November and December Reading

The Past by Tessa Hadley

A family of adult siblings are spending a few weeks in their grandparents’ old house.  Summer holidays here are a tradition but this may be the last year before they sell the house.  As well as the siblings themselves there are children, a new wife, and one sister has invited her ex’s teenage son.  The two siblings we see most of are Alice and Harriet, the youngest and the oldest sisters.  They provide a contrast in personality though they share a physical likeness they find disconcerting.  Harriet is rigidly dutiful and awkward, inept at reaching for pleasure, while Alice, having failed in an acting career, is stereotypically actressy and irritates her family with displays of feeling that begin or end in sincerity but are half performance.  Nothing much happens, though enough for a novel all the same, and for no very particular reason we have an excursion to the past, where the marriage of our siblings’ parents is going through a sticky patch.  I liked the calmness of the writing, which is almost dignified in its refusal to agitate itself.  There’s something a bit Philip Larkin-ish about the description, matter of fact but still with something about it.  I liked how Hadley comes out and tells you something about the characters right away, in the way contemporary literary novelists seem to be always saying in interviews that they think is artistic heresy.  But I did start to want something more.  Not more happening, but more humour or poetry, both things Hadley tinges her writing with at times but doesn’t lean into.

Sandra Belloni by George Meredith

Victorian novel about Emilia, a half-Italian girl of humble birth who is taken up by some cultured refined sisters on account of her musical talent.  She has a wonderful voice and will go on to become an opera singer.  The sisters are associated with the phrases “Nice Feelings” and “Fine Shades”; they approach emotions in the most aesthetic way possible.  Their brother trifles with Emilia’s affections, being drawn to her but far too cowardly and self-regarding to either think of actually going through the hoo-hah of marrying below his station or explain the situation to her.  The father of the family is having money problems that they’re all too refined to talk about, which means that he can’t fully explain his reasons for promoting various expedient marriages.  This is the main source of plot complication.  As he so often does, Meredith earnestly sets forth and condemns the cruelties involved in idealising the love object and blaming them for not living up to expectations.  He pleads for honest communication and appreciation of simple goodness.  This is quite funny considering the dense, mannered style in which he develops this theme.  I noticed, too, as with the last book of his I read, that Meredith draws most of his humour from the desperation to keep up appearances and there’s a kind of sympathy with and relish for those panicky contriving brains.  He uses Emilia, as the ingenuous fish out of water, as a source of humour, but doesn’t construct the whole book around that as some authors would have done.  I liked the way he mixed tragedy with comedy in Emilia’s later characterisation.  As a whole, a mixture of effervescence with bitterness.  I felt the last hundred pages sagged, though.

King and Joker and Hindsight by Peter Dickinson

I’m fond of Dickinson’s Emma Tupper’s Diary, a children’s book about a girl going to stay with her Scottish cousins.  It’s about how they all get on together and how, in exploring the loch in an antique submarine, they discover plesiosaurs.  The first adult book of Dickinson’s I read, The Last House-Party, had something of the atmosphere of the children’s book but concerned more unsavoury material and dodgy dated psychological explanations for the characters’ actions.  King and Joker, a mystery featuring an alternate universe royal family,  was very similar in that respect though the unsavouriness was more of a surprise and less discussed.  It left a disquieting taste in my mouth — so I read Hindsight, a mystery centering on the main character’s memories of discovering a body in his schooldays, just to see if that was the same.  It basically was, but obscured by being the kind of metanarrative that’s very cluttered by the narrator’s explanations for why they’re writing and excuses for how they’re writing it.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

A reread.  I liked this the first time round but at the same time had an uneasy sense of dissatisfaction with it — which is more or less how I feel now.  It’s the Bowen that, with its grandly allegorical title, seems to be organised round a thesis, to be a demonstration of something, and I never felt it was quite what it was supposed to be.  The chief bearer of thematic weight is Portia, a sixteen year-old girl who, following the death of her parents is staying with her much older half-brother and his wife.  The novel opens with the urbane, cynical wife, Anna, explaining to a friend her sensations of shock and dismay on discovering Portia’s diary and reading her perspective of others: “Either this girl or I are mad.”  The shock and outrage Anna feels is that of someone discovering an entirely alien set of values, in which nothing has the same weight or casts the same shadow as it does in her own world.  Naturally the reader wants to read Portia’s diary for themself, and though we see Portia’s diary at a later stage, we never get shown the entries that made such an impression on Anna, and I didn’t feel that what we do see lives up to the expectations raised by Anna’s reaction.  Portia possesses a kind of naivety that seems to be defined more by a lack of preconceptions and allotting equal importance to everything in her remit than rose-coloured glasses per se.  She develops a friendship with Eddie, a young man involved in a rather quarrelsome, unpleasant romantic friendship with Anna.  Eddie is a Byronic archetype of a particular kind of moody flake, mood shifting by the moment, who feels compelled to win people over and deeply resents both the “having” to do so and the expectations raised in the doing.  He’s a cad who represents the destruction of innocence by the jaded but Bowen also seems to draw a likeness between him and Portia, explaining why they are drawn together for a time.  His handwriting is “almost sinisterly childish” which is how Anna might describe Portia, and in his rejection of everyone else’s linear constructions of meaning there is initially something in common with Portia’s bareness of experience.  

When I first read this I wasn’t much older than Portia and perhaps attempted to relate to her as a particular character more than was intended, rather than interpreting her as a symbol for innocence and inexperience.  I was puzzled by the idea that her heart should be permanently broken or withered by the events portrayed.  Really, I still am.  To me it seems a case of thematic content not accompanied by quite the right plot or characters to illustrate it, or not in the right kind of dialogue with them.  I think Bowen is experimenting with framing innocence as something rather rugged and disruptive and other instead of only meek and sheltered, endangered by its own status as a threat to urbane civilisation, an irritant acting on a situation as well as a passive victim.  The character from Anna’s world who is most sympathetic with Portia thinks that “each of us keeps, battened down inside himself, a sort of lunatic giant — impossible socially, but full-scale — and it’s the knockings and batterings we sometimes hear in each other that keep our intercourse from utter banality.  Portia hears these the whole time; in fact she hears nothing else.”  Naivety is experienced by Anna at the beginning as a maddening, mysterious demand and though initially Eddie experiences Portia’s company as a blissful absence of demand, he comes to abhor her expectation that something is “done with the whole of oneself”.  There’s something I find tantalisingly intriguing about all this but while I believe in Portia as an unworldly sixteen-year-old and in Anna as a self-consciously worldly woman in her thirties, Bowen doesn’t make either Portia’s “lunatic set of values” or Anna’s quite clear enough for me to understand what all the fuss is about, and what is so final about their incompatibility, so once again I ended feeling as if I or Bowen had missed a step.     

The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop

Novel about an actor whose impersonations of aristocratic identities come back to bite him in the French Revolution.  Pleasantly silly but overlong.

