October Reading

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Short novel about Paama, the competent heroine of a folktale who is temporarily given divine power in the form of a Chaos Stick when one of the immortals proves himself unworthy to wield such power.  I felt I should have liked this more than I did. It had a pleasant sense of humour and interesting themes but there was something a bit wooden about it. Sometimes it feels like it’s just these little short books that drag.  I think this one was an incompletely converted short story. Part of it is a retelling of a folktale and while I could see where the author got the idea to combine the story with her own narrative it seemed awkwardly grafted.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Memoir of the daughter of a married Catholic priest, which is supposed to be humorous more than anything.  I found the father too awful to be funny and Lockwood’s sense of humour is largely a quirkily random wordplay-based kind of thing that doesn’t do much for me, though sometimes her language is apposite.  However, I found the book strangely immersive considering that I found it a bit of a let-down so far as its most advertised quality went. I suppose the determination to make something out of experience and perception was something that I got out of the humour’s presence.  Writing is one of the things the book is about. It’s rather good on growing up in a religious family and on oppressive religious authority and trying to love family members and being unable not to. There’s not much examination of the whole being a married Catholic priest contradiction that you might expect, though.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

Years ago I read the first book in Dunnett’s Lymond series, which is her best-loved work.  I enjoyed it, but then I bounced off the second one. It had been a bit too long an interval and I didn’t find it as easy to get into as I expected which perhaps contributed to the allergic reaction I experienced towards Lymond himself.  I decided I just didn’t want to spend any more time with that character. He’s a fermented Lord Peter Whimsy, urbane, elegant, best at everything and very self-contained, with an iciness that hints at unusual heat beneath. It might seem as if he is not nice but that’s because he is misunderstood.  He deliberately misrepresents himself because it amuses him to mislead others and because he is above seeking approval by explaining himself. It is his lonely fate to pursue his aims under false flags. He’s part of a tradition I associate with the 20th century and British writing, which tries to have its cake and eat it where emotion is concerned, with intensity crammed down and praised as the more genuine, the more deserving our sympathy for its refusal of demonstration and sentiment.  It seeks an excess of emotional gratification while preaching restraint. This is all more than half invented as I only sampled the series and it was years ago now. Anyway, the impression I was left with that I still liked the idea of Dunnett but wanted to try her without Lymond.

So eventually I got round to her other series, which seems to be generally thought of as less shiny, being Lymond-less and starring a dyer’s apprentice who will become a merchant with his fingers in lots of pies.  The beginning made me feel as if Dunnett was showing clips of film played so slowly they were slightly distorted, as if it was the detailed exhibition itself that seemed to obscure and possibly disguise some sleight of hand.  Claes is a seemingly ingenuous apprentice in 1400s Buges, with a kind of plankishness accompanied by a quickness in amusing others. It becomes slowly clear that Claes, who will become Nicholas, is a lot brighter than he lets on and has a ruthless, vengeful streak.  Dunnett’s love of intelligence is again the dominating factor in the characterisation of Nicholas as of Lymond, though this is initially disguised and it remains to be seen quite who Nicholas will be now he’s hatched out. He will, at any rate, be the vehicle for Dunnett to explore fifteenth-century European trade and the people and events connected with it, directly and indirectly.  Dunnett loves the physical stuff of her world and she loves the interconnectedness of wheeling and dealing and intriguing.  She puts a high premium on being in the know; it’s what makes people interesting to her and she shapes her narrative around what we don’t know.  Her way of making business deals and the like interesting is to only gradually illuminate them. I’m not sure yet whether the parcel is wrapping paper all the way down or not.

Consequences by E. M.Delafield

1919 story of Alex Clare, who is cursed with the inability to make anything of her life.  We meet her as a child, domineering over her siblings in the nursery and insatiable for admiration and spoiling from her mother’s friends in the drawing room.  When she is sent to a convent school she suffers from the educational culture of this time and place, which looks on “exclusive friendships” as dangerously adjacent to perversion and treats them as criminal.  She has a great hunger for emotional fulfilment and a growing conviction that human relationships are the only nourishment that might sustain her but a charisma vacuum and an unattractive personality that is either doormatty or power-seeking renders it impossible for her to form the kind of relationship with someone “who understands” which she longs for.  All she manages at school are hopelessly unequal danglings after withholding types which are not allowed by the nuns to be their own punishment. When she leaves school she enters adult life as a late Victorian debutante. She’s pretty enough, and is bought expensive clothes and introduced to tons of people who are all seeking to form suitable connections.  Somehow she is unable to capitalise on these advantages and it becomes slowly clear that there seems to be no route ahead. At this point she falls under the spell of a charismatic nun and becomes a nun herself for a decade, as Delafield did for a shorter amount of time. The prospect of divine and infinite love is held out to her as a consolation for the lack of human love.  Alex progresses through the various stages of taking her vows, waiting for access to this consolation. Throughout her life, she is always waiting and hoping that the next thing will finally bring her relief. A nervous breakdown forces her to admit to herself that God’s love means little to her and she defiantly insists on her inability to live without human attachments and is finally released from her vows.  Cast back upon a changed world, her limitations assume a more final aspect.

The beginning of this novel drags Alex into the dock and convicts her straight away of being a miserable failure, aggressively telling rather than showing, though even in the beginning it has a certain crude propulsiveness.  The lambasting creates a kind of inadvertently comic distance which relieves some of the depressingness. Later, Alex is inhabited as well as exhibited, which perhaps increases the depression but lessens the sense that Delafield is treating Alex as her Nurse treats her.  Not that Alex is ever unconvicted; her characterisation has that overly-personal harshness that makes you wonder whether it deals with an alternate universe self of the author’s. Alex’s conventional upper-class background, with a family that, if it isn’t warm and close, isn’t particularly unhappy and dysfunctional, has two purposes that to some extent contradict each other.  On the one hand it is an occasion for Delafield to voice her frustrations with the stifling petty restrictions of this environment, which has carefully refused Alex resources with which to supplement her defects. On the other it is a demonstration that Alex is dealt some pretty good cards — which makes her inability to play them more tragic. The darkest part of Consequences is that to a large extent Alex’s tragedy is that of being herself, not of extrinsic happenstance.  The philosophy of life that Alex settles on is the necessity for understanding and forgiveness of the weak and erring.  It would perhaps have added more layers to the novel if there had been other failures in it for Alex to practice this sympathetic understanding on as subject rather than imploring object.

Evan Harrington by George Meredith

Victorian novel about the children of a tailor, with whose death the novel opens.  The Great Mel somehow contrived to cut a superlatively gentlemanly, charismatic figure and socialise with aristocrats while keeping a small, failing tailor’s shop.  His three daughters have all married above their station and keep their origins a deadly secret, while they have done their best to drag their brother Evan up the social ladder with them.  Their work is threatened when their mother convinces Evan that he must work as a tailor to pay his father’s debts. Evan oscillates between gloomily resigning himself to his humble fate and mooning after an upper-class girl.  There’s much chewing over the nature of the wonderful state of gentlemanliness, which feels noncommittal in that it neither espouses equality nor ultimately puts Evan in his place — playing with unconventionality without getting too political about it.  Meredith must have had more skin in the game than shows at this distance in time, though, being himself the son of a tailor. The flaw of this book is that Evan is very dull. His sister, a Portuguese countess who spends the novel deflecting threats of exposure, carries the book on her shoulders.  Described by other characters as “the female Euphues” her love of performatively sophisticated language and her adroitness with complex plots give her a likeness to the author. This novel, like the others I’ve read by Meredith, is something like Oscar Wilde run several times through Google Translate and reminiscent of a classic stage comedy with confrontations and reversals of fortune.  I don’t know that I reliably make much of Meredith sentence by sentence yet somehow as a whole I really enjoy the texture of his writing.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald 

Noir novel about a missing heir to millions who may or may not be who he appears to be.  So good I almost wondered if it couldn’t be better. Macdonald vividly illuminates many fragmented stories but perhaps more emotional impact could have been gained if he had committed to fewer characters.  But very enjoyable and left me wanting to read more Macdonald.

Lavengro and The Romany Rye by George Borrow

I can’t entirely account for having read this rather long nineteenth-century semi-fictionalised account of contrarianism and cultural appropriation.  Death is a great lender of charms. To trace the personality of someone who doesn’t exist anymore is one of my favourite things. Borrow the character grows up with a passion for languages, more especially those that are out-of-the-way or denigrated, makes the acquaintance of gypsies, which he is proud of and eager to define himself by here, and embarks on a picaresque road-trip.  To hear a foreign culture or language praised makes him come over all Brexity. To hear a socially progressive idea argued for makes him conservative. And don’t get him started on the Catholics. Witnessing the crowds line the streets for Byron’s funeral sets him off on a vehemently anti-Byron train of thought before he grudgingly admits that popular though he was, he did have something.  Borrow’s interest in Romany, Welsh and Irish culture stems more from a love of secret knowledge and a contrary determination to like the unpopular than a sympathy for the downtrodden. He consoles himself for his lack of confidence in his ability to compete in an orthodox way with his originality: I resumed the newspaper and, as I was before struck with the fluency of style and the general talent which it displayed, I was now equally so with its commonplaceness and want of originality on every subject; and it was evident to me that whatever advantages these newspaper-writers might have over me in some points, they had never studied the Welsh bards, translated Kaempe Viser, or been under the tutelage of Mr Petulengro and Tawno Chikno.  There are allusions to the neurotic fear and hatred attracted by marginalised languages: “Where did you get that language?” “It is no language at all, merely a made-up gibberish”. “Is it broken language?”  Borrow is also interested in thieves’ slang. Anyway, I haven’t read anything quite like it. There was something engaging in Borrow’s saturnine, wilful eccentricity and I liked the way the stories of the people he meets on his travels interconnect.

