Here is a painting by a remarkably prolific Finnish painter called Helene Schjerfbeck (1862 – 1946). Her paintings vary tremendously in style from realism to modernism, and you can see a great many more of them here.
If you are a regular visitor to this blog you will have heard me say before that Emily Hilda Young is a truly remarkable writer. I read her Miss Mole in March, and Chatterton Square in the summer. I'd bought this one after I first discovered her, and actually started it a few months ago, and then put it down again as it didn't immediately grab me. But when I picked it up again a few days ago I realised it was an exceptional novel and at least as good, if not better, than the two I'd already read.
The William of the title is William Nesbitt, a self-made man who owns a successful boat building business in Radstowe (aka Bristol). He is middle aged, married to Kate, and has a son and four daughters. The time is the early 20th century -- the novel was published in 1925. All but one of the children is married -- only Janet, the youngest, still lives at home. A quiet, uncommunicative, and seemingly rather unhappy girl, she is a source of some anxiety to her parents who would like to see her happily married. But in fact, as William clearly recognises, none of the other children is particularly happy in their own marriages. The exception is perhaps the rather dull but good natured Walter, whose wife, the beautiful Violet, proves to have a sweetness and an intelligence which William has for a long time failed to appreciate. Of the other girls, Madge is devoted to her narrow-minded and foolish husband, Dora tolerates her bullying and unpleasant one for the sake of the children, and Lydia, her father's favorite -- well, Lydia does something unthinkable. She leaves her apparently nice, kind, loving husband Oliver and runs away to Somerset to live with a rather bohemian writer. This, and the reactions of the family, is the crux of the novel.
One of EH Young's great strengths is in the depiction of family relationships. The complexities here are superbly done. The narrative is told mainly from the point of view of William himself, a man of great intelligence and sensitivity, who plainly sees the problems of the rest of his family without necessarily knowing how to solve them. He is rarely self deceived, and bravely, though sadly, faces the fact that Kate's extreme and harsh reaction to Lydia's departure shows a side of her that he cannot love. He also knows very well that he loves some of his children better than others, and that he will never be able to love Madge, who is narrow and hypocritical and seems like an alien in the family.
This is a novel of great psychological acuity, clear-eyed about human beings and their weaknesses but full of tenderness and compassion for those who struggle to face harsh truths and to acknowledge that perfect happiness is unlikely to be an enduring state in life. If I say it reminded me of Pride and Prejudice, this is not to imply that it is in any way a pale imitation of that great novel. William has an ironic side to him which make him in some ways resemble Mr Bennet, but a Mr Bennet who has managed to regain that self-insight which JA only allows him a glimpse of. And of course he has a Lydia of his own, who elopes in her own way. I'm tempted to think that EHY was attempting (and succeeding at) a P&P for her own times -- an interesting academic essay could be written on this, but I doubt if I am going to write one.
So -- I can't recommend this novel highly enough, or do it any real justice here. You have to read it to appreciate the subtleties and the joys of the complicated relationships and their workings out. Wonderful.
Felice Casorati (1883-1963) painted this charming portrait called "Fanciula con Libro", which means Girl with Book. Another painting sent courtesy of Michel from Belgium - thanks again. Felice Casorati actually appears in Wikipedia and you can see some more of his paintings here.
I''ve been away all week and have totally missed Simon and Kaggsy's 1947 Club - I've joined enthusiastically in the two previous ones but there you are. Anyway, Simon reviewed this novel earlier in the week, and as I remembered how much I'd loved it six years ago, I thought I'd re-publish what I wrote about it them What follows is my original review.
I've always had a special place in my heart for neglected or forgotten writers and have made a point of seeking them out both in my working life and in my private reading. Some of them, of course, turn out deserve their place in oblivion but others prove to be absolute goldmines, and that is really exciting. One such is EH Young, who I'd never even heard of until my book group read her Miss Mole a few months ago -- you can read my rave review of that wonderful novel here. After that, in a fit of enthusiasm, I ordered two more of her books but by the time they arrived the mood had passed and they languished on the shelf until I started packing for India and decided to put in Chatterton Square.
Any worries I might have had that Miss Mole would turn out to be EHY's only real success quickly went out of the window. On the contrary I'm now confirmed in my belief that she is a really important writer. I thought this was a magnificent book, though in a completely different mode from the Siege of Krishnapoor, which I was raving about a few days ago. Set in the summer of 1939, it's the story of two families who live next door to each other in a slightly shabby but still beautiful square in Upper Radstowe (aka Clifton, Bristol, where EHY spent most of her adult life). They are the Blacketts, Herbert and Bertha and their three daughters, and the Frasers -- still beautiful Rosamund, who is mysteriously husbandless, her five more or less adult children, and her spinster friend Miss Spanner.
