Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
A short book which technically takes the form of a collection of short stories. It feels fairly all-of-a-piece, though, barring some of the very short pieces which feel like something skidding past the camera. A young woman lives in an Irish cottage, with a connection to academia in her recent past though at the moment she seems to do pretty much nothing. She does have friends and some degree of social life but nobody else in her world ever becomes a character for us. The book is mainly her ruminating on the meaning of the various items which make up her material world and her interactions with it. I read an interview with the author in which she described her interest in the physical world outside us and her lack of interest in human relationships and feelings so I was expecting the tone to be much more observational than it actually is. The narrator is rather strident about ascribing meaning and value to the things around her, with thought processes that would be quirky if they weren’t aggressively straight-faced and extended. This interpretative insistence is partly engaging, partly exhausting and irritating. The narrator sounds chatty while talking about things people do not chat about, which is oddly reminiscent of a confrontation scene with a talkative, gloating villain, even though she’s only talking about breakfast. The strange appeal of descriptions of the mundane is definitely what the book is about, but the delivery system is an extra element. The narrator says that “Interfering is something I really loathe in almost all its applications”. The title comes from the narrator’s great dislike of her neighbour labelling a pond as “Pond” on opening her garden to the public. Why can’t people be allowed to come to things by themselves, she thinks. There is in this a kind of combative non-involvement, a condemnation of the force of other people’s personalities and an implicit denial of her own in a way I find too difficult to describe. A personality that is strong, if not expressed in a very outwards way, that is frequently allergic on principle to evidence of others’ personalities and occupation of the world. I’m reading into it, I daresay, and responding too much to what I, in my irritation, feel to be a wider type; the dogmatic anti-dogma people. Anyway, suffice it to say the narrator kind of got up my nose and while I found some enjoyment in the book it has so far proved more memorable with regard to the general atmosphere than the content.
Experimental Film by Gemma Files
An excursion into supernatural horror on the grounds that it sounded enough like fantasy that I thought I could cope. Lois, an unemployed former film critic and teacher of film history who is struggling with her relationship with her autistic son, discovers the work of an early Canadian female filmmaker, who mysteriously disappeared. She is excited about the potential boost to her career but the Slavic folkloric figure, Lady Midday, around which these films revolve, comes to seem more and more like a frightening reality. She’s a personification of the hardship of fieldwork on hot days, striking people down with sunstroke and madness and attempting to distract people from their work, which they must resist on pain of death. I guess that shows you how awful mandatory hard labour on hot days is, if both doing your work and stopping it can be personified as a bringer of death. Files uses this folklore rather well but the rhythm of revelation and confrontation felt like we were all, author included, being too dragged around by rules of plot construction. Now we go here and do a bit of this and have these feelings but not for too long! Now we go there and have this revelation which we could have had earlier but we had to save it for some increased momentum at this point! The writing advice that people get given to make their stories more exciting seems to suit plenty of people’s tastes but when I see it in books – and I do see the rules, rather than the story — it often feels to me like a tourist tour designed to exhaust and show me the least interesting perspective of everything. I think I hate the concept of an action scene. Funnily enough, Files actually goes out on a limb to takes things slow, and show us Lois’s general life angst. Unfortunately this takes the form of a “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’ll go eat worms” attitude, as people around her oppress her with their concern for her well-being. So this wasn’t really what I wanted it to be but then I have to give it some leeway on that because it isn’t my genre.
Rule Britannia by Daphne Du Maurier
In a kind of alternate timeline Emma lives with her eccentric elderly actress grandmother and the six boys her grandmother has taken in. The world in general is in a bit of a state, though Emma’s life seems to be trotting on in an ordinary enough mid-century way. Britain has recently left Europe and isn’t looking likely to do very well… The Americans have arrived, for no apparent reason at first but it is eventually explained that there has been a kind of merger between the two nations. They are now USUK and the UK is going to be an olde-worlde-themed holiday resort for the US. Merger or invasion? Emma is prepared not to mind too much which, but unfortunately for her the rest of her household is suspicious and resentful from the beginning. The first part of the book gave me strong flash-backs to Noel Streatfield and it seemed unnatural that we should be stuck with Emma, who simply wanders around feeling a little put-out by the other characters, rather than with the stronger personalities. Finally suspicion against the Americans takes a concrete form. The Americans retaliate with increasingly draconian displays of authority. By this stage Emma’s perspective has become more interesting, as she is astonished and dismayed to feel herself alone among the ruthless and efficiently warlike. Everyone she knows best turns out to be quite ready to live life as a contest of will, force and guile. This readiness is what the novel is about, rather than plot. It isn’t condemned. It may be exhilarating. It may quite possibly be the route to freedom. Emma herself may get swept up in it. But is it nice, or merciful? No. But how valuable is nice? Du Maurier isn’t just talking about war and violence here but simply power of personality. The novel reaches a plateau of ambivalence on these themes, which doesn’t take us very far perhaps but is truthful at least.
Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici
An eighteenth-century writer has been hired to lull an insomniac English country gentleman to sleep by reading to him. The insomniac changes the rules and demands that the material Goldberg reads should be newly written by himself. The following collection of short pieces does not represent pieces which we are to suppose Goldberg obediently composed but variations on the simple theme of this opening situation and these two characters and their possible families. Westfield’s insomnia is caused by existential despair, the details of which have already escaped me because at their most explicit they were exactly the arid, airless kind of thing which freaks me out. I can’t deal with that kind of atmosphere. I can’t read Anita Brookner. Some of the pieces were like that. In some of them the melancholy felt more gentle and elegant. As a whole the book felt like a tray of plain little wafers. Harmless enough, apart from the bits that were actually quite harmful. Pleasant, even. But not exciting.
All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
The second omnibus edition of these chronicles of a vet in pre-war Yorkshire. I read the first last year, having been given it years earlier and been unconvinced by the first few pages, which uncompromisingly presents you right away with Herriot with his hand up a cow. However, it turns out that animal husbandry actually is a perfectly efficient subject through which to strain a sense of the things that make life worth living – kindness, curiosity, courage etc. Herriot struggled with depression, which makes sense in a way – a honed need to find a sense of the things that make life worth living. This one sets up jokes more obviously than the first but it’s still good. Very detailed animal husbandry though.
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
Eighties novel about Beth, an orphan who discovers a phenomenal talent for chess when she is eight and living in a children’s home. She goes on to play competitively and live a life which revolves entirely around tournaments. I know nothing about chess and learned nothing about chess from this, which contains many, many detailed chess scenes (you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink). Still, I rather enjoyed it. I am fascinated by the urge to excel, and by the appreciation of the processes involved in excelling for their own sake. Chess for Beth means a vision of a particular kind of intellectual perfection, a perfection that isn’t static but infinitely responsive, thrumming with potentialities. She needs, to some extent, to overcome a stubborn emphasis on intuition, this responsiveness, this ability to absorb any challenge being what she values most, in order to allow what others have done feed her intuition. One thing that’s interesting about the novel is that it shows Beth is lonely and damaged by her childhood and that chess cannot be enough and does not help to develop her emotional capacities. On the other hand, chess represents a large enough part of her that health must include it and learning to connect to others, while it must take place, must take place round the edges. I’ve seen the film based on Tevis’s novel The Hustler. As in that, winning the game requires some kind of emotional reckoning beforehand and must be achieved in order to reach any further emotional adjustment and peace. By the end we feel that Beth will be okay, even if we don’t know what that’s going to look like.
Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
Sixteenth-century autobiography of a goldsmith who did a lot of other things. Hard to know what to say, really. This book just contains so much, and Cellini is so much. Not that I more than almost like him. Cellini takes offence very easily, even by the sword-happy standards of his times, and gets into constant disagreements, violent and non-violent. He’s a curious mixture of the sullen, brooding type with something more energetic and simple. He is blinkered and driven and it never occurs to him for a moment that life is about anything other than him and his quest to be the best and gain agreement from the highest authorities that he is the best. Full of surreal details from the prison governor (of course Cellini ends up in prison) who thinks he’s a bat to Cellini raising demons in the Colosseum. He can’t even go down the road without encountering a hail storm that bludgeons men to death. Cellini is employed by popes, kings and dukes, and it’s interesting to see the respect even he must show for their position warring with his impatience with their flakiness and general venal monstrousness, the full extent of which isn’t visible to him anyway, being a monster himself. He describes a pope as bestial at one point. Popes are neither more nor less than kings here. Cellini himself has a very comfortable relationship with My Friend God. Anyway, you get your money’s worth of the renaissance here.
The Matriarch by G. B. Stern
1920s novel about a cosmopolitan Jewish family based on Stern’s own. It is more about the family as a whole than any particular member. Anastasia, the matriarch, stubborn, gregarious, managing, is more the swirling centre of the family than a character. Her granddaughter Toni is, like her contemporaries resentful of her elders’ interference in a new way, representing the end of an era. Still, alone in her generation, she feels a great love of the family’s history, which means a romantic, adventurous accumulation of experience extending through place and time, combining coherence of identity with ability to adapt. She also feels a much greater sense of the weight of responsibility to the family, appreciating the need for central figures even when they force their centralness on others. Stern can be a little uncomfortably drawn to glorify specific kinds of Jewishness at the expense of others. There is an intolerable lordly cousin love interest. The shaping is fairly minimal, provided largely by its themes of waxing and waning. More like a blast of warm scented air than a novel. Enjoyable if you like to hear about who married who and descriptions of furniture. I do!