The Past by Tessa Hadley
A family of adult siblings are spending a few weeks in their grandparents’ old house. Summer holidays here are a tradition but this may be the last year before they sell the house. As well as the siblings themselves there are children, a new wife, and one sister has invited her ex’s teenage son. The two siblings we see most of are Alice and Harriet, the youngest and the oldest sisters. They provide a contrast in personality though they share a physical likeness they find disconcerting. Harriet is rigidly dutiful and awkward, inept at reaching for pleasure, while Alice, having failed in an acting career, is stereotypically actressy and irritates her family with displays of feeling that begin or end in sincerity but are half performance. Nothing much happens, though enough for a novel all the same, and for no very particular reason we have an excursion to the past, where the marriage of our siblings’ parents is going through a sticky patch. I liked the calmness of the writing, which is almost dignified in its refusal to agitate itself. There’s something a bit Philip Larkin-ish about the description, matter of fact but still with something about it. I liked how Hadley comes out and tells you something about the characters right away, in the way contemporary literary novelists seem to be always saying in interviews that they think is artistic heresy. But I did start to want something more. Not more happening, but more humour or poetry, both things Hadley tinges her writing with at times but doesn’t lean into.
Sandra Belloni by George Meredith
Victorian novel about Emilia, a half-Italian girl of humble birth who is taken up by some cultured refined sisters on account of her musical talent. She has a wonderful voice and will go on to become an opera singer. The sisters are associated with the phrases “Nice Feelings” and “Fine Shades”; they approach emotions in the most aesthetic way possible. Their brother trifles with Emilia’s affections, being drawn to her but far too cowardly and self-regarding to either think of actually going through the hoo-hah of marrying below his station or explain the situation to her. The father of the family is having money problems that they’re all too refined to talk about, which means that he can’t fully explain his reasons for promoting various expedient marriages. This is the main source of plot complication. As he so often does, Meredith earnestly sets forth and condemns the cruelties involved in idealising the love object and blaming them for not living up to expectations. He pleads for honest communication and appreciation of simple goodness. This is quite funny considering the dense, mannered style in which he develops this theme. I noticed, too, as with the last book of his I read, that Meredith draws most of his humour from the desperation to keep up appearances and there’s a kind of sympathy with and relish for those panicky contriving brains. He uses Emilia, as the ingenuous fish out of water, as a source of humour, but doesn’t construct the whole book around that as some authors would have done. I liked the way he mixed tragedy with comedy in Emilia’s later characterisation. As a whole, a mixture of effervescence with bitterness. I felt the last hundred pages sagged, though.
King and Joker and Hindsight by Peter Dickinson
I’m fond of Dickinson’s Emma Tupper’s Diary, a children’s book about a girl going to stay with her Scottish cousins. It’s about how they all get on together and how, in exploring the loch in an antique submarine, they discover plesiosaurs. The first adult book of Dickinson’s I read, The Last House-Party, had something of the atmosphere of the children’s book but concerned more unsavoury material and dodgy dated psychological explanations for the characters’ actions. King and Joker, a mystery featuring an alternate universe royal family, was very similar in that respect though the unsavouriness was more of a surprise and less discussed. It left a disquieting taste in my mouth — so I read Hindsight, a mystery centering on the main character’s memories of discovering a body in his schooldays, just to see if that was the same. It basically was, but obscured by being the kind of metanarrative that’s very cluttered by the narrator’s explanations for why they’re writing and excuses for how they’re writing it.
The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
A reread. I liked this the first time round but at the same time had an uneasy sense of dissatisfaction with it — which is more or less how I feel now. It’s the Bowen that, with its grandly allegorical title, seems to be organised round a thesis, to be a demonstration of something, and I never felt it was quite what it was supposed to be. The chief bearer of thematic weight is Portia, a sixteen year-old girl who, following the death of her parents is staying with her much older half-brother and his wife. The novel opens with the urbane, cynical wife, Anna, explaining to a friend her sensations of shock and dismay on discovering Portia’s diary and reading her perspective of others: “Either this girl or I are mad.” The shock and outrage Anna feels is that of someone discovering an entirely alien set of values, in which nothing has the same weight or casts the same shadow as it does in her own world. Naturally the reader wants to read Portia’s diary for themself, and though we see Portia’s diary at a later stage, we never get shown the entries that made such an impression on Anna, and I didn’t feel that what we do see lives up to the expectations raised by Anna’s reaction. Portia possesses a kind of naivety that seems to be defined more by a lack of preconceptions and allotting equal importance to everything in her remit than rose-coloured glasses per se. She develops a friendship with Eddie, a young man involved in a rather quarrelsome, unpleasant romantic friendship with Anna. Eddie is a Byronic archetype of a particular kind of moody flake, mood shifting by the moment, who feels compelled to win people over and deeply resents both the “having” to do so and the expectations raised in the doing. He’s a cad who represents the destruction of innocence by the jaded but Bowen also seems to draw a likeness between him and Portia, explaining why they are drawn together for a time. His handwriting is “almost sinisterly childish” which is how Anna might describe Portia, and in his rejection of everyone else’s linear constructions of meaning there is initially something in common with Portia’s bareness of experience.
