Six Characters in Search of an Author – Luigi Pirandello (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #53)

This is the first in a series of occasional posts where I’ll be looking at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing. I set myself the challenge in January and I’m only beginning to blog about it now; this does not bode well for my completing this challenge before I see in a century of my own…

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/old-lady-reading-83754)

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play by Luigi Pirandello, originally written in Italian and performed in 1921 (my copy translated by Frederick May, 1954).  It’s a play about itself, about the theatre, and although philosophical and reflective, it’s also very silly.

“Life is full of things that are infinitely absurd, things that, for all their impudent absurdity, have no need to masquerade as truth, because they are true”

“What the devil are you talking about?”

A producer is putting on a play with a group of actors, who are only identified by their roles: Leading Lady/Leading Man/Ingénue and so on.  As we are presented with what appears to be a rehearsal, there is a sense of the play being simultaneously constructed and deconstructed in front of us.  The ideas are complex and it’s definitely not a play to approach when you’re tired and/or in need of escapism, but Pirandello undercuts the potentially pretentious self-reflexive philosophising with a good dose of humour, having the Producer complain early on:

“We’re reduced to putting on plays by Pirandello? And if you understand his plays…you’re a better man than I am! He deliberately goes out of his way to annoy people, so that by the time the play’s through everybody’s fed up…actors, critics, audience, everybody!”

Well, you can’t say he didn’t warn us.  The rehearsal of the play by Pirandello is interrupted by the arrival of six characters – Father, Mother, Step-daughter, Son, Boy and Little Girl.  They want the Producer to help them, as “the author who created us as living beings, either couldn’t or wouldn’t put us materially into the world of art.” They start to tell their story while the actors look on, and the stage directions tell us: “The CHARACTERS should not, in fact, appear as phantasms, but as created realities, unchangeable creations of the imagination and, therefore, more real and more consistent than the ever-changing naturalness of the ACTORS.” As the actors and characters interact (and bitch at each other and argue about representation) the play presents complex philosophical questions about truth, reality and identity, and whether any of us really has any idea what on earth is going on:

“Each one of us has a whole world of things inside him… and each one of us has his own particular world. How can we understand each other if into the words I speak I put the sense and value of things as I understand them within myself… while at the same time whoever is listening to them inevitably assumes them to have  the sense and value that they have for him…. We think we understand each other… but we never really do understand!”

In this way, Pirandello admirably manages to interrogate the relationship of theatre to representation, reality to illusion, art to life.  There are lots of meta-moments (the whole play is really one big metatheatrical experience); my favourites were where he drew attention to the play’s own limitations, studiously ignoring the Producer’s directive that “When you’re here you have to respect the conventions of the theatre!” and a great moment where the Son walks off, refusing to act because “I’m a dramatically unrealised character”.

Six Characters in Search of an Author is a hugely complex work and at the same time a short, humorous play.  I really enjoyed it, but I also think I could re-read it and each time think that I understood nothing from my previous readings.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if someone entirely hated it, and they would not be alone: apparently the playwright had to leave the premiere performance through a side-exit to avoid the throng of haters.  If you’re a writer, actor, theatre-lover or philosophy enthusiast, you’ll find a lot to interest you in Six Characters in Search of an Author.  If you like Waiting for Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, then this play could be for you.

Phew!  After all that deep reflection on the nature of theatre and our existence, I think it must be time for shark cat on a Roomba:

“The clever men at Oxford/Know all that there is to be knowed./But they none of them know one half as much/As intelligent Mr. Toad!” (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows)

I’m in Oxford at the moment, a city I love.  I thought I would look this week at novels set in Oxford, and although there are lots to choose from (I guess lots of writers chose to evoke their alma mater) I’ve picked two crime novels, as Oxford seems to encourage this type of story.  I’m not sure why this occurs, but maybe it’s because it’s seen as such a respectable institution and it’s fun to think of a seething mass of violence and intrigue below the calm façade.  Here’s a picture of Oxford’s most famous fictional detective, to compensate for the fact that I’m not looking at any Colin Dexter novels:

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Image from (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1101952/So-did-Morse-lie-love-In-final-seasonal-serial-young-Morses-secret-admirer-reveals-identity–learn-truth-mysterious-car-crash.html)

Firstly, The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin.  This was the first in a series of novels featuring the sleuthing Oxford don Gervase Fen, and is from the Golden Age of Detective fiction, written in 1944.  The opening paragraph struck a chord with me:

“To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.  And travellers in general are divided into these two classes; the first apologetically haul down their luggage from the racks on to the seats, where it remains until the end of the journey, an encumbrance and a mass of sharp, unexpected edges; the second continue to stare gloomily out of the window at the woods and fields into which, by some witless godling, the station has been inexplicably dumped”

Well, the woods and fields may be much less evident, but otherwise… seventy years on and nothing changes.  Travelling on this train are Gervase Fen, his friend Sir Richard Freeman who is Chief Constable of Oxfordshire and wishes he was a don (while Fen wishes he was police officer) and various members of a drama group, who will return to London with their numbers somewhat diminished. Fen is a likeable, eccentric don, whose “normal overplus of energy …led him to undertake all manner of commitments and then gloomily to complain that he was overburdened with work and that nobody seemed to care”; he distracts himself on the train by wishing for “’A crime! …A really splendidly complicated crime!’ And he began to invent imaginary crimes and solve them with unbelievable rapidity.”

The first murder, of uber-bitch Yseult Haskell, takes place in a room in college close to Fen’s office, and so much to his delight he is distracted from his work on minor eighteenth-century satirists to investigate:

“His usually slightly fantastic naivety had completely disappeared, and its place was taken by a rather formidable , ice-cold concentration. Sir Richard, who knew the signs, looked up from his conference with the Inspector and sighed.  At the opening of the investigation, the mood was invariable, as always when Fen was concentrating particularly hard; when he was not interested in what was going on, he relapsed into a particularly irritating form of boisterous gaiety; when he had discovered anything of importance he quickly became melancholy […] and when an investigation was finally concluded, he became sunk in such a state of profound gloom it was days before he could be aroused from it.  Moreover these perverse and chameleon-like habits tended not unnaturally to get on people’s nerves.”

I’m not going to say too much about the plot as its nearly impossible not to give spoilers.  But if you think the eccentric Fen is someone you’d like to spend time with do look at The Case of the Gilded Fly.  I loved the dry, yet gentle humour in the writing, and it was a well-paced, easy read.  My favourite character however, was one of the minor players; unlike a lot of detectives, Fen does not have a complicated romantic life filled with encounters with unsuitable lovers, but is married to the brilliantly indulgent Mrs Fen:

“After she had greeted the Inspector with a slow, pleasant smile, Fen seized up the gun and handed it to her, saying:

‘Dolly, would you mind committing suicide for a moment?’