And what happens? Really, on the surface, nothing very much out of the ordinary. The young people start to get to know each other, some friendships are formed, some flirtations peter out. Rosamund forms a gentle, warm relationship with a good man who would like to marry her. Herbert and his eldest daughter take a holiday on the continent where Herbert has a flirtation with an attractive widow. Miss Spanner fears for her security if Rosamund marries. All of this is very interesting and enjoyable reading, but it is the minds and personalities of the characters that make this such an enthralling book. Herbert, handsome, dapper, highly sexed, is really a monster of a purely domestic kind. Completely self-centred and terrifyingly conceited, he believes that the whole world revolves around him -- he is certain that Rosamund is attracted to him, though in fact she finds him rather horribly ludicrous. And he is absolutely sure that Bertha, his wife of some twenty years, is devoted to him, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Bertha literally cannot bear him, and her revulsion seems to to have stemmed from his forcing himself on her while they were on honeymoon. All these years she has repressed her feelings, but during the course of the novel she finds increasing inner strength and her final scenes with Herbert, when he finally realises what she has been thinking and feeling for so long, are quite wonderful -- not least because Herbert, finally forced to face what he has never before looked in the eye, is revealed as a rather pathetic and weak man who may, possibly, uncover some better qualities with the help of his newly strong wife. As for Rosamund, we slowly come to realise that much as she loves the man who wants to marry her, she cannot shake off the powerful, and sexual, feelings she has always had for her attractive, feckless husband.
All this, and much more, takes place in an England on the brink of war, and it is the attitude of the various characters to that threat that increasingly overshadows the novel. Rosamund and her family are only too aware that whatever the cost this war must be fought, but the cost, as they also realise, will include sending the two grown up boys off to fight and possibly lose their lives. Herbert, on the other hand, is in complete denial and believes it would be best to make peace.
EH Young writes extraordinarily well, with great intelligence and great compassion. This was her last novel, written in her sixties and published in 1947 just two years before her death. I really do recommend this.
Yes, supposedly a family in Buffalo, NY, have found this painting down the back of their sofa, and if as seems probable it turns out to be a lost Michelangelo, it is worth 300 million dollars. Check down the back of yours, just in case. You can read more about this story here.
You may think I've been a bit quiet lately, but actually I've been reading even more than usual in the past few weeks because I've felt the need for some light relief from the novels I've been reading for work. Light relief, for me, is almost always detective fiction. Quite why reading about violent crime should be so pleasurable and relaxing is an interesting question but not one I am about to get into here. Anyway, I've gobbled up a few crime novels of late, but to be honest they generally haven't been interesting enough for me to want to tell you about them. But here we have the exception that proves the rule -- though in fact I have never fully understood what that meant. But if it implies that you can measure the comparative failures against an obvious success, that just about sums up my experience with Kate Atkinson's latest.
As I'm sure you know, this is the fourth in a series which started with Case Histories and continued through One Good Turn and the award-winning When Will There Be Good News? Having absolutely loved the first three, I've been eagerly awaiting this novel and was lucky enough to get it for my birthday a few weeks ago.
What connects all four novels is the character of Jackson Brodie, an ex-policeman turned private investigator. Jackson solves cases, or most of them, but he also struggles with his difficult and confusing private life -- his failed first marriage, his affair with an ex-client, his disastrous second marriage to a con artist who steals all his money, his ongoing unrequited love for Police Sergeant Louise Monroe, his tricky relations with his children, and much much more. In Started Early... he has more or less recovered from the train crash which nearly finished him off, and is on the road, looking for a place to settle down. He has just one client, a woman in New Zealand who wants him to find her birth parents, a seemingly impossible task.
The story swings between two time frames, the present and the 1970s, and focuses on three main characters -- Jackson himself, recently retired DCI Tracey Waterhouse, and Tilly, an ageing actress suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimers. All their voices and inner thoughts are perfectly captured, as Tracey learns, in her fifties, how to cope with the pleasures and pains of motherhood, Tilly's mind wanders between her eventful past and an increasingly confusing present, and Jackson -- well, Jackson is Jackson. He's developed a passion for ancient ruined abbeys and for the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which intrudes at the most inopportune moments. He worries about the world, about his children's futures, about his many failed relationships. He is intelligent, gloomy, quirky, and altogether delightful.
The plot is intricate and well-constructed, the characters are convincing, but the point really is that this a a well written novel. That's what makes it stand out above the rest. It's intelligent, perceptive, thought-provoking, humane, witty -- what more could you want?
A kind visitor from Belgium sent me some photos, taken at an exhibition. Thanks, Michel! This one is titled Ragazza chi legge (girl reading). The painter (Italian) is Noel Quintavalle (1893-1977), known as Noelqui. More than that I do not know -- do you? But I like the painting.
Such a lovely post on normblog today that I wanted to share it with you. I have to admit I sometimes read books on my ipod but I'm with him all in the way in principle.
"I keep reading - well, on Twitter mostly - people saying they've got their new Kindle and ooh and aah and how grand. I'm wondering if there's something wrong with me. Because I not only don't want to have a Kindle. It's more active than that: I want not to have one. The thing is, when I think of my books, or at least those of them that I really care about, and then think of no longer having them but having their contents on a Kindle, I feel bereft. Already. Just imagining that. For each of them, I want the actual book, not just the words the book contains. Is this some kind of magical thinking? If you've got the words and can call them up whenever you want them, why want the book? Fetishism of commodities? Except that I don't have this feeling towards commodities in general. I would gladly have the movies I love all stored on a disc the size of a tooth, so that I could view them whenever. Ditto all the music; I don't need the vinyl, or the CDs, or whatever. Jeez, I've never even owned a car. I take the bus, or a cab. But books, they are the Word in physical shape; they are... the Books. And they look and feel and smell, they be there. You can love a book - not only what's in it but also what it is, its it-ness. I know, I know; I'm clinging to a past that's about to vanish. But I'm just saying".
Not just any woman reading, though. This painting is called The Annunciation. Painted by the Spanish artist Baltazar Echave Orio (1540-1624) in 1621, it shows the Virgin Mary with a book -- and no sign of the angel who, presumably, is about to come and announce her great future.