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell

1939 novel about the approach of WWII and the narrator’s trip to the town he grew up in.  A not-very important though readable book that provoked more thought than necessary because I was over-conscious of the author while reading.  The narrator presents himself from the off as a representation of a type, with an unusual amount of self-awareness.  A physical type — “It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes;” “I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow”; the type, most importantly, of fundamentally unserious fat man who is nicknamed Fatty or Tubby — and economic and social type.  “Do you know the road I live on?  Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it”; “A chap like me is incapable of looking like a gentleman”; “We’re all respectable householders — that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers.”  At the beginning I was uncertain about this.  There was something engagingly forthright about it — and yet, I couldn’t forget that the person speaking wasn’t really George Bowling but George Orwell, giving out about a type that wasn’t his own at all.  This becomes more tiresomely obvious as we go on.  Our narrator represents the generation that fought in WWI; the last generation, growing up in the Edwardian era, to experience an unquestioned faith in the peaceful, perpetual continuation of the status quo.  Orwell wants to describe the position of this generation, poised between the past on one hand and a totalitarian nightmare future on the other.  I couldn’t help but groan when I saw the totalitarian nightmare future coming, so saturated are we in Orwell’s later works describing it.  Also, I just didn’t think it was presented very well; no attempt to grapple with the actual development of facism and communism, no nuance.  Of course, what could be expected from George Bowling?  The characterisation is endless fiddling, turning the dial up and down, searching for credibility.  He’s the kind of man who feels he’s coming alive with wonder looking at primroses but isn’t “soppy about ‘the country’” and knows “It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower” and pretends to be doing up a fly-button rather than sniffing flowers when people come by.  The balance is calibrated and recalibrated, making me feel Orwell’s anxiety to get out what he wants to say but avoid laying it on too thick and being inauthentically idealistic or intellectual for a man like George Bowling.  The anxiety is understandable but also patronising when you see Orwell debating how low he should pitch his expectations.  Orwell wants him to have the authority of his averageness, his commonness: this representative of his generation and class looks forward with dread to “the bad time that’s coming or isn’t coming, the slogans and the coloured shirts and the streamlined [you never saw so many repetitions of the word ‘streamlined’] men from Eastern Europe who are going to knock old England cock-eyed”, so you should guard against them.  But then perhaps he should have a little bit more than average going on upstairs to explain how he comes by this prescience.  So we painstakingly establish that he’s read a few good books, but not that many.  

I’m not a fool but I’m not a highbrow either and God knows at normal times I don’t have many interests that you wouldn’t expect a middle-aged seven-pound-a-weeker with two kids to have.  And yet […] I can feel it happening.  I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. 

In this passage George is contrasting his own attitude, shared by other average men, against that of a more educated man who can think of nothing but classics.  It’s another way of claiming that this warning doesn’t come from the intelligentsia but from the common man, and only makes the ventriloquism going on more distracting.  Also, George being the man in the street, we have to put up with his take on the woman in the street.

The past was a bit more interesting, being both more solidly and more satirically dealt with.  George grew up in a small town, not far out of London but quite rural, as the son of a man with a small seed business, one of whose products was quite famous over a five-mile radius.  Before the war intervenes, George is a placid, competent grocer.  After the war, in which he becomes an officer, he never again returns home, living an urban life that’s superficially bigger and more white-collar, but really just as small if not smaller.  Orwell builds up all the practical details of this boyhood, the sweets and the reading material, the geography of the town.  A fishing theme is developed at rather greater length than I cared for.  Present-day George wonders if perhaps he can fish again and catch the big, primevally undisturbed fish he never got round to catching in his youth.  The prospect represents nostalgic attempts to reconnect with the past but perhaps in the first instance it represents an aspiration to connect with the deeper core of life in a way that was more possible before streamlined modernity and urbanisation.  Orwell has got Lower Binfield (destined for bathos from the beginning) pretty clear in our minds so that we can share some of George’s astonishment when he realises it’s not there anymore — not demolished but swallowed up.  This retort to George’s tentatively-nursed dreams, so tremendous it can only be philosophically accepted, confirms his prophetic conviction that the nightmarish war and after-war is going to happen, before he is swallowed back up by his day-to-day world.     

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

1910 novel about a young girl’s time at boarding school and the dubious kind of wisdom she acquires there.  Laura, an imaginative, impulsive girl, finds it hard to fit in with her conventional, snobbish classmates but Richardson, while not unsympathetic, is careful to deny Laura the noble character that this situation is often used to imply.  Laura is eager to conform, she’s just bad at it.  She shows little integrity in her attempts to impress her classmates and never offers more to others in a position of disadvantage than others showed to her.  Laura finishes her career at school on a sour note, having fallen out with God after cheating on an exam.  But nonetheless the point at which she is done with school is that at which Richardson relents.  Giving us a glimpse of Laura’s future, she says “She could not know then that, even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found; seeming unfitness prove to be only another aspect of  peculiar and special fitness.”  Having left the building a sense of freedom rushes over her and she runs joyously into the distance, careless of disapproving observers.   

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Novel about Philipino immigrants in America.  Primarily about Hero, who comes from a privileged family but joined the People’s Army, was captured and held in a prison camp for a couple of years.  She’s now an undocumented immigrant living with her uncle’s family.  She grows attached to her seven-year-old cousin Roni and develops a greater understanding of her uncle and his wife.  A novel that doesn’t hurry.  Castillo’s practice of leaving some words untranslated has been both praised and complained about but really I felt she’d put in a lot of effort to carefully explain cultural context in an unforced way.  There’s quite a lot of flashbacks to Hero’s past but the heart of the novel is in the development of Hero’s friendship and romance with Rosalyn, who Hero meets through an attempt to cure Roni’s eczema.  Rosalyn comes with a whole array of new friends and acquaintances and Hero, still quite stunned by her past experiences, gets to know and learns how to get to know people in general and one person in particular.  Then Castillo also includes the stage where lives have become woven together to the extent that the other person no longer represents a possible antidote to real life.  I got a bit bogged down at one stage — I understood why it was slow, I was getting the benefit of slow but still, slow — but was won around.  Strangely enough I was reminded of Charlotte Yonge in the way it harnesses the power of dailiness.  

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Novel about a man living in a House that is also a world, a complete ecosystem, with the sea at the bottom and sky at the top, and statues in between, with halls in either direction further than our narrator, known at this point as Piranesi, has travelled.  Our narrator lives there, knowing of only one other living person in the world, the Other.  He and the Other meet twice a week to discuss their scientific investigations.  Piranesi wants simply to explore the House, but the Other’s only interest is in the discovery of a source of magical power he expects to find somewhere in the house.  Piranesi lives an industrious, largely untroubled life, made up of survival and discovery.  He fishes, gathers seaweed, makes things out of fish leather, and explores, learns the rhythm of the tides and stars and makes an inventory of all the statues in his known world.  He is always gathering more knowledge and recording it in his voluminous journals.  He does feel wistful about the prospect of more human company but otherwise seems to experience perfect contentment, neither confined by nor lost in his world.  The Other tries to persuade him that something is wrong in the House and Piranesi, dutifully trying to discover whether this is the case, concludes: “The World feels Complete and Whole and I, its Child, fit into it seamlessly.”  It’s obvious very early on that Piranesi and the Other are not from the House and the story of the House’s origins and how they came to be there is what makes up the later parts of the book but is not the core of the book and what it’s for.  