‘Certainly,’ Mrs Fen remained unperturbed at this alarming request, and took the gun in her right hand, with her forefinger on the trigger; then she pointed it at her right temple.

‘There!’ said Fen triumphantly.

‘Shall I pull the trigger?’ asked Mrs Fen.

‘By all means,’ he said absently, but Sir Richard surged up from his chair crying hoarsely: ‘Don’t! It’s loaded!’ and snatched the gun away from her.  She smiled at him. ‘Thank you, Sir Richard,” she said benignly, ‘but Gervase is hopelessly forgetful, and I shouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing.  Is that all I can do for you gentlemen?’”

What a woman. Next, a much more recent tale (2005) whose title tells you exactly what to expect: The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez (trans. Sonia Soto). The novel is narrated by a postgraduate mathematics student, who shortly after arriving in England finds his landlady murdered, discovering the body at the same time as his hero, Professor Arthur Seldom “a rare case of mathematical genius”. The Professor is there because he received a note telling him that something would happen “the first of the series” followed with a mathematical symbol, a circle.  As more people die, Seldom continues to receive notes ending with symbols, and believes the murderer is taunting him specifically as he wrote a book on mathematics where he argues that “except in crime novels and films, the logic behind serial murders…is generally very rudimentary…the patterns are very crude, typified by monotony, repetition, and the overwhelming majority are based on some traumatic experience or childhood fixation”. Some serial killers may take that as a challenge…

The two start working together, using their academic approaches to try and decipher the logic of the murders.  There’s a lot of maths talk, but it’s not overwhelming even for someone like me whose dealings with numbers is limited entirely to their monthly budget.  The combination works well and doesn’t feel forced:

“There is a theoretical parallel between mathematics and criminology; as Inspector Petersen said, we both make conjectures.  But when you set out a hypothesis about the real world, you inevitably introduce an irreversible element of action, which always has consequences.”

Can they make their hypotheses apply in the real world and solve the symbolic series in time to prevent more murders?  What do the symbols really represent?  The Oxford Murders is a short novel and not particularly complex despite the setting in elite mathematics; it’s well written but if you’re a crime aficionado you may find it a bit too straightforward.

The Oxford Murders was made into a film a few years back; from this trailer I would say it’s a fairly faithful adaptation:

Here’s my attempt at a vaguely mathematical end: from the shaded area of a Venn diagram of Oxford and books, here is a picture of one of the most beautiful libraries you’ll ever see – the Radcliffe Camera in central Oxford.  The picture’s wonky because it was blowing a gale and I was up the top of the tower of St Mary the Virgin, where the wind was so strong I thought I, or at the very least my phone, was about to get whipped off the viewing balcony into the square below.  Thankfully we both made it back intact.

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“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens/Brown paper packages tied up with strings/These are a few of my favourite things” (Maria Rainer/Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music)

I write to you from within a fog of lemsip and cough syrup.  Yes, this week I’ve had a grotty cold.  Nothing major by any means, but just enough to make me feel grim and make the days a little greyer.  So I thought for this post I’d cheer myself up and be totally self-indulgent, by choosing two books that are thematically linked only in the fact that they are two of my favourites.

Firstly, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury, 2002).  This was McGregor’s first novel, longlisted for the Booker, and written when he was only twenty-six.  Choking down my jealousy, I am able to tell you that the accolades are highly deserved.  I think this is such a beautifully written, confident debut.  It tells the story of an ordinary street and its ordinary inhabitants, over the course of a day.

“The short girl with the painted toenails, next door, she says oh but did you see that guy on the balcony, he was nice, no he was special and she savours the word like a strawberry, you know she says, the one on the balcony, the one who was speeding and kept leaning right over, and they all know exactly who she means, he’s in the same place most weeks, pounding out the rhythm like a panelbeater, fists crashing down into the air, sweat splashing from his polished head.”

“In his kitchen, the old man measures out the tea-leaves, drops them into the pot, fills it with boiling water.  He sets out a tray, two cups, two saucers, a small jug of milk, a small pot of sugar, two teaspoons.  He breathes heavily as his hands struggle up to the high cupboards, fluttering like the wings of a caged bird.”

“She opens her front door, just a little, just enough, and she hops down her front steps, the young girl from number nineteen, glad to be out of the house and away from the noise of her brothers.  The television was boring and strange anyway, it was all people talking and she didn’t understand.  She taps her feet on the pavement, listening to the sound her shiny black shoes make against the stone…”

I hope these three examples give a good idea of why I love this novel so much.  McGregor is so skilled at finding the poetry in ordinary lives and how the self is expressed through seemingly innocuous actions.  Gradually the inhabitants of the street emerge as fully realised characters from the details of this one day.  This narrative is intertwined with a first person narrative, and you begin to realise that something significant, and tragic, took place on this ordinary day.  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a novel of startling sensitivity and lyricism.

If this has whetted your appetite for McGregor’s novels, I discuss his second novel, So Many Ways to Begin here.

Secondly, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov trans. George Bird (1996, English translation 2001, Harvill Press).  How to describe this novel?  It’s frankly a bit bonkers and one of those I think I understand, but maybe it’s about something else entirely.  It’s a great read though.  It tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer who gets a job writing obituaries, and his pet penguin Misha, who he took on when Kiev zoo gave all its animals away: “he had been feeling lonely. But Misha brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complimentary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than amity.”

The character of this depressed penguin is as vividly realised as any of the human characters, and you really start to feel for this bird who symbolises the existential crisis of his owner and others caught up in a post-Soviet world that they do not understand: “Sleeping lightly that night, Viktor heard an insomniac Misha roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself.”

The fragile relationship between Viktor and Misha is tested to its limit by a series of surreal events.  Viktor’s friend Misha-Non-Penguin leaves his daughter Sonya with Viktor, and so he drifts into a family unit with this self-contained little girl and her nanny.  But meanwhile, someone is using his obituaries as a hit-list, and he is being followed by a mysterious stranger known only as the fat man…

“The Chief considered him through narrowed eyes.

“Your interest lies in not asking questions,” he said quietly.  But bear in mind this: the minute you’re told what the point of your work is, you’re dead. […] He smiled a sad smile.  “Still, I do, in fact, wish you well.  Believe me.””

Death and the Penguin is a surreal adventure story, a post-Soviet satire, an examination of the individual spirit up against forces that seek to control.  It’s funny and it’s sad, it has something to say, and it says it in a truly unique and engaging way.