The Player’s Boy by Bryher

Looking at this author’s other work, it seems as though all her novels are about the passing of an age.  This one is about the passing of the Elizabethan age, seen through the eyes of James Sands, a players’ apprentice, stolid yet dreamy, who never really finds a place for himself.  Service and love are the same thing for Sands, only he never finds the right person to serve. I was trying to read this in short bursts and it’s not at all a book that works in these circumstances, lacking narrative momentum while at the same time requiring emotional investment. The wistful pathos of this tugged at my sleeve enough to prevent me abandoning it and became quite distinct when I was able to give it time.

September Reading

Henry von Ofterdingen by Novalis

An unfinished Romantic tale of a medieval German poet, written in 1800.  Henry is a naive youth going on a journey to visit his mother’s family. Much of the book is spent on his journey during which he hears the odd story and has the odd philosophical debate.  He defends intuition as a form of understanding in a very Romantic way: “It seems to me that there are two ways, by which to arrive at a knowledge of the history of man; the one laborious and boundless, the way of experience; the other apparently but one leap, the way of internal reflection. The wanderer of the first must find out one thing from another by wearisome reckoning; the wanderer of the second perceives the nature of every thing and occurrence directly by their very essence, views all things in their continually varying connexions, and can easily compare one with another, like figures on a slate.”  There’s an odd presentation of miners as nobly disinterested geology enthusiasts.  This part of the book is quite fairytaleish, slow and meandering but pleasant. Soon after Henry arrives at his destination, we encounter sentences like “The enjoyment of life stood before him, like a tinkling tree full of golden fruits.”  It felt to me like a definite, sudden change in the language, the prose becoming stranger and more opaque. The majority of the rest of the book is taken up with an allegorical story about the role of poetry that seems like a series of static surreal images strung together.  It reminded me of Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun.  Told by a poet who promises to instruct Henry in poetry, he precedes it with a lot of strictures about how poets should remain grounded and keep their ambitions realistic in order to achieve anything: “Chaos should shine through the well-clipped foliage of order” and “There is a determinate boundary line to the capacity for representation; beyond which representation cannot retain the necessary strength or form but loses itself in an empty, delusive nonentity.”  He offers up one of his earlier works to illustrate these principles. I presume Novalis meant this self-deprecatingly, and knew the allegorical story didn’t really work but had to get it off his chest.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the part where it ends and we find out what else was supposed to be in it, had Novalis not died. Henry’s travels would have taken him to war, where he would learn all about how “The warrior lives in death and like a shade.  Desire for death is the warrior spirit”, and on something of a world tour where he and the reader would imbibe the essential nature of various cultural traditions. He would learn about the Greeks and Romans, Persian tales and the manners and life of nomadic tribes, the German character and history, and there would be obscure hints of America and the Indies and references to both the Indian and Northern mythology.  There would be a poetic contest based on “the war of the good and evil principles in songs of religion and irreligion, the invisible world contrasted with the visible”, during which the sciences, mathematics and Indian plants would be poetized. In this contest: “Everything is explained and completed, supernaturally and yet most naturally. The partition between Fiction and Truth, between the Past and the Present has fallen down.  Faith, Fancy and Poetry lay open the internal world.” While Henry is undergoing death as a lengthy mythic transformation, the narrative would become in many places a play as “Men, beasts, plants, stones and stars, the elements, colours, meet like one family, act and converse like one race.” And then after all this Novalis planned “six romances for the statement of his views on physical science, civil life, commerce, history, political science, and of love.”  I love this insane ambition more than anything he actually put in the book, which I suppose is a sign that it’s not the biggest tragedy in the world that he didn’t get to continue.

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

The conceit of this book is that it offers Kant as a solution to the Fermi Paradox.  If we could get past our way of experiencing the world and access the raw unpasteurised thing itself, we might realise that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.  I’m not really sure why the Fermi Paradox gets dragged in so much because the novel doesn’t seem to be about aliens from outer space so much as the revelation that there is more here already than we think there is.  But I got a bit lost as to what the nature of the central other being, ostensibly an AI but not really, actually was. One of those vaguely dispiriting three star books. The central narrative is bound up with a kind of sad-sack blokeyness which is easy to read but at the same time not very interesting.  In between there are more experimental pieces set in the past and the future which have an uncomfortably self-conscious feel. Like watching someone do a presentation that they’ve worked hard on and really want to be good but just isn’t very good. Part of the book’s purpose is to offer an argument for the existence of God, an argument which amounts to people saying “Think of the thing itself, insofar as you can.  Now, does it feel inert to you?” Roberts spends a lot of time having people explain Kant to each other but not enough time building up his version of “the thing itself” to have the kind of resonance he relies on here. There’s something here but it needed something better to go with it.

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker

A book about the Affair of the Poisons in 17th-century France, written a little like one of those annoying semi-dramatised documentaries.  It’s easier to get used to in written form. A heady, getting-all-the-gossip experience on the whole. On the one hand you have the 17th-century justice system, outlandish and arbitrary and brutal and on the other you have 17th-century crime.  Contemplating what seems to be armies of poisoners and practitioners of witchcraft, even the 17th-century justice system can’t quite believe its eyes, had never believed such depravity could exist. It’s hard now to believe that the Affair wasn’t largely a hallucination of some kind, and yet it kind of does seem like everyone was at it.  Including various of the King’s mistresses, desperate to retain his favour, which was one reason why the whole business was put in its box in the end. As far as history goes, not complete tosh I think despite the breathlessness of its style in places but could have done with more analysis of the concepts at play.

Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady

Eleven chapters of an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, and a completion written in the 1970s.  You can tell Austen hadn’t gone over the text; it’s looser than anything else I’ve read by her, though still coherent and lively.  Charlotte, clearly the heroine, goes to visit a Mr Parker who is enthusiastically developing Sanditon into a seaside resort, and meets various people, most of them silly.  There’s something both piquant and poignant about Austen writing about people who insist they are ill when they are not during her own final illness. There’s a Sir Edward who overflows with badly-digested poetic jargon of the day and, under the influence of too many silly novels, is like Quixote, only he takes villains bent on rape as his model.  Charlotte’s personality is not very developed. She says and does little and the things she thinks are limited to a decision to be careful not to spend all her money at once and two or three free private judgements on others: “Unaccountable officiciousness!” and “She is thoroughly mean.  I had not expected anything so bad.  Mr Parker spoke too mildly of her. His judgement is evidently not to be trusted.  He is too kind-hearted to see clearly. I must judge for myself.”  This self-possessed judgement has interesting potential but we don’t really get a picture of who she is in a room by herself.  Once the actual Austen portion is over we must abandon our interest in what Austen would have done with these elements and hope only for a pleasant Regency romance.  Our interest, after all, is not simply in the characters and “what happened next?” but in “What else does this tell us about Austen?” Anyway, the rest really was a pleasant romance, marred only by some stilted analysis of character and plot.  The author deals with Charlotte by making her Sensible and Practical.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

The story of Stan and Amy Parker who marry and set up house in the Australian bush.  They live there all their lives, farming in a small way, as their originally isolated home becomes more and more suburban.  Stan is the strong, silent type, closer to God than his wife Amy is, who feels the frustrated urge to probe into his mystery.  I felt quite distant from both of them but Amy is more graspable in her changeability. The authorial attitude towards her is one I feel is an uncomfortable one, reserved for female characters — the author seems conscious of themselves as making an effort of imaginative sympathy for the character yet they seem at the limit of their patience with her, never far from pushing her out of the novel’s sympathy zone.  The child-raising period of Stan and Amy’s lives is represented in a way that seems very 1950s, which is when the book was written though this section is set decades earlier. Amy is smugly conscious of the symmetrical picture of irreproachably accomplished heterosexuality the family makes, while the children are seeds of spoliation. They have a son and a daughter, who are respectively a ne’er do well and a brittle social climber, each struggling against allowing themselves to feel emotion in a stereotypically gendered way.  The daughter allows herself to half envy what she patronisingly sees as her parents’ humble goodness and communication with the simple realities of life — a conception which does double duty as helping the reader to see Stan and Amy as having gained something through living and disowns Disneyfication of their gain on White’s side. Besides, we know that if they have accumulated something — be it simplicity, wisdom, certainty or acceptance of uncertainty — with their experience, they still struggle.

