old man and child in From a French Prison, a tragic love affair in La Grosse Fifi quite different from the dinginess and malaise that characterises the affairs she normally writes about.The longest story is Vienne, and here is where the shadow of war begins to loom over the Europe she has been portraying. A young couple, too sad to be Bright Young Things, desperately traverse the continent without quite understanding the danger, but knowing they must reach safety.

“We drank a still wine, sweetish, at dinner. It went to my head and again I could tell myself that my existence was a dream. After all it mattered very little where we went. Warsaw, London…London, Warsaw…..Words! Quite without the tremendous significance I had given them.”

I don’t think Tigers Are Better Looking is Rhys at her best, but there is still so much to enjoy in this collection, flashes of brilliance even when the stories aren’t as strong. She’s a wonderful writer and reading this has encouraged me to dig out the remaining novels of hers that I have yet to read.

To end, the UK number one this week in 1968. All together now: la, la, la, la, la, laaaaaaaaaa….

Advertisements

“It is better to break one’s heart than to do nothing with it.” (Margaret Kennedy)

This is my very, very late contribution to Margaret Kennedy Day, which is hosted by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. It took place on 20 June but Jane very kindly said that latecomers were welcome 🙂 Do head over to Jane’s blog to check out the other, more timely, contributions to Margaret Kennedy Day 2017!

Firstly, The Constant Nymph (1924).  This was a bestseller in its day (more than any other novel in the 1920s), adapted for stage and screen but fell into obscurity somewhat until Virago republished it in 1983.  In all honesty, I’m still working out how I feel about it. To me it was an odd novel, well-written and psychologically astute, but a strange, unsettling tale and tonally difficult to place. I do think my struggles with it show its worth though – better to be a challenging novel than one easily dismissed.  (I felt very uncomfortable that a grown man was sexually interested in the fourteen-year old nymph of the title, but Kennedy deals with this carefully so I’ll leave this to one side for the rest of the discussion, along with the anti-Semitic opinions voiced by various characters which were just horrible).

Albert Sanger is an unpleasant, selfish composer living in the Austrian Alps with his “Circus”: his most recent mistress, children by 3 different women, and assorted hangers-on. Amongst the rabble, fourteen-year old Tessa is quiet and steady and knows herself to be different:

“Living in a family of artists she had come to regard this implacable thing which took them as a great misfortune. Oddly enough it had missed her out; alone of the tribe she was safe from it. She did not believe that she would ever be driven to these monstrous creative efforts.”

When Sanger unexpectedly dies, leaving his huge family destitute, the Circus are split up. Tessa’s cousin Florence arrives on a mercy mission to rescue three of her relatives. Unfortunately for Tessa, this brings Florence into the orbit of Lewis, an aforementioned hanger-on, who Kennedy doesn’t even try to make appealing, and with whom Tessa has been in love since she was a child. Florence and Lewis fall in love, although there is a good mix of ambivalence in there too. Having proposed to Florence in a church, Lewis reflects:

“Once outside in the sunlight and traffic he could hardly make out how it had happened. The thing was absurd, unforeseen and unreasonable. But irrevocable now, and, on the whole, very pleasant. He was betrothed. Also he was very thirsty…”

Tessa is inconsolable, and yet the melodrama is tempered with humour and everyday considerations amongst the high-flown feelings:

 “the tears poured down her face…until she conceived the idea of trying to water a primula with them. Immediately the flood was dried, after the manner of tears when a practical use has been found for them.

‘And it would have been interesting,’ said Paulina sorrowfully, ‘to see if it would have made any difference to the primula.’”

The novel follows the love triangle back in England, as Tessa and her siblings try and adjust from their free-living Bohemian lifestyle to the strictures of an English boarding school, and Lewis and Florence’s marriage begins to disintegrate. Even Florence’s father sees how ill-matched they are:

“Lewis was a fool! If he had married little Tessa she would have made a man of him, whereas mated with Florence he was nothing but a calamity.”

