When I'm travelling, which I seem to have done quite a lot lately, I usually grab a slim book off the shelves to read on the plane or train, and last week it was this one. I had the impression that I'd read it before, but I definitely didn't review it though I did review another couple of Forster's novels about nine years ago (goodness, fancy having been blogging for that long!). They were Lady's Maid, considered by many people to be her best work (it's the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as seen through the eyes of her maid) and Diary of an Ordinary Woman, which I read quite a bit of before I realised it was a novel and not a real diary. I believe those two to have been charity shop finds and I expect this one was too.
Private Papers is a brilliantly conceived but rather dark book. It's about family relationships seen through the eyes of a mother, Penelope Butler, and her daughter Rosemary. The scenario is this: Rosemary, who we gather eventually is about fifty, is visiting the home of her elderly mother. Sent into another room to look for some family photos, she stumbles on a memoir that Penelope has clearly been writing for some time, and which tells the story of her own life and of her relationships with her four daughters. Infuriated by what she sees as her mother's twisting of the truth of their family life, Rosemary continues to read the memoirs secretly on many subsequent visits, adding her own comments and her view of the truth of the events and circumstances Penelope has recorded.
The novel, then, is structured like a conversation, complete with gaps and interruptions, although it's unlike a conversation in that one party is unaware of the interaction. This has a powerful effect on the reader's response, or or did for me. It was easy at first to be seduced by Penelope's sweetness and to sympathise with her struggles - she was an abandoned baby, has never found her birth parents, and is obsessively attached to the idea of the happy family, striving to make her own measure up. Rosemary, on the other hand, seems wholly unsympathetic, angry and bitter, for reasons that at first are hard to understand:
Oh shit - it's obvious I'm going to carry on reading this to satisfy my curiosity. But I can't stand reading it all, so I'll just have to skip when it gets too much. I'm not going to read this next bit for example. I know it all, I was reared on it, I know exactly what is coming. It always made me furious, her tale of being inspected by a couple who came looking for a 'nice little girl' and being rejected and crying for a week and thinking she must be ugly or that she stank and all that tedious rubbish. Furious with her, not with the couple. Furious that she told the pathetic story at all, furious at the expression on her face - tremulous, solemn, sickly.
But as the story unfolds through the double narrative, perspective changes and it becomes easier to understand Rosemary's point of view. I can't say that we come to love her, but as the nature of her life and that of her sisters is revealed, her irritation with Penelope becomes at least understandable. Having missed out on life with her own birth mother, Penelope's one desire is for a harmonious household in which all of her children love each other, and love her, unconditionally. Such things rarely happen, it seems, and certainly this is not the case here. One daughter (actually adopted) dies young and the other three grow up in ways that are wholly inimical to what their mother wanted for them. Rosemary has strings of relationships but never settles into domesticity, Celia grows up plain and serious, and makes bad choices in men, and Emily, who at first seems to fulfil her mother's ideal by marrying young and having a family, rejects everything she has built up and then has a breakdown. Tragedies happen to all three of the daughters, and arguably when we read about Rosemary's, her anger and bitterness are partially explained. It's also clear that, despite her anger and cynicism, she is the one who really tries to hold the family together, or to mend breaches that have occurred. As for Penelope, it's impossible not to sympathise with her but at the same time to see how irritating she must be to her more worldly and sophisticated offspring.
This is far from being a cheerful novel but I found it fascinating. Margaret Forster, who died last year, was a superb novelist and one who I think is not sufficiently known or appreciated. So this is one for anyone who appreciates good writing and/or is fascinated by family dynamics!
I'm re-running this review from five years ago as a rather late contribution to Simon and Kaggsy's 1947 Club. I say in the review that it was my book of the year, and it remains one of the most memorable novels I've ever read. Also note it was originally lent to me by Simon, so particularly apt. Here's the review:
Seen here with its evocative Constable edition cover, as opposed to the rather flashier NYRB edition I was so kindly lent by Simon, here is my book of the year for 2011 so far. And here's the way this stunning novel begins:
London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.
If you are saying, Hmmm, a bit Dickensian, you wouldn't be far wrong -- Patrick Hamilton does have a way of personifying things and events in a way that might remind you of the great CD. Elsewhere you might be thinking about Jane Austen -- the brilliant, sharp, satirical observation of characters in an English provincial setting perhaps owes something to her. But if you are now thinking, Oh I see, it's derivative, you couldn't be further from the truth. Hamilton is a brilliant prose stylist and a terrific observer of human beings, their quirks and their foibles and their pains and pleasures and this is a wonderfully written and completely original novel.