Here are the novels with another of my favourite things, my psychotic cat (he looks calm in this photo, but trust me, he is hell-bent on world domination):

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“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” (Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro)

This week’s post was prompted by an elastic band.  But first let me confess to a bad habit: I make up stories about people.  I’m sure lots of people do.  I sit on the train/in the café/bored out of my mind in the supermarket queue and I’ll notice someone and start concocting a whole story about them.  Half the time I don’t even realise it’s what I’m doing.  A lot of the time I forget this means I can end up staring quite intently at someone, and it’s frankly somewhat of a miracle that I’ve reached my ripe old age without getting my face punched in. If you suffer from this affliction and live in the UK, may I recommend the National Portrait Gallery?  A safe space where you are actively invited to go round staring at faces, it’s a haven for the fantasist of this type.  So, with my anti-social habit established, let me rewind to the elastic band…

I was on the train to Brighton (hence the title quote about Metro passengers, and an excuse to highlight one of my favourite poems).  The man across the aisle from me, facing away, was reading a book whose cover I couldn’t see, and on the little pull down table in front of him he had a bag of crisps.  This was a mammoth bag of crisps, and he’d eaten about half, folded over the top of the packet, and secured it with an elastic band wrapped round the packet.  After I’d admired his restraint – because if I open a big bag of crisps the entire contents of that bag is getting eaten – I became mesmerised by this elastic band.  Where had it come from?  Had he brought it with him, planned in advance for just such an eventuality?  Or did he carry round bits of stationery (is an elastic band stationery?) just in case events took a turn and he would be called on to secure something? Did he buy the elastic band having eaten half the packet and deciding the crisps needed better containment that just folding the top over?  How the hell had this circumstance arisen? He didn’t appear to have any bags with him, just the book and the crisps, so it wasn’t like he had an elastic band conveniently buried in a capacious man bag.

I realise thinking about almost anything other than this elastic band would have been a better use of my time, but I couldn’t help it.  This coupled with the man’s appearance – shoulders so big he was halfway in the aisle despite sitting fully in his seat, and a shaved head – convinced me he must be some ultra-capable marine/secret agent type.  I was certain the book he was reading was by Andy McNab.  And now a shoddy visual representation to keep you going through this long, waffly post:

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When he got up to leave I saw the front cover of the book and I couldn’t have got it more wrong. Most unexpected.  It was a book the BBC adapted for a Sunday night TV programme, that’s how cosy it was.  As my visions of him as MacGyver (or a more recent reference for the youngsters, Michael Weston from Burn Notice) crumbled to dust, I realised that I am rubbish at judging people.  I’d either got it totally wrong, or he was some hardcore daredevil marine, who just happened to like cosy reading. Either way my ideas about him based on elastic band usage and reading matter were entirely false.  By way of recompense I offer this book recommendation, which I think someone who is fastidious enough to wrap his crisps in an elastic band might enjoy (and yes, I realise this is still me being judgemental – and probably getting it wrong again – sorry, sorry, sorry):

So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006, Bloomsbury) tells the story of David, a museum curator.  Working in museums is his vocation, he has loved them since childhood:

“He liked the smell of museums, the musty scent of things dug from the earth and buried in heavy wooden store cupboards.  He liked the smell of the polish on the marbled floors, and the way his shoes squeaked as he walked across them.  He liked the way people’s voices would drift up and be lost in the hush of the high-ceilinged rooms.  He liked the coldness of the glass cases when he pressed his face against them.  He liked looking at the dates of the objects , and trying not to get dizzy as he added up how long ago that was.  He didn’t understand why people had to ask, why they didn’t enjoy museums as much as he did…”

A friend of his mother’s accidently exposes a family secret, one which sends David into free-fall.  As he struggles to comprehend his present in light of his altered past, he curates his own belongings.  Each chapter has a heading which refers to an object in David’s life: “handwritten list of household items c.1947”, “pair of cinema tickets annotated 19 May 1967”, “cut fragments of surgical thread, in small transparent case, dated July 1983”.  As we learn the meaning these objects hold, we understand David and the life he leads, alongside his mother, wife and daughter.  David fully realises the meaning of the minutiae in our lives when he curates an exhibition on the immigrants arriving in Coventry after the war:

“He wasn’t surprised by the interviewees eagerness to loan him their few treasured keepsakes –the watches, the framed photographs, the religious artefacts – trusting him to keep their last attachments to a lost home safe, pushing them gladly into his arms.  But what he hadn’t quite been expecting was just how readily people held these things to hand, arranged together in the alcoves of their front rooms, or across a chest of drawers in a bedroom, or filling a glass-fronted cabinet in a kitchen, like miniature museums of their own.”

So Many Ways to Begin is a sensitive portrayal of the intensely personal nature of the physicality of lives, how we ground ourselves in objects and are keepers of our own histories.  It is also about the shifting nature of those histories, and how relationships with others, the intangible, is what gives meaning to the tangible.

My second recommendation I give to the man who was sitting directly opposite me, (facing me) on the same journey.  You, sir, are beautiful.  This adjective is overused, applied with alarming regularity to people who simply have capped teeth and a good blow-dry.  But you are beautiful: you look like Henry Cavill and Toby Stephens had a baby together, then got Michelangelo in to complete the job.  (Seriously, why are you on a train in south London?  Shouldn’t you be in a convertible in the south of France?) Shoddy visual representation to keep you going through this long, waffly post:

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While I’m on this judgemental trip, I’ll assert that I think you owe it to the world to ensure your mind is as beautiful as your face.  Stop reading the free newspapers that litter every train compartment.  Yes, that’s what you were doing.  It only serves to sully you.  I know they’re free, I know everyone does it, but do you know the free paper is owned by the same group as the Daily Mail?  And frankly there isn’t a blog post long enough for me to tell you all that’s wrong with that newspaper.  So here is my recommendation for reading matter as lovely as your face:

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997, Flamingo) is novel that takes joy in language and is beautifully written.  I know some people found it a bit over the top in this regard, but I really enjoyed losing myself in this lyrical novel.  It tells the story of a family through the eyes of twins, Estha and Rahel.  Roy is a political activist (this is her only novel so far) and there are strong political themes running through the novel, around India’s caste system, economics, and communism.  She considers the effect these large forces can have on families and individuals:

“it was a skyblue day in December sixty-nine (the nineteen silent).  It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while. In clear view. For everyone to see.”