The characterisation is excellent: Lewis is a distinctly unheroic, petulant protagonist and completely believable as a musician who struggles against his own shortcomings to realise his talent. Florence is complex; initially sweet-natured and gradually challenging our sympathies as she deals with her jealousy by being vicious to the blameless Tessa. Although Tessa is in many ways an archetypal faithful virgin, Kennedy stops her being emblematic by the gentle humour poked at the earnestness of adolescence.

The novel is also not wholly a romance, but also a consideration of art and how to create it, how to pursue it, the value we attach to it and the various ways in which it is consumed. This is done with a lightness of touch and Kennedy never lets the broader themes get in the way of the plot:

“Music, with all these people, came first; that was why they talked about it as if nobody else had any right to it. Once Florence had liked them all too well; now she understood them better she was frightened of them.”

The Constant Nymph is an intriguing novel, and I suspect one that I won’t entirely work out my feelings for until I re-read it. It’s certainly impressive, and Kennedy’s talent, for me, was never in doubt.

“She tilted her face up and they kissed, a clinging embrace that was more like a farewell than a greeting. To her than instant brought a pang, a dim echo of times past; to him, an apprehension of change, a foreshadowing of loss and grief to come.”

The Constant Nymph was made into a film four times. Here is the trailer for the 1943 version with the lovely Joan Fontaine as Tessa:

Secondly, Together and Apart (1936).

This sat more comfortably with me than The Constant Nymph and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet again, Kennedy manages to populate a novel with not very likeable people, but they are so wholly believable that the fascination is in witnessing their interactions and how situations play out.

Betsy has a privileged, comfortable life married to Alec. For reasons which are never entirely clear, she asks him for a divorce. She doesn’t care about his long-running affair, but feels she wants more from life and Alec is in her way:

“Now she was thirty-seven and she had never known real happiness. She had been cheated. Life had left her always hungry, always craving something and unable to put a name to it. She was perpetually craving for something that never happened. She looked forward to events, they happened, they were past and it was if nothing at all had happened.”

From my twenty-first century perspective I would say Betsy needs a job, and something beyond herself to think about…

Alec is, as he admits himself, an incredibly weak person who is steered by others, and so he grants the divorce despite not really wanting it, and promptly begins an affair with the children’s nanny. What follows is a brilliant study of the fallout of this everyday sadness on the couple, their new partners, their children and their friends. It is set in a time when divorce was becoming more common but still unusual, when attitudes were markedly different to today:

“Every petty grievance is raked up, even to little things that must have been forgiven and forgotten years ago. In 1920 he pushed her and she fell downstairs. Good heavens! One push is surely allowed in every marriage. I nearly told her that I once knocked you out with a hot water bottle.”

The children are spoilt, but also suffer, and Kennedy is brilliant at showing how the divorce causes their son Kenneth to unravel:

“He accepted nothing and pitied himself hysterically. He felt a grudge against the world because it had turned out to be a less pleasant place than he supposed.”

While their daughter Eliza grows up too quickly, forced into a domestic role she isn’t quite ready for.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say everything works out in the end. Which is not to say things work out perfectly. Lives are messy and Together and Apart shows how much of that mess is of our own making, but how we are myopic regarding our own situations and so clear-sighted regarding others. Once again, there are piercing, but sympathetic psychological insights:

“His body was always betraying him like this. It would not take fences which his soul so easily could have cleared.”

And some beautifully phrased observations, like young Kenneth and his friend on the beach:

“Even in bathing suits they had certain clerkly traits, a forward hitch of the shoulders as though long scholars gowns should have been streaming behind them in the salt wind.”

Margaret Kennedy is such an astute, funny and profound writer. I’m grateful to Jane for introducing me to her 🙂 And next Margaret Kennedy Day I’ll try and be on time!

To end, continuing the theme from last week of strange 80s spin-off pop groups (The Jam/The Style Council, now The Specials/Fun Boy Three), here is a wonderfully cynical take on marriage set to a tango:

 

“All great novels are great fairytales.” (Vladimir Nabokov)

Last week the news included a feature with Jeanette Winterson talking to children about fairytales and ways in which these narratives might be rewritten.