This book made me feel even more clearly than Voss and Riders in the Chariot that White’s writing seems to revolve around a split between the inner world of visionaries, vibrant and powerful even if it is the power of meekness, and the outer world of plebs, depressingly squalid, unperceptive and meanly self-interested.  White’s inner world draws its potency and specialness at the expense of the outer world, draining it of many innocent small pleasures and often making me feel that I’m not supposed to relate to things that seem relatable. I was right when I felt with Riders in the Chariot that the drab, sour, tacky outer world is associated with femininity for White.  I particularly noticed it with this book, because this seems to be an attempt to mend this split, to access the special world through the ordinary world by getting inside the lives of two ordinary people who are not at all confident about their ability to access some centre of truth that they suspect exists but who nevertheless do have their snatches of vision and moments of poetry.  More than anything, their lives are a kind of fact that must be acknowledged in any account of the world, a slab of experience that might even be monolithic just because it’s there. It’s a kind of hymn to the ordinary that affirms that all life takes place in the realm of dream and truth and that you cannot live without becoming wise — in a way. However, in the process the project confronts you with how uncompromisingly drab White’s conception of ordinariness is.  I missed the more unadulterated dreaminess and wondered at times how White could be going to fill up so many pages. Still, White does ultimately create some pleasing patterning with the cells of incident or less than incident. The prose is always enlivening. I liked how he conveyed the unspoken fluctuations in closeness and different ways of knowing one another in a long relationship between two uncommunicative people. The stone bled but I felt some ambivalence about the squeezing process.

Hester by Margaret Oliphant

This Victorian novel has two main characters.  In middle age Catherine Vernon was given an opportunity to utilise her abilities and energies and thus gain the kind of respect and status given to vanishingly few women in her time, when her cousin runs the family-owned bank into the ground and disappears, leaving her to save it.  During the time of the novel she is in her sixties/seventies and, still greatly esteemed, has retired from the bank and found protegees among family members to run it. She is very generous to all the distant family members and has provided some of the poorer ones with apartments to live in.  However, those to whom she is most generous resent the power implied by generosity and there is much bitterness in the atmosphere. Catherine feels humorously aloof from such meanness but the one person she does not feel aloof from is Edward, the young man she has taken in as a kind of son. Edward, however, is the most resentful of all.  He strives to achieve the highest place in her favour by conforming to all her prejudices, perceiving what are really self-imposed strictures as Catherine’s tyranny, experiencing what she thinks of as domestic cosiness as repression.

Into this rather unpleasant atmosphere comes Hester, only fourteen at first.  Catherine has been so generous as to offer a refuge for the widow and daughter of the defaulting cousin.  Hester is initially a breath of fresh air, astonishingly confident in her abilities to impose her will on life, eager to keep herself and her mother by teaching foreign languages.  Of course she is not allowed to do that, and she never is allowed any outlet for her energies. Catherine doesn’t take to her bumptious self-sufficiency and Hester grows up feeling a mixture of resentment, envy and admiration for Catherine, who remains distant.  The fact that Hester is never really allowed to do anything is part of what makes this book an interesting confrontation of the restraints women are under in the Victorian period but it’s a little too frustrating as a reader. I missed the confidence of Hester at fourteen.  The plot, for the most part, comes down to Edward being drawn into dangerous financial speculation and Hester being drawn into Edward’s orbit, as his underground volcano effect is the nearest thing to vitality and power she has access to. I have felt before with Oliphant’s novels that her humorous charting of foibles is shadowed by something disconcertingly ashy, something of the emotional blasted plain, and that her plots sometimes joggle the characters about in the current rather than taking them anywhere or seeming to spring from them.  So Hester reads as a kind of climax of Oliphant’s oeuvre (I have read the Carlingford books; don’t know if there are other climaxes lurking in there) in that these problems come out into the open and become to a greater extent material rather than flaws in the material’s treatment.  The ashy humour or “humour” is one of Catherine’s defining traits and the lack of action springing naturally from character is because the spring is blocked.

It’s a novel about the attempt of the older generation to disown emotional investment and about the young experiencing blockage and waste of their youth.  One elderly character is eager to escape emotional pain by denying responsibility for his grandchildren, after having suffered with his children: “Children are very strange.  So dependent on you for so long, so independent after; so unlike you, that you cannot understand what you have to do with them […] is it just, do you think, that one human creature should be made the victim of another, simply because he has been instrumental in bringing that other into the world?  Supposing that they have drained all that was best in me out of me for years? Supposing that they have grown alien to me in every respect — thinking other thoughts, walking in other ways? And that they are as old and more worldly than I am […] am I to go treating these old rigid commonplace people as if they were my children still, and breaking my heart about them?  No; no.”  It’s not a clear-cut death of investment that we’re dealing with so much as fear of loss and vulnerability, the attempted escape to a humorously contemplated nice calm blasted plain and the recognition that you’re rarely quite free to go, there usually being some last tie or hope holding you back and the humorous perspective is largely fake anyway.

It is good to hear Hester respond to the flattery of a suitor with: “Do you really think that the charm of inspiring, as you call it, is what any reasonable creature would prefer to doing?  To make somebody else a hero rather than be a hero yourself? Women would need to be disinterested indeed if they like that best.  I don’t see it.”  And then, on the final page, we hear that “As for Hester, all that can be said for her is that there are two men whom she may choose between, and marry either if she pleases […]  What can a young woman desire more than to have such a possibility of choice?”  Hester and Catherine share a brief time of recognition and solidarity.  Catherine tells her that “It is a great pity, a girl like you, that instead of teaching or doing needlework, you should not go to Vernon’s, as you have a right to do, and work there […] a few years work, and you would be an excellent man of business; but it can’t be.” before proffering those two suitors as Hester’s only possible outlets.  Catherine’s death seems tiresomely neat but if it has an artistic purpose then I suppose it’s in isolating Hester, depriving her of the consolation of someone who recognises her potential and that a woman may desire a possibility of choice in more than men through which to channel her energies.  Very ashy.

I was infuriated by a review on goodreads interpreting the novel’s closing lines as a kind of saccharine excuse for failing to deliver a proper end by developing either of Hester’s suitors as “The Husband”.  The reviewer complained about how Victorian novels overexplained everything without allowing the reader to imagine anything, and then proved that even Victorian thoroughness of explanation wasn’t sufficient to prevent her from assuming this was a book about “The Husband” and happy endings.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

I read this when I did because I had tried unsuccessfully to read several other books and needed something that I knew I could read.  This was indeed it and it was a relief to feel engaged with something again, though I did wonder a little why it was effective. The beginning presents you with a disparate collection of people with no particular reason why many of them should be in a novel together.  The connections accumulate throughout and, more than that, a half-glimpsed thematic pattern emerges from their collective comings and goings. Even at the beginning, the atmosphere of the harbourside pervades the characters’ lives and ties everything together. There is a lonely war widow, a bedridden gossip, a glamorous divorcee and her absent-minded novelist friend, the novelist’s doctor husband and their brooding daughter and others.  New to the area is Bertram, a retired sailor who is dabbling in art and is a lifelong dabbler in other people’s lives, involving himself and arousing expectations before moving on. Taylor regularly remarks on his faults: “He was also rather a coward and, because he thought he saw Tory drowning, felt it safer not to notice, lest, forced to go to her rescue, he might be involved in her struggles and dragged down to depths he had no wish to visit.”  On Bertram listening to himself monologuing to soothe a sick woman: “I’ve heard worse than this on the wireless,” he marvelled to himself.”  Not that Taylor doesn’t remark on all her character’s failings and limitations of sympathy in the same way, from the pompous, sexist self-regard of the doctor and the young man interested in his daughter to the selfish pleasure-seeking of Tory, the divorcee —  “She resented people dying and made this quite plain to the bereaved” — to the artistic abstraction of Beth the novelist, who takes ghoulish delight in killing off her characters.  There is some serious consideration of the difficulty Beth has in being allowed to consider her writing as work and not simply as truancy from her real domestic work, joking about her unrealistic preciousness when she tries to share the joys of the imagination with her child, and commentary on the degree to which taking oneself seriously is part of investing in creative work — commentary which, while ironic, doesn’t deny the necessity: “Beth had nearly finished her novel.  She had reached the stage where she felt that it would be a great pity, a waste, if she were killed suddenly in a street accident (but she was not very likely to be in a street).  She took great care not to fall asleep in her bath or to run into any kind of danger.”  There is a small child whose bald self-seeking Taylor seems to admire, if anything, as being the same thing she points out in everyone else, only more obvious.  It could be an unkind novel but Taylor’s sharp humour seems like a largely amiable, neutral enjoyment of the foolishness of ego. In fact, it reminded me of the enjoyment Catherine from Hester claims to take, but more convincingly grown-up, without the bitterness of disillusion lurking in it.  It’s not that we don’t feel the characters’ pain at various points, but there is only one character, the widow, that we really feel for, and she is pushed out of focus at the point at which things get worse for her.  I remember Taylor’s style from other novels as being ironic, certainly, but still more serious and emotionally involved than here. We can read Taylor as including herself in her professional capacity in the novel, exposing herself for deprecation, for fairness’ sake.  The “view of the harbour” within the novel is Bertram’s work which he finishes with uneasy dissatisfaction and a “Well. At least it’s finished” kind of attitude: “Each little blob was separate, meaningless.”  Beth finishes a novel just as Taylor finishes hers: “She felt empty, clean, deserted, as if a whole world had been swept away out of her bosom, leaving her clear as crystal” which invites us to speculate whether these vulnerably earnest sensations are Taylor’s own.