Piranesi’s characterisation and voice is the thing that makes the book what it is.  It’s as attractive a portrait of human goodness as you’re likely to find, with curiosity and capability taking any edge of sickliness off his determination to interpret in good faith.  It’s the treatment of knowledge and innocence that makes the book most distinctive, interesting and appealing.  This is a book that tempts allegorical readings and contains, looking at people’s responses, almost as many allegories as readers.  A dominant theme, though, is environmentalism.  Piranesi respects the House for itself, not for what it can do for him, and because he learns its ways, out of interest as well as to survive, the House gives him more than it can give to the Other, to whom the House is worthless apart from the treasure he believes it to contain.  Personally I saw Piranesi as a kind of Adam in Eden.  But the allegory would be a simplistic noble savage kind of thing if not for Clarke’s unpicking of the association between innocence and ignorance.  The Other is worldly but ignorant, while much of Piranesi’s innocence consists of his confidence that knowledge and its expansion are joy.  As the book goes on he learns that knowledge is also sorrow but ultimately he does not hide from this understanding.  He leaves Eden deliberately, with open-eyed consent, and is not permanently excluded from it; he maintains a foot in both worlds.  I suppose the novel ends with a hope that joy and sorrow may in some way encompass each other.

I think there should have been more observations on fish, all things considered.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge

Mary, a competent middle-aged career woman, is driven to give up her city life and live in the country house she has been left by another Mary, an elderly cousin she met once as a child.  She bonds with an angsty child and falls in love, in a platonic way, with a blind man whose wife doesn’t understand him.  She also reads the diary of her cousin, whose religious faith helps her through her depressive mental illness while not, to be fair, represented as curing it at all.  Possibly the most Goddy of Goudge’s books I’ve read yet.  Some of her books have a genuine charm, mingled with spiritual overtones.  This one is like the Damerosehay trilogy, with something too shrill about it for me to find it as charming as she wants me to.  The colours are too brightly saturated, everything has to be the very prettiest and most special, and the religious stuff, while not without merit if you have a tolerance for it, has a harsh element with all that talk of obedience and discipline and acceptance of suffering that clashes with the chocolate box aesthetic.  This book in particular neglects outer events, concentrating very largely on the inner life of the two Marys, and I felt more sober everyday mundanity would have brought out the other elements better through contrast.

The Big House by Naomi Mitchison

Children’s book about two Scottish children, one from the big house, the other working-class, encountering a piper from centuries ago who is being pursued by fairies.  The plot does stop and start in an odd way but I really enjoyed this.  Mitchison, a big house socialist, mixes class dynamics with the supernatural and historical stuff in a natural way.   

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

Short stories from the eighties.  Very much about how men and women see each other and how they see themselves through each other’s eyes in a morbidly self-conscious way, with an emphasis on male dominance.  Told in that way that some find flat but which I usually like for both giving you an advance on the goods upfront and for the way it’s often not telling you outright how it is but telling you how the characters would put it, making their interpretations open to our gaze and to question, acknowledging how much people do think about themselves and how what they think informs outward events.  The people who don’t like this found it very depressing, but really some of the stories end quite hopefully!  And I found the one about the failed liaison between the sadist and the masochist very funny.

Top five books of the year: Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman, Martin Eden by Jack London and Germinal by Emile Zola.

October Reading

Dark Entries and The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman

Stories from both of these were included in The Wine-Dark Sea so I wasn’t really reading two books’ worth here.  The same kind of thing as the other collections I’ve read.  I definitely preferred Dark Entries and I found the title story of The Unsettled Dust by far the dullest Aickman story I’ve read.

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

History of fourteenth-century Europe, mainly France.  This took me most of the month to read; the Hundred Years War did drag on a bit.  Tuchman selects a particular historical personage to centre her narrative around, the nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy.  Coucy was at one point the son-in-law of the King of England and seems to have excelled in maintaining his status in the ways aristocratic chivalric culture understood (a culture Tuchman portrays as fatally besotted by appearances, gesture and status) while having something cool, calm and capable about him, the kind of person who could stay on good terms with a set of people who hated each other without committing to either side, perhaps a rather two-faced, equivocating sort of person, in fact.  I could follow her reasoning for such a figure being the best she could do in terms of documented but not extraordinary historical characters, but history hoisted him above the level of visibility so intermittently that the whole conceit seemed negligible.  

There’s the Black Death, and the Western Schism, when the Church ended up with two and, at one point, three popes.  More than once the cardinals regretted their choice after seeing mania for power take hold of a newly-elected pope and tried to change their mind.  I didn’t know France wrestled the papacy away from Rome for a bit.  Tuchman makes it clear that it had occurred to the Church that war and profit-seeking weren’t Christian and that these were technically banned from Christian life — it was just that a system for readmitting them, theoretically on a case-by-case basis, had become much of the Church’s function. There are various peasant revolts which, as well as forfeiting the modern reader’s sympathy by always involving killing the Jews, falter due to the tendency to see the King as an embodiment of the nation at large rather than a member of the upper classes, who will rescue the ordinary people if he’s only told they need rescuing.  There are quick portraits of saints and scene-setting explanations of social attitudes.  Tuchman portrays the fourteenth century as a time of mounting jaded depression and loss of direction.  The plague and the Church’s confusion play their part in this but Tuchman’s real theme is the Hundred Years War, its causes and attendant evils.  

The part of the book that made most impression on me was the detailing of the companies of soldiers formed out of wartime, emphasising the lack of distinction between soldiers and bandits, and the way the people were unprotected from pillage/rape/burning from people who had no official excuse of enmity at all yet who regarded it as a kind of profession.  The biggest problem with the chivalric conception of masculinity as Tuchman presents it is that it’s all about the gesture, the act of admiring yourself charging aggressively at something.  Not only does the gesture have to be continuously prolonged (there are always tournaments if you can’t find a war) in order to remain inside the role but the gesture is regarded as an end in itself, so that these people aren’t even as good at war as they ought to be.  It’s all about looking impressive and looting, not about tactics and objectives.  Advantages gained are thrown away and battles are lost because the knights all insist on squeezing into the front line to get the most credit, not giving themselves enough room to fight.  The French suffer at this period from a reluctance to use bowmen in conjunction with knights because of a squeamishness about undermining the starring role of the knights.  Tuchman uses the Battle of Nicopolis as a climax for her story, when the King of Hungary asks France for help against Turkish invaders and regrets it as all the flaws previously described culminate in disaster.  The French army bring lots of luxury goods but no siege engines, antagonise Hungary’s neighbours by looting them as they pass through, and lose the battle because they refuse to assess the enemy and work with others.  Coucy, having tried unsuccessfully to delay the start of the battle, dies as a hostage awaiting ransom.  It worked quite well as a climax and brings us near the end of the fourteenth century, the official scope of the book.  It doesn’t bring us to the end of the Hundred Years War, though, so Tuchman gallops through Agincourt and Joan of Arc in the epilogue, which made for slightly odd pacing.  Obviously I got quite involved but the writing was a bit stodgy.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

