Now that he had heard Amabel and that he knew she was in her bath undressed, it seemed to him that when they had been together she had warmed him on every side. When he opened his eyes close beside her in the flat she had blotted out the light, only where her eye would be he could see dazzle, all the rest of her mountain face had been that dark acreage against him. He had lain in the shadow of it under softly beaten wings of her breathing, and his thoughts, hatching up out of sleep, had bundled back into the other darkness of her plumes. So being entirely delivered over he had lain still, he remembered, because he had been told by that dazzle her eyelids were not down so that she lay still awake.
He wanted her.
She still swayed him like water moves a trailing reed, and froth and some little dirt collects round, and sometimes when he first heard her voice again and when as now she used that private tone, then it was as if his tide had turned and helpless he was turned back, delivered up to move to her tune and trail back the way he had come helpless, delivered over, benighted.
Not long ago I had never heard of Henry Green. Then I somehow did hear of him and got hold of a collected edition of his three most admired novels Loving, Living, and Party Going. I wrote about Loving a few weeks ago and now I have just finished reading Party Going. Published in 1939, it had taken him eight years to write, though it is only about 140 pages long and the action takes place over a four-hour period. It is certainly one of the most remarkable novels I have ever read.
This is the story of a group of young society people who have been invited by their friend, the very wealthy Max, to spend three weeks at a villa in the South of France. All of them set off to the railway station where they are to catch the boat train. But a thick fog has descended on London and no trains are able to leave. Max books several rooms at the station hotel, which will be paid for by Julia’s uncle who is a member of the railway board, and they all set about the business of waiting, drinking, arguing, flirting. Their numerous trunks and dressing cases are still in the station being guarded by various of their employees.
One of the rooms is occupied by Miss Fellowes, Julia’s Auntie May, who has come to see her off at the station but has had some kind of attack and is lying semi-conscious in bed, watched over by two old nannies who have come for the same purpose. Feeling unwell when she first arrived she had a nip of whiskey to set her right, and the doctor thinks she is drunk, but the nannies know it is something a lot more serious. Julia and her friends look in on her from time to time but they are confused and helpless and have many other things on their minds. Julia is in love with Max, who is attracted to her but is still trying to escape from the beautiful Amabel, who has not been invited to France. Amabel turns up unexpectedly and announces she must have a bath – she has brought her maid, who has brought her bath salts. When she gets out of the bath, she dries herself:
As she went over herself with her towel it was plain she loved her own shape and skin. When she dried her breasts she wiped them with as much care as she would puppies after she had given them their bath, smiling all the time. But her stomach she wiped upwards to make it thin. When she came to dry her legs she hissed like grooms do. And as she got herself dry that steam began to go off the mirror walls so that as she got white again more and more of herself began to be reflected.
She stood out as if so much health, such abundance and happiness should never have clothes to hide it. Indeed she looked as though she was alone in the world she was so good, and so good that she looked mild, which she was not.
Quite apart from the extraordinary quality of the prose, which is completely unlike anything you will have read before, this novel is remarkable for the way it enters into the minds, thoughts and feelings of each of the characters. Their loves, their hates, their doubts, their insecurities, their fears are all revealed to the reader, though not, of course, to each other. Set apart by their wealth and privilege, they are thrown by it into a tiny clique whose only concern seems on the surface to be the petty fallings out and scandals of their friends. They are indeed an amusing but also a deeply pitiable group who, if they only knew it, share a great deal more with their supposed inferiors than they could ever imagine. That is to say, both the servants and their employers want their cups of tea, their drinks, their kisses – but of course the servants are more honest about it.
There are wonderful glimpses of the sea of humanity waiting at the station. Seen by Julia from the hotel windows directly above, the crowd seemed to be swaying like branches rock in a light wind, and Julia
had forgotten what it was to be outside, what it smelled and felt like, and she had not realized what this crowd was, just seeing it through glass. It went on chanting WE WANT TRAINS, WE WANT TRAINS from that one section which surged to and fro and again that same woman shrieked, two or three men were shouting against the chant but she would not distinguish words. She thought how strange it was when hundreds of people turned their heads all in one direction, their faces so much lighter than their dark heads, lozenges, lozenges, lozenges.
It’s terrifying, said Julia, I did not realize there were so many people in the world.
This wonderful, peculiar, extraordinary novel will not be to everyone's taste. But if you are willing to throw yourself in and let yourself grow accustomed to Green's amazing prose and strange, perceptive world view, it should certainly not be missed.
The picture is deceptive -- as actually I'm reviewing the novel (or is it a short story?) by Graham Greene on which this film was based. I haven't seen the film and didn't know it existed, and to be honest I don't feel much impelled to seek it out. I was really excited when I found the book in a house I stayed in last week -- I'd never heard of it, and as I've loved the few of Greene's novels I have read I thought I was in for a treat. But in fact I was not that enthralled, and this despite the fact that the novel is based around the second world war, which I have been somewhat obsessed with recently.