 

August Reading

Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson

Maurice Guest is a music student in Leipzig, having shaken off his provincial English family in the hopes of finding himself extraordinary.  He is distracted in his pursuit of greatness by Louise, a student whose attachment to the school’s genius student of the day has given her a dubious reputation.  Too much time passes between Maurice’s initial latching on and actually getting to know Louise. There are plenty of other students introduced but only a few are given enough depth to be anything other than puzzled when their name is mentioned in the narrative with the expectation of recognition.  The most important of these is Madeleine, rather too cool, calm and competent, who has a fancy for Maurice and offers genuine sense and loyalty, despite her limitations. She is the opposite of Louise as we finally get to know her. Louise announces her refusal to consider anyone but herself though she is unsatisfied by a romantic relationship without the opportunity for dramatic self-abnegation and abasement.  She’s prone to depressive lethargy and doesn’t see everyday life as worth exerting any energy on, though she’s a passion junkie and can sweep her depression aside to go dancing, much to Maurice’s disapproval. She’s insufferable yet somehow has more about her than Maurice, as does Madeleine. Maurice is an unsatisfactory evolutionary point midway between them. He discovers that he is not extraordinary after all but finds it hard to find happiness in ordinariness.  However, he is still too hardheadedly concerned with the everyday and the knowledge that tomorrow must be paid for for he and Louise to be able to bear with each other. This schema of characterisation would have been more satisfying if Maurice hadn’t felt so generic, so like any dissatisfied young man. The first third of the novel, say, has potential. The second third drags and frustrates. The last third redeems it in the sense that it left a more vivid impression than anything else I read this month, though the book was relatively disappointing as a whole.  As Maurice and Louise’s relationship deteriorates and they descend into hatred of themselves and each other, there is a similar intensity to the climax of Richardson’s Richard Mahony, as the main characters experience with hallucinatory hyperreality the disintegration of all their hopes for themselves.  Their disbelief that things should have come to this is also a horrible recognition of the inevitable that was hidden underneath all the time.

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

An idealistic young Englishman gets drawn into the Jacobite Rebellion.  I quite enjoyed Ivanhoe but this was much more of a struggle.  Too many military details, too much Scottish dialect, too much cod Latin from pompous but lovable comic relief.  Too many things that were just impenetrable dead weight on the page. The novel kind of struggled out from under the weight in the end.  Scott puts Waverley in an interesting position where he sometimes feels as if he has woken from a dream to discover himself committing treason yet is never really forced to choose sides.  Waverley is an interesting choice of hero in that he is as much like if Anne from the Famous Five liked poetry and went to war as is compatible with his theoretical excellence. Bathos won the Jacobite Rebellion according to Scott, which is both sad and comfortable.  Everything is resolved quite neatly and the farewell cast a warm golden glow on the characters that took me by surprise considering the uphill struggle before the downward slope. I can see how the “England, you have a foreign country right in your back garden! Or at least, it was foreign, sixty years since” stuff had popular appeal but I don’t quite get why this novel was such a cornucopia of catnip.

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

An unworldly and sickly young priest struggles to perform his duties in a French country parish in the thirties.  I was not prepared for this level of damp clammy hairshirt Catholicism. Very much a meditation on the conflict between internal truths and practical life but not the one I might have hoped for.  My sympathy for the humble, hapless priest took alarm when he did things like sob on the necks of choirboys and respond to his parishioners’ emotional troubles with what seemed to me astonishing, aggressive uselessness, haranguing them for the sin of despair (I think): “‘God will break you,’ I shouted.”  This is presented as the performance of a great feat of spiritual salvation.  The translation or Bernanos’ own prose lacked precision or flow. To a certain extent the intensity of the slogging without hope of reward won me over but then the other characters began making too many remarks about how extraordinary our narrator was and it all seemed a bit sugary.

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

A novel that ties together several different forms of narration.  Andrew Garvie, a dollmaker with dwarfism, has struck up a correspondence with Bramber, a woman who lives in some kind of institution.  The correspondence was initiated in order to discuss Ewa Chaplin, a Polish dollmaker and writer of dark fairytales. Andrew and Bramber have become very close through their letters and Andrew decides that they are meant to be together and makes a journey to visit Bramber to declare himself.  The novel consists of Andrew’s narration of his past and his present journey, Bramber’s letters and Ewa Chaplin’s stories. I couldn’t decide whether I liked this novel or not. It carried itself like something attractive to me, with a cool intelligence stirring up deeper things. I liked the idea of the short stories as I always do like the idea of stories within stories.  But the stories, as so often with ekphrastic fiction, don’t quite match the description. They don’t feel like mid-century Polish writing, the writing sometimes felt a little clunkier than the rest of the novel and they just weren’t as striking as they were supposed to be. I liked the tentative trust of the ending and much of the writing but was left still with a suspicion of emptiness.  Also, many of the stories feature dwarves and the novel clearly believes itself to be doing something rather interesting with them, but this largely amounts to use as an aesthetic motif representing frequently sinister ambiguity. Sure, the novel likes sinister ambiguity. It still seems oddly regressive.

The Forgotten Smile by Margaret Kennedy

Kate is a sensible, managing woman who has grown apart from her husband and whose children refuse to be managed.  Selwyn, decades younger, is a bumptious shambling widower whose deafness to social cues has often prevented him from realising when he’s being slighted.  They bump into each other on a Greek island whose obscurity has enabled some survival of paganism and where the islanders are in touch with the hidden springs of life and wells of emotion.  Their meeting and their time on the island allows them to revitalise and face life again. Quite nice but didn’t quite coagulate.

Artists in Crime by Ngaio Marsh

Murder mystery among a bunch of artists in the thirties.  Very thirties. Quite good but not Marsh’s best; the murder happened very soon after the beginning so most of the novel was investigation and we got a bit too bogged down in detail.

The Twilight of the Gods by Richard Garnett

1880s short stories of whimsical droll satire on hypocrisy and corruption in Classical and Eastern religions and Catholicism.  Attempts to live up to precepts are doomed and religious structures are constructed for gain with venal complicity extending up to the highest level of authority.  I was expecting whimsy rather than satire so was a little surprised when I realised the tendency of the stories. Quite light and fluffy though, in its frequent character death way, and the supernatural isn’t absent.

Nada by Carmen Laforet

Andrea, arriving to stay at her grandmother’s house in order to attend university in Barcelona, has her beautiful expectations of the sort of life that will be opening up to her abruptly withered in the bud when she enters the house.  It and her relatives are much the worse for wear since she last saw them in childhood and she is entering into a realm of darkness and poverty, with threats looming out of the shadows. Much time is spent on the violent arguments between her Uncles Juan and Roman and between Juan and his wife Gloria, and on Roman’s mysterious machinations, and some time also on her grandmother’s sweet saintliness and Gloria’s naive self-absorption, but these people never really become characters.  They are simply a way of dramatising the landscape. The house, with its cavernous dark Gothic decay, is a landscape in which Andrea is a poor lost little lonely spirit. She herself is never really a character so much as a mere squashed faint longing for life and light. The sense of being lost in a space that is bearing down on her seems several times to extend into the world outside: Overhead the sky, almost blue-black, was becoming heavy, even threatening, without a single cloud.  There was something terrifying in the classical magnificence of that sky flattened over the silent street.  Something that made me feel small and crushed by cosmic forces like the hero in a Greek tragedy. and The plaza of the university appeared as still and enormous as in a nightmare.  As if the pedestrians crossing it, and the automobiles and streetcars, had been attacked by paralysis.

Andrea is, at the end, apparently summoned out of this world by her friend Ena, as if by grace, without any sense that her own agency could have achieved this.  At one point in the story Andrea believes the goldenly beautiful, popular Ena to have fallen under Roman’s spell, menaced by the same darkness that rules her own homelife but it emerges that Ena was a vanquisher and not a victim all along.  Andrea would have saved her but Ena not needing to be saved rounds off Andrea’s deprivation of agency. Laforet was only 23 when she wrote this and its vague sense of a rich life out there somewhere feels young. So does the stylised family drama and the opposition of age and meanness to the potential of vitality.  I felt the novel was atmosphere without much substance, but then the atmosphere was intended to be the substance all along.

The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora

One of those psychological thrillerish stories of toxic female friendship.  Elise and Abby Graven (idolatry and images are important to her character) were friends at school but grew apart when Elise embarked on an acting career.  Abby has spent ten depressed years creating elaborate drawings based on her dreams, working retail and following the psychobabble advice of Perren, an experimental filmmaker she’s obsessed with.  After reconnecting with Elise she experiences a surge of energy and flies out to visit her in LA where she becomes Elise’s PA and experiences celebrity life by proxy. Abby’s narration has an increasingly bombastic tone.  She compares her own creative energy with her pitying disdain for what she is sure is Elise’s lack of it. Elise seems increasingly vacuous and fragile, fixated on external validation. It’s made deliberately hard for us to know whether to dismiss or believe Abby’s claims of talent and psychic dreams, in that way that tends to lead to a dramatic pantsing of the narrator at the end when it is revealed to us just how deluded they are.  This kind of does that and kind of doesn’t. It does in that Abby does get increasingly removed from normality (there’s a baby obsession that comes out of nowhere, as if it’s a fact universally acknowledged that all weird and unstable women must be in want of someone else’s baby) but it doesn’t in that some of Abby’s claims about herself do seem to be externally validated. This is an acceptable run-through of a familiar story but not much more than that.  It could have done something more interesting with the creativity theme but gets distracted.