One of those numerous descendants of The Secret History and The Talented Mr Ripley about envious aspiring outsiders entering a world of material and cultural privilege, their presence contingent on the whims of its mercurial inhabitants, where money is intimately linked with poetry and intellectual confidence and access to knowledge — and any truth or doubt in the truth of that link is always corrupted by authorial breathless shallow eagerness for prestige.  I suppose what attracts me is that I like stories about people wanting things.  This story of Louise and Lavinia’s instagram-documented friendship was exactly what I expected it to be.   I felt a bit bad about how much I experienced it as extruded cultural product after reading an interview with Burton where she had some earnest thoughts about the characters and their relationship but those layers didn’t really come across to me; their relationship seemed purely transactional and I didn’t mind when bad things happened to them.  I did quite enjoy it though.

Pilgrimage 2 by Dorothy Richardson

Two more novels in this volume, The Tunnel and InterimThe Tunnel is perhaps my favourite individual novel so far.  I felt it was the most about Miriam liking things.  She has a miscellaneous sort of job at a dentist’s surgery as receptionist, bookkeeper and cleaner of surgical instruments.  We go through at least one working day in full with her and while some of it’s objectively dull I really liked the way Richardson captures the intermingling of inner and outer life in the workplace.  Some of her duties pain Miriam with their tedium and she has too much to do for everything to be done as it should be done. She spends much of her working day mentally somewhere else though intermittently she has visions of how efficiently things should be organised in an ideal world and half-forms ambitions to become a more perfect embodiment of her role. The job as a whole is redeemed for her by the fact that she likes the dentists.  She likes her comfortable shabby brown lodgings, and seeing her friends after work and finds learning to ride a bicycle exhilarating and enjoys seeing The Merchant of Venice (it was strange to see that she was surprised to find herself sympathising with Shylock and wondered if she was supposed to).  Sometimes she sulks about phoneys though, and she goes on a visit to some clever-clever hipster types who manage to simultaneously broaden her intellectual horizons and depress her with their formulaic sneering aimed at impressing.  Interim is more of the same but at once more inward and more outward.  Miriam makes a resolution to be more present in her life and less escapist and abstracted, which is followed by a fit of depression.  She comes away from a Dante lecture full of religious enthusiasm for loving everybody but the first revelatory rapture of this quickly descends into a sense of her own unworthiness.  The house she lodges in has become a boarding house and the boarders enlarge her social life.  Somewhat counter-intuitively the narrative is often at its most abstract when Miriam is engaging with other people because so little context is explained.  The heart of the project, Miriam’s endeavour to find meaning in life, still seems to me to be focused most particularly on the conflict between wanting people and wanting solitude, each seeming at times to be the most real.  I do think there are more people who would find Miriam comforting than will read Pilgrimage or be able to find her in it if they do, and I think that’s a shame.  As well as cutting in and out without context, the narrative feels a little like a large design seen up close, with blotchy patches that look redundant.  I do think it gives you a person quite quickly, though.  It reminds me a little of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, despite the differences in form and personality, because it’s all about sorting through the world and idiosyncratically deliberating on what pile to put things in.

September Reading

The Heart to Artemis by Bryher

Memoir of a historical novelist, partner of poet H.D.  The novel I’d read by Bryher was a diffident, low-key sort of book, so the childhood section took me a little by surprise.  She’s very insistent on her fearlessness and her mania for being dynamically active.  She spent much of her childhood travelling abroad which gave her the opportunity to be a free spirit and fail to flinch in the face of danger but was devastated to be sent to school at fifteen.   As one of the world’s wimps I inevitably felt peevishly antagonised by this; it was something of a relief to feel by her adolescence that surely the text was objectively boastful and it wasn’t just me.  Obviously it makes sense as compensation for the cost of unconventionality, but still.  Once Bryher has got herself in the world dealing with people she respects she comes across much more as the designated driver personality I might have expected from the novel.  The rest is a kind of twentieth-century slurry, with the two wars and Bryher’s work helping refugees escape Germany and expats in Paris and psychoanalysis and silent films.  I enjoyed it but it would probably seem less interesting if I’d read more like it.

Not Like Other Girls by Rosa Nouchette Carey

A Victorian author I was vaguely aware of but was moved to read after she was mentioned in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  Miriam goes through a phase of escapist reading as a way of redefining her sense of self while working in a job she finds rather soul-soucking.  First she falls back on Carey, a teenage favourite, and enjoys the sunny niceness before becoming uncomfortably aware that she herself is not what Carey would consider a nice girl, and the rewards given to her heroines would be withheld from her and not enough for her anyway.  I could see exactly what she was getting at from Not Like Other Girls.  I did find its sweetness seductively enjoyable but Miriam, who feels herself to be unlike other girls in a moody unconventional sort of way, was bound to be unsuccessful in relating to these heroines, who are infallibly nice and good and pretty and outgoing.  They are not like other girls partly because they’re so unspoiled and partly because unlike other girls of their class they have to work for a living after the family investments go wrong.  Rather than the usual governessing they decide their only option is to take to dressmaking, which entails a much more drastic loss of caste.  They take to it pluckily but not without soreness of heart.  The prospects of having a brass plate outside their door and carrying parcels in the street are particularly painful, but luckily they manage without the brass plate.  Many other characters feel sympathetic horror on their behalf.  Their loyal elderly servant takes a moment from her scrubbing to shake her head with sorrow at the young ladies having to work until teatime.  The nice girl’s approach to physical exercise is explained here: you may run on the beach and play battledore and shuttlecock, and chance male observers may be attracted by your litheness and spirited excess of energy, but you must feel mortified to have been observed.  

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

A love quadrangle featuring a woman and three men.  My first response was to try and remember if Hardy was always quite so strange.  Possibly he was but I was never so struck by it as here.  I think I noticed strange things happening in other novels, but didn’t notice them being so permeated by an innately strange atmosphere.  Hardy’s descriptions of the comings and goings of shepherd Gabriel Oak somehow seem as if he’s popped his head up out of a tunnel on the moon and is dispassionately describing the lunar scene.  There’s something alien and other about it.  The charge of this strangeness drew me on and by the middle I had become properly interested in the doings of the characters.  There are lots of classical references and a Greek chorus of yokels; there’s something quasi-archetypal about the timeless pastoral world Hardy creates, specifically English though not specifically nineteenth-century, a world in which comedy and tragedy flow into and out of each other.  You might think three men would be a bit superfluous but Hardy keeps each of them meaningfully in play.  Bathsheba is a Hardy heroine but because she’s got to keep a farm going he’s dialled down his firm conviction that a woman changing her mind every other minute is the height of erotic fascination just the merest smidge that makes her more bearable.  I ended with a great enthusiasm for Gabriel Oak, whose superpower is dependability.  Everyone should have a husband who saves your corn when it’s worth £750, there’s a storm coming on and everyone else is drunk.