The conflict between the family morality and societal constructs results in tragedy that tears the family apart. The twins are separated at age 7 and only reunited at age 31, where the damage that has been done continues to exert its power.  It’s difficult to go into details without giving away great swathes of plot, so I’ll just give you a few little bits.  Estha reacts to the events by becoming increasingly silent:

“A raindrop glistened on the end of Estha’s earlobe.  Thick, silver in the light, like a heavy bead of mercury.  She reached out. Touched it. Took it away.  Estha didn’t look at her.  He retreated into further stillness.”

The Kerala setting is vividly evoked, such as in the opening paragraph to the novel:

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.  The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air.  Then they stun themselves against clear windows and die, fatly baffled in the sun. The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.”

The God of Small Things takes controversial issues shows the impact on individuals bound up in circumstances they cannot control.  The beauty of the prose emphasises the drama rather than disguises it, making a powerful and highly readable novel.

Here are the novels with a scene from Strangers on a Train:

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“Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” (Mark Twain)

Being a Brit, I love talking about the weather.  Seriously.  I love the fact that it’s the usual conversation opener for the stranger next to you in the queue (another great British past time). I never tire of it.  There’s always something to say.  At the moment, that thing is: “Will this never end?  I’m melting. I’m honestly melting.  Look, my feet are fusing with the tarmac.  Look.” Yes, we are having a heat wave.  And my usual refrain in hot weather of “At least it’s not as bad as 2006” won’t work, because it is as bad as 2006. It’s too hot.  I live in London.  Over 30C is fine by the coast, but in a city that is ill-equipped to deal with it (there’s not exactly an abundance of air-conditioning; the Tube is like some sort of medieval torture oven masquerading as public transport; the shops are selling out of water, and people are leaving huge chunks of their own scorched skin in their wake) it’s truly revolting.  We had respite of one blissfully grey day and then that blistering ball of fire was back in the sky.  So I’m afraid there was only one choice for a theme for this week’s post, and it has to reflect my current obsession with all things meteorological (I’m checking the BBC weather pages every few hours in the delusional hope the forecast changes to gale-force winds and squally showers.  Not that I know what squally showers are but I’m pretty sure I’d welcome them right now. Although last night there was a thunderstorm & all that’s done is make the humidity worse.) I’ve chosen two novels that use stifling hot weather to further the oppression felt by their protagonists. For those of you suffering a heat wave, I hope it helps in the way CS Lewis identified: “We read to know we are not alone.”  For those of you in colder climes, I hope you feel a reflected warmth from the stories, you lucky, chilly people.

Firstly, A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne (Penguin,1997).  This was Suzanne Berne’s first book and was pretty well-hyped, winning the Orange Prize and being compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure the comparisons were well-intentioned, but who can live up to that?  To Kill a Mockingbird is about as perfect a piece of writing as you’ll come across.  It’s hardly a major criticism if I say this isn’t as good; few books are.  But A Crime in the Neighbourhood is still a well-written, atmospheric and insightful novel with plenty to say.

Set in 1972 with the Watergate scandal playing out in the background, 10-year-old Marsha tells the story of her suburban neighbourhood, where the  body of a 12-year-old boy has been found, raped and strangled.  Marsha has broken her ankle and so is somewhat confined, and her father has left the family for his wife’s sister.  As both her family and the wider community try to deal with the acts of violence that have been perpetrated, Marsha watches and tries to make sense of it all.

“It had been wet in March and early April, then suddenly it got very hot.  In just a few days, our big front yard went from a brown mat to a seething tangle of colour […] Blooming saturated the air, seeping in through open windows and under doors and into the sofa’s upholstery […] A kind of lawlessness infected everything.  Next door, eight-year-old Luann Lauder decorated herself with toothpaste one Sunday morning and ran across the lawn in only her underpants.  Boyd Ellison appeared on the playground one afternoon with a ten-speed bicycle he said was a birthday present but which looked just like our neighbour David Bridgeman’s bicycle, which had recently been stolen.  Blue jays screamed all day long. Even the grass looked unearthly green, as it does right before an electrical storm, when the air starts to hum and your hair stands on end.  And yet our neighbourhood was anything but lawless.”

The atmosphere in the neighbourhood becomes stifling both physically and psychologically.  Berne creates a sense of things quietly building towards a denouement, but not an outcome that can be trusted to bring resolution (we know from the start that the boy’s killer is never found).  When Marsha’s mother says “I sometimes think the suburbs are a distortion.” she picks up on the way human beings can warp what they see when emotions are heightened, and how dangerous this can be when it happens as a group.  Within this atmosphere, Marsha builds her notebook of Evidence:

“Among the details I overheard from my post on the porch, all of which I printed in my notebook with Julie’s Bic pen, are the following: Boyd Ellison was alive and had told the police everything. A man on a motorcycle had attacked him. A man with a beard attacked him. It was a bearded man with a foreign accent, maybe Dutch or Turkish. It was a hippie on drugs. Boyd was in a coma. Boyd had called out his mother’s name. He didn’t know who his parents were.  He was dead. He was alive. He was alive but just barely. He was dead.”

Marsha’s distortions will have a cataclysmic effect when she decides to voice them.  Although taking a single crime in the neighbourhood as its starting point, the novel actually concerns itself with many types of violence human beings can enact on each other, almost with indifference. However, the tone is realistic rather than downbeat, and so the novel is thought-provoking without being depressing.

A very different tale takes place within the sultry weather of The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi.  Now, this is a slight departure for me because generally I’ll only write about books I really rate, whereas I think The Mango Season is…OK.  It’s not a terrible book by any stretch, but it’s quite pedestrian in its language and the story is somewhat slight. However, I decided I would write about it as generally “summer reads” are usually something light by definition, nothing too taxing while you’re roasting your body by the pool.  And as a summer read The Mango Season fits the bill fine. Priya is living in the US, engaged to an American.  She returns home to India to meet her family for the first time in seven years, to try and deal with the fact that they want to arrange a marriage for her.  She returns in mango season, the hottest time of year:

“It was overpowering, the smell of mangoes – some fresh, some old, some rotten.  With a large empty coconut straw basket, I followed my mother as she stopped at every stall in the massive mango bazaar.  They had to taste a certain way; they had to be sour and they had to be mangoes that would not turn sweet when ripened. The mangoes that went into making mango pickle were special mangoes. It was important to use your senses to pick the right batch.”