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James

Mrs Gereth’s life’s work has been accumulating a wonderful collection of antique furniture and curiosities.  As a widow, however, Poynton is no longer her home and its contents no longer her property. When her son marries the proper thing for her to do is to move out, leaving behind the collection as it goes with the house.  Her willingness to do the proper thing is always dubious and takes a nosedive when her son engages himself to a girl from a background of what Mrs Gereth considers to be the absolute nadir of suburban, philistine tastelessness.  The novel opens with the Gereths on a visit to Waterbath, the home of Owen’s fiancee and evidence of her unfitness to be a caretaker to Mrs Gereth’s prized possessions. Mrs Gereth and a young lady named Fleda Vetch meet at Waterbath and have a kind of instantaneous rapturous recognition of the other’s excellent aesthetic judgement.  This leads Fleda into a position as Mrs Gereth’s right-hand man which, while she didn’t have anything better to do, gets a bit tricky when Mrs Gereth walks off with all the furniture and she is torn between Mrs Gereth’s expectations that she uncritically support her actions and Owen’s hopes that she will persuade his mother to return the furniture before he has to call the police in.

It’s at this point that the novel becomes one of those books that has a fatal flaw you had not anticipated from your understanding of the premise.  I thought this was a book about an argument about furniture and wondered whether this was enough to sustain a novel. James is not actually all that interested in the furniture, though.  The fatal flaw comes about when it becomes clear that there is every reason why Owen should marry Fleda but that this is not going to happen. Fleda has tender feelings for Owen. He is well-meaning and good-looking but not very sharp and Fleda thinks fondly that he looks like a peasant in national dress and feels proud of him if he happens to use a long word.  Owen feels grateful for her polite reasonableness and has gone right off his fiancee who won’t marry him without the full complement of property. Most of all, it would solve the whole furniture argument because Mrs Gereth would be delighted to leave her things in Fleda’s care. But Fleda has scruples. Scruples about Owen’s fiancee but also scruples about actively attempting to get what she wants.  James makes some attempt to make these scruples a part of Fleda’s psychology but they never seem like anything other than bizarre, mean-spirited authorial interference. Then everything goes up in flames. I was not a fan.

July Reading

The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope

YA novel set in Tudor England.  Kate is a commonsensical heroine who gets mixed up with some people who may be fairies or survivors of some nebulously defined pre-Christian era of England’s history, driven underground.  In context the “not actually quite fairies” business is more outlandish than actual fairies but it works better than I expected and this was just really well done as a whole, flowing and engaging.  The historical background convinces without any sense of strain. I liked Kate’s touches of sympathy with the Folk.

The New Me by Halle Butler

A short novel about an isolated, misanthropic, depressed temp who briefly expects to be offered a permanent position and makes half-hearted attempts to move towards a better self. Millie’s idea of what a better self might be contains the desperation for escape but seems unconvinced and unclear; she doesn’t have much authentic vision of her own potential.  Much of the novel takes place in the workplace and convincingly replicates the way certain people talk to each other when they don’t give a shit about each other, and while not breaching the rules of politeness, aren’t troubling themselves to disguise it. There is a sympathy for Millie’s position, even though she really isn’t a sympathetic character, but the novel’s deliberate denial of potentialities is both depressing and too deliberate feeling, leaving it shut up on a fairly superficial level.  It reminded me a bit of A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis in that the rules of the in-novel universe seem to dictate that the main character can pine for a sense of meaning but it is categorically not in their nature to access it.  The New Me makes this a bit less of an individual curse, I suppose, in that it gives more space to other characters.  While other people are playing the game better than Millie this doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t seem to be much of a game.

The Crystal Cabinet by Mary Butts

One of my reasons for reading this memoir of early twentieth century upper class childhood is that I once didn’t finish a novel by Butts even though it seemed like it ought to be my kind of thing (an Alan Garnerish modernist grail quest in the twenties) and the atmosphere of what I did read has lingered.  It occurred to me when I was waiting for the book to get properly started instead of wandering around that perhaps this wasn’t the best reason. Butts has lots of feelings about nature, and about the stifling expectations of girls at the time in which she grew up and also a lot of feelings of anger about the various ways in which the world of her childhood disappeared.  Some of these are to do with her mother and some are to do with the disappearance of the unspoiled scenery she was surrounded by in childhood. Butts mixes rebelliousness with authoritarianism and her concern for the environment is deeply coloured by a seething resentment at having to share space with what she considers the wrong people. She also proselytised about the advantages of instilling Victorian unthinking obedience in children in a way I just don’t feel like taking from someone Wikipedia informs me was a drug-addicted Aleister Crowley acolyte who didn’t raise her own child.   I like books about the forming of someone’s imaginative life and creative drive and this does do what I was looking for in its circular, meandering way. Somehow Butts comes across, even in her own book, as an unsympathetic minor character in a murder mystery, though I did develop a certain amount of sympathy with her by the end.

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Roberta is in her late twenties and life has never quite come together for her.  When she makes a vibrant but domineering friend she feels more alive than she ever has before, and she is inspired to do something with her love of food and cookery.  Supper Club is a kind of monthly bacchanalia. Williams dances around the idea of this as some kind of political statement but doesn’t get too explicit, which is just as well.  I felt it worked better as an amoral escape. I expected it to be more straightforwardly a springboard for plot developments than it turned out to be, because the novel turned out to be only half set in the present.  Alternating sections show Roberta struggling through her time at university, dealing with isolation, trauma and self-doubt. I found the writing absorbing and Roberta’s character is carefully developed, which mitigated much of the novel’s drawbacks (lack of action, a bit too consciously issuey).

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone and The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars by Jaclyn Moriarty

Kids’ fantasy novels, more about whimsy and humour and poignancy than plot.  These made me realise that I enjoy the function more than the actual content of Moriarty’s whimsy but it kind of worked anyway.  The second one is definitely overlong, though.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”  We find out a little more about Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents’ reasons for leaving, and a little more about the possibly criminal men, but not much.  The odd thing about this novel is that Ondaatje should have gone to the effort of developing opportunity for adventure and plot when it seems surplus to his requirements; the novel is mainly mood pieces about how it feels to be on rivers and in cars and empty houses and hotel kitchens.  It was quite pleasant to read, like bathing in tepid, half-lit water, but I didn’t find much to carry away with me.

Bunny by Mona Awad

Samantha is taking a creative writing degree at a prestigious institution and her cohort consists of her and four “bunnies”; hyperfeminine girls who aggressively package blandness as quirkiness, call each other bunny and hug ecstatically all the time.  At the beginning of the novel Samantha is looking on at them with her new-found friend Ava who shares her disdain for them. Samantha has fear and longing as well as disdain, however, and when the Bunnies make overtures she doesn’t put up much resistance and is let in on their dark secrets.  Bunny is a magic realist novel about the creative power and also eventual limitations of exaggeration and wish-fulfilment.  It is, primarily, about the pleasures of giving in to id and the need to be liked, and also about the need to hold on to a more real higher self and not sell out, basically.  I found it a pretty immersive, enjoyable book that doesn’t want a particularly earnest reader. However, the “don’t sell out!” strand is meant to offset the Bunnies’ whirling vortex and it’s poorly enough executed that it doesn’t, really.  Samantha’s friend Ava is a symbol for much of the novel of anti-Bunnydom but she stands for rugged individuality in a very juvenile, stylised way that is all costume and quirks. Two of the Bunnies, as individuals, are rather similar in their adoption of theoretical deviation from the norm into commodified femininity.  The ultimate development of the Ava plot further destabilises the worth of Samatha’s affection for her and functions as a “bubble got too big and burst” moment that is a fitting enough culmination of the book.

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Children’s book about Elizabeth, an anxious, fearful girl whose uncommunicative father, recently abandoned by his wife, is taking her to his family home, a neglected mansion.  She is accompanied by her invisible friend Zenobia, who enthusiastically seeks out all the dark and dismal and dangerous things that frighten Elizabeth. Traces of The Secret Garden, only the garden is dangerous.  It’s essentially well done but didn’t quite do it for me; I think I wanted a few extra scenes to flesh stuff out and add suspense.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Three teenage sisters in Greece.  You are left with the shimmer of summer above all.  Apart from that, more than anything, it’s about sex and biological imperative.  Liberaki shrugs poignantly about some of the consequences of joining the dance but well, you’re in the dance.  It’s also about family history and the ambition to live a life that encompasses all kinds of things that you don’t know about yet.

Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval

Johanna, a Norwegian student in England, gets involved in a weird flatshare/relationship situation.  Novella about squalor and decay and dysfunctional intimacy. I feel the idea is for the grossness to be disconcertingly succumbable to but for me this lacked the warmth and intimacy that would have made that possible, and I may be wrong anyway.  A “But why?” experience.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

The author teaches creative writing, and when I began this I thought rather meanly that it was very much the kind of book you might stereotypically expect such a person to write.  There is no plot at all until and the writing style is very elaborate and florid. A sixty year old professor of literature, an aloof, formidable type, narrates while on honeymoon in Orkney with his twenty-one year old wife, a former student of his.  He narrativeises his wife in every detail, discarding any contradiction, while becoming increasingly less able to project a future for them as a couple. The story he has created around his wife seems to culminate here. I’ve been vaguely aware of this book for a few years and been unsure how interested I was in it.  On coming across it in the library the writing style appeared attractive but on actually beginning it seemed fussy for a while before I got into it. I did find it much more immersive than I thought I would. You need to enjoy dreamy descriptions of women standing on the seashore in the rain and this needs to be your kind of dreamy for you to enjoy it.  What happens in the end is a matter of guessing, as is the nature of Richard’s wife — is she troubled or really quite cheerful and ordinary?