The Funnies by J. Robert Lennon

Novel about a man whose father created a famous comic strip portraying his children.  Naturally, the existence of the sickeningly wholesome parallel universe exacerbated the discontents and dysfunction of the family’s real life.  Now the father has died and his will dictates that our hero will only receive his inheritance if he continues to produce the comic strip.  Opting to do this, he discovers a respect for his father’s craft and delves deeper into the family’s past.  A pleasing enough premise and the execution is pleasing enough at first but becomes flabby and intermittent.  I was a bit fed up of it by the end.

All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith

A memoir of a lifetime of reading, written in 1956.  Kaye-Smith is the author of rural novels, some of which are supposed to fall on the wrong side of the Mary Webb line, and some on the right side.  She admits to having gone through some serious, humourless phases in youth.  Discusses Victorian children’s books about the tragic poor, her Swedenborgian phase, authors whose reputations didn’t last, wrongly and rightly, the age at which various books should be read etc etc.  Pleasantly book bloggy.  

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

The second of a gothic fantasy trilogy, which is perhaps more of a duology with an add-on.  A young heir to an ancient tradition grows up to feel ambivalent about his heritage and his duty, while that tradition is under threat from Steerpike, a Machiavellian upstart worming his way into the fabric of Gormenghast  A reread, which I don’t do enough of.  Part of getting older is the “I’ve read that!” spark of recognition at a book’s title being followed by a realisation that this doesn’t mean I possess the book in any way, since all I remember of it now is a vague impression of its atmosphere and perhaps a few phrases.  I reread Titus Groan three years ago and it took me this long to get round to Gormenghast.  Now that even my second reading of Titus Groan has receded, I can’t compare them very closely, and it might have been interesting since the first time I read them I read Gormenghast first.  The first time it didn’t seem to matter at all, the second time, being more aware of what I was supposed to know, I was surprised that I wasn’t thrown by not knowing it.  I almost think I slightly preferred Titus Groan, but I’m not sure.  I almost think I do now.  I was more aware here of the shrillness and sourness of some of Peake’s satire.  It plays a part in achieving the tonal effect of the whole so I don’t wish it wasn’t there but it’s never my favourite style.  I felt especially dubious when it comes to Irma Prunesquallor, a Petunia Dursley type of character, a personification of egotistic closed-minded suburban femininity.  Underneath all the unconventional texture of language there were some suspiciously mundane things going on.  I had completely forgotten that the Thing and Fuschia both bite the dust, which Peake, dusting off his hands, explains is for the purpose of furthering Titus’s personal development.  I didn’t think much of that.  But there are some wonderful word-pictures, synthesising description and experience.  I particularly enjoyed the flood.    

Moths by Ouida

A romantic Victorian novel about a saintly girl whose wicked mother forces her to marry a wicked prince, and whose real love is a famous opera singer.  I vaguely intended to read Ouida some day, I think because she was one of the models for Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, and was reminded of her as she’s another author Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam reads.  Turning to her from wholesome girlish stories, Miriam reads her with urgency, swept away by the feeling that she’s being shown the truth about life.  Ouida makes her want “strong, bad things” and makes her feel more in contact with her essential self, or what she’d like it to be.  She passionately rejects the idea that Ouida is improper.  Moths is a novel more about coldness than heat and wanting “strong, bad things” so not quite what I expected on that front.  In the beginning we meet Lady Dolly, pretty and shallow, whose lifestyle of racketing about Europe spending money and flirting with men is described with loving disapproval.  She is dismayed, at thirty-three, to be made the mother of a grown-up daughter when the sixteen year-old Vere becomes her responsibility after spending her childhood with the tweedy, sporty kind of aristocracy — a dismay which enlisted my thirty-three year-old sympathies on the first page, if not the pages that follow.  Vere impresses Correze, the famous opera singer, with her possession of a pure heart, and he becomes her devoted and respectful knight.  We don’t spend much time on Vere ingenuously confronting the fashionable world of vice as Lady Dolly is quick to force her, through deceit, into marrying Prince Zouroff.  Once married, her sweet simplicity largely hardens into iron endurance and the majority of the novel is given over to contemplation of her impassive resistance, within the bounds of marital obedience, and her superiority to everything else in her world.  

There’s a great deal of repetition and there was plenty of time to meditate on this trope of the prostituted or violated wife.  I realised that she turns up a lot in Victorian fiction — Edith Dombey, Julia Clavering, Gwendolen Harleth, Laura Fairlie, Isabel Archer etc.  Miklos Banffy’s rather Victorian feeling Transylvanian Trilogy has Adrienne. The wife may have knowingly made the choice, later regretted, to sell herself to a rich husband, she might have chosen a husband in good faith but made a dreadful, irrevocable mistake, or she might have been an unwilling sacrifice from the beginning.  Either way, the husband’s right to her body is never far from the author’s mind, and the indirect but clear references to it might be intended as part of feminist argument, a warning against the impurity of marrying for position rather than love, or simple heightening of horror.  Whichever it is, there’s almost always something a little salacious about it.  The lingering meaningfulness required by inexplicitness almost guarantees it.  And there’s an odd glamour and dynamism drawn out of this sexual martyrdom.  The novel-addict heroine of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife wants to be Edith Dombey.  The characters like her, who don’t have enough insensibility to save them from regret for their cold-hearted materialism, hover between Good Woman and Bad Woman and acquire a tragic air.  The goodness of the good women is emphasised by the contrast with the man preying on them, and shows them in a courageous light — despite their victimhood, they are in a kind of spiritual battle.  Correze thinks Vere is “like one of the young saints of old, on whom tyrants and torturers spent all the filth and fury of their will, yet could not touch the soul or break the courage of the thing that they dishonoured.” 

As the novel goes on, ever dwelling on Vere’s superiority to everyone around her, and the way they all hate her for being better than them, these themes begin to seem less specifically connected to Vere’s situation and I began to be reminded more and more of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel.  The most contemptible thing about Lady Dolly is her anxiety to do what everyone else is doing.  What all the corrupt fashionable people hate about Vere is that she won’t fit in.  Angel, a bestselling romantic novelist, is helplessly individualistic, as well as a colossal narcissist, unable to understand why the world doesn’t give her what she thinks is her due or to change herself to suit it.  