The story plays out as you’d expect – Priya struggles to adjust to being back at home and the differences between America and India, and between her and her family. This is a light book and the dramas play out comfortably, The Mango Season is a comforting read. Malladi writes about India evocatively and with affection:

“Yellow and black auto rickshaws drove noisily on the thin, broken, asphalt road as I walked on the dirty roadside, sidestepping around rotten banana peels and other unidentified trash.  […] I stopped in front of a small paan and bidi shop where they sold soda, cigarettes, bidis, paan, chewing gum and black market porn magazines, the covers of which you could only see through shiny plastic wrappers. They were hidden, but not completely; you could once in a while catch a naked thigh or dark nipple thrusting against the plastic wrap. A man sat in a hole in the wall and looked at me questioningly.

Goli soda hai?” I asked.”

The Mango Season is a pleasant read, and when it’s this hot, that’s enough.

Here are the books basking:

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“L’anglais n’est que du français mal prononcé”/“English is little more than badly pronounced French” (D’Artagnan in Vingt ans après / Twenty Years After – Alexandre Dumas)

Sunday was Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale /Le Quatorze Juillet in France) and so in honour of my friends across La Manche I thought this week I would look at two novels by French writers.  Unfortunately, being a typical Brit, I’m useless at other languages – even one with a 60% overlap with English – and so je regrette, I will be discussing the novels in their English translations. Both are novels, classics of French literature, and both concern adolescents, but other than that they are very different. J’espère que vous apprécierez!

Firstly Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (1913, my copy Penguin 1987).  Alain-Fournier was the pen name of Henri Alban who died in 1914, fighting in World War I.  He was only 27 when he wrote Le Grand Meaulnes, and I think this is a case where it’s very hard not to read the novel biographically with regard to the author’s own life story.  Le Grand Meaulnes has an elegiac quality, a mourning for a lost France, a golden time which has passed.  It is a story of young adulthood and sexual awakening being told by a narrator looking back on events, and as such it has a nostalgic, idealised tone.  Knowing the author died so quickly after writing it adds to this atmosphere of loss.

The novel is narrated by fifteen year old Francois, who attends the school where his parents are teachers.  He is lonely, and when seventeen year old Augustin Meaulnes arrives at the school, Francois finds a hero (hence le grand…).  Not long after his arrival, Meaulnes finds fireworks left over from Le Quatorze Juillet celebrations (apt for this post):

“He was showing me the two fuses with paper wicks which the flames had bitten into, seared, and then abandoned.  He stuck the nave of the wheels into the gravel, produced a box of matches – this to my astonishment for we were not allowed matches – and stooping carefully held a flame to the wicks.  Then, taking my hand, he pulled me quickly back.

Coming out of doors with Madame Meaulnes…my mother saw to great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss.  And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching…

Once again, she had nothing to say.

And that evening a silent companion sat eating at the family table, his head bent over his plate, paying no heed to three pairs of eyes that saw nothing but him.”

A little while after this, Meaulnes disappears for three days.  He returns without explanation, wearing the waistcoat of a Marquis.  Eventually he tells Francois what happened in those missing days, and the adventure is somewhere between reality and a dream.  He lost his way on a journey to the village, and ends up in the grounds of a large estate.  The house has the feeling of being abandoned, and he discovers a box of old clothes, rich costumes, which he dresses in.  He follows a “young dandy”, also dressed in clothes of a bygone era, into the “farm, chateau, abbey, whatever it might be” and finds himself in the middle of a fete where everyone is dressed oddly, feasting and dancing.   In the garden, he sees a young woman, and follows her onto a boat:

“And now on shore, everything fell into place as in a dream.  While children ran about shouting and laughing, and their elders broke up into groups and moved away through the woods, Meaulnes kept to the path where the girl was walking only a few steps ahead. He came up with her before he had given himself time to reflect and said simply:

“You are beautiful.””

And so le grand Meaulnes becomes the romantic hero, as he returns to school and he and Francois attempt to find the chateau, and the young woman, Yvonne, again.  As Meaulnes searches for her in Paris, Francois discovers where the chateau is. Meaulnes and Yvonne are reunited and marry, but not before Meaulnes has had a crisis over the fact that things can never be as they once were:

“Once she laid a hand on his arm gently, in a gesture of trust and helplessness.  Why was le grand Meaulnes at that moment like a stranger, like a man who has failed to find what he sought and for whom nothing else held any interest?  Three years before such a gesture would have overjoyed him to the point of terror, perhaps even madness.  Why then this present emptiness, this aloofness, this inability to be happy?”

And therein lies the rub of this novel – le grand Meaulnes can behave like a bit of an idiot.  He is the eternal romantic, but life cannot be all romance.  As he tries to live out his fantasies, he actually behaves quite badly toward the women in his life.  The women in this novel are not fully drawn, they exist as vessels for le grand Meaulnes’ romanticism, and as such this novel can be a frustrating experience for 21st century readers. But as a portrayal of the time when childhood has been left behind but adulthood is still to be realised, and of a time when a person has an all-consuming romantic sensibility before it becomes tempered by experience, Le Grand Meaulnes is brilliantly evocative.

Secondly, and with a protagonist very different to Meaulnes, Zazie in the Metro/Zazie dans le Metro by Raymond Queneau (1959, my copy Penguin, 2000). Zazie lives in the country, but when her mother wants to have a few days alone with her lover, Zazie arrives in Paris to spend time with her uncle Gabriel, a female impersonator.  Zazie is excited to ride the Metro, but there is a strike on. Undeterred, she explores Paris and has adventures.  And that’s about it, really.  But despite an outwardly simple plot, Zazie is a hugely enjoyable and compelling read.  Zazie is worldly wise and foul-mouthed, and has a great time rocketing around Paris on her own.  Here she is chatting to a police constable about her missing uncle:

“He added with a nostalgic air:

“Words don’t have the same meaning as they did.”

And he sighed as he looked at the extremity of his beetle-crushers.

“None of this gives me back my unkoo,” said Zazie.  “they’ll start saying I got a phobia again and it won’t be true.”

“Don’t worry my child,” said the widow.  “I shall be there to bear witness to your good will and to your innocence.”

“When people are really innocent, that is,” said the constable, “they don’t need anybody.”

“The bastard,” said Zazie, “I can see him coming a mile off. They’re all the same.”

“You know them well as that, then, my poor child?”

“Don’t talk to me about ‘em, my poor lady,” replies Zazie, simpering. “Just fancy, my mamma, she split open my papa’s skull with a chopper. So after that, cops, talk about getting to know them, my dear.”

“Well I never,” said the constable.

“Cops though, they’re just nothing,” said Zazie. “But judges. Well now, that lot…”

“All swine,” said the constable impartially.

“Anyhow, the cops and the judges too,” said Zazie, “I fooled ‘em.  Like that (gesture).””

