Following on from the painting from last week, here's another of those Danish artists who liked to paint back views of women (the Copenhagen Interior School, as they are known). This one is by Vilhelm Hammershoi and it's called Interior (1893).
When kind Messrs Constable offered me a copy of this book, I jumped at it. Once upon a time I was an avid reader of Private Eye, where these pieces first appeared, and though I only read it now if it happens to be in someone's lavatory or on a station bookstall, I do still appreciate an intelligent giggle and hoped this would provide it. And oh yes, it did.
DJ Taylor is a man of many parts, or at least of many books. I tried to read his Kept: A Victorian Mystery, but didn't get on with it, and heard him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival about, I think, writing biographies, of which he has written at least two. I didn't know he also wrote parodies in Private Eye, but he does. And very funny some of them are.
Of course it helps if you are familiar with the original that is being parodied, and I was a bit concerned when I found from reading the contents list that there were many authors who I'd never read. But in fact this didn't really matter very much, as you quickly get the idea of the quirks, traits, or mannerisms of the parodee (though I'm sure there's no such word). And in the end, some that made me laugh the most were of people I had no prior knowledge of at all.
I must give you some samples, otherwise I'll be waffling on endlessly and boringly in the abstract. So how about Anita Brookner (who I have read):
She had always known that it was her destiny to write novels. For a time the substantial presence of art had threatened to interpose itself, but ultimately even this impediment had faded away and the true summit of her ambition lay unignorably before her: tantilising, vertiginous, exact. And so the novels had been written, a shelf of them at least, with a regularity that to her public denoted merely a mastery of her material, but which to certain of her critics hinted only at a uniformity of subject matter. She was not distressed by these insinuations, for she belonged to a generation that considered intimations of both praise and blame unworthy of one's notice.
Occasionally her publisher would venture the mildest of remonstrances. 'Miss Brookner', he would say (she liked the habitual deference of his address), 'has it never occurred to you to put a little, let us say, demotic into your books, you know, the kind of conversations that people actually have?'
She considered this request carefully. It was to her like the sound of rain falling far off, upon distant thoroughfares, but capable of intruding upon her own vicinity. 'No', she said finally. 'It has not'.
Or how about Claire Tomalin's Dickens:
...There is of course very little actual proof that Dickens despatched his mistress Ellen Ternan to France in the period 1862 to 1865, visited her on numerous accasions and had an illegitimate child by her which died, and yet the circumstantial evidence is so strong that a biographer would be mad not to fill an entire chapter with it so the newspapers have something to serialise (surely 'set down the known facts in an objective and responsible manner'? - Ed.)
Although the scene of his passing is always assumed to be his house at Gadshill near Rochester in Kent, it is perfectly possible that he may have suffered his fatal stroke at his paramour's Peckham lodgings, and been conveyed by her - Ellen was a strong girl and quite capable of this feat - by cab, locomotive (Bradshaw reveals that a 3.17 ran from Holborn Viaduct to nearby Chatham) and penny-farthing bicycle to the family home. Alternatively it is by no means stretching credulity to wonder whether Miss Ternan could have hired an air balloon for the purpose.
Silly? Yes. But what Taylor is doing in these extracts, and indeed throughout the volume, is to satirise the pretensions of his subjects. So you find biographers like Tomalin wildly building onto the slimmest of evidence, others like Philip Zeigler on Edward Heath, unable to conceal their contempt for their subjects despite continuous assurances that Edward Heath was a very remarkable man, or quoting letters in apparent innocence of the light they cast, as in Anne Chisholm's Frances Partridge:
Sometimes the war seemed painfully close, as on the occasion when a soldier from a platoon passing through the village knocked at the door and asked if she could spare a teabag. 'Frankly the sight of his silly, red, pert and somehow condescending face made me feel quite sick. I wished Ralph had been there to impress on his the consequences of his folly, but alas he was on the telephone to his stockbroker'.
I could go on, and on. But I expect you get the general idea. This slimmish volume has a learned introduction by Taylor which I found rather hard to take seriously, as I read it after I'd read all the parodies. But it does make some interesting points, such as this one in the final paragraph:
Parody was a bad idea, FR Leavis once declared, as it demeaned the artist. To this one might retort that an excessive respect towards books and the people who write them is nearly always a very bad idea, and also that the parodist is not only there to laugh at the overwrought and the self-obsessed: he is also there to authenticate, and, by implication, to set up a series of spiritual preservation orders on the victims who crawl under his lens.....[Parodists] are also a vital part of an aesthetic process that the modern world seems to have lost sight of: the cultivation of that rare but intoxicating cultural condiment, taste.