One of the themes of Taylor’s novel is the pathos of accidental kitsch; the inevitably outraged bafflement of the artist who has created something they find beautiful, only to have it ridiculed.  I don’t honestly think Ouida’s writing is as bad as one imagines Angel’s to be, once you accept that it is what it is — but that acceptance is the tricky point.  I realised early on that Ouida’s descriptions of nature and the high life were reminding me of something and was pleased to later place the association as Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s relentlessly pretty paintings with their marble pavilions overlooking the sea, rose petals and leopard skins and pink and blue palette.  Another feature of Ouida’s style is the constant use of French phrases and cultural references.  She very much wants us to think she knows everything, all the poetry and where the best people get their clothes made.  This ostentatious worldliness is also a feature of her portrayal of the dreadful fashionable world, which she depicts in the most alarming light, waving her disapproval as a self-awarded permission slip.  This having cake and eating it can be seen in the ending.  Vere refuses to seek a divorce as she can’t bear the publicity, but when her husband gets one he enables Vere to live happily ever after with her second husband — not something you see much.      

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair

A heavily autobiographical 1919 novel, modernist in a streamlined sort of way, about the heroine living out the stereotypical Victorian daughter at home role until she is released by the death of her mother.  We start right at the beginning, as I really wish writers wouldn’t.  I like childhood narratives, but not the very first few memories of all and what you thought about God when you were five and how you thought opinions were opossums.  Mary has three older brothers and her mother has a clear preference for boys.  Her mother dominates the family as her children find her adorable and would do anything not to hurt her.  She’s not only easily wounded and offended but very conventional, which causes problems as Mary develops an inquiring mind twinned with an exacting conscience, which means she cannot subscribe to Christianity.  For one reason and another Mary’s few romantic opportunities don’t work out, chief among these being her mother’s reluctance to do without her.  The novel ends with Mary aged 45, many opportunities now opening before her, but having refused for the sake of her mother to marry the man she loved, who has now married someone he doesn’t love.  In order to have the strength to do this she communed in a meditative, mystical way with the Thing-in-itself, Reality, and wills herself to stop wanting.  She follows this up by willing her beloved to stop wanting her, which apparently works, though not so well that he isn’t made unhappy to have tied himself up just when Mary becomes available.  The novel ends with Mary reaffirming her ecstatic communion with Reality or God.  I enjoyed some of the descriptions of intellectual joy and the Thing-in-itself, but I found this rather distasteful, and felt uncomfortably unkind for doing so.  Some children are, damagingly, the least loved child in the family, and I’m sure a Victorian girl’s interest in philosophy was very likely to attract disbelief and disapproval.  Mary’s determination to hold onto her sense of self and develop her mind is very admirable.  But I couldn’t help thinking I saw a kind of indirect self-pity and self-admiration that reminded me a little of Mary’s mother and the archetype of ego expressed in martyrdom that she represents.  It was the meekness that irritated me.  As a whole the novel has that quality of giving you intimate access to a drab family whose life you don’t want to share, like walking into a steamy kitchen where they’ve been over-boiling cabbage. 

August Reading

How Like An Angel by Margaret Millar

Noirish mystery novel about the connection between a religious cult and a man’s disappearance.  The characters do tend to say things on a plate too often, providing their own ready-mixed analysis, and the detective’s perspective had so little sense of interiority that the feelings he announced came as a surprise.  That’s not to say this wasn’t quite good, though.

Boy Parts by Eliza Clarke

Novel about Irina, a photographer who picks up men to photograph, frequently pushing the limits of their willingness to expose themselves.  Her underlying sadism becomes less underlying, only neither she nor the reader are quite sure what is fantasy and what is real.  A crossover of fun and breezy with dark and disturbing.  I liked that Clarke disowned some of the “unsympathetic female characters are de facto feminist role models” baggage that’s attached itself to anything in the antiheroine line (which both aggrandises the repellant and adds a worthiness that’s the opposite of the original point) while showing how even a dangerous female character has to navigate a world of sexist assumption.  For a start, she’s frustrated by men’s refusal to acknowledge her as a threat.  On the minus side, “is it real or all in their head” stories have a tendency to drive their characters into a brick wall at the end as this seemed to.  If a character seems to have become finally innately incapable of functioning, always destined to reach this point, then I always feel as if it retrospectively invalidates the tension of the character’s use and abuse of moral agency, around which such narratives are usually shaped.

Pilgrimage 1 by Dorothy Richardson

The first quarter of an autobiographical thirteen-novel sequence about Miriam Henderson.  It is the 1890s and Miriam is in her late teens.  After her father loses his money she takes on three teaching jobs, one in each short novel — one is in a German school, one in a North London school, dealing with girls of a lower social class than she is used to, and the third is a governess position in a wealthy family the mother of which leads a life of ease and pleasure that Miriam is sometimes seduced by and sometimes finds suffocatingly shallow.  I find it a little dispiriting in a way how much Pilgrimage’s small claim to fame is based on the “first stream of consciousness novel” thing.  Though not exactly stream of consciousness, it is written in such a way that you don’t feel any separation between the character’s consciousness and the narration.  The point of this is not in allowing Richardson to be given a grudging first past the post credit for a technical advance but in the eventuality that the reader is allowed to share another’s experience.  Miriam’s personality is somewhat abrasive and self-absorbed.  She’s the kind of person who measures everything against an idiosyncratic ideal, nebulously defined but fiercely defended against other people’s values, who is constantly experiencing the rest of the world as wrong because it doesn’t reflect her inner reality, because her personality is not the one true personality.  Yet the simple fact of being brought so close to Miriam mitigates much of the irritation she might cause, and then it isn’t the whole story.  She has curiosity and willingness to like things as well, not to mention a more superficially social side.  And in the grumpy sense of superiority/inferiority is the longing to reach the centre of life, and to find other people there.

What was life?  Either playing a part all the time in order to be amongst people in the warm or standing alone with the strange true real feeling — alone with a sort of edge of reality on everything — even on quite ugly common things — cheap boarding houses face towels and blistered window frames.

At times she breaks out into bitter frustration with the self-satisfied limitations of both conventional masculinity and femininity.  

At the end of this volume is a short section dealing with the suicide of Miriam’s mother.  Miriam is alone with her at the seaside on a holiday that is supposed to jolly her mother up — they don’t have the money to seek expert help — and though it’s not gone into in much depth I did have a sense of the particular claustrophobic helplessness of dealing with mental illness with no vocabulary, no definitions, no concept of potential solutions.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

The second in a fantasy/sci-fi trilogy.  The heroine has amnesia for the majority of the novel, which is a kind of training montage she’s failing at, and then the final section is a barrage of revelations.  I felt the amnesia section was driven more by a kind of hysteria about having a body than anything.  Very 2020.  One of those books where I can’t quite work out where the energy that makes it work is coming from.  I do feel that Muir’s writing style is a bit bloated but I read or attempted other books this month that frustrated me by the absence of something fusing disparate elements together and somehow I was more engaged reading about dazed, moping Harrow. 