The fact is that this isn't really a novel at all. It started out as a film treatment which Greene had actually forgotten about until it was rediscovered many years later. It was greeted with lots of praise when it appeared, so why didn't it grab me? Who knows.
The story is an intriguing one. It starts in a prison, during the war -- thirty men are in a cell, and the guards announce one day that three of them -- one in ten -- are going to be killed. The prisoners draw lots to decide who will die. One of the prisoners is Chaval, a lawyer, who is unpopular with the rest of the men -- he is of a different class and they just can't relate to him. When the lots are drawn, he gets the final one of the three, but he really does not want to die. So he offers to pay somebody else to take his place -- the payment being literally everything he possesses, including a beautiful house and a great deal of money. Almost to his surprise, one Janvier accepts the deal on behalf of his mother and sister. The action then moves forward to after the war. Chaval is broke and desperate, and decides to visit the house, using an assumed name. There he meets Janvier's sister, who, not realising who he is, tells him how much she hates Chaval for what he has done -- but offers him a job as general handyman. Then another man appears on the doorstep and announces that he is Chaval....
Sounds great, doesn't it. I suppose I just wasn't in the mood. Anybody out there read it, or seen the film (which may have been a TV one)?
I have long been an admirer of Slightly Foxed, the most readable and intelligent literary magazine you could ever hope to find. And now I am very happy to say that they are offering a new service, called A Taste of Slightly Foxed which basically does what it says -- gives you a piece from the magazine to read at your leisure. What's more they have been kind enough to send me a link and here is the most recent one, which is about Iris Murdoch. Now my last attempt at Iris Murdoch was a dismal failure -- I tried to read The Unicorn and gave up halfway through. But now, having read this excellent essay, I am determined to have another go and The Sea The Sea is the one I'm going to attempt. So watch this space. Meanwhile here's the Taste.
It's strange, really, given my penchant for crime and mystery novels, that I'd never even heard of Robert Barnard till the other day though apparently he has written countless numbers of the things and is very celebrated. Anyway all that changed when I read a review of this one on someone's blog (sorry, can't remember whose). I was intrigued because it is set, or at least it starts, in the middle of the second world war, which has obsessed me for some months now. So off I went to Amazon, and I'm happy to say it lived up to expectations.
Interestingly enough, it wasn't until it plopped onto the doormat that I discovered that the blurb on the back has a headline all of its own -- Little Boy Lost. Of course that is the title of a wonderful novel by Marghanita Laski, which I read only a month ago. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate reference -- possibly not, as Barnard's novel was published in 1984, about 40 years after Laski's, and I doubt if the publishers would expect anyone to remember that far back. Perhaps Barnard himself did, though, as this does take as its starting point a situation not entirely unrelated to Laski's -- a child separated from his parents in wartime, his identity uncertain.
There the similarity ends, though, as little Simon, aged about five when the novel begins, arrives in the West of England with a trainload of evacuees. As the other children are gradually ticked off the list and sent to their respective homes, it becomes clear that Simon is unaccoutably not listed anywhere. Nobody knows where he came from or where he is supposed to go. Luckily a good and kind-hearted couple take him in, and soon he is happily settled in the village. And there, no-one ever having come along to claim him, he remains until he is old enough to go off to university. He has never been particularly curious about his origins, of which he seems to have no memory, though he was prone to nightmares at first which seemed to involve some kind of violence. One day, though, walking through Paddington in London, he has a sudden memory of the area and feels sure he must once have lived there. And so begins an investigation which soon turns into an obsession, as he tracks down what he knows must be his family and tries, without much success, to discover why he ended up on that train.
The novel moves seamlessly forward through time from 1941 to the early 1980s, each era being wonderfully and vividly evoked. Particularly impressive is the depiction of the British fascist movements before and after the war, to which Simon discovers his supposed father had belonged. From Mosley's Blackshirts in the 1930s to the sad, swaggering members of a 1970s British Citizens Army, they are brought to life in a most convincing and depressing way.
But essentially, of course, this is Simon's story, and a fascinating one it is, as he tramps the streets and searches through local newspapers for indications of who he might be. The final truth is not revealed until almost the end, though there are plenty of red herrings along the way. As you can see, this is not a murder mystery, though there is an unexplained death at the heart of it.
I enjoyed this tremendously and wonder if anyone else has read any Barnard as I'm all set to order another but rather overwhelmed by the huge choice!