I think Jeanette would approve of my upbringing. I have a clear memory of a bedtime story told to me by my mother when I was aged about four: a girl with the same name as me was offered the opportunity to swop places with a princess. She did so, and didn’t like it because all she did was shake hands with people for the whole day and she had to keep her clothes clean rather than running about with her friends getting as mucky as she liked. This was around the same time as Charles and Diana getting married, and while the world went princess mad, my mother told me “He doesn’t love her, you know.” Safe to say by that tender age I thought being a princess vastly overrated.

Pretty as a princess: bored, bored, booorrrred......

Pretty as a princess: bored, bored, booorrrred……

So in honour of Jeanette and my mother, this week I’m looking at novels that rework a fairytale narrative to some extent.  Firstly, a young girl living in a castle with her sister, brother, father and step-mother. Except her sister is beautiful & they love each other, and the stepmother is batty and awesome and holds the whole family together, in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).

“I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic – two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud.”

So says Cassandra Mortmain, 17-year-old narrator of her family’s trials and tribulations as they live in a castle in the 1930s with no money, as her writer father isn’t doing any writing. Her stepmother Topaz is an unusual mix of naked-communer-with-nature and grounded housewife:

“She has a very deep voice- that is, she puts one on; it is part of an arty pose, which includes painting and lute playing. But her kindness is perfectly genuine and so is her cooking.”

Two American men arrive to disrupt this picturesque but borderline-starving idyll, and what follows is a coming of age novel, as Rose plans to marry one of them and Cassandra comes to terms with her feelings about her sister, family, life, love and money.

 “Never have I felt so separate from her. And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her very hard.”

And I really don’t think I have the words to convey how I feel about this novel. I could layer superlative upon superlative and not get close. It is a wonder.

I wish I’d read it as a teenager, because then I could have read it another ten times (minimum) by now. I wish I’d met Cassandra Mortmain years ago but at least I have her in my life now. She is witty, insightful, wise and funny.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression.”

Her family are flawed and eminently loveable. The story is eccentric but not self-consciously so; it is heart-warming but not sentimental. I absolutely adored it.

“It’s going to be happy ever after, just like in fairy tales.  – And I still wouldn’t like it. oh, I’d love the clothes and the wedding. I am not so sure I should like the facts of life, but I have got over the bitter disappointment I felt when I first heard about them, and one obviously has to try them sooner or later. What I’d really hate would be the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to.”

I Capture the Castle was adapted into a film in 2003. It can’t possibly be as good as the book but Bill Nighy means I’ll probably like Father more in the film:

Secondly, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012), based on various fables of snow children, particularly Arthur Ransome’s Little Daughter of the Snow. In 1920s Alaska (one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit), Jack and Mabel are homesteaders with a huge grief in their marriage: they lost a child and are unable to conceive any more. The drama in the landscape of their new home reflects their grief:

“It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.”

One night, the two of them carve a snow child, and shortly after they are visited by its embodiment:

“There was the child herself, her face a mirror of the one Jack had sculpted in the snow, her eyes like ice itself. It was fantastical and impossible, but Mabel knew it was true – she and Jack had formed her of snow and birch boughs and frosty wild grass.”

 “Jack would have spoken to her, but her eyes – the broken blue of river ice, glacial crevasses, moonlight – held him. She blinked, her blond lashes glittering with frost, and darted away.”

The child, Faina, visits them each year when it snows, and a delicate, fragile bond is formed. Mabel and Jack are respectful of her need for freedom and are careful not to swamp her with the force of their immense love:

 “like a rainbow trout in a stream, the girl sometimes flashed her true self to him. A wild thing glittering in dark water.”

Ivey writes beautifully regarding both landscape and people. She explores grief and love in its various forms with great sensitivity and never offers trite answers. The fabulism brings an unnerving quality to the story, where you are never sure what might happen. The Snow Child is always completely believable in its emotion and characterisation, alongside startling images that disconcert:

“She told no-one of the otter. Garrett would want to trap it; Faina would ask her to draw it. She refused to confine it by any means because, in some strange way, she knew it was her heart. Living, twisting muscle beneath bristly damp fur.”