So there you are. Thanks, Constable, for giving me several hours of real enjoyment. Highly recommended.
This lovely painting is by Peder Ilsted (1861-1933) a leading Danish artist. Together with Carl Holsoe and Vilhelm Hammershoi, he was in a group known later as the 'Copenhagen Interior School'. According to Wikipedia,
They are famous for painting images of "Sunshine and Silent Rooms", all in subtle colors. Their works reflects the orderliness of a tranquil life –- similar to the earlier works of Vermeer....These interiors evoke at once a sense of calm, as well as a sense of mystery. The orderly rooms are often viewed from behind—causing one to wonder if the scenes are really tranquil or something else.
Hmmm... not sure what that last bit means. This is my first Ilsted on here but I've shown you a few paintings by the other two artists in the past, anyway, and I am sure there will be a few more to come as I particularly like them.
Just over a year ago I read A Discovery of Witches, which proved to be the first volume of a trilogy. Now the apparently indefatiguable Deborah Harkness has produced a second volume, just as fat as the first, which takes the story of extremely attractive vampire/Oxford University professor Matthew Clairmont and his beautiful witch wife Diana back into the last decade of the sixteenth century. Well.
Deborah Harkness is a proper historian and knows a lot about the 1590s. A lot more than I do, obviously, but though I've heard that some people have quibbled about the accuracy of her fictional world, I was happy to accept it all and found it really fascinating. She's even, in this book, based Matthew's sixteenth-century persona on a real, though shadowy person, Matthew Roydon, who was apparently a member of the so-called School of Night which supposedly centred around Walter Raleigh and included Christopher Marlowe and other well-known people. As you can tell from all the qualifiers in that sentence, this is all rather speculative, but hey, this is fiction, so who cares? I don't.
In this book, Diana and Matthew spend a good deal of time in London, hob-nobbing with Raleigh and co, but also go to France and meet Matthew's amazing, powerful, beautiful, vampire father Philippe, who takes a while to accept Diana but finally does so wholeheartedly. Then there's a protracted period in Prague, where a lot of skullduggery goes on. Essentially Matthew and Diana are looking for the alchemical manuscript that Diana found in the Bodelian Library at the beginning of The Discovery of Witches. They track it down to the library of Dr John Dee, but Dr Dee has given it to his assistant, the unstable Edward Kelley, who has taken it to Prague and presented it to the Emperor Rudolf II, who really fancies Diana...
I could go on, but you get the general idea. I actually found the blending of fact and fiction rather satisfying, and learned a lot about the practice of alchemy at the period, and about attitudes to witchcraft. I really enjoyed Diana's friendship with Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who was a poet and an alchemist (and does not have a wikipedia entry though she really should). And sixteenth century London was very vivid and convincing. As for Diana and Matthew's relationship, well, it did seem a bit cheesy at times. But that's all part of the fun.
Fantasy has never been my genre of choice, so I'm not sure why I'm enjoying all this so much. Can't wait for volume three, in fact. Anybody else tried this one?
As you probably know, 2012 is the centerary of the birth of that wonderful novelist Elizabeth Taylor. This has been celebrated throughout the year with each month being devoted to a different novel --all courtesy of Laura's Musings, where you can read more about it. In October it's my turn and I am hosting the discussion of Taylor's 1965 novel The Wedding Group, which I have never read. At the beginning of the month there will be an introduction to the novel here on the blog, and then people are invited to write their own reviews and send links, and there'll be a round-up at the end of the month.
So please do join in! I think Taylor is one of the most important novelists of the 20th century and deserves to be better known. I'm just about the start reading the novel and very much looking forward to it. So more on this soon.
William Mainwaring Palin (1862-1947) painted this apparently rather short-sighted lady. Or perhaps she's gone into a dream and let the book fall onto her knee while she muses on her lover, or what she's going to cook for lunch. Or perhaps the painter thought it was an attractive pose. I wonder if he was an ancestor of Michael Palin?
