Do you have very clear visual images of people you have made contact with but never seen? I certainly do. And I had a very vivid one of Norman Geras, whose much admired normblog I had the great pleasure of contributing to last year, here and again here. I also had a delightful lunch last autumn with Norm's lovely and talented wife, the writer Adele Geras, who I had met through this blog. Well, yesterday I went to their house in Manchester for a very nice lunch, and met the Norm for the first time. When I remarked that he did not look like I had imagined him, they pointed out quite rightly that I could have looked him up on Google images, so I did, and here he is. It was good to discover that we are both relatively new and very enthusiastic converts to the novels of Anne Tyler, and that we both thought The Patchwork Planet the best of her novels, or at any rate of the ones we had read so far -- though he is rather ahead of me, having read ten to my five. So that was fun. I'm just about to start reading one of Adele's novels, Happy Endings, which is about a young girl's adventures in the theatre -- right up my street -- so watch this space!
I'm sure you are all by now familiar with the 2008 Booker long list -- here it is:
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger Gaynor Arnold, Girl in a Blue Dress Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture John Berger, From A to X Michelle de Kretser, The Lost Dog Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency Joseph O'Neill Netherland Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence Tom Rob Smith Child 44 Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole
Now I will freely admit that I have not read a single one of these
books. But if they were to arrive tomorrow morning on my doorstep in a
large box (fat chance), the first one I would read would be The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. I have to own up to being prejudiced here, as not only does he write like an angel but I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to meet the delightful man himself. Indeed I spent a whole afternoon with him, in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, interviewing him for a book. We were talking at that time about his plays rather than his novels, but he had some interesting things to say about the process of writing. I'd asked him how much pre-planning he did before he started to write, and this was his answer:
Well, actually I do believe that the structure of a play, whatever a play is, is an innate shape, a memory shape of something very proper and natural in the brain. So that it's not for no reason that it is the way it is. And I also think it pre-dates writing things down, and I think it pre-dates homo sapiens, it predates homo erectus himself. I think it's so ancient...So that some creature like ourselves, a bit stooped, was allowing these things to happen the way they marked the walls in caves. They weren't thinking about painting, or art, or theatre, or mighty beings -- they were just doing something, like birdsong -- like, as an expression of survival, or of 'We were here and this is what we were like', or any of those things, or 'We are here and we are very afraid,and we are going to do this thing to become less afraid', maybe that's what it is. And so when you are writing, that has to be -- that's presupposed. Writing badly, for me, is when you disallow that fact, and you want it to have some technical book thing -- posh writing, you know....You become chilled. That's what I call posh writing....It's kind of like -- after the waters come over the sand, and the tide's been left -- very innate, very natural, extremely religious without religion, in the sense that you've got to believe it, although you can't see any proof. Because as soon as you become rational, you're lost. I mean I often wonder why writers are elevated, because they are to all intents and purposes sort of benign madmen, and sometimes not so benign. This doesn't even have to be a good-hearted person, or a decent person, or an interesting person -- it seems to be a kind of mortally afflicted person.
Two years ago SB did not win the Booker, though many people thought he should have.I for one hope he wins this time. And yes, I will of course read his book, even if I don't read any of the others. And if you'd like to hear him talking you can do so on a Faber podcast:
I was a bit lukewarm about this when I wrote about it on Sunday but having finished it I feel a bit more positive about it. It is certainly a lively and readable novel, though having been very taken with Mendelson's earlier Daughters of Jerusalem I couldn't help comparing and finding this one slightly less appealing, for whatever reason. It's not easy to warm to any of the characters here: the terrifyingly attractive and charismatic matriarch, Rabbi Claudia Rubin, her bumbling biographer husband, and her four adult children. It is Frances, Claudia's elder daughter, who is really the central figure in the novel. Her depression was beginning to get to me when I wrote on Sunday, but in fact she comes good, as they say, and her trajectory from miserable wife, disliked stepmother and (in her own eyes) failed mother to a place where she finally feels she can be herself is actually very moving and funny at the same time, taking place as it does via some tense and exciting encounters with her sister's lesbian lover and a lustful colleague at her place of work. I also enjoyed the story of her older brother Leo, who dumps his bride to be at the altar and runs away with the rather older wife of a Rabbi, only to find that all is not as rosy as he had imagined it would be. As for the two younger siblings, though well into their twenties, they are truly appalling, behaving like a couple of helpless teenagers and unable to cut themselves free of their mother's apron strings. Indeed this is the problem with the whole family -- Claudia is the queen of the household and everyone is in abject terror of doing anything to upset her. And that is really what this novel is about -- how some, at least, of these characters do manage to stand up for what they really want. But also it is about Claudia herself -- this strong, capable woman, who effortlessly runs a frightening number of organisations, arranges parties, takes services, but has not real idea how to communicate with her own family. When she herself is unexpectedly hit by a massive potential tragedy, she is unable to tell anyone about it. This is, of course, a Jewish novel, and I suppose the cultural context makes a difference, but I think the problems of mis- or non-communication within families are ones that everyone can relate to.