June Reading

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Murder mystery with a fun meta element, featuring the author as one of the detectives.  Ultimately I liked the idea more than the execution.

Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin

Novel showing the progress of two couples’ relationships in a world of quirks and ponderings against a background of artificial ease. I liked what this book was doing perhaps more than I liked how it did it.  It’s a generally sunny book dealing with the necessary difficulties of adjusting one personality to another in a relationship.  Holly’s husband is fascinated by her self-possessed preciseness but has no idea what’s going on in there.  Misty’s husband-to-be must wear down her performative hostility which masks her more vulnerable conviction that good things are illusions. I found the husbands interchangeably hapless and puppyish.  Colwin makes “How do these people live together?” her central question, and this is a fine question that I would be happy to see more romantic novels deal with.  However, I wasn’t really satisfied with the answer, which had too much of the “one person puts up and shuts up” about it.  Misty thinks, “Suppose Vincent got tired of someone who was not second nature to him?”  I would have liked more emphasis on becoming more at home with personalities that seem alien at first, and less emphasis on marriage being accepting the alien within the walls on perfect faith, swallowing questions and complaints.  I found the ultimate tendency a little dismaying and I think it was trying to be comforting.  The world of the novel is warm, if not a little stuffy.  It’s not that I didn’t like it, just that I didn’t like it as much as I might have.

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

Novel about William and Neaera, two middle-aged people, lonely and unsure what to do with themselves, who independently develop an interest in the sea turtles in the London zoo and desire their freedom.  The turtles represent a restful otherness from the mundane but perplexing dilemmas of everyday life and the failure William and Neaera suspect they’ve made of life. More than this though, the turtles in their natural habitat, living their natural life, swimming unerringly miles and miles across the sea to mate, having a thing to do and doing it, represent the state of being fully present in life and time.  William has ruined his marriage by wanting always to be somewhere else, never able to settle in the present for fear the future will be just the same, or in case it has something better he needs to hurry up and get to.  Now divorced, he is somewhere else and doesn’t like it.  Neaera, a children’s illustrator grown tired of creating anthropomorphised characters, is searching desultorily for inspiration.  There’s a line which struck home about her never feeling she had enough time, however much time she had, because time never seemed to metabolise into life.  To be in life like the turtles are or should be in the sea is to risk but also to be safer in the sense that to be in your right place, not missing what you ought to have had, is a kind of safety.  Hoban wants the setting free of the turtles to be an effectively cathartic gesture that somehow frees Neaera and William from their stasis but at the same time he clearly feels a little fastidious about showing it too immediately and definitely.  I can understand this but at the same time I’m not sure that he didn’t lose his moment to convincingly show the transition. The same fastidiousness shows in the squeamishness William and Neaera show towards engaging with each other.  This is not a romance, or even the story of a friendship.  Neither is attracted by someone who reminds them of themselves and I think Hoban was afraid of getting too soft and squishy if emotional connection was made too explicit a theme.  Not perfect perhaps but I liked this a lot.  Wryly melancholy and also hopeful.

Widdershins by Oliver Onions

Edwardian supernatural short stories, a little like Walter de la Mare.  Well-written but doesn’t really have the rare gift that makes short stories “stories” rather than “short stories” for me.  Many, if not all of the stories deal with a tension between a pragmatic professionalist definition of success in the arts and insistence on creative authenticity marked by its opposition to the former.  Pragmatism is too comfortable and limited but “authentic”, “creative” zealotry is apt to become monstrous.  Pragmatism has a certain slightly uncomfortable, defensive awareness of its limits which makes it ultimately vulnerable to the undertow.

The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope

Mary is staying with her friend and her husband, Mr and Mrs Fenwick.  Mr Fenwick’s friend Harry Gilmore, a Squire, has fallen in love with her but though she esteems him she cannot love him.  The Fenwicks’ insistent arguments in his favour create more and more awkwardness.  Frank Fenwick, the Vicar of Bullhampton, has a soft spot for the wayward children of a respectable miller, one being suspected of involvement in a murder and the other a Fallen Woman, and is drawn into various local goings-on on their account.  Not one of Trollope’s best.  I mean, there’s yet another young woman who’s not sure who she ought to marry, torn between pragmatic duty and romantic inclination and at first I wasn’t quite feeling it.  The fallen woman plot doesn’t quite come off.  Mr Fenwick’s sympathy for Carry Brattle and campaign for her rehabilitation is explicitly linked to his admiration for her beauty and him telling her he loves her comes across a bit weird in the circumstances.  Mr Fenwick’s frustration with Carry’s mealy-mouthed respectable siblings, unwilling to “compromise” themselves by doing the slightest bit of good for anybody is effective enough.  However when Trollope gets onto the unchangeable tragedy of Carry’s fall it’s hard not to feel that the moral weight is gone.  There’s a trumpeting tone accompanying Carry’s father’s eventual forgiveness of her though his life is forever spoiled by the disgrace, and accompanying also what Trollope thought was his own controversial stance, which feels a little awkward, like heroism gone bathetic.  This is probably because Trollope seems to have been a little behind his own times, and got ready for a fight no one showed any interest in having with him.  However.  I still enjoy Trollope even when he’s not at his best.  As ever, his great subject is the absurdity of the interface between social life and emotion and he has a sense of the urgency of the claims of both, creating a breathable balance in his atmosphere that is not so easy to find.  The romantic dilemmas he creates are so repetitive they feel compulsive, like he was trying to work something out for himself, which generates enough energy that even when you’ve read plenty of them before and you’re not reading one of his best, there’s a momentum in them.  This one proves to be particularly like a piece of elastic stretched a long way in the direction of sense and obligation before pinging back to the original less wise romantic attachment, as it always does for redeemable characters.

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe

Lizzie leaves home to take up a job as a dental assistant and begins a tentative, undefined relationship.  After an unstable childhood her mother continues to be an important character in her life, a figure she frequently finds at once endearing and upsetting.  At first the book seemed a bit like a disparate collection of quirky details but it came together for me more as it went on.

They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy

Two aristocratic young men in 1904 Hungary.  Count Balint Abady and Count Laszlo Gyeroffy are cousins and friends, both earnestly hopeful young men with ambitions to do something special in the world, Balint through politics and especially administration of his estate, Laszlo through music.  Though both are thoroughly ensconced in their aristocratic milieu, both nevertheless feel a slight taint of the outsider, Balint because he has more dignity and conscience than most, and doesn’t enjoy rowdy pastimes, Laszlo because he is an orphan without a home of his own.  This novel, the first in a trilogy, sees the bright hopes of both rather dimmed through romantic travails and the general wickedness of the world.  Much of the distinctiveness of the book is in the way you can tell that Banffy is at once a thorough member of the world he is documenting, and that he is very consciously documenting it for the record, because in 1934 it has gone and is still vanishing further as he writes.  The interconnectedness of the aristocracy comes across strongly, the cliqueyness that is at once deliberately exclusive and too natural to require strategy.  At times the book felt a little too much like a tour across an enormous chamber.  Still, on the whole it has a lot to offer and is generally enveloping.  Much of the plot is a traditional pitting of hopeful youth against the world, in which youth gets older and sadder if not wiser.  Balint’s relationship with Adrienne, a married woman brutalised by her husband, provides classic forbidden love romance, almost but not really too classic to be effective.  The most interesting thing about this relationship is Balint’s clearly defined struggle between seeing Adrienne as a person to be empathised with and seeing her as a sex object to be attained lest he look stupid.

Company Parade by Storm Jameson

A good plain, dense slice of realism.  After WWI Hervey Russell feels forced to leave her child in the care of someone else to come to London and take up a junior position in an advertising firm, her husband still in the Air Force.  The issues to be faced are how Hervey can best resolve her internal conflicts, how she can either live with or finally detach herself from her weak, shallow husband, and how any intelligent person can resign themselves to living in the world at this particular moment in time, when the horrors of WWI have disillusioned and traumatised Hervey and her friends and they can, with Jameson’s 1933 hindsight, see “the spectacle of Europe being driven as an ox is driven towards the next war.”  Hervey is a novelist and a journalist as well as a copy writer.  Her friends start an idealistic and doomed leftist newspaper.  Communication with the masses, or the failing to do so, is the business of most of the characters.  Hervey becomes acquainted with an ambitious young writer apparently modelled on J. B. Priestley.  Jameson/Hervey is ethically troubled by the J. B. Priestley school of fiction with its “descriptions of faces and family parties and love scenes, with inventories of pantries and kitchens, with comic events, with speeches in character, corpulent, leg-slapping, something for all tastes and nothing for thought.”  What’s wrong with this is that this brand of hearty, down-to-earth jollity encourages people to be satisfied with what is not enough, to think that it’s all right really when it’s not all right, to think that the writer is down among them when really he is separate and calculated and only interested in profit and making his name.  Which while, on the one hand you can see the point, is on the other a little dourly puritanical.