To end, a fairytale that survived my childhood scepticism, and my adult cynicism too 🙂

“The 1920s were a great time for reading” (Bill Bryson)

A little while ago I wrote about Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, her novel set in the 1920s, which I took refuge in as I was trying to grow my hair into a bob (well, it made sense at the time). Rest easy reader, I know you must have been worrying about it, but a friend proclaimed this weekend that my hair looks most definitely bob-like so I’m walking around like a fabulous flapper:

tumblr_nafgvzuguE1qbuqcio1_r1_500

Maybe not. But regardless, to celebrate I’m looking at two novels from the 1920s, as recommended by Sarah Waters at the end of The Paying Guests. Choosing from the list of ten was a serious business, involving shortlists, consulting with various bookish types, taking votes…. OK, I just picked the two I had on my TBR mountain 🙂

Firstly, The Judge by Rebecca West (1922) which Sarah Waters describes thusly: “Suffragism, illegitimacy, motherhood, melodrama: like lots of West’s fiction, this is sprawling, brilliant, funny – and a little bit crazy.” The story begins in Edinburgh, where Ellen, nineteen years old, beautiful and a suffragette, meets Richard Yaverland:

“For sufficient reasons he was very sensitive to the tragedies of women, and he knew it was a tragedy that such a face should surmount such a body. For her body would imprison her in soft places: she would be allowed no adventures other than love, no achievements other than births.”

Later in the story it will emerge what those sufficient reasons are, but against her better judgement Ellen falls in love with worldly, handsome Richard.

“She was not sure that she approved of love. The position of women being what it was. Men were tyrants, and they seemed to be able to make their wives ignoble. Married women were often anti-Suffragists; they were often fat; they never seemed to go out on long walks in the hills or write poetry.”

Alongside this humour and Ellen’s naivety “I will have nothing to do with any man until I am great. Then I suppose I will have to use them as pawns in my political and financial intrigues” West does have something serious to say about relationships between the sexes at that moment in time. The Judge presents detailed character studies of Ellen, Richard and his mother Marion, and how society has influenced the nature and capacity of their love. This is not a rose-tinted view of young marriage by any means.

“Perhaps something like fear would have come upon her if she had known how immense he felt with victory; how he contemplated her willingness to love him in a passion of timeless wonder, watching her journey from heaven, stepping from star to star, all the way down the dark whirling earth of his heart; and how even while he felt a solemn agony at his unworthiness he was busily contriving their immediate marriage. For there was a steely quality about his love that would have been more appropriate to some vindictive purpose.”

 The second half of the novel sees Ellen leave Edinburgh to live with Richard and his mother in the Home Counties. More emerges about the circumstances of Richard’s illegitimacy and subsequently complex family dynamics. It is at this point that the melodrama mentioned by Sarah Waters really starts to ramp up. I think it’s here that the novel may start to lose readers, but although it begins to spiral somewhat, I still thought the novel had a lot to say about women’s position and the ramifications of moral absolutes. Marion and Richard have a relationship Freud would have found great mileage in, teetering on the edge of impropriety. Ellen is understandably somewhat befuddled by this brittle woman and her weird family, but she decides they suit her:

 “The rapidity with which she had changed from the brooding thing she generally was, with her heavy eyes and her twitching hands perpetually testifying that the chords of her life had not been resolved and she was on edge to hear their final music, and the perfection with which she had assumed this bland and glossy personality at a moment’s notice, struck Ellen with wonder and admiration. She liked the way this family turned and doubled under the attack of fate. She felt glad that she was going to become one of them, just as a boy might feel proud on joining a pirate crew.”

The Judge is somewhat overblown, but I enjoyed it for that reason – sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a bit of mad melodramatics alongside the serious issues.