Yes, I have had all four of these books on the go this week. Not my usual practice, really, but after a glut of vintage thrillers (Joan Aiken and Agatha Christie) I could not make up my mind what I wanted to read next. In fact I started The Resurrectionist well before the thrillers and found it interesting enough to want to pursue it but somehow I haven't managed to get back to it. It's a historical gothic novel set in nineteenth-century London and is about body snatching and opium addiction among other things -- not, really, my subjects of choice, but seems to be well written so I shall definitely continue with it and see how I get on. Then there's Beyond Black, which I picked up in a charity shop a few days ago. I had read Hilary Mantel's wonderful memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, a few weeks ago but had never read her novels. This one is really promising -- it's about a psychic woman, Alison, and her sharp, down-to-earth assistant, Colette -- I've only read a few chapters but was enjoying it tremendously. But then I had to go to the library to return said vintage thrillers and my eye was caught by Charlotte Mendelson's When We Were Bad and Sam Taylor's The Amnesiac. I read Mendelson's earlier novel, Daughters of Jerusalem, a few years ago and loved it, so started this one -- in the garden, in the sun -- full of optimism. So far I am slightly unsure about it. It is a wonderfully drawn portrait of a dysfunctional Jewish family, and full of terrific comic moments, but the central character, the older daughter of the family, is so unrelievedly gloomy and depressed all the time that I am getting a little fed up with her. As for The Amnesiac, I managed to stop myself from buying it on Euston Station last week in a 'Buy One Get One Half Price' deal (I didn't buy any, in the end) so thought I should see what I'd missed. Well. As the numerous references to Borges throughout the novel can't help but alert you, Sam Taylor is clearly a great admirer of that brilliant South American writer. So if you happen to like convoluted, post modernist, magic realist thrillers, this is the one for you. Not really my thing, I'm afraid, though I could see it might appeal to a certain kind of reader -- one with a lot of patience, for a start, as this is a very long novel.
A number of people have picked up on Stuart Jeffries' article on 'Reader's Block' in yesterday's Guardian -- it is lively and challenging and invites a lot of discussion and disagreement. You can also read the views of writers who each suggest a book to get people reading again. Norm, over on normblog, has taken this a stage further and suggested a meme, twelve books instead of just one. Here's my list (I'm following Norm and making them all books I have read in the past year):
Cornflower's beautiful blog today has some lovely pictures of flowers and some lovely poems to go with them. I was reminded of my own favorite garden poem and so here it is.
Andrew Marvell, 'The Garden'
How vainly men themselves amaze To win the palm, the oak, or bays ; And their uncessant labors see Crowned from some single herb or tree, Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade Does prudently their toils upbraid ; While all the flowers and trees do close To weave the garlands of repose.
Fair Quiet, have I found thee here, And Innocence, thy sister dear! Mistaken long, I sought you then In busy companies of men : Your sacred plants, if here below, Only among the plants will grow ; Society is all but rude, To this delicious solitude.
No white nor red was ever seen So amorous as this lovely green ; Fond lovers, cruel as their flame, Cut in these trees their mistress' name. Little, alas, they know or heed, How far these beauties hers exceed! Fair trees! wheresoe'er your barks I wound No name shall but your own be found.
When we have run our passion's heat, Love hither makes his best retreat : The gods who mortal beauty chase, Still in a tree did end their race. Apollo hunted Daphne so, Only that she might laurel grow, And Pan did after Syrinx speed, Not as a nymph, but for a reed.
What wondrous life is this I lead! Ripe apples drop about my head ; The luscious clusters of the vine Upon my mouth do crush their wine ; The nectarine and curious peach Into my hands themselves do reach ; Stumbling on melons as I pass, Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less, Withdraws into its happiness : The mind, that ocean where each kind Does straight its own resemblance find ; Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds, and other seas ; Annihilating all that's made To a green thought in a green shade.
Here at the fountain's sliding foot, Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root, Casting the body's vest aside, My soul into the boughs does glide : There like a bird it sits and sings, Then whets and combs its silver wings ; And, till prepared for longer flight, Waves in its plumes the various light.