When I first read this I wasn’t much older than Portia and perhaps attempted to relate to her as a particular character more than was intended, rather than interpreting her as a symbol for innocence and inexperience. I was puzzled by the idea that her heart should be permanently broken or withered by the events portrayed. Really, I still am. To me it seems a case of thematic content not accompanied by quite the right plot or characters to illustrate it, or not in the right kind of dialogue with them. I think Bowen is experimenting with framing innocence as something rather rugged and disruptive and other instead of only meek and sheltered, endangered by its own status as a threat to urbane civilisation, an irritant acting on a situation as well as a passive victim. The character from Anna’s world who is most sympathetic with Portia thinks that “each of us keeps, battened down inside himself, a sort of lunatic giant — impossible socially, but full-scale — and it’s the knockings and batterings we sometimes hear in each other that keep our intercourse from utter banality. Portia hears these the whole time; in fact she hears nothing else.” Naivety is experienced by Anna at the beginning as a maddening, mysterious demand and though initially Eddie experiences Portia’s company as a blissful absence of demand, he comes to abhor her expectation that something is “done with the whole of oneself”. There’s something I find tantalisingly intriguing about all this but while I believe in Portia as an unworldly sixteen-year-old and in Anna as a self-consciously worldly woman in her thirties, Bowen doesn’t make either Portia’s “lunatic set of values” or Anna’s quite clear enough for me to understand what all the fuss is about, and what is so final about their incompatibility, so once again I ended feeling as if I or Bowen had missed a step.
The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop
Novel about an actor whose impersonations of aristocratic identities come back to bite him in the French Revolution. Pleasantly silly but overlong.
Coming Up For Air by George Orwell
1939 novel about the approach of WWII and the narrator’s trip to the town he grew up in. A not-very important though readable book that provoked more thought than necessary because I was over-conscious of the author while reading. The narrator presents himself from the off as a representation of a type, with an unusual amount of self-awareness. A physical type — “It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes;” “I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow”; the type, most importantly, of fundamentally unserious fat man who is nicknamed Fatty or Tubby — and economic and social type. “Do you know the road I live on? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it”; “A chap like me is incapable of looking like a gentleman”; “We’re all respectable householders — that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers.” At the beginning I was uncertain about this. There was something engagingly forthright about it — and yet, I couldn’t forget that the person speaking wasn’t really George Bowling but George Orwell, giving out about a type that wasn’t his own at all. This becomes more tiresomely obvious as we go on. Our narrator represents the generation that fought in WWI; the last generation, growing up in the Edwardian era, to experience an unquestioned faith in the peaceful, perpetual continuation of the status quo. Orwell wants to describe the position of this generation, poised between the past on one hand and a totalitarian nightmare future on the other. I couldn’t help but groan when I saw the totalitarian nightmare future coming, so saturated are we in Orwell’s later works describing it. Also, I just didn’t think it was presented very well; no attempt to grapple with the actual development of facism and communism, no nuance. Of course, what could be expected from George Bowling? The characterisation is endless fiddling, turning the dial up and down, searching for credibility. He’s the kind of man who feels he’s coming alive with wonder looking at primroses but isn’t “soppy about ‘the country’” and knows “It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower” and pretends to be doing up a fly-button rather than sniffing flowers when people come by. The balance is calibrated and recalibrated, making me feel Orwell’s anxiety to get out what he wants to say but avoid laying it on too thick and being inauthentically idealistic or intellectual for a man like George Bowling. The anxiety is understandable but also patronising when you see Orwell debating how low he should pitch his expectations. Orwell wants him to have the authority of his averageness, his commonness: this representative of his generation and class looks forward with dread to “the bad time that’s coming or isn’t coming, the slogans and the coloured shirts and the streamlined [you never saw so many repetitions of the word ‘streamlined’] men from Eastern Europe who are going to knock old England cock-eyed”, so you should guard against them. But then perhaps he should have a little bit more than average going on upstairs to explain how he comes by this prescience. So we painstakingly establish that he’s read a few good books, but not that many.