IMG_0702

Secondly, Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921) which Sarah Waters describes as “a brilliant depiction of a sinister, suffocating marriage, this novel also features one of the most likeable spinster aunts in British fiction.” Sinister is right: this is a very different tale to the delightful The Enchanted April. Definitely not escapist, Vera is rather one of those novels where you want to reach into the book, yank out one of the characters and shake them until they listen to you, the older, wiser reader. Maybe I get over-involved in my reading…

Lucy Entwhistle, young and naïve, finds herself almost alone in the world after her beloved father dies. Blundering into her grief moments after the death is the older, good-looking Wemyss, also grieving a loss, as his wife has recently died in possibly murky circumstances:

“‘How good you are!’ she said to Wemyss, her red eyes filling. ‘What would I have done without you?’

‘But what would I have done without you?’ he answered; and they stared at each other, astonished at the nature of the bond between them, at its closeness, at the way it seemed almost miraculously to have been arranged that they should meet on the crest of despair and save each other.”

Vera is extremely clever, as at first we don’t like Wemyss, but like Lucy’s beloved spinster Aunt Dorothy, it’s not totally clear why: “whatever she felt about his legs she welcomed him with the utmost cordiality”. The more time he spends with Lucy, the more unpleasant he reveals himself to be – a wholly self-centred, arrogant, ignorant bully. Aunt Dorothy is wise enough to realise that if she registers her objections, it will only push Wemyss and Lucy closer together, and so she keeps quiet, though distressed, as she watches the tragedy unfold.

“His way of courting wouldn’t be – she searched about in her uneasy mind for a word, and found vegetarian. Yes; that word sufficiently indicated what she meant: it wouldn’t be vegetarian.”

Von Arnim’s lovely humour stops the tale being bleak, but it is a tense tale, increasingly so after Wemyss and Lucy marry less than a year from the death of the titular wife. The scales begin to fall from Lucy’s eyes:

“One learns a lot on a honeymoon, Lucy reflected, and one of the things she had learned was that Wemyss’s mind was always made up.”

But Lucy doesn’t realise the extent of what is going on in her marriage. We are living at a time of fourth-wave feminism, and in a post-Freudian world, so I would say Lucy is in a psychologically abusive marriage with a narcissistic, megalomaniac sadist who seeks to destroy her.  But she cannot see it.

“the mood of tender, half-asleep acquiescence in which, as she lay in his arms, he most loved her; then indeed she was his baby…You couldn’t passionately protect Vera. She was always in another room.”

Wise Vera.  There is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is the wonderful Aunt Dorothy. Never underestimate the clear-sighted spinster Wemyss, you have no idea who you’re dealing with.

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple - 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple – 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Vera is a brilliantly written psychological study of the dangers for women in a society that seeks to position them as economically and socially dependent on men, particularly when this dependency is wrapped up in romantic notions. It made me furious and it made me sad. It also made me glad that although we have some way to go, I live where my rights as a woman are enshrined in law.

To end, what Lucy needs is a Lesley Gore classic cranked up to 11, sung by the perennially awesome feminist icon Joan Jett:

“But what first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” (Mrs Merton/Caroline Aherne)

Caroline Aherne, actor and writer, creator of the comedic brilliance that was The Royle Family, died on Saturday.  And so 2016 continues as forerunner for the most rubbish year in recent memory. If the political situation and the death of a yet another great person this year is getting you down, I would prescribe YouTubing  Caroline’s career for some solace.

If you enjoy someone’s work, there is a consolation that they leave this behind when they are no longer around, so I thought I would look at two novelists last works which were published in their lifetimes.

Firstly, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), fulfilling the sea-based tale requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit. And so my inexplicable love affair with Hemingway continues. I’ve written before about how much I want to dislike Hemingway, but I just adore his writing. Like all great love affairs, we are wholly incompatible, and yet I find myself drawn back time and time again, whilst knowing I cannot change him. The Old Man and the Sea did not succeed in breaking the spell.

Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

The titular old man is Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who sails in the Gulf Stream and has gone 84 days without catching a fish.