Such was that happy garden-state, While man there walked without a mate : After a place so pure and sweet, What other help could yet be meet! But 'twas beyond a mortal's share To wander solitary there : Two paradises 'twere in one To live in Paradise alone.
How well the skillful gard'ner drew Of flowers and herbs this dial new ; Where from above the milder sun Does through a fragrant zodiac run ; And, as it works, th' industrious bee Computes its time as well as we. How could such sweet and wholesome hours Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!
If you like this, check out some more of Marvell's poetry as well as loads more lovely metaphysical and other poets on a delightful website called The Luminarium.
My local library -- and probably yours as well -- does these nice little themed displays, designed to catch your eye and draw your attention to books you might not otherwise have thought of reading. I was standing by one such last week, waiting for the librarian to emerge from the basement with my Joan Aiken thrillers. This display was called 'Tried and Trusted', and it featured classics, of course. But tucked between Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park was this, which strangely enough I had never read. Written in 1916, so, amazingly, just a few years short of a century ago, it is Agatha Christie's first novel, and the first appearance of Hercule Poirot and his charmingly dumb sidekick Captain Hastings.
I think it may not be very fashionable to admit to liking Agatha Christie. Certainly if you are looking for fine writing, this would not be the first place you would turn. But my goodness can she construct a plot! According to the blurb on this facsimile edition, the novel was written as a bet, to see if she could write a story in which no reader would ever guess the identity of the killer. As far as I was concerned, she succeeded wonderfully here and indeed I would say that is one of the most astonishing things about all her books -- I don't think I have ever guessed, though I quite often do guess with other writers. But what I admired more than anything about this novel was the great skill with which she handled the narrative. The story is told by Hastings himself, who has been on a visit to old friends at Styles Manor, and has been present on the day when the house's owner, the aging Emily Ingelthorp, is found to have been murdered with strychnine. Her new, and much younger, husband Alfred is the first and most obvious suspect, but he proves to have an unbreakable alibi. By chance, Hercule Poirot is staying in the village and is slightly known to Hastings, who calls him in to help with the investigation. But of course, as anyone knows who is familiar with these two characters, Hastings constantly believes himself to be a step ahead of Poirot and races, over and over again, to completely mistaken conclusions. He is also fatally susceptible to a pretty face, something which tends to lead him down numerous blind alleys, and always ends in disappointment. It was, I think, a stroke of real genius to have this character as a foil to Poirot. He is often so obviously barking up the wrong tree that the reader gets drawn into feeling rather superior, though in actual fact of course Poirot is always racing far ahead of anyone's ability to second guess him. But there is something so touching about Hastings, and not least it is his willingness to admit that he got it all stupendously wrong. For a first novel all this is really remarkable.
It is of course impossible to read this now without visualising those two wonderful actors, David Suchet and Hugh Fraser -- and here they are.
Surely there can be few people out there who have never read anything by Joan Aiken. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase? Night Birds on Nantucket? Black Hearts in Battersea? Arabels Raven? This wonderful writer, who sadly died in 2004, wrote over a hundred books. A good many of them were for children, but she also wrote crime novels, adult fantasy,and gothic novels, and several Austen sequels -- I wrote about Emma Watson a few days ago, but there is also Mansfield Revisited, Jane Fairfax, and Eliza's Daughter. I can't say anything about these, not having read them yet -- but a comment a few days ago sent me down to my local library where I found, or rather caused to be dredged up from the basement, several of Aiken's crime novels. They are all out of print, as far as I can tell, which is a great shame, at least if the one I have just read is anything to go by. It is called The Ribs of Death, and a most fascinating and thought-provoking novel it is. First published in 1967, it is the story of a few months in the life of a young woman novelist -- her given name is Aulis, but she prefers to be known as Tuesday. Having gained considerable notoriety with a shockingly frank novel at the age of seventeen, and having had her second, more serious, book turned down by numerous publishers, she is at rather a loose end and unsure what to do with her life. Here is how the novel opens: 'The train rumbled through the frosty night of Christmas Eve minus two and sitting in it I wept (discreetly and silently, looking out of the black window), oppressed by the sadness of returning home from lighhthearted friends to the heavy cares of a love that was beginning to be outgrown'. Now doesn't that make you want to read on? As we soon discover, the love to which Tuesday is returning is the oppressive, jealous, possessive love of an older woman, the Hungarian refugee doctor Magda, who looks after Tuesday's material needs but can hardly bear to let her out of her sight. Her fears about Tuesday's 'flightiness' are confirmed, of course, since on this train journey home from Scotland she loses her virginity to a charming, earthy, persuasive American serviceman. This part of the story, and alternate chapters of the rest, is told by Tuesday herself. The other chapters are in the third person, and the focus here is on a young businessman, Charles, and his doctor sister Eleanor, who tells him, in chapter two, that he has at most a year left to live before his weak heart finally gives out. Almost at once the lives of these four people intertwine, as Charles and Eleanor move to Cornwall and rent a cottage to Magda, with whom Eleanor wants to open a clinic. Tuesday takes an instant dislike to Eleanor, who she privately calls 'Aspic', and as the plot moves forward, this comes to seem more than well founded -- Eleanor is slowly revealed as being badly psychologically disturbed. I can't really say much more about the plot without spoiling it for anyone who may happen upon a copy of this book. Suffice it to say that it is a psychological thriller, after (or rather before) the mode of Barbara Vine, rather than a detective novel. The characters are wonderfully vivid -- Tuesday, in particular, with her sharp mind and her propensity to fall into bed with unsuitable people, and her confused loyalty to the difficult Magda, is a delight. I have another one on the go now and will be sending some poor librarian plunging into the basement again before too long.