I’m not a fool but I’m not a highbrow either and God knows at normal times I don’t have many interests that you wouldn’t expect a middle-aged seven-pound-a-weeker with two kids to have. And yet […] I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think.
In this passage George is contrasting his own attitude, shared by other average men, against that of a more educated man who can think of nothing but classics. It’s another way of claiming that this warning doesn’t come from the intelligentsia but from the common man, and only makes the ventriloquism going on more distracting. Also, George being the man in the street, we have to put up with his take on the woman in the street.
The past was a bit more interesting, being both more solidly and more satirically dealt with. George grew up in a small town, not far out of London but quite rural, as the son of a man with a small seed business, one of whose products was quite famous over a five-mile radius. Before the war intervenes, George is a placid, competent grocer. After the war, in which he becomes an officer, he never again returns home, living an urban life that’s superficially bigger and more white-collar, but really just as small if not smaller. Orwell builds up all the practical details of this boyhood, the sweets and the reading material, the geography of the town. A fishing theme is developed at rather greater length than I cared for. Present-day George wonders if perhaps he can fish again and catch the big, primevally undisturbed fish he never got round to catching in his youth. The prospect represents nostalgic attempts to reconnect with the past but perhaps in the first instance it represents an aspiration to connect with the deeper core of life in a way that was more possible before streamlined modernity and urbanisation. Orwell has got Lower Binfield (destined for bathos from the beginning) pretty clear in our minds so that we can share some of George’s astonishment when he realises it’s not there anymore — not demolished but swallowed up. This retort to George’s tentatively-nursed dreams, so tremendous it can only be philosophically accepted, confirms his prophetic conviction that the nightmarish war and after-war is going to happen, before he is swallowed back up by his day-to-day world.
The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
1910 novel about a young girl’s time at boarding school and the dubious kind of wisdom she acquires there. Laura, an imaginative, impulsive girl, finds it hard to fit in with her conventional, snobbish classmates but Richardson, while not unsympathetic, is careful to deny Laura the noble character that this situation is often used to imply. Laura is eager to conform, she’s just bad at it. She shows little integrity in her attempts to impress her classmates and never offers more to others in a position of disadvantage than others showed to her. Laura finishes her career at school on a sour note, having fallen out with God after cheating on an exam. But nonetheless the point at which she is done with school is that at which Richardson relents. Giving us a glimpse of Laura’s future, she says “She could not know then that, even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found; seeming unfitness prove to be only another aspect of peculiar and special fitness.” Having left the building a sense of freedom rushes over her and she runs joyously into the distance, careless of disapproving observers.
America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
Novel about Philipino immigrants in America. Primarily about Hero, who comes from a privileged family but joined the People’s Army, was captured and held in a prison camp for a couple of years. She’s now an undocumented immigrant living with her uncle’s family. She grows attached to her seven-year-old cousin Roni and develops a greater understanding of her uncle and his wife. A novel that doesn’t hurry. Castillo’s practice of leaving some words untranslated has been both praised and complained about but really I felt she’d put in a lot of effort to carefully explain cultural context in an unforced way. There’s quite a lot of flashbacks to Hero’s past but the heart of the novel is in the development of Hero’s friendship and romance with Rosalyn, who Hero meets through an attempt to cure Roni’s eczema. Rosalyn comes with a whole array of new friends and acquaintances and Hero, still quite stunned by her past experiences, gets to know and learns how to get to know people in general and one person in particular. Then Castillo also includes the stage where lives have become woven together to the extent that the other person no longer represents a possible antidote to real life. I got a bit bogged down at one stage — I understood why it was slow, I was getting the benefit of slow but still, slow — but was won around. Strangely enough I was reminded of Charlotte Yonge in the way it harnesses the power of dailiness.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Novel about a man living in a House that is also a world, a complete ecosystem, with the sea at the bottom and sky at the top, and statues in between, with halls in either direction further than our narrator, known at this point as Piranesi, has travelled. Our narrator lives there, knowing of only one other living person in the world, the Other. He and the Other meet twice a week to discuss their scientific investigations. Piranesi wants simply to explore the House, but the Other’s only interest is in the discovery of a source of magical power he expects to find somewhere in the house. Piranesi lives an industrious, largely untroubled life, made up of survival and discovery. He fishes, gathers seaweed, makes things out of fish leather, and explores, learns the rhythm of the tides and stars and makes an inventory of all the statues in his known world. He is always gathering more knowledge and recording it in his voluminous journals. He does feel wistful about the prospect of more human company but otherwise seems to experience perfect contentment, neither confined by nor lost in his world. The Other tries to persuade him that something is wrong in the House and Piranesi, dutifully trying to discover whether this is the case, concludes: “The World feels Complete and Whole and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly.” It’s obvious very early on that Piranesi and the Other are not from the House and the story of the House’s origins and how they came to be there is what makes up the later parts of the book but is not the core of the book and what it’s for.