The Claverings by Anthony Trollope

I think this was the Trollope novel outside the big thirteen that I enjoyed the most so far, with well-proportioned sprightliness and poignancy.  The unattractiveness of the hero didn’t spoil it for me, which is just as well.  Harry has an informal, youthful romance with Julia, who ditches him for someone rich but dissolate.  Meeting a nice girl recuperates him from his heartache and he is soon engaged and quite recovered.  But Julia’s husband dies, having spread untrue rumours of her infidelity and Julia is now available again, very rich, lonely and remorseful.  Harry gets into the habit of visiting her, never finds the right moment to tell her he is engaged, and before he knows it is all but engaged to two women at once.  The situation is not particularly sympathetic but Trollope goes over and above its necessities in making Harry self-regarding, bristlingly arrogant and unsuited to work for a living.  Aware of what he’s done, Trollope becomes uneasy enough to start telling us “He’s not that bad!  His friends like him!” but not enough to make him more likeable.  But somehow it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment in seeing the situation sort itself out in the way I knew it would.

An Autobiography by Agatha Christie

Not so much a straightforward narrative of Christie’s professional or personal life as a meandering selection of memories and topics.  Chatty, companionable, very enjoyable if it’s what you want to read.  I particularly enjoyed the childhood section.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

Novel about a schizophrenic woman trying to narrate and come to terms with an encounter with a mysterious woman, who may or may not be some kind of water spirit.  It’s the kind of book that’s all about the journey rather than the destination so I knew it was a bad sign when I started getting impatient for the destination.  Imp’s voice was engaging enough in itself and the idea of having two different memories of the same event was quite interesting, but it comes to nothing.  Ultimately descriptions of creepy paintings and the narrator’s difficulties in knowing how to tell the story weren’t enough of a journey for me.

A God and His Gifts by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Like all Compton-Burnett novels, a tale of outrageous self-indulgence, manipulation and hypocrisy set in a Victorian or Edwardian family and told in unnaturalistic dialogue.  Not among her best, though the differences are only slight.  A bit too obvious and under-realised.  The core of Compton-Burnett seems to me to be the scenes when the tyrant is exposed and the unsayable is said.  But this time I realised I’m not sure what typically happens next.  For some reason that bit hasn’t become part of the Compton-Burnett story in my mind.  Here, the culprit, who is a successful novelist, faces it out with the idea that his failings are great only because the whole scale of his personality as a man of genius is great.  His family weakly falls into line and countenances his enormities partly for financial reasons, partly to maintain the conventionalities, and partly because they don’t know how to respond to such barefaced refusal to apologise.  

“It is not strange that Father admires himself through everything.  It is what most of us do.  It is strange that he does it openly.  Most of us would not dare.”

Are Compton-Burnett’s monsters of ego ever really vanquished?  I think sometimes they maintain some power through extorting sympathy for their toppled state.  And I think sometimes they die.  It’s strange the question never struck me before.  Compton-Burnett’s books are all about the battle between truth and lies and the truth always comes out.  But what does the truth do?

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Nadia, a young girl whose mother has recently killed herself, has an abortion as the result of a secret relationship with the preacher’s son.  The events presented in the first few pages form the situation of the rest of the book as the implications reverberate in a way that ultimately seemed a little artificially persistent.  A first novel-y kind of novel that feels like the author will probably do better in the future.   Alternates being pleasantly engaging with a feeling that the camera angle has slipped out of place, accidentally showing the set around the painted backdrop which reveals it for what it is.

July Reading

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

Short semi-autobiographical novel, structured as a lecture recounting the narrator’s two years spent in Paris as a young writer.  They were unhappy years, he assures us, mired in inadequacy and envious emulation of the more creatively assured.  He describes to us lots of other people doing being in Paris better, some of them decades before he arrived and some of them people he can claim acquaintance with. The tone’s rather jaunty, despite all this unhappiness, with a lot of fondness for the experimental poses of youth.  I enjoyed it on that level, while feeling that Vila-Matas’s artistic enthusiasms and ultimate loyalties lie with what I think of as the dryly postmodern.  As a book about creative uncertainty and the search for inspiration and confidence, the narrator’s appeal for sympathy for his younger self only goes so far.  Not only is he on the outskirts of fame and the intelligentsia (Marguerite Duras’s lodger) but he’s plugging away at his novel all this time.

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes

Hardboiled crime novel set in fifties Harlem.  Absurd trains of events swirled into regret for the state the world is in.  I’ve read a couple of others by Himes and this wasn’t quite as good; the beginning was too disjointed and it doesn’t get up quite the same surreal momentum.  It gets going in the end, though.

By Night Under the Old Stone Bridge by Leo Perutz

Novel/collection of connected stories set in sixteenth-century Prague, mainly at Court or in the Jewish ghetto, focusing on the connections between the Emperor and a financier.  I wanted a bit more from this (more female characters for one thing) but it’s always pleasant, and frequently charming and poignant.

The History of Sir Richard Calmady by Lucas Malet

Long 1901 novel by Charles Kingsley’s daughter.  Richard is the intelligent, sensitive and proud child of lordly privilege, but he is also a dwarf, born with truncated legs.  The novel is very much about the sporting English gentleman stereotype, (which I suppose you could link back to her father’s muscular Christianity, which associates a wholesome heart with rude health and exercise) and its contrast to Richard, heir to his father’s racing stables but who must use special saddles and brave the unkind eyes of others when he rides.  This contrast means that while Richard’s subjectivity is crucial to the book, so is the way he is perceived as a troubling object.  It’s a strange, uncomfortable, but interesting novel.  We see three main female characters in relation to Richard — his mother Katherine, his cousin Helen, and Honoria, who enters the novel through her friendship with both Katherine and Helen.  Katherine, a woman of intelligence and spirit, reads very much like a heroine and is not quite ready to stop being the heroine of the story, which now has only Richard in it.  Her married life was idyllically happy but she was widowed before Richard was born.  She grieves for her romantic and sexual self as well as for her husband.  Fiercely protective of her son, the Sons and Lovers-ish relationship between them, while portrayed sympathetically, adds a whiff of deviant sexuality.  So does his relationship with Helen, wicked and worldly.  Helen’s adulterous sexual appetite and exploitative attitude to the world damns her even without her morbid fascination with Richard’s deformity.  Sexual consummation of this fascination is both an end in itself to her and the possible means of revenging herself for a childhood incident.  Then there’s Honoria, coolheaded and androgynous, rather in love with Katherine, who is quite phobic about Richard’s dwarfism for much of the book but who marries Richard once he has impressed her with his plans to provide shelter and support for other disabled people.  He has always been haunted by thoughts of what would become of him without wealth.