This scene shows a lot about Zazie: the heroine is no idealised infant, but a manipulative, savvy, funny, independent being who seeks to please no-one.  The novel has a lot of dialogue and as such a lot of slang, like unkoo, or the opening word “Howcanaystinksotho” (how can they stink so?) which according to Wikipedia, in the French original was “Doukipudonktan”  to represent “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant” (“Why do they stink so much?”).  This gives the novel a unique voice and a real feel of stepping into a pre-teenager’s world (although we’re never told exactly how old Zazie is).  It almost reads like a script, particularly when it uses devices like “(gesture)”, and in fact it was made into a film by Louis Malle just a year after publication. But there are times when Queneau takes on a stronger authorial role, and the voice has a light comic tone that is wholly in keeping with his heroine’s dialogue:

“Perceiving her uncle a prey to the victualing mob, she bawled out: Come on, unkoo! And grabbing hold of a carafe full of water, threw it at random into the fray.  So strong is the martial spirit among the daughters of France.  Following this example, the widow Mouaque disseminated ashtrays all around her. So powerful is the spirit of imitation which can cause even the least gifted to act. Then was heard a considerable fracas: Gabriel had just collapsed into the crockery, carrying with him into the debris seven waiters who were completely out of control, five customers who had been taking part and one epileptic.

Rising to their feet with simultaneous impulse, Zazie and the widow Mouaque approached the human magma which was struggling in the sawdust and crockery.  A few judiciously applied blows with a syphon eliminated from the competition several persons endowed with fragile skulls.  Thanks to which Gabriel was able to pick himself up…”

Zazie isn’t necessarily likeable, she’s a self-serving brat, but I love her.  I urge you to spend three days with Zazie as she gets to know the great city of Paris and some of its more idiosyncratic inhabitants.

Here are the books with one of France’s greatest products, fromage bleu.  Ah, Roquefort, je t’aime, je t’aime beaucoup….

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“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” (Groucho Marx)

Unlike Groucho Marx, I quite like television.  I say this in the full acknowledgement that at least 99% of it is shocking in its lack of aspiration towards anything other than cheaply-made sensationalist drivel.  And (unsurprisingly) it will never be as rewarding to me as reading is.  But some of the programmes of recent years have just been astonishing.  I’m careful how I use TV, which essentially means I never channel surf to sit mindlessly in front of  America’s Next Top Gypsy Teenage Mom Hoarder Bounty Hunter Bride’s Got Talent or whatever else the channels are filling their many hours with repeats of.  I choose what I’m going to watch, and then my addictive personality traits emerge as I stack up hour upon hour to watch in a big binge.

This is why I’ve only just started on Mad Men Season 6. But aside from my unhealthy habits, there was another reason why I stacked up the episodes.  Fear.  I was so worried it wouldn’t live up to itself.  Surely, I thought, they’re due to screw it up?  They’ll take this piece of TV perfection and turn it into yet another series that lost its way and sends fans apoplectic with grief at the betrayal?  I needn’t have worried.  A few minutes in to the first episode, there was a moment so completely perfect I nearly wept with relief at the beauty of it all. (For those of you who haven’t sold your soul to Rupert Murdoch in the name of timely programming, and therefore haven’t seen season 6 yet, don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler). Here it is, the moment: Don Draper is on the beach in Hawaii reading Dante’s Inferno.  That’s it. Damn, Matthew Weiner is a bona fide genius.  Everything you need to know about a character distilled into one perfect moment.  Don Draper, living the life everyone wants: gorgeous and successful, beautiful loving wife sipping cocktails next to him, relaxing on a beach in luxury, reading about the nine circles of Hell.  I could’ve kissed the screen.  If I wasn’t such an appalling housekeeper & so my TV covered in dust, I would have.

And then this got me thinking about other moments in TV where books are used as a visual clue to as to the reader’s personality.  There’s the time in The Wire where McNulty (police officer) goes to Stringer Bell’s (drug lord’s)apartment, picks up a copy of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and is so wrong-footed by it he wonders aloud “Who the fuck was I chasing?” But often it’s unspoken, and funny: Marcus, the scarily shark-eyed ten- year- old in Spy, reading The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) or Machiavelli’s The Prince; Gromit’s many punning titles of great novels (my favourite: Crime and Punishment by Fido Dogstoyevsky).  It’s a great opportunity to flesh out a character (even a plasticine dog) without using any dialogue, in a matter of seconds.  A wordless conversation between the programme makers and the viewer.  So in celebration of such moments, here are two TV characters and the books I’d like to see them read (and proof, if proof were needed, that Matthew Weiner is not lying awake at night worrying that I’m about to emerge as a rival TV-producer-of-substantial-genius)…

Firstly, in celebration of the series return via Netflix, Gob from Arrested Development, for whom I recommend The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989, my copy 1996, Minerva).  The uninitiated can view some of Gob’s moments here:

Gob is a lunatic, obsessed with stage magic but woefully inept at its execution, a wannabe alpha male who will never lead the pack, despised by his mother and barely tolerated by the rest of his family.  And he travels everywhere by Segway.  I decided on The Joy Luck Club because I feel Gob could benefit from some positive female energy in his life, and this tale of two generations of mothers and daughters will immerse him in oestrogen-fuelled drama.  It will also show him the power of unconditional love of parents for their children, something entirely lacking in his own life.  The club of the title is a group of Chinese immigrant women who are living in San Francisco, and who get together to play mah jong.  At the start of the novel one of the women, Suyuan, has died, and her daughter, Jing-Mei/June has been asked to take her place.  The novel is divided into four sections as the three remaining mothers and each of the four daughters tells their story.  The tales explore the experience of the women back in China, and their daughters’ experiences as the first generation growing up in San Francisco.  The communication difficulties across the generations are contextualised within an Asian-American experience, but are really universal:

“For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out.  And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me.  She sits by her fancy swimming pool and hears only her Sony Walkman, her cordless phone, her big, important husband asking her why they have charcoal and no lighter fluid….I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water.” (Ying-Ying St.Clair)

“During our brief tour of the house, she’s already found the flaws.  She says the slant of the floor makes her feel as if she is “running down”.  She thinks the guest room where she will be staying – which is really a former hayloft shaped by a sloped roof – has “two lopsides”.  She sees spiders in high corners and even fleas  jumping up in the air – pah! pah! pah! – like little spatters of hot oil.  My mother knows, underneath all the fancy details that cost so much, this house is still a barn.  She can see all this.  And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts.  But then I look around and everything she said is true.” (Lena St.Clair)

The novel has been accused by some of dealing in racial stereotypes, but I think what limits this is Tan’s ability to create seven strong, original, fully drawn female characters and explore their idiosyncratic relationships.  The voices of the members of The Joy Club Club are memorable and distinctive.