The no-nonsense insistence is part of the bedrock of Hervey’s personality.  She has an ancestrally inherited tough shrewdness.  She can be a stolid navigator though life’s pitfalls towards self-advantage, though this aspect of her personality is in a way too instinctive for it to feel very personal to her.  In contrast to this side of her she can carelessly neglect duty and self-interest, through inconsistency or passion.  Often abrupt and awkward, her self-presentation is at times perversely at odds with her true feelings due to a neurotic fear of being laughed at or known to care about things.  She can be a meek people pleaser, an urge which is partially connected to the shrewdness and is partly simple timidity.  Sometimes this combination of traits and aspects attained to a complex, convincing portrait and sometimes I wasn’t sure these qualities didn’t feel united by a theory of complexity rather than being actually brought together.  However, at most times Hervey’s characterisation had the marks of self-analysis, the puzzling over and at times necessarily artificial separating and labelling oneself that happens when we want to add ourselves up in a better sum.  Hervey is a fairly autobiographical character.  Another thing that gives this away is the occasional careful disclaimer of any apparent generosity or kindness or artistic ambition on Hervey’s part in the narrator’s account of her, while other characters sometimes weigh her up in that careful and sometimes extolling way other characters do weigh up the author’s favourite character.  This anxious “is it okay to be me? Especially in a suffering world?” strain represents the most personal element in an often political novel, more so than relationships.

A Land by Jacquetta Hawkes

A 1951 exploration of the creation of Britain since the dawn of time.  Hawkes tries to imaginatively experience a familiar landscape as utterly different and to trace the evolution to its state today.  A blend of geology and archaeology with something more personal and creative.  Hawkes refers to the book “these memoirs” to make it clear that she is staking out her own territory and giving herself permission to be breathlessly New Agey in places — so not for people who are allergic to that kind of thing.   I realised on starting this that I was reading it because I loved Ragnorak by A. S. Byatt and its rendering of geology, biology, ecology etc as myth.  On the one hand, Hawkes is doing a very similar thing to that aspect of Ragnorak, but on the other hand she’s a different person, so I had to adjust myself.  I never quite fell in love with her voice but on the whole the book did what I wanted it to do.  I felt appropriate wonder at how long time has been going on for and a sense of the temporary nature even of mountains.

May Reading

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!

April Reading

Marcella by Mrs Humphry Ward

An 1894 novel about class politics with particular reference to land, which attempts to find a via media between the nationalisation of land and the negligence of landlords.  Marcella is a fiery, strong-willed young woman who begins the novel with Socialist ideals as her father inherits a country estate.  She likes to be important and cannot help feeling pride in her new position and upper-class heritage, while full of plans to improve the lives of her father’s cottagers.  She forms an engagement with a deeply earnest and conscientious but Conservative heir to a country estate, Aldous Raeburn, but cannot reconcile herself to his politics.  The difficulty is helped along by her attraction to a Radical but flighty politician, Mr Wharton.  Tension is also created by a plot in which one of Marcella’s protégés in the village turns poacher and kills the Raeburns’ keeper; the game laws of the time are one of Marcella’s chief concerns.  This novel is very much like Ward’s Robert Elsmere, about a clergyman who loses faith in the truth of the bible, in that it takes a very earnest, respectable, Victorian approach to the inevitable dissolution of systems that have been depended on, reaches a kind of precarious, painstaking earnest Victorian okayness with the exact stage of transition that Ward has engineered/represented by the end and shrugs towards the future.  That novel had more to offer, I think, because having a good and conscientious man permanently lose his faith feels more a lot newer for the time than having people really want to be good to the poor but not be sure how to do it or whether good always comes out of trying to be good to the poor.  This novel accepts that the system of dependence on patriarchal land owners is probably dying but asks urgently “But what if there are good land owners?  What if they’re really getting their act together?  What if you’re being really unfair in tarring them all with the same brush?”  Marcella repents of her dreadful crime of being unfair to good land owners and decides it’s best to be a little ambitious and innovative but not too much and everyone will just do the duties at hand and see what comes of it.  It was quite interesting to see that Marcella is allowed to live alone and take up a nursing career during the novel.  I suppose she’s a little like Dorothea from Middlemarch with her initial conflation of morality with personal ambition.  Like Dorothea, she has to get squashed but ends up less squashed I think, allowed more ability to be useful in the world in the end.  The book is interesting in that it’s a decent enough treatment of material I find interesting but decidedly too long.  As with Robert Elsmere, this is a Victorian book club kind of book.  It tackles of-the-moment issues in a way that isn’t bad but lacks the kind of universal resonance that allows old books to live.

The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman

A girl who’s afraid of everything and trying to reinvent herself discovers a clue to a murder.  In discovering first who was killed and when and then whodunit, she also embarks on a course of personal growth and learns to be the best her she can be rather than try to be someone else.  There’s a guru in this and everything but Gilman’s approach to spiritual growth is brisk and efficient as well as kitsch and the character development is folded nicely into the mystery.

Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck

Detective mystery.  A blackmailing Reverend with dirt on several worthies is killed.  Did the butler do it or the bishop?  Pleasant enough but a bit slack.

A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman

A pair of nuns are sent out into the world to take possession of some property they’ve inherited.  They discover a shot but not dead man on the premises, who refuses to explain anything, and make friends with the hippies camping nearby.  The nuns and the hippies combine in their concern for the rights of migrant workers while it becomes clear that the people who shot the mysterious man are still circling.  This one’s a bit twee even for me but still enjoyable.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch 

The story of a teenage girl and her many foster placements after her mother begins a prison sentence.  The placements all go wrong but somehow usually in a way that allows Astrid to develop a fetishistic, fraught relationship with beauty and art and consumerism.  Exactly the florid shot of oestrogen I wanted it to be and which it promised to be from the first page which describes Astrid’s mother smelling of violets with beauty like the edge of a knife.  Fitch enjoys Astrid’s monstrous mother, an egotistical poet fond of making pompous pronouncements on how life should be lived, best of all, I think, though of course Astrid must reject her monstrousness in order to grow.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

A novel about emotional alienation.  Katherine is a girl in winter literally but more importantly she is internally frozen, in the grip of a winter which may last indefinitely.  Katherine is a refugee in war-time England with a job as a librarian under a petty tyrant boss.  She has been forced by circumstances to make a complete break with her past but Larkin doesn’t commit to making her someone whose family has died or is in danger.  Neither does he commit to making her someone of whom these things are not true.  The novel has three sections and the first describes what passes for a temporary escape from the worst of her lonely life when she is permitted to leave work for a short while to take a young colleague with toothache to the dentist.  Katherine is not drawn to this girl, who is a drip in the unsympathetic kind of way, but after a while is prevailed upon by her vulnerability to attempt to make some kind of connection with her — an attempt which she later finds has been betrayed, in its own small way.  They spend time waiting in the snow before embarking on some slightly surreal yet mundane mishaps.  The people Katherine meets seem a little too near for comfort yet somehow still very far away.  This escape from the library into the winter outside is not the important escape — that is Katherine’s recently established contact with a family she spent a summer holiday with once when she was sixteen.  She may be about to hear from Robin, the pen-pal who invited her back then.  This changes everything because it seems to bring her into touch with a world of possibilities and emotional connection.  She feels that if she does not make touch with this world soon she never will again, that she is on the brink of losing the ability to relate to people.  Since she is still so young, Katherine’s fear that this state of winter might be permanent makes her seem particularly young in this moment to me and I felt the tenderness for her that you feel for people whose problems might not be as bad as they think they are but whose inability to see that is their biggest problem of all.  Larkin, however, makes this impossibility of connection in the world of his novel a little more objective and a little less subjective for her, which made me feel I should feel sorry for him too.

The second section conveys summer as vividly as winter is conveyed by the first and last sections.  Katherine is detectably a younger and more hopeful self here but has not really so much more to be hopeful about.  She has always been puzzled by the wooden letters of her pen-pal Robin and her attempts to draw him out, first by letter and then in person, fail.  She has a pleasant enough time as Robin, accompanied by his annoying sister Jane, dutifully shows her around, but she is irritated by her inability to work out what makes him tick or why he has invited her.  She is doubly irritated by the presence of Jane, which she is sure prevents her from discovering exciting answers to these mysteries.  During this section, in which Katherine works up a sexual attraction to Robin, it seemed to me that surely it is rare that male writers show as much interest as Larkin here in what their female characters think of their male characters.  Which is strange.  The holiday stasis is broken by Katherine’s discovery of the real reason why she has been invited, a reason that has nothing to do with her previous speculations.  It is a kind of claim on her unwilling sympathies, not unlike Katherine’s winter encounter with the Miss Green with toothache, that again fails partly because of the claimant’s failure to follow through.

The third section shows us that Katherine now has very little idea how the holiday and Robin actually turned out; it is the hope she remembers feeling then which has been giving her hope she could feel it again.  This hope dies when Robin turns up, nothing but a stranger wanting from Katherine what she wants from him.

There are signs that this is a poet’s novel.  Not in a floweriness of language, because his poetry is not flowery, but in an attitude that the inanimate world is just as valid a subject of interest as people.  There are descriptions of things that are given the same weight as descriptions of events.  Katherine wishes by the end of her holiday that she had paid less attention to Robin and more to the simplest, least human physical details of English life.  A view of life which always pleasantly uncramps my horizons.