Piranesi’s characterisation and voice is the thing that makes the book what it is. It’s as attractive a portrait of human goodness as you’re likely to find, with curiosity and capability taking any edge of sickliness off his determination to interpret in good faith. It’s the treatment of knowledge and innocence that makes the book most distinctive, interesting and appealing. This is a book that tempts allegorical readings and contains, looking at people’s responses, almost as many allegories as readers. A dominant theme, though, is environmentalism. Piranesi respects the House for itself, not for what it can do for him, and because he learns its ways, out of interest as well as to survive, the House gives him more than it can give to the Other, to whom the House is worthless apart from the treasure he believes it to contain. Personally I saw Piranesi as a kind of Adam in Eden. But the allegory would be a simplistic noble savage kind of thing if not for Clarke’s unpicking of the association between innocence and ignorance. The Other is worldly but ignorant, while much of Piranesi’s innocence consists of his confidence that knowledge and its expansion are joy. As the book goes on he learns that knowledge is also sorrow but ultimately he does not hide from this understanding. He leaves Eden deliberately, with open-eyed consent, and is not permanently excluded from it; he maintains a foot in both worlds. I suppose the novel ends with a hope that joy and sorrow may in some way encompass each other.
I think there should have been more observations on fish, all things considered.
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
Mary, a competent middle-aged career woman, is driven to give up her city life and live in the country house she has been left by another Mary, an elderly cousin she met once as a child. She bonds with an angsty child and falls in love, in a platonic way, with a blind man whose wife doesn’t understand him. She also reads the diary of her cousin, whose religious faith helps her through her depressive mental illness while not, to be fair, represented as curing it at all. Possibly the most Goddy of Goudge’s books I’ve read yet. Some of her books have a genuine charm, mingled with spiritual overtones. This one is like the Damerosehay trilogy, with something too shrill about it for me to find it as charming as she wants me to. The colours are too brightly saturated, everything has to be the very prettiest and most special, and the religious stuff, while not without merit if you have a tolerance for it, has a harsh element with all that talk of obedience and discipline and acceptance of suffering that clashes with the chocolate box aesthetic. This book in particular neglects outer events, concentrating very largely on the inner life of the two Marys, and I felt more sober everyday mundanity would have brought out the other elements better through contrast.
The Big House by Naomi Mitchison
Children’s book about two Scottish children, one from the big house, the other working-class, encountering a piper from centuries ago who is being pursued by fairies. The plot does stop and start in an odd way but I really enjoyed this. Mitchison, a big house socialist, mixes class dynamics with the supernatural and historical stuff in a natural way.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
Short stories from the eighties. Very much about how men and women see each other and how they see themselves through each other’s eyes in a morbidly self-conscious way, with an emphasis on male dominance. Told in that way that some find flat but which I usually like for both giving you an advance on the goods upfront and for the way it’s often not telling you outright how it is but telling you how the characters would put it, making their interpretations open to our gaze and to question, acknowledging how much people do think about themselves and how what they think informs outward events. The people who don’t like this found it very depressing, but really some of the stories end quite hopefully! And I found the one about the failed liaison between the sadist and the masochist very funny.
Top five books of the year: Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman, Martin Eden by Jack London and Germinal by Emile Zola.