Secondly, Annie from Community, for whom I recommend Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982, my copy 2000, Canongate). The uninitiated can view some of Annie’s moments here:

Oh, Annie, with your relentlessly perky expression and upbeat attitude, your array of tastefully coloured angora jumpers and perfectly organised stationery.  Every now and again the strain shows and the façade crumbles, and Bukowski will teach you that that is where the interesting stuff happens.  Come join us on the darkside, Annie, you know you want to…… Ham on Rye is Bukowski’s most autobiographical novel, and follows his alter-ego Henry Chinaski through an abusive childhood and into an early adulthood where his main source of support and meaning is found in a bottle.   After his first experience with alcohol, drinking his friend’s father’s wine, Henry sits on a bench and reflects:

“I thought, well, now I have found something.  I have found something that is going to help me, for a long time to come.  The park grass looked greener, the park benches looked better and the flowers were trying harder.”

The only other positive experience Henry has in a childhood filled with violence and deprivation is when a teacher praises his creativity and reads aloud an essay he has written:

“Everybody was listening.  My words filled the room, from blackboard to blackboard, they hit the ceiling and bounced off, they covered Mrs Fretag’s shoes and piled up on the floor… I drank in my words like a thirsty man.  I even began to believe some of them[…]So that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools.”

Bukowski is a legend of the beat generation and his reputation for hard-living precedes him.  In some ways this is unfortunate, as it suggests a reputation built on image rather than skill.  But he’s a really beautiful writer who Capote could never accuse of typing, not writing.  For all you fellow bibliophiles out there, here is what happens when Henry discovers the joys of the library:

“It was a joy. Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum.  If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”

Gorgeous.  Moments like that shine out like beacons amongst the violence and bleakness of Henry’s existence; Ham on Rye is a fantastic reminder of why we read.

Here are Gob and Annie with their books:

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“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” (Oscar Wilde)

I inherited all the great loves of my life from my mother: literature, the theatre, film, Islay single malt whisky, and cheese that will blow out your nasal passages from 50 metres. We don’t agree on everything: Kris Kristofferson remains an enduring source of contention (me: total  1970s love god, have you seen A Star is Born? She: eyes are too small. Neither of us is willing to back down.) These enormous differences aside, we get on pretty well, and so Mother’s Day is a source of celebration in my family.  In the UK Mother’s Day is 10 March (for once I’ve managed to post on time, in fact a day early as tomorrow will be spent cooking up a feast for the family), so to any of you who aren’t from the UK, Ireland or Nigeria (ie where Mother’s Day is the 4th Sunday in Lent), I apologise and ask that you view this as a postponed/pre-emptive post depending on when Mother’s Day occurs for you. I’ve chosen one book written about a mother from the point of view of a child, and one written from a mother to her child.  Both merge fiction with biography and contain significant sadness, but both are about the triumph of the human spirit. Well, mother-child relationships can be among the most complex…

Firstly, a novel that my English teacher at school thought was very nearly perfectly written: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985, my copy Vintage, 1991).  Oranges tells the story of Jeanette, who grows up in an evangelical household in the north of England.  Her mother is a strong, dominant and domineering woman who initially believes Jeanette will help her in her idiosyncratic crusade against sin.  As Jeanette gets older, she realises she is attracted to women, and acts on this.  Her refusal to subdue who she is to the will of her mother leads to a failed religious intervention (almost exorcism) and eventually a breakdown in their relationship.  If this sounds utterly heavy and depressing, let me assure you it’s not.  Humour runs throughout the whole of Oranges, a gentle prodding at the absurdity of life:

““You can always tell a good woman by her sandwiches,” declared Pastor Finch.

My mother blushed.

Then he turned to me and said, “How old are you, little girl?”

“Seven.” I replied.

“Ah, seven,” he muttered. “How blessed, the seven days of creation, the seven branched candlestick, the seven seals.”

(Seven seals? I had not yet reached the Revelation in my directed reading, and I thought he meant some Old Testament amphibians I had overlooked….)

…”Yes,” he went on, “how blessed,” then his brow clouded. “But how cursed.” At this word his fist hit the table and catapulted a cheese sandwich into the collection bag;”

The narrative is interspersed with a fairytale that echoes the main narrative. This serves to broaden the perspective away from its immediate setting, and emphasise that while it is a unique story that is being told, it is also something familiar to us all, a fable.  We may not all be northern English, evangelical Christian and gay, but, in the words of the author:

“Everyone, at some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe but is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of commonsense, into a personal place, unknown and untried.”

Oranges is fantastically well written (when the author was just 24) and succeeds in being challenging and complex, but also easy to read and reassuring.  The language is poetic and exacting but never overblown:

“We lived in a town stolen from the valleys, a huddled place full of chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens. The hills surrounded us, and our own swept out into the Pennines, broken now and again with a farm or a relic from the war. There used to be a lot of old tanks but the council took them away.”

Oranges is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors and so of course, I highly recommend it.  The author was asked if it was autobiographical.  Her answer: “No not at all and yes of course.”  For those of you who enjoy it, I also recommend Why Be Happy when you Could Be Normal?,  Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, (the title taken from a question her mother asked her when she came out) which shows the story behind Oranges, and also beyond it.

Secondly, Paula by Isabel Allende (1994, my copy Flamingo, 1995 trans. Margaret Sayers Peden). Tragically, in 1991, Isabel Allende’s 28 year old daughter Paula fell into a coma caused by porphyria, and died in 1992 having never recovered. Paula is the story Allende writes for her daughter as she waits for her in the hospital, bringing her novelist’s sensibilities to the story of her family’s life:

“Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost. The legend of our family begins at the end of the last century, when a robust Basque sailor disembarked on the coast of Chile with his mother’s reliquary strung around his neck and his head swimming with plans for greatness.”

Those of you who enjoy Allende’s fiction will find the same style here, and some very recognisable characters from The House of the Spirits. Allende writes vividly and with love of and for her family past and present.

“[Your grandmother] was drinking cheap pisco, and hiding the bottles in strategic places.  You Paula, who loved her with infinite compassion, discovered the hiding places one by one and without a word carried off the empty bottles and buried them amongst the dahlias in the garden.”

“Celia and Nicolas have asked me to come home to California for the arrival of their baby in May. They want me to take part in the birth of my granddaughter; they say after so many months of being exposed to death, pain, farewells, and tears, it will be a celebration to welcome this infant as her head thrusts into life. If the visions I had in dreams come true, as they have in other times, she will be a dark-haired, likeable little girl , with a will of her own. You must get better soon, Paula, so you can go home with me and be Andrea’s godmother.”