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

Manolin, a young boy, has known the fisherman his whole life and loves him, and it is through his eyes that we first see Santiago:

“His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face. The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.

The boy left him there and when he came back the old man was still asleep.

“Wake up old man,” the boy said and put his hand on one of the old man’s knees.

The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.”

They head out to fish separately – Manolin is banned from accompanying Santiago due to his salao bad luck – and what follows is the story of Santiago’s lone sea journey. The descriptions have Hemingway’s trademark pinpoint accuracy but this exists alongside metaphorical beauty, which absolutely captures the water and the isolation of the sailor.

“The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. He saw the phosphorescence of the Gulf weed in the water as he rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated because of the swirl the current made against the steep walls of the floor of the ocean.”

“The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.”

The fisherman succeeds in hooking a “great fish” but is unable to bring it aboard, and so is towed by the marlin farther and farther out to sea, as he waits for the fish to die. I can’t say much more as it is only novella length (you can read the full text here) so I’ll just say that The Old Man and the Sea is extraordinary: fable, allegory, elegy, a meditative page-turner which I found truly moving.

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

Secondly, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Following the death of her beloved husband, Mrs Palfrey moves to the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road “The porch pillars had been recently painted; there were spotted laurels in the window boxes; clean curtains – a front of emphatic respectability.” to see out her days.

“She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.”

Mrs Palfrey and her fellow permanent residents at the hotel are desperately trying to avoid a nursing home and rub along together in a mix of boredom, gossip and barely suppressed disdain. Although Taylor is interested in aging and how to find meaning in a world that considers you finished, this isn’t a depressing novel , but rather a gentle comedy with a melancholic tinge.

“Soon, there was a soft, slapping sound as Mr Osmond shuffled a pack of cards for a game of patience: against this, the knitting sounds, and sighs, and stomach gurglings (quickly coughed over).

‘Well, another Sunday nearly gone,’ Mrs Post said quickly, to cover a little fart. She had presence of mind.”

Mrs Palfrey is a resolute soul, who refuses to feel sorry for herself. Part of the generation who lived through both World Wars, she gets on with things.

 “She felt a determination about the lilac trees. They were to be a part of her rules, her code of behaviour. Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. And she had abided by the rules.”

On a walk around London, she has a fall and is rescued by a young man, Ludo. He is shaggy-haired, scruffily dressed, good-looking and a wannabe writer. They end up forming an unlikely friendship and the nuances, contradictions, tensions and tenderness between the two are beautifully observed. Taylor is a wonderful writer: sharp, observant, funny and real. She put me in mind of Barbara Pym, and the blurb on the back of my copy of this novel compares her to Jane Austen.  Certainly if you like those, you’ll find a lot to love here.

 “She could glimpse bed-sitting rooms – like Ludo’s some of them – where once cooks had attended ranges, rattling dampers, hooking off hot-plates, skimming stock pots, while listening to housemaids’ gossip bought from above stairs. Mrs Palfrey went slowly by, imagining those days, which were almost clearer to her than this present structure of honeycomb housing and the isolation of each cell, because they were the days that belonged to her being young, and so were the clearest of all to her.”

To end, if you think Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor are an unlikely pairing…

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” (William Shakespeare)

Last week I looked at The Enchanted April, so this week for May Day I thought I’d look at another Virago that helpfully has the current month in the title, Frost in May by Antonia White (1933). Virago was founded in 1973, with the Modern Classics imprint starting in 1978 “dedicated to the rediscovery and celebration of women writers, challenging the narrow definition of Classic”. Frost in May was the first Modern Classic title, so for this post I’ve paired it with the first Persephone title, as Persephone, founded in 1998, have a similar remit to publish lost or out of print books which are mainly written by women.

200 (2)

Frost in May is Antonia White’s autobiographical first novel, telling the story of Nanda Gray and her schooling at the Convent of the Five Wounds from the ages of 9 to 14. Nanda begins school as a devout child, finding her way in Catholicism:

“St Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was ‘belly’, a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.”

