This painting is by the rather interesting sounding Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985). I've just been looking at some more of her paintings, almost all portraits of women. There are some more of people reading so I expect they'll pop up here soon. Meanwhile here she is in person.
This is The Japanese Mask by the multi-first-named Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852-1923). Wikipedia's short entry on him begins by telling us that he "was born to an unwed mother who was devoted to him" -- I can't help speculating that she gave him all those first names to make up for the fact that she couldn't give him what she would have considered a respectable surname. Lots more of his paintings can be seen here, and many of them are rather conventional portraits. This one's a bit different and I think it's gorgeous and fascinating. I love the way she's looking at the artist -- what is she thinking about? and I guess the contrast between her face and the face of the mask above gives it a bit of an edge.
It seems ages since dear Virago kindly sent me this wonderful book, but it was probably actually a couple of months ago. Now you may or may not know (no reason why you should, really) that I rarely if ever read short stories. That's not because I have anything against them, far from it, and indeed not only have I read, taught and admired many of them over the years, I actually edited a whole volume of them some years ago. But these days I just prefer to immerse myself in something that goes on and on -- aka a novel.
However -- and what a useful word that is in this context -- having this great volume by my bed over the past weeks has been a huge delight. It's been like having a box of the most expensive and delicious chocolates of which you only allow yourself one every now and then as a special treat (except that's not a great comparison for me as if they were chocolates I'd scoff the lot but you get the idea).
There are sixty-five stories in this volume, some of which have never before seen the light of day. And, as you'd expect if you have read anything by Taylor, there's quite a range of subject matter and tone. As I dipped and read, knowing that I'd be writing this review, I was thinking how useful it would be if I could say, at the end of it all, THIS is what Taylor is interested in, or THIS is what preoccupies her, or THIS is what she returns to again and again (for THIS, obviously, substitute some brilliant insight). But now, having read the whole volume, I'm not really sure if I can.
Taylor is what I think is called a domestic realist and of course, like her novels, most of the stories have women at the centre. And naturally many of them have lives that are less than satisfactory. It's rare, perhaps almost unheard of, for anyone in Taylor's writing to be able to fully communicate with, or understand, anyone else. People conceal their feelings, hide their pain, suppress their passion. Hypocrisy is rife, and so is jealousy. Loneliness afflicts many, some of whom "try to pretend that Christmas wasn't happening", or entice little children into their dreadfully dirty and disorganised homes, or make friends with the builders. Marriages are rarely happy, even when undertaken with love and optimism, and hidden infidelity is not uncommon. In at least two stories, a wife meets again a man who has been her lover many years before, and though the feelings are evidently still there, life has taken over and there's no chance of reviving old happiness. In one particularly painful story, Miss A and Miss M, a child is befriended by a couple of spinster ladies, the charismatic Miss Alliot and the retiring Miss Martin. It's obvious to the reader, though not to the child, that they are indeed a couple, but the child is oblivious to the cruelty inflicted by Miss A on Miss M, as she is to Miss M's adoration of Miss A.
Children are wonderfully understood and portrayed by Taylor. In one brilliant story, The Devastating Boys, a middle-class couple take in a pair of boys as part of a scheme to give London children a chance to experience life in the country. Harold, who "knew very little about children", has imposed this on Laura, who is terrified of failing, especially when Harold stipulates that "they must be coloured". The two six-year-olds who arrive could not be more dissimilar, or more scathing about the countryside ("the countryside stinks", said Benny), or more difficult to entertain, and Laura's panic mounts as she sees the fortnight stretching endlessly in front of her. But she learns an astonishing amount from the experience, not least to use the word "toilet", much to Harold's horror.
"They ticked me off for saying lavatory", she said placidly. "Benny said it was a bad word."
It's nice to learn, from the introduction by Taylor's daughter Joanna Kingham, that like many of the stories this one was based on a real experience, and that the boys kept in touch with the family throughout their lives.
Marriages are dissected with the greatest possible subtlety. I thought this was particularly well done in a story called In the Sun, which takes place in a hotel in Morocco. Already ensconsed in the hotel are two English couples, the Troughtons and the Crouches, who have "struck up a desultory holiday friendship", and, though they don't really like each other much, are united in their fascination with, and disapproval of, the newly arrived Bunny and Deirdre Wallace. They soon conclude that Deirdre is altogether too devoted to Bunny to be really married to him, and decide that Bunny probably "travels in lingerie" or owns a launderette. And besides, "his accent isn't quite right. A bit too much of a good thing". Their consternation when they discover, too late, who he really is, and that the marriage is several decades old, is very funny -- but the quiet perceptiveness with which Taylor shows what really lies behind Deirdre's devotion is astonishingly well done.
One of the most impressive stories in the volume is the first, Hester Lilly, which is probably long enough to be called a novella. "Deception enveloped them", writes Taylor, of the first meeting between jealous, unhappy Muriel and Hester, the young orphaned cousin who her husband Robert has decided to invite into their home. Although Muriel's fears about their relationship prove more or less groundless, the marriage, never secure, suffers badly from her misery and its results.