As you may or may not know (or care) I am in France at the moment. I've got a house here, on the border of Normandy and Brittany, and I'm spending the month of July in it. When I first bought it, over thirteen years ago, I'd thought I would probably come and live here when I retired, but since I retired life has somehow overtaken me-- in the best possible way -- and the move has not yet been on the agenda. But I've always wondered if I should do it, if I'd like it if I did do it, and so on. So I was more than delighted when Sourcebooks kindly offered me a review copy of a book by someone who really did do it.
Karen Wheeler is, I think, a very brave woman. A successful fashion journalist and esrtwhile fashion editor of The Mail on Sunday, she found herself unexpectedly and unhappily single at the age of thirty-five. Increasingly sick of her empty life of handbags and designer shoes, feeling threatened by the twenty-something man-hunters who seemed to have sprung up while she was happily ensconsed with her lover, she decided to give up her Notting Hill flat and move to a small, unrestored house in rural France. Thus, the beginning of this delightfully readable book finds her with a car full of black bin-liners (mostly stuffed with designer clothes) on the road to the coast, and thence to the ferry, and thence to the peaceful village in Poitou-Charentes where her dream house awaits her. Even her departure from London is not without its problems.
As the car limped to the end of the road, its suspension several inches closer to the ground than usual, I realized I had forgotten something. Panicking, I reversed at speed, the sound of china rattling ominously as I hit the traffic bumps.
Fortunately Daisy and Jerome were still standing at the gate.
"How do I get to Portsmouth?", I yelled.
"The A3", Daisy shouted back. "Follow the signs to Hammersmith".
"I give it a month", said Jerome, shaking his head, "before you're back".
In fact, of course, Karen does not come back, or certainly not to stay. The rest of the story tells of her adventures during her first year in the village. The house, bought on a whim a year earlier, is almost uninhabitable. She has great plans, of course, involving Farrow and Ball paint, large comfortable sofas, a wood-burning stove and a courtyard filled with roses, jasmine, geraniums and herbs. But those plans are far in the future as she doesn't have any hot water, there's a huge hole in the kitchen floor, and everything in the house is brown -- wallpaper, paintwork, ceilings and bathroom tiles. Everything, that is, except one room which has been carefully painted in its entirity with white gloss paint by a willing but expensive French workman who misunderstood her instructions.
Slowly, of course, everything starts to come together, though not before Karen has spent a hideously uncomfortable week in a tiny designer tent on a very noisy campsite, a hideously expensive week in a grand and not particularly attractive hotel, and many weeks, even months, camping out in her own house and living on bread and brie. Not for the fainthearted, you will think, and I know this is true having lived in my own unrestored Oxford house for three months without a kitchen, bathroom, or heating, surrounded by builders and holed up in one grubby room. But of course, many ups and downs later, everything does come together as she had hoped and planned, and by the end of a year the house is totally gorgeous.
But this is far from being a house restoration book, or at least that's only a small part of it. This is also the story of Karen's own restoration, if I can put it like that. She has been literally devastated by the sudden disintegration of what she thought was a permanent relationship and her year in France is also the year of slowly healing her broken heart. There are plenty of ups and downs along this road too -- men who appear and then disappear, swear undying love and then return to their girlfriends or wives, or turn out to be gay (as does the gorgeous patissier). But Karen survives it all with enormous gaiety and humour. This is greatly helped by the friends she makes in and around the village, both French and English. Some of her stories of nights out with the ex-pat community, mostly over sixty-five and frequently extremely drunk, are truly and horrendously hilarious, but there are enough people of her own age and inclinations to make her social life, as she comes to realise, a lot more enjoyable than the one she had in London. As for the designer clothes and shoes, there's a wonderful moment when she decides she really doesn't need them any more and bags them all up to take to the depot vente (from which they are then bought by her friends, much to her amusement).
This is of course a perfectly true story, though she admits she has changed names and perhaps embroidered a little bit. But as you can see from her own blog, Karen's life does continue in France and she is still there now. Indeed there's a second book, Toute Allure, and I think a third is on the way. I shall certainly be reading these as I am definitely a fan now, and so would you be if you picked up this very enjoyable book. Highly recommended.
To tell the gobs honest truth I did not give a first-light fart for full stops and all the rest. I thought my page looked fine while her page looked like it was covered with goat droppings with all the wee dots and spots on it. But as my Mr Levy used to say, choices choices, life is full of choices. I thought to myself would you rather be up in your room where there is no fire and a draft coming through the window or would you rather be down here warming your titties by the coals and watching the lovely Arabella as she gives you a lecture on commas and capital letters and maybe from time to time holds your hand and takes you into her confidence?
I studied a lot of punctuation.