White charts Nanda’s development throughout her school career.  She is from an ordinary middle-class family, her father a recent convert, and the other girls from aristocratic European Catholic families are glamorous and much more worldly:

“Leonie and Rosario were seasoned retreatants. They went into this solitary confinement with as little fuss as old soldiers going into camp. Rosario supplied herself with a great deal of delicate needlework if a vaguely devotional nature, while Leonie announced frankly that she was going to use her notebook to compose a blank verse tragedy on the death of Socrates.”

As Nanda becomes older, she begins to struggle with her faith, although there is never a sense that she will abandon it all together. Rather it is the story of a young person trying to find a true sense of meaning within her faith, rather than without it.

“She had often been rewarded by a real sense of pleasure in the spiritual company of Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints. But over and over again she encountered those arid patches where the whole of religious life seemed a monstrous and meaningless complication.”

If this sounds like it has no place in today’s secular world, I’ve not done Frost in May justice. The novel is about a young person’s growing realisation of self, explored with sensitivity. As a heathen book lover, I related to Nanda’s discovery of poetry:

“She read on and on, enraptured. She could not understand half, but it excited her oddly, like words in a foreign language sung to a beautiful air. She followed the poem vaguely as she followed the Latin in her missal, guessing, inventing meanings for herself, intoxicated by the mere rush of words. And yet she felt she did understand, not with her eyes or her brain, but with some faculty she did not even know she possessed.”

Frost in May is a short novel and a quick read, and I can see both why it was marginalised and why Virago chose it to launch its Modern Classics imprint. It is easy to overlook: a school story in which little happens, five years in a young girl’s life and no intrusive authorial voice to proclaim any wider profundity beyond the immediate story. Yet it has plenty to say about what is profound for the individual, the influences and experiences that shape us and leave an indelible mark. White’s light touch should not be mistaken for a lack of something to say.

“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and reset in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has quite been broken, my dear child, do you?”

IMG_0699

Secondly, William – An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919) who was a suffragette and wrote this novel during the last year of World War I. The eponymous Mr Tully is a young man who prior to the war is a socialist, fired less by idealism and more by the need for something with which to occupy himself.

“The gentlest of creatures by nature and in private life, he grew to delight in denunciation, and under its ceaseless influence the world divided itself into two well-marked camps; the good and enlightened who agreed with him, and the fool and miscreants who did not…in short, he became a politician.”

William meets and marries a similarly dim suffragette, Griselda, and Hamilton’s satire of their unthinking politicking is relentless.  They are shown as well-meaning but avoiding any challenge to their ideals and any opportunity for genuine original thought. When a certain archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo, they pay it little mind as it does directly affect their parochial politics, and they head off on honeymoon to Ardennes. When they emerge from the Forest of Arden three weeks later, they are captured by soldiers and face a traumatic awakening as to the state of the world:

“So they trotted down the valley, humiliated, dishevelled, indignant, but still incredulous – while their world crumbled about them and Europe thundered and bled.”

Hamilton does not baulk from the realities of war – of which she had first-hand experience – and it is shown as bloody and brutal. The satire falls away as William becomes the everyman caught up in circumstances far beyond his control.

“It had not seemed to him possible that a man could disagree with him honestly and out of the core of his heart; it had not seemed to him possible that the righteous could be righteous and yet err. He knew now, as by lightening flash, that he, Faraday, a thousand others, throwing scorn from a thousand platforms on the idea of a European War, had been madly, wildly, ridiculously wrong – and the knowledge stunned and blinded him.”

Hamilton’s master stroke is that the things she satirised – William and Griselda’s lack of understanding, ignorance and youthful certainties – become the very things that drive home the human tragedy of the war. They are ordinary people who just wanted to live the life they imagined for themselves, and their powerlessness and profound losses are what makes this so very sad. The devastation of World War I is left in no doubt.

After all this talk of devastation, let’s pick ourselves up with some love poetry: the wonderful Harriet Walter reading the sonnet from which this post takes its title:

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

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

giphy (7)

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

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

Images from here and here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0698

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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