Published in 1947 and set in 1943, this is a story firmly fixed in wartime Britain. As the opening paragraph may suggest, it takes place not in London but in a small town named Thames Lockden (based, rather closely, on Henley on Thames). Here, in a rather seedy boarding house oddly named the Rosamund Tea Rooms, is living Miss Roach. Miss Roach? Yes indeed. She does have a first name, Enid, but she hates it, and hates even more "Eeny", the abbreviation tried out by "her" American, the drunken, warm-hearted, over-emotional GI who kisses her on a bench in the blackout and proposes -- sadly, not just to Miss Roach but, as she discovers rather late in the day, to half the young women in Oxfordshire. Miss Roach makes up part of London's "vital oxygen", for she travels there every day to her work there for a publisher, having been bombed out of her room in Kensington a year earlier. Now her home is an upstairs room lit by a feeble ceiling light, with a pink artificial silk bedspread "which shone and slithered and fell off", red check curtains which refuse to meet in the middle, a mirror "held precariously at a suitable angle by a squashed matchbox", and no bedside light.
Miss Roach is thirty-nine and neither attractive nor unattractive, but she has long ago given up "hope" (as she puts it to herself in inverted commas), so the advent into her life of Lieutenant (or rather Lootenant) Pike is both confusing and cheering. And cheering is something she is desperately in need of. For her life in the Rosamund Tea Rooms is made intensely miserable by the presence of Mr Thwaites, surely one of the most memorable characters in the whole of English literature. In his sixties but unusually healthy and virile,
in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler on the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call the 'bully'. That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly's wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy's wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him as he now looked at Miss Roach; it never entirely left him.
Mr Thwaites, "who had further narrowed his mind by a considerable amount of travel abroad", has picked on Miss Roach for his own peculiar form of torture. Actually, though secretly, pro-Hitler, he chooses to associate her with the Russians ("your friends"), who he hates even though they are Britain's allies. Mr Thwaites' speech patterns are wonderfully, horrifically observed. He is fond of substituting the third person verb for the first ("I Keeps my Counsel -- like the Wise Old Bird"), is partial to hideous cod dialect ("I Hay ma Doots, as the Scotchman said"), and falls into dreadful and protracted archaisms ("She goeth, perchance, unto the coffee house...there to partake of the noxious brown fluid with her continental friends?"). Miss Roach's only continental friend -- in fact Miss Roach's only friend -- is the German born, English raised Vicki Kugelman, who is around the same age but a good deal more canny and sophisticated. Apparently friendly and congenial at first, she rapidly becomes first untrustworthy and later downright treacherous, siding with Thwaites -- who is soon grotesquely and obsessively in love with her -- to torment Miss Roach with her own brand of dreadfully faux-idiomatic English: "You must learn to be sporty, Miss Prude".
Told mainly through the perspective of Miss Roach, the novel wonderfully conveys the agonies of her delicate and well-brought-up psyche as she wrestles with the pain and hatred engendered by these two vicious and duplicitous bullies. And if that wasn't enough, I have never read a novel that so brilliantly depicts the realities of life in wartime Britain. Miss Roach scarcely knows what is happening on the war's various fronts, just skimming the headlines from time to time to see who seems to be winning. But the war is no less real to her for that:
the war was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, emptying the shelves of the shops -- sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, paper, pens and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, beer from the public houses, and so on endlessly -- while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room on the trains.
At first it seems shocking how much everyone smokes and drinks, until you realise that the River Sun, "perhaps Thames Lockden's most popular and fashionable public-house", where "the cheerul word 'OPEN' gleams dimly through transparent violet inserted in the blackout material" offers a welcome escape from the desolation of those lonely rooms and dark streets, where the only permitted dim lights gleam "like moonlight gone bad".
I could go on. But instead I must urge you to read this remarkable novel as soon as possible. I'm already onto an earlier one of Hamilton's, Craven House, and have on order a couple more. He is, or rather was, a truly exceptional writer and I can't believe he is not better known.
This lovely painting is by the Russian artist Serge Petrovich Ivanoff (1893-1983), of whom I must admit I'd never heard till I spotted the picture. It's obviously a portrait but I haven't been able to discover who the sitter was.
For some reason most of my reviews in the latest issue of Shiny New Books were of reprints. Here's a taster of one I really enjoyed. You can read the full review here.