Time is not linear or earthbound in Paula, as the family’s past, present and spirits all exist in a mother’s story, evoked in a hospital room. The final third of the book sees Allende stop talking to Paula and instead speak to the reader, as she loses hope that her daughter will recover.   However, the death of her daughter is not an irretrievable loss for Allende who has an acute awareness of the afterlife and sees her family around her whether they are alive or dead.

“She died in my arms, surrounded by her family, the thoughts of those absent, and the spirits of her ancestors who had come to her aid. She died with the same perfect grace that characterised all the acts of her life.”

Paula is a hugely affecting narrative of one of the hardest experiences a mother can live through, but ultimately the enormity of the familial love that surrounds Paula is the strongest force, and this makes it a great Mother’s Day read.

Here are the books alongside the gorgeous Kris.  To my mother I say, Happy Mother’s Day, Maman, and I hope titling this post with a quote from your beloved Oscar compensates for my insistence on presence of Mr Kristofferson.  And yes, I am planning a substantial cheese plate for the meal tomorrow, don’t worry….

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“There are two types of women in the world: those who like chocolate and complete bitches” (Dawn French)

Happy New Year! (for those of you using the Gregorian calendar).  It is one of life’s small cruelties that if you live in the Northern hemisphere, a grey, dark, cold time of year is also inexorably bound with resolutions to lose weight.  It’s entirely illogical: your body is bound up in layer upon chunky layer of clothing, and all you want to eat is comforting, stodgy carbs.  Far better to start a diet in March – its brighter, starts getting warmer, the prospect of salad is less likely to send you howling in despair from the room (unless that’s your modus operandi all year round, and you are not alone).  There’s a sense of approaching summer and the associated disrobing to act as an incentive to lose those extra layers you’ve acquired that you can’t hang in the wardrobe.  But right now its January. So, until those spring-like days, let us glory in girth, fellow book-lovers, and embrace loose baggy monsters.  This was Henry James’ term for those long Victorian novels, and they are perfect for this time of year.  If the holiday season has left you feeling like a baggy monster yourself, settle down with a huge book: you can wallow, a verb that suits your newly enormous body, in its vastness & lose yourself and the dark days that surround you; you can claim it’s a novella and make your body look smaller by comparison, optical illusion being so much easier than giving up all the fun stuff; and if you go for a paper version rather than an e-book the weight itself will act equally as well as a gym workout for your biceps (er, maybe). ‘Tis the season of the baggy monster!

I’ve gone for an obvious choice of baggy monster, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2. My copy: Penguin Classics 1965). Writing about Middlemarch is really difficult for me as it’s my favourite novel ever.  Ever.  And I find when things are that close to me, I can’t really explain them or talk about them objectively.  Lots of people can’t bear George Eliot and find her too intellectual and moralising.  Fine – I have no come back.  She’s both of those things.  But if you give Middlemarch a chance, the rewards can be huge.  The characterisations of the inhabitants of this middle-England town are fully drawn, as the length of the novel allows for such scope.  There is no reliance on stereotypes (Mr Dickens, take note), and even the unlikeable characters are understandable.  Eliot can be as witty and incisive as Jane Austen (“plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy  and investigated by science”/ “she held it still more natural that Mr Lydgate should have fallen in love at first sight of her.  These things happened so often at balls, and why not by morning light, when the complexion  showed all the better for it?”), but for those of you who share my brother’s view that Austen is just “full of silly girls giggling behind fans” rest assured she’s also very different.  Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown up people”, by which I think she means that the story continues beyond marriage – the ultimate purpose of the plot is not achievement of a socially acceptable breeding arrangement but more a study of how people work, individually and within society.  There are big themes tackled: politics, education, professional fulfilment, religion…If that sounds dry, I promise there’s enough plot to keep you going, with the various stories of the ambitious Dr Lydgate, idealistic Dorothea, vacuous Rosamond, immature Fred Vincy… and now I’ll stop reducing Eliot’s great characters to a single adjective.  It’s also got Will Ladislaw in it, a Byronic hero who can easily equal Darcy in the “pouting air of discontent” love-god stakes, it’s just that the latter’s PR is so much more tenacious.  One of my tutors once told me he re-read Middlemarch regularly, and the final few paragraphs always made him cry (not that it’s  a tragic ending, just realistic).  I hope if you give Middlemarch a go, that it truly moves you.

In the course of writing the above paragraph I’ve realised that this post will turn into a baggy monster itself if I continue to attempt to capture these vast panoramic books in any sort of meaningful description.  So, like so many New Year’s resolutions, I’m going abandon my good intentions and instead write about a book that (in my copy) runs to a comparatively succinct 222 pages. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (published 1989. My copy: Black Swan, 1994), unlike the baggy monsters, keeps the plot fairly simple – Tita and Pedro love each other, tradition dictates they can’t be together, so he marries her sister to be around her.  You may not get a wallow in the depths of 800+ pages but it’s still a great choice for this time of year.    Firstly, its set in Mexico (and I should admit I read it in translation, if you can read it in the original Spanish so much the better) so if you can’t afford a warm holiday away from all the grey you can at least travel between the pages of a book.  Secondly, each chapter has a month title and an associated recipe and is hugely evocative around food: vicarious calories are delicious and also involve no cheating from your diet if you are insane enough to try and lose weight in January.  Amongst quail in rose petal sauce (March) and northern style chorizo (May) there is also a recipe for making matches (June), just in case you wondered. Finally, it is magic-realist in style: the female protagonist’s birth sees the kitchen awash in tears “When the uproar had subsided and the water had been dried up by the sun, Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack – it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.” A bit of unreality – just what you need to help face the harsh realities of a northern winter.

So settle down with a great (in terms of both literary value and/or size) book and enough provisions to see you through (e.g. Kendal mint cake, or a family bar of chocolate.  With the latter you can always claim to be striking a blow against sociocultural constructions as a method of control (or something) by eating it all yourself.  This also works for family bags of crisps) and enjoy! I was planning to picture the books alongside some mojito cupcakes that I’d made for a friend’s birthday, but they went totally wrong – possibly due to the fact that my scales broke and so I guessed all the ingredients weights.  Hmmn, thinking about it, that’s almost definitely where my error lay. This succeeded in putting me in a cranky mood and incapable of thinking of another picture so instead here is a baggy monster who lives with me.  Proof, if proof were needed, that the world is a better place for having baggy monsters in it.

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