Perhaps I've made this sound as if the stories are depressing. But if you know Taylor's writing you won't be surprised to hear that they are also really funny at times. Not, of course, with uproarious jokes, but with quiet asides that managed to be wonderfully observant and witty -- remarks like
"'I'm afraid I don't care for cats,' said the Mayor, in the voice of simple pride in which this remark is always made"
or the attitude to virginity displayed in one story: "It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly enquiring after it, as if it were a sick relative."
Writing this, and dipping back into the volume to remind myself of things I'd liked, has made me want to start at the beginning again and read the stories all the way through for the second time. I can't recommend this highly enough. Wonderful stuff.
Actually this lovely painting is called La Parisienne. Painted by the Swiss painter Charles Alexandre Giron (1850-1914). Beautiful dress, beautiful hat, beautiful gloves, beautiful face. And what's that on the wall? A stencil? Or maybe a curtain, or a screen. Whatever it is, I'd like one.
I've always been fascinated by the Channel Islands, or the Isles Anglo-Normandes, as the French call them. Most people think they are part of the UK but Wikipedia tells me they are actually "considered remnants of the Duchy of Normandy", to which they were first annexed in 933. Be that as it may, they are a good deal closer to France than they are to England, and many places, and indeed people (remember Bergerac?) have French names, although the currency, language and shops are British.
I've never visited these islands but I discovered recently that I could take a day trip from St Malo, not far from where I live, and so I'm going to Guernsey in a few weeks' time. And by a happy coincidence, I've also been reading a new novel which is set on that very island during World War Two.
The fact that the Germans occupied the Channel Islands in WW2 is quite a chilling thought -- if things had gone a different way, the experiences of the inhabitants could have been shared by everyone living in the United Kingdom. So I was really interested to read Island of Steel, which takes place largely in Guernsey, and very entertaining and informative it is, too. It's an adventure story, really, but as you'll know from my recent post on Rogue Male, I'm open to reading those at the moment.
The novel centres on the experiences of a small group of people who have ended up together by pure chance. Three are servicemen, one American and two British. Having encountered each other in Normandy, they set about making their way back to England by sea, helped by two French resistence fighters, but following a shipwreck they all get stranded on the island of Guernsey. They are then asked by the War Office to undertake a seemingly impossible task, the capture of a high-ranking German officer. Fine -- if they could work as a team. But they are all independent, even maverick, and can't begin to agree on the best way to proceed. The problems of living in occupied territory, with the impossibility of proper communication either with each other or with their superiors back in London, adds greatly to their difficulties. The novel captures well the pains and privations of living under German rule and the bravery of the local inhabitants who have to put up with it as best they can. Some lighthearted moments and some exciting adventures -- all great fun.
The novel is at present only available on Kindle -- and a bargain at 99p. I have not got a Kindle but can read books on my iphone or my computer. And so can you, so why not? You can see the author talking about it here.
A few weeks ago I was listening to BBC Radio 4 Extra and happened to hear an episode of Rogue Male. Many many years ago I had read this remarkable novel - probably in a cover like the one in the picture - and the chunk I heard recently reminded me how great it was. So I was delighted when a friend sent me a copy for my birthday.
It's interesting that Penguin dressed the book up in a green overcoat, suggesting that it was a crime novel. But really it is not, or not in any conventional sense. I've seen it described as a "man-on-the-run thriller", and that is exactly what it is.
The story is told in quasi journal form by an un-named narrator, who tells us that it is intended to be a confession. His account is concise and often quite unbearably tense. Some months before the journal begins, he travelled to Europe with a view to assassinating a dictator -- neither the country nor the dictator are named, but as the novel was published in 1939, it seems pretty clear that it was Hitler. But he was caught while stalking the man from nearby undergrowth, beaten, tortured, and left for dead. He managed to escape and return to England, but soon realises that agents of the foreign country are on his tail. He makes his way to Dorset, where he creates a seemingly impenetrable and invisible hideout in the thick undergrowth, but he is discovered by a man going by the name of Major Quive-Smith, who is clearly not what he pretends to be. Quive-Smith tells him that he will give him his freedom if he agrees to sign a document saying that the British government was behind the assassination attempt, something he has no intention of doing. Can he ever escape?
Sounds like a boy's adventure story, doesn't it -- and certainly that is not my normal choice of genre. But leaving aside the extraordinarily gripping nature of the events described, I found the narrative itself absolutely fascinating. The narrator never gives a full account of himself and his history, but he drops in bits of information from time to time which allow the reader to build up a picture. He is evidently an English landed gentleman whose home territory is somewhere in the West of England, though not in Dorset. He is a sportsman, and indeed at first presents his attempt on the dictator as a form of sport, though later in his account we learn that there was another reason behind it, connected with a woman who had been an important part of his life. He has clearly already got a reputation as an adventurer, has remarkable survival skills and great ingenuity, witness his use of the remains of his cat as a weapon. Yes indeed. As you might expect from a man of his background and upbringing, he has an intense class consciousness, but not a wholly conventional one, as the members of what he refers to as Class X are not necessarily wealthy or aristocratic but rather possessed of an intangible something which he can recognise immediately. As for women, he denies at first having any deep feeling for them -- but later in the account it becomes clear that he has been, as we (but not he) would say, in denial.