A lot of people were raving about this when it first came out, almost a year ago. I was interested, but not enough to rush out and get a copy. I've dabbled a bit in Woolf myself -- that is, taught her novels on and off -- written an essay on her last year which had me plunging into the diaries and the letters and reading Hermione Lee's great biography -- so perhaps I thought I knew it all. How wrong was I? Last week a kind friend lent me a copy, and I have been reading it with enormous pleasure. Yes, it is about Virginia (and Vanessa and Leonard and a multitude of others) and how she (and they) related to the women who worked for them, and a sorry tale that often is. But it is so much more than this. Truly, in fact, this is a most wonderful piece of social history -- a tremendous sweep through the first half of the twentieth century, and one which really opens your eyes to the shocking inequalities of the English class system. Alison Light's own grandmother was in domestic service, as indeed were a huge percentage of girls in the early years of the last century. I guess this fact has given a little extra edge to her exploration of the lives of these forgotten women: Sophie Farrell the cook, born in rural Lincolnshire, who worked for VW's parents and then in various other Bloomsbury homes until she was 70; Lotte Hope, a foundling, who worked for the Woolfs and the Bells for most of her adult life; Nellie Boxall, who cooked for the Woolfs for over twenty years until she was harshly dismissed; Louie Everest, who worked at Monks House for many years and stayed with Leonard until his death; and many others, all of whose lives Alison Light has researched with extraordinary thoroughness. And not just their individual lives, either -- there is so much wonderful background here -- to give just one example, there is a fascinating section of the book which deals with the admirable philanthropic women of the late Victorian period who set up homes for orphans and foundlings, offering them education and training enough to get them respectable jobs in service. It was from one such home that Lotte Hope emerged, and lucky in many senses it was that she did so, given her start in life: "In the great dustheap of late-Victorian Britain, Lotte Hope was at the bottom of the pile: a pauper without parents, dark-complexioned to boot, with a shock of black, frizzy hair so that people thought she might have been a gypsy or have foreign blood". A terrific character she was, glamorous, lively, full of fun and laughter though also possessed of a fierce temper -- she appears in several photos, always laughing. Indeed, in general, it is astonishing to see how relatively contented these women were with their pretty awful lot in life. And it is that lot -- to be treated, quite honestly, as a lower form of life -- that is the most painful part of the whole book. Yes, they were lucky to work for the Bloomsburys in many ways -- at least the households were more relaxed, no-one was expected to wear a uniform, and the servants, or some of them, were sometimes allowed to join in the fringes of parties and fun. But the conditions in which they were expected to work were often worse than in more conventional households, as for instance when the Woolfs refused to put in flush toilets at Monks House, so that someone had daily to empty the earth closet. And even when Virginia and Leonard's joint income had risen to £4000 a year, they were still only paying their servants a yearly wage of about £40. To tell the truth, Virginia does not come out well from this book. Admittedly, she did have a lot to learn -- having come from a typically comfortable home where servants were servants and kept firmly in their places, and where no one in the family ever lifted a finger to do any work, she was forced to learn to cook, occasionally even to wash up, and later in life started scrubbing floors (though that was for therapeutic reasons). But she seems to have had real problems in actually understanding what these women's lives might be like, or in treating them in any way as equals. Yes, she struggled with the ambivalence of her feelings, but not with any great success in terms of her behaviour. It is strange to reflect that in the last weeks of her life, her rather enlightened doctor recommended housework to her as an antidote to her increasing mental deterioration, so that she actually spent the last morning of her life dusting alongside Louie Everest, until "After a while she put down her duster and went away". This great book is about to come out in paperback. Do get hold of it and read it.