Having studied Larkin’s poetry in 6th form and felt antagonistic towards his gloomy misanthropism, and having heard since that publication of his diaries or correspondence had shown him in an unpleasant light, I was surprised by how much I liked this.  I mean, I don’t think I love it but I thought it was a solidly good novel, with a warmth of sympathy lurking amid the frozenness, and that it was a shame Larkin didn’t write more novels.  Apparently he planned at one point to write a novel about coming to life again.  It’s nice to know he thought he had it in him but I can see why he ultimately might not have done.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller

Contemporary literary novel.  Tim falls for Maud.  The problem with this is that Tim is both a little pretentious and a feelings person; the kind of person who makes elaborate meals and considers writing concertos, while Maud is an uncommunicative scientist who, when asked in a job interview to describe herself as a drink, decides she is a glass of water.  Much is made of the fact that she has a tattoo which says “Every man for himself” in Latin.  She doesn’t display much personality but nothing will stop her from fulfilling the aims she does have.  Miller is doing a thing with Maud.  She’s a mysterious absence at the heart of the novel.  Is her interiority withheld from us or is she so much like a glass of water that there is nothing more going on inside than there is outside?  Is she on the spectrum or cold or just astonishingly straightforward?  Fittingly enough, perhaps, I felt pretty neutral about the interestingness of Maud and what Miller is doing with her.  For Tim to carry on a relationship with Maud is for him to do all the voices, the I love yous and I love you toos, essentially.  He’s partly aware of this, and fascinated by her otherness, and partly not aware that he’s talking for her.  For both of these reactions we probably think a little less of him.

After the relationship finally falls apart following a tragedy, we go sailing.  Maud and Tim are both into sailing and bought a boat together, though Maud was more into it than Tim.  She takes the boat and sets off without an aim, right across the Atlantic.  As I found the boat talk beforehand pretty hard-going and the rest of the novel only so-so I was surprised by how genuinely exhilarating I found this episode.  First there is the sense of freedom brought by being so absolutely alone at sea, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, nothing to prevent Maud from sailing on and on.  Then there is a battering storm which goes on and on and demands the full use of Maud’s capacities.  This is also satisfying, not because it’s all that dramatic exactly but because Miller makes the subjection of self to physical exigency fulfilling.  Like in The African Queen, where the characters are happier than they ever have been or will be precisely because of the awful time they’re having with that boat.  Then Maud washes up amid a community of children who’ve been abandoned wherever it is by snake-handling religious maniacs.  This section felt like a misstep; the community is both clichéd and too odd to be introduced so late in a novel.  Most of all, it deprives Maud of her straight man out function.  There’s nothing really particular about her relationship to the children.  So overall, meh but that one bit did wake me up.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

1960’s hard-boiled noir-adjacent story of Jack and Billy, who begin as aimless delinquent teenagers in pool halls.  Jack, at least, is aimless.  Billy has his pool, which does something for him besides let him make some money, though he’s not quite sure what.  However, the novel spends more time in prison than pool halls.  If I had set out to find a book full of explicit discussion of the dehumanising nature of the penal system and capitalism in mid-century America, I would have been delighted.  As it is, though that book sounds like something that has a right to exist, I was never seduced somehow into really wanting to read it.  I wanted a story that felt more immersed in individual experience.  I feel hard-boiled and noir fiction, working at its best, sinks down much of its emotional and intellectual content into the fabric of the novel — the oddly incantatory function of the descriptions of the material world, the macguffins, the ritualistic performances of the relationships of the characters – so that these things can be used as symbolic shorthand.  I liked the novel best when there were actual scenes that weren’t Jack raging against the machine or thinking about how there was no point to anything all by himself — these scenes related fruitfully to the material world in the way I associate with those genres, though flexibly.  The novel shows the way toxic masculinity prevents urgently necessary connection between people and at times manages to keep the delicate balance required in dramatising the emotional lives of highly unpleasant people.  Jack’s relationship with the slightly less fucked-up Billy eventually brings him to life emotionally. Billy has a more distinct personality than Jack but unfortunately it’s Jack we spend most time with.  All too often he seemed like nothing more than a delivery system for feelings and thoughts which were too abstract or too intense to bear so much treatment without seeming windy and untethered.  This made the novel a bit cabbagey for me even apart from its being so depressing.  It’s just too up in the air, too diluted by its own intensity.  What I really mean is that there was too much telling rather than showing.

 It could not be true that he had wasted his life up to now; it was not possible that fighting City Hall was wrong or futile.  The folk saying (So go fight City Hall) had to be wrong.  It was not like Don Quixote fighting a windmill, because a windmill wasn’t a criminal, and society was.  Society was a criminal because it committed crimes.  To fight society because it was a criminal had to be good.  But was that what Jack had done most of his life?  Had he fought to make society quit cheating, lying, robbing and murdering?  Or had he fought because he was scared?  Search as he would, he could find nothing in his past to justify his fight.  He had not fought the evil side of society; he was not even sure what it was.  He had merely fought.  It left him with an awful sense of frustration, because in his case society, too, had been fighting blindly and helplessly.  There had been nothing else to do with him but what it had done.

By then he would realise that the freedom he had always yearned for and never understood was beyond his or any man’s reach, and that all men must yearn for it equally; a freedom for the society of mankind without its absence; a freedom from connection, from fear, from trouble, and above all the loneliness of being alive.  By then he would understand that fulfilment was only temporary and desire the enemy of death. 

These quotes are both summings up near the end, which is fair, but there’s too much of the above all the way through.

Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater

1885 novel set in the Rome of Marcus Aurelius.  This reads like Pater is projecting himself into a kind of virtual reality so as to wander around the possibilities of the era that he personally finds most enticing.  It’s an imagined being, not doing.  Imagining the mellow solemnity of growing up in a villa in the countryside with the rituals of the Roman Gods, already apparently a little old-fashioned, as your formative cultural heritage.  Imagining encounters with Marcus Aurelius and Apuleius and Lucian.  Imagining picking and choosing between various philosophies and ways of being, most notably Epicureanism, Stoicism and Christianity, having the ability to take what Pater considers to be the most interesting elements of each of them.

It seemed just then as if the desire of the artist in him — that old longing– might be satisfied by the exact and literal transcript of what was then passing around him, in simple prose, arresting the desirable moment as it passed, and prolonging its life a little.

This description of Marius’s urge to “arrest the desirable moment” reminded me of Pater’s modus operandi in this novel; he has a list of desirable moments to fit into this premise and he freeze-frames them.

Marius, as the title tells you, is an Epicurean.  I know nothing about Epicureanism beyond what this novel told me, so I don’t know whether Pater’s take on it truly is a little idiosyncratic.  Marius’s philosophy seems to be that nothing exists beyond the present moment so that we should take care to live the present moment as vividly as possible.  The idiosyncrasy comes in with Pater’s idea of vividness.  It is made clear at the beginning that Marius has a special capacity to enjoy beauty and visual stimulus and that his life’s good shall come to him through these.  It is also made clear that Marius is far too refined and restrained and full of rectitude to interpret his philosophy as a licence for debauchery.  I might have expected a novel full of Proustian descriptions of the visual world, then, but that doesn’t really happen.  For all this emphasis on beauty being important to Marius, the physical world seems to have little reality for him.  Physical beauty is the cipher for a beautiful concept behind it, he decides during a spiritual experience in a natural setting:

It was easier to conceive of the material fabric of things as but an element in a world of thought — as a thought in a mind, than of mind as an element, or accident, or passing condition in a world of matter, because mind was really nearer to himself: it was an explanation of what was less known by what was known better.  The purely material world that close, impassable prison-wall, seemed just then the unreal thing, to be actually dissolving away all around him: and he felt a quiet hope, a quiet joy dawning faintly, in the dawning of this doctrine upon him as a really credible opinion.

This has something to do with Platonism, I think, but I don’t know enough to tell why Marius is an Epicurean rather than a Platonist.  This intangible nature of what Marius is striving for is emphasised as he sums up his life at the end:

Revelation, vision, the discovery of a vision, the seeing of a perfect humanity, in a perfect world—through all his alternations of mind, by some dominant instinct, determined by the original necessities of his own nature and character, he had always set that above the having, or even the doing, of anything. For, such vision, if received with due attitude on his part, was, in reality, the being something, and as such was surely a pleasant offering or sacrifice to whatever gods there might be, observant of him.

The novel seems like it presents itself as a plea for some ethical position but the more I think about it the odder it seems.  This insistence of Pater’s on talking about the physical world being everything one moment and nothing the next moment is at the heart of it.  I think he means that the physical world is the key to the invisible world but this seems too obvious to him to always make it apparent.  Instead there is all this invisible world stuff, when you thought it said something else on the tin.

Thankfully I have read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations because one of the main things this book is for is to quarrel respectfully with him.  At one point Marius almost has a chat with him to point out where he is going wrong but Marcus Aurelius is busy with orphans and misses his chance.  Part of this is Pater’s puzzled sorrow that someone who tried to be good could have lent himself to some of his period’s atrocities and part of it is a rejection of what he sees as Marcus Aurelius’s gloomy assumptions that life is a burden.

Marius encounters Christians, and after spending lots of time looking at their tombs comes to the conclusion that Christianity is all about joy.  He doesn’t convert but is able to die happily knowing that Christianity exists.  I was surprised by how unconvincing I found Marius’s reactions to Christianity — surprised since it seems clear that the representation of early Christianity is carefully crafted to suit Pater’s own vision.  The fact that Pater had in fact lost his faith in Christianity may have something to do with the awkwardness I felt here, the effect of crudely visible lines in something that has nonetheless clearly been lovingly pieced together.

Ultimately I suppose the oddness of the book is due to the fact that this is Pater’s world, and happiness in it is defined by the tastes of one wistful intellectual.  And that’s what this objectively dull book had that I quite liked: a wistful intellectual vision of happiness.