This is an extraordinarily good book. I'd never heard for Gillian Flynn, who I now know to be the winner of numerous awards for her earlier two novels -- and believe me, she is one to watch.
This is the story of a marriage that goes horribly, unimaginably wrong. Nick and Amy Dunne are about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, but when Nick gets up in the morning he finds Amy missing and evidence of some kind of violence in the house. Nick is desperate -- where is his beautiful, talented wife? The police are called in, but nobody has any idea where to start looking, and as time goes on, Nick comes under suspicion, his reputation gradually eroded by his lies and evasions.
Sounds intriguing? Yes, indeed, it's an excellent plot. But that's just the half of it. The real brilliance of this novel lies in the way the story is narrated. Alternate chapters are told from the viewpoints of Nick and Amy -- initially through Amy's diary, in which we see her moving from a bright, happy, loving newlywed to an unhappy and increasingly afraid woman. Nick, meanwhile, clearly has secrets -- even if the evidence of the second mobile phone, which rings at inappropriate times, were not enough, he admits so himself, though it takes time for him to reveal the whole truth. But what, really, is the truth? As the novel progresses, Amy's reliability as a narrator is increasingly in question...
There is so much I'd like to tell you about this novel but simply cannot because I really don't want to spoil it for you. You may know, perhaps, how much I love unreliable narrators, and here we have a couple of terrific ones. The intricacies of Nick and Amy's relationship are beautifully handled, with great subtlety and insight. There are numerous twists and turns, and suffice it to say that it is not until the final page -- indeed, the final line -- that the outcome of it all is revealed. I was totally swept away and loved every minute of it. Without a doubt this is going to be on my list of the best reads of 2012. Now I'm seeking out more of Gillian Flynn, though I'm a little afraid of the next novel not measuring up. Anyone else read this, or any others of hers?
This is by Eugene Speicher, about whom I know nothing and right now haven't got time to find out as I am about to leave the house for a few days travels. Perhaps I'll find out more and let you know. She does look pensive and sad -- what's the story?
I had a go at Jo Nesbo a while back -- read one of his Harry Hole novels, which I didn't particularly like. So I'm not sure why I ended up reading, or rather listening to, this one -- perhaps Audible described it in an interesting way? Anyway, it was absolutely rivetting though not one for the fainthearted. I do read a lot of crime novels, especially at the moment, but I tend to go for something rather milder, with more emphasis on the solving of mysteries than on violence and gore. Well, those things do figure here, I can tell you, though I was able to stomach them because of the brilliance of the twists and turns of the plot.
Set in Oslo, this is the story of Roger Brown, who is a highly successful headhunter. Here's a bit of the opening chapter which shows his interviewing technique:
'I'd like..', I said with a smile. Not the open, unconditional smile that invites a stranger to come in from the cold, not the frivolous one. But the courteous, semi-warm smile that, according to the literature, signals the interviewer's professionalism, objectivity and analytical approach. Indeed, it is this lack of emotional committment that causes the client to trust his interviewer's integrity....I don't put on this smile because of the literature, though. I don't give a damn about the literature; it is chock a bloc with various degrees of authoritative bullshit. No, I put on this smile because I really am professional, objective and analytical. I am a headhunter. It is not that difficult, but I am king of the heap.
So yes, Roger is full of himself, and yes, he has reason to be -- not only is he top of his game as a headhunter, but he also uses his interviews with rich and successful businessmen to seek out information to help him with his lucrative sideline as an art thief. He has a beautiful wife, Diana, who runs an art gallery, and life is good. Or it was, until Diana introduced him to Clas Greve, a perfect candidate for an exciting position that Roger can help him attain. Not only that, but Clas has in his possession one of the most valuable works of art in the world, one that will make Roger rich beyon his wildest dreams. But when Roger sets up the theft, safe in the knowledge that Clas is out of town for the night, he makes a discovery in Clas's flat that turns his world upside down. From that point on, things get very sticky indeed, and soon Roger is on the run from a man who turns out to be a ruthless and amoral killer.
Well, to tell you any more would spoil the fun -- if, that is, you can stand being shocked and surprised and sometimes rather revolted at every turn. Why I can not only stand it but actually rather enjoy it is a bit of a mystery in itself, but there you are. I've just found out that there is a film of this novel and have read the Guardian review which has made me so desirous to see it that I am right now downloading it from iTunes. Isn't technology wonderful?