At less than 200 pages, this is quite a short novel, and one you could gallop through in a sitting. And why not? This is a real classic, obviously hugely influential on many novels and films that followed it, not to mention being made into a film itself and also adapted several times for radio. Have you read or listened to it? If not, go for it.
This is the fourth of Laura Wilson's 'Stratton' series of crime novels, which are set in the 1940s and 50s, and feature the appealing DI Ted Stratton. I've read them all now, though slightly out of order, and reviewed two of them -- Stratton's War and An Empty Death. I'm not sure why I didn't review A Capital Crime, though possibly it was partly because I liked it a little less than the first two. Not that there's anything wrong with it -- far from it, as I can't imagine that Laura Wilson would be capable of writing a bad novel. The problem I had with it was that it was based rather closely on a real and very famous case, or rather two cases, those of Timothy Evans and John Christie, both of whom lived at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, in the 1950s. Knowing quite a lot about the real events, I had trouble separating that knowledge from the fiction of the novel. But don't let that put you off, as you probably wouldn't react in the same way, and I see Amazon has lots of 5 star reviews for the novel.
Anyway -- I found A Willing Victim absolutely superb. We've moved forward in time once more, and it's now 1956. As the novel begins, Stratton is starting an investigation of the murder of a young man, Jeremy Lloyd, who has been found dead in his London bedsit. Lloyd, it turns out, has been involved for many years with The Foundation for Spiritual Understanding, an organisation based in a gloomy, possibly haunted, Suffolk mansion and run by one Mr Roth, an enigmatic foreigner who keeps the 'students' on a very tight rein indeed. When Stratton visits the Foundation, he encounters Michael, a twelve-year-old boy who is believed by the Foundation's members to have special powers, and indeed to be something along the lines of Buddha or Christ, and rumoured to have been immaculately conceived. He does, however, have a mother, the stunningly attractive Mary, or Ananda (=bliss), as she has been renamed by Roth. However beautiful and charming she may be, though, Mary/Ananda proves to have a very dodgy past, and Stratton soon gets enmeshed in an investigation of various births, adoptions, and infant deaths, which proves really hard to unravel. The apparently unrelated death of another woman in the nearby woods only adds to the confusion. And if that were not enough, Stratton is also in a muddle about his relationship with beautiful upper-class Diana, and trying to come to terms with some very challenging news about his beloved daughter Monica. Times are changing -- will Stratton be able to keep up?
I recently read a Daily Mail article online in which Laura Wilson talked about her own upbringing by parents who were members of what the Mail (and presumably Laura herself) describes as a cult -- The School of Economic Science. Clearly the fictional Foundation is based very closely on this organisation, and pretty strange and repressive it sounds. Today, of course, people are generally much more familar with this sort of thing, with its roots in various Eastern philosophies and its promises of spiritual development. But it's all news to Stratton in 1956, and he takes a very sceptical view of the beliefs and activities of the Foundation and its members, though it does make him think and question, not a bad thing. Stratton is in fact a most marvellous fictional creation -- an honest man, brought up on a farm in Dorset, widowed in the war, intelligent and thoughtful but by no means intellectual, very traditional by nature but open, in the end, to questioning and even trying to accept new ideas and changing times.
There are, of course, other crime writers who set their novels in the mid-20th century -- the Lydmouth series by Andrew Taylor springs to mind as a very good example, and I've just finished Ruth Rendell's The Monster in the Box which, though set in the present, takes Inspector Wexford back into his own early days in the police force. But for my money, Laura Wilson does it best. It's all done so seamlessly, and the period evoked so perfectly, that you hardly realise you are reading a historical construct. Part of this, of course, includes the penalties suffered by her various perpetrators, which sometimes seem extremely harsh by today's standards, and in this novel particularly I longed for some kind of hint that perhaps some mercy and understanding might be shown to one invidual. But I'm afraid that would probably would not have been the case at the time, and I was left with rather an aching heart. I can't say more, though you'll know what I mean if you have read it. If you haven't, well, time you did. Excellent stuff.
The French artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) is probably best remembered -- and was also celebrated in his own day -- for his beautiful paintings of flowers. And very beautiful they are -- you can see a whole lot of them here. But he painted other things as well, and here is La Lecture (Reading), painted in 1877. I can't help noticing that there's not a great deal of joy here -- either it's a very sad novel, or a frightfully serious and worthy book of sermons, perhaps.
Latour's flower paintings were so famous that he had a rose named after him and here it is. Many years ago I had one in my garden in Oxford, and this has reminded me that I'd like to have one here in France.