So writes Bessy Buckley, whose wonderfully original, vivid, narrative voice is guaranteed to be like nothing you have ever read before. Aged about fifteen (she's not too sure herself), Bessy has escaped from her drunken dissolute mother who wants to put her back on the Glasgow streets, and chance has caused her to stumble into a job as an "in-and-out maid" at a run-down Scottish estate, Castle Haivers. It is 1863. Her new employer, the lovely Mrs Arabella Reid, is beautiful, fragile, and definitely eccentric. She insists on Bessy keeping a journal (hence the punctuation lessons), and not only does she get her to do a series of incomprehensible tasks -- she wakes her up in the middle of the night to make cocoa, measures her nose, gets her to stand up and sit down on command -- but she proves to be obssessed with her last maid but one, Nora, who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Despite the eccentricities, though, Bessy soon adores Arabella and feels she will do anything for her.
The tasks become more comprehensible when Bessy manages to get a look at a book her "missus" is writing: Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time. But, deeply upset by the entries she reads about herself, which are subtitled "The Most Particular Case of a Low Prostitute", Bessy decides to teach Arabella a lesson.
Hell's teeth, how can I explain the wretched despair I felt, except to say my heart was banjaxed. I was no more than a 'thing' to Arabella, a thing that might be experimented upon, toyed with and cast aside at a whim when it had outgrown its use.
Bad cess on her.
Bessy's lesson, involving a fake ghost, will have terrible repercussions for Arabella and indeed for Bessy herself, but you will need to read this great novel to find out what they are.
This was actually a re-read for me as I first read it when it came out in 2006, which was before my blogging days. I actually picked it up this time in slight desperation -- I'm in France and somehow the books I brought with me to read don't seem at all attractive, though I was really looking forward to them when I was in England. So when I spotted The Observations on the bookshelf I thought I'd see how it stood up the second time around. And the answer was -- remarkably well. In fact I can truthfully say I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time -- of course you know what's going to happen but at the same time you spot a few things you missed.
If you wanted to be analytical about the novel, you could say an important theme was oppression by both gender and social class. Arabella, despite her strangeness, is an intelligent woman with no outlet for her need to research and write -- she has to keep her Observations hidden from her husband, who has no idea she is writing a book. As for Bessy, despite her horrendous upbringing, she is as sharp as a knife -- observant, witty, with a huge appetite for books (she gobbles up Bleak House in just a few days) and a great deal of healthy scepticism -- and once she gets the hang of the commas and full stops she's an excellent writer. Her relationship with Arabella is beautifully observed -- it's clear that once she gets over her initial crush she could be a really good friend to this very isolated and fragile woman, but the gap between mistress and maid is so huge that the likelihood of it ever happening seems slim. And, of course, it's also a book about writing, its power and its dangers, despite Bessy's initial scepticism about Arabella's request for a journal:
Jesus Murphy I thought to myself what possible interest could that be to any man jack and I may have said as much except not in those exact words and then the missus says if you do it I will give you an extra shilling so I thought well gob if it made her happy.
But I am being too pert. To tell the truth I did not care a duck's beak for the extra shilling. I just wanted to please my mistress.
This is a cracking story, full of incidents, twists and turns, with wonderful secondary characters, gothicism, ghosts, madness and more besides. Read it for that, if you like, but above all read it for Bessy, her terrific voice and her indomitable spirit, her warmth, and her intelligence. Though the story covers less than a year, she grows up tremendously over that short time, and by the end we can see she has turned into a truly remarkable young woman.
Jane Harris's recent Gillespie and I has made a huge splash, and perhaps everyone who read that will have already gone on to read this too. If you haven't, please do -- I can't recommend it highly enough.
You can always rely on Robert Goddard for a good mystery, often featuring mistaken identity and frequently set in some historical period. Painting the Darkness is no exception. It's not a crime novel in any conventional sense of the word -- crimes are committed but they are almost incidental to the main plot.
Based, I would surmise, on the famous Victorian case of the Tichbourne Claimant, this novel concerns the appearance, in the late 1880s, of a man claiming to be Sir James Davenall, the heir to a large estate, who was thought to have died some years earlier. His knowledge of his supposed childhood and young adulthood is impeccable, but his mother and younger brother refuse to acknowledge him -- though they both have quite powerful reasons to do so. However his erstwhile fiancee Constance, now married to somebody else, is certain that he is James, and so is his old Nanny and, eventually, his lawyer cousin Richard. A court case is eventually set in motion and the suspense mounts...
Indeed, the suspense mounts all the way through this nearly 600 page novel. Goddard handles the whole thing remarkably well as the reader is never sure if James is indeed who he says he is -- he is a sympathetic character so you want him to be, but you never see inside his head so you really do not know how it will all turn out in the end. There are twists and turns galore, red herrings, blind alleys, and goodness knows what else besides. The final twist comes almost on the final page. Phew!
Goddard writes pretty well and his historical background seems reliable -- there are real people in here as well as ficitional ones, including Prince Louis Napolean and the courtesan Cora Pearl. Not the most wonderful book I've ever read but it passed some enjoyable hours (and enabled me to donate £2 to Help the Aged).