I live in rural France, and visit Paris from time to time, generally rather briefly. I’m beginning to get the hang of the city and to appreciate the character of its various arrondissements, but I want very much to get to know it better – the place fascinates me as it has fascinated people for centuries. So when I spotted this volume, just published by OUP, I thought it looked as if it would be just the thing to increase my knowledge and appreciation. And I was right.
And here's a bonus, as it's National Poetry Day - a poem by TE Hulme (1883-1917), who is much less well-known than he deserves to be. This is probably his most celebrated poem:
The Embankment (The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)
Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy, In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement. Now see I That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy. Oh, God, make small The old star-eaten blanket of the sky, That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.
This intriguing painting is called 'Forbidden Books', by the British artist Alexander Mark Rossi (1840-1916). This is apparently his best-known work, and you can see why -- it tells a story, and we all love that. I assume it's taking place in a school or college, but you do wonder what the books are and why, if they are so shocking, they are apparently available on the open shelves of the library. What's in them to absorb the girls so much? And the eavesdropper seems to be rather unhealthily absorbed in their discussion.
I discovered Ian McEwan a few years ago and had a very enjoyable stretch of reading everything he'd written up to that point. Some of his novels I loved, some I liked less, but it left me with enough respect and curiosity to have gone on picking up his latest. So here we have Nutshell, which I actually listened to on Audible, well read by Rory Kenner.
I knew more or less nothing about this novel when I started it, though I'd gathered the salient point that it was narrated by an eight-month foetus in the womb. Here's how it begins:
So here I am upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults. . . . I’m immersed in abstractions, and only the proliferating relations between them create the illusion of a known world. When I hear ‘blue,’ which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’ — which I’ve never seen. . . . I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. My mother, bless her unceasing, loudly squelching heart, seems to be involved.
Would I be able to swallow this? Obviously it has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The baby is infuriatingly opinionated on everything from good wine to current affairs, and we are supposed to believe that this is because his mother Trudy is addicted to Radio Four and podcasts. Or not. The whole thing really is an enormous bit of fun, and if you take it any other way you'll be irritated or disappointed.
As for the plot - well, it's a crime story of sorts. An adulterous couple plan to kill the woman's husband and sell his immensely valuable London house, in which they are living. The baby, obviously, is party to all this, but infuriatingly unable to take any action. Forced to work out what's going on without any visual clues, it takes him a while to realise that his mother's lover is his uncle, his father's brother. Soon after his penny dropped, mine did too. Uncle Claude, mother Trudy, poison, son plots revenge? Yes of course, it's Hamlet. Once I got that, my enjoyment increased enormously. How closely would the novel stick to the original? What are the obvious links to the play?
Some of these are more obvious (and more convincing) than others. The poison was pretty obvious, though it took the form of a smoothie laced with antifreeze rather then a few drops in the ear. It was a little difficult to believe in the existence of a Danish takeaway offering 'baked meats' along with the open sandwiches and pickled herring, but I liked the baby's soliloquies, one of which seemed very close to Hamlet's 'What a piece of work is man'. Clever and funny, too, is the moment when he considers suicide and tries to hang himself with his own umbilical cord. We know from the play that 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' - here, the house itself enacts this, its Georgian splendour marred by the terrible mess of spilled food and unwashed dishes which the couple completely ignore, being too busy having frantic (and, for the baby, very uncomfortable) sex or drinking gallons of wine and gin and tonics.
No doubt there's more. But let's suppose you don't know anything about Hamlet - will this be a dead loss? Definitely not. Clearly the links and allusions add some fun to the mix, but the story is strong enough to stand on its own. The psychology of the couple is well observed, their powerful sexual obsession and Claude's greed for his brother's valuable possession driving them on and blinding them to the implications of what they are planning to do. But after the deed comes the turning point, when the true nature of their relationship becomes clear. Claude is a brilliant creation, a man 'clever and dark and calculating' but also 'dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention . . . a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones . . . whose repeated remarks are a witless, thriftless dribble'. As for Trudy, her state of advanced pregnancy and her continual drinking put her into a frequently half-dazed state of mind, and she follows Claude down the dark lanes of his plotting, seemingly unquestioningly -- though there's a telling moment towards the end when we discover she has hidden his passport.
This is quite a short novel -- less than 200 pages or just over four hours of listening -- but it packs a tremendous amount into its concise length. Witty and thought-provoking, it ended up giving me a good deal of pleasure - why not see what you think?
This is a chalk drawing by the great French post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat (1859-91). You can see the technique he used, known as pointillism, here. But his other great innovation, colour theory, is not in evidence - amazing that he's managed to produce such a lovely effect in monochrome.