Malet is most interested in the question of whether Richard is allowed to be sexual.  He shyly broaches the question himself with his mother as a young man, asking if she thinks it right for him to wish to get married.  On her affirmation, he becomes engaged to a timid young lady whose family is attracted by his wealth but who, if she is honest with herself, has a great physical aversion to him and is in love with a much finer physical specimen.  Honoria helps her to escape her engagement and all the characters except Richard and Katherine seem united in agreement it is not appropriate for him to marry.  It is this incident which serves to emancipate Richard from his mother’s influence, as his humiliation takes the form of angry accusation of himself and her on the charge of buying innocent young girls.  He announces to his mother that he will travel abroad and hire prostitutes instead.  Dissipation makes him depressed and world-weary and, after the Helen incident, he visits the opera while unwell and becomes ecstatically convinced that the ordinary people in the pit are worker bees who are on the brink of rising up and killing him.  Because of his wealth, pleasure is accessible but it makes him feel worthless.  One might assume that he is awarded sexual fulfillment at the end with marriage, but considering Honoria’s characterisation and the fact that they adopt a nephew as their heir, perhaps not.

I felt this was an example of the kind of old book that has a lot of stuff swirling about in it but has something inchoate and uncrystallised about it, which explains why it has not lived, though it has life in it.  The style in which it’s written has much to do with this though in a way it seems strange to call it inchoate.  It’s full of dense description, with dun dun dun moments separated from their climaxes by wedges of it.  It’s good description of its kind but not so good.  At the beginning I wished Malet had gone through the manuscript another time to prune but I decided it did give a rather atmospheric impression the characters were moving through dense undergrowth.  Something that obscures the life of the book but at the same time is such a part of that life’s expression it’s hard to imagine it without it — that’s how it is with some of these books.

The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy

The story of a climactic period in three women’s lives.  Leila, an academic writer married to a theatre director, her life a conjunction of suburban comfort with culture, is grieving for her best friend and worried about her marriage.  Mary is her cleaning lady, a woman in her sixties who after a divorce fell down the ladder out of the middle class and into homelessness.  She uses the houses of her clients for respite as often as possible and spends a lot of time walking around trying to look as though she has somewhere to go.  Becky is a young woman accused of murdering her husband in a Bywaters-Thompson sort of case, who Leila is considering writing a book about.  A hard-nosed people-pleaser from an impoverished background, she longs for beauty, order and success and though she pursues her goals assiduously can’t seem to find an opportunity beyond marriage.  Leila’s story of a woman developing more independence and confidence is less interesting in one way than the other two but is more fully imagined.  This is written in a very telling-rather-than-showing way and while I kind of liked the amount of sociological and emotional information Piercy was able to get in that way and ultimately found the book very readable and enjoyable, I never quite forgot the style — and then she repeats almost identical summings-up of their situations several times, as if she hadn’t reread what she’d written.  I also found it strange that, written in the nineties, so many of the social mores seemed like those of the fifties.  But there was something warm and positive feeling about the book even though some dreadful things happen, and I was very engaged.

The Saga of the Volsungs

Sigurd the dragon-slayer and his relationship with Brynhild is at the centre of this novella-length saga, but sandwiched between the family feuding before his birth and after his death.  From my vague memories of Egil’s Saga and Njal’s Saga this seems a little more influenced by the tropes of classical and chivalric literature and less purely “Here’s a bunch of things that maybe sort of happened in Iceland a long time ago” in its content, though the style is the same.  I think the Norse mythology comes in more, too, with Odin popping in all the time.  The most vicious section is possibly the one with Signy, the mother who sews her children’s sleeves to their hands to test their toughness, kills them when they’re not tough enough, has a child with her brother in order to get one tough enough, the result of which spends some time as a werewolf.  It doesn’t quite become farce, though, not quite too stupidly psychopathic and meaningless to retain my attention.  Every now and then there’s a line that hints at some kind of psychology and makes you worry what’s going on in there.  It was quite striking, for instance, when Signy, having achieved her goals, says “I have worked so hard to bring about vengeance that I am now by no means fit to live” and walks into the fire.  This steps up with the Sigurd/Brynhild strand.  There’s a distinctly Wuthering Heights atmosphere to their thwarted, dysfunctional love. Everything they do is baffling and while the element that’s most puzzling is surely due to a cut-and-paste continuity error, it’s much of a piece with the rest.  And the more I think about it, Wuthering Heights is clearly an Icelandic saga.

Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno

A collection of short pieces about cultural products and phenomena, frequently in relation to Zambreno.  One section is entitled “Stories”, the other “Essays” and perhaps surprisingly this is the messier, darker, more personal one.  Not unlike Never Any End to Paris; there is the same sense that the narrator is interpreting art through a “tell me how to be an artist” lens and is measuring themselves tensely against it.  I’m not sure I really approve of “What happened on my way to creating art” as the ultimate end product, and to a large extent that is the mode of this book, but I was drawn in.  I found the depiction of friendship rather disturbing.  Lots of stories of people who have withdrawn from each other as a difference in status and success makes itself felt.  Sometimes Zambreno represents herself as the one who has gone up in the world, sometimes it’s the other person.  I was thinking that maybe writers just shouldn’t be friends with writers when Zambreno starts telling stories about friendships with non-writers that have gone the same way.  That tense measuring was my biggest takeaway from this.

Nana by Emile Zola

An actress/courtesan risen from the dregs of society — risen, as per Zola’s theory, to revenge her class by draining aristocratic men dry.  I read the first chapter of this a few years ago and decided to read it some other time.  It deals with Nana’s much hyped first appearance on stage.  We are part of the anticipatory audience, wondering what Nana will be like.  When she appears she is emphatically lacking in talent, but possessing magical qualities of flesh.  She is “a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire” rather as if Zola has got his scissors and cut out a woman-sized hole in his universe, opening onto the vortex of sexuality.  I found the abstract lack of specificity rather disappointing, and the sexuality is, throughout, sexuality for a nineteenth-century man and I could never quite see what Zola was seeing.  Nana, representing sex outside the civilising bonds of marriage, is a fertility goddess who cannot create anything, but only destroy.  And, of course, she is simultaneously just an ordinary girl.  The second chapter shows Nana’s homelife on the day following her first performance; she is in the strange position of knowing she has it made but as yet is still poor.  It had more of the circumstantial detail that I appreciate about Zola and I decided that I would read the book this time.  I found plenty of things to enjoy but got annoyed by having to step round the big central concept to get to them — the central concept of sex destroying men left so much out.  Zola is, in his defence, clearly deliberately leaving things out so as to create an artificial allegory, but I wasn’t sure that was worth doing.  Also nothing really matters here in the way it did in Germinal.  Some of the best parts of this book are Zola simply filling a space up with people and emptying it again.  The last chapter ridiculously cranks up Nana’s destructiveness and while it’s the part that leans heaviest on my causes for complaint I did kind of enjoy the feeling of crescendo.

On Not Being Able to Paint by Marion Milner

I was drawn to this by its title and it’s not really the book I wanted it to be.  I would have liked something more substantially about trying to paint and not being able to achieve the desired effect — about trying to identify and achieve a particular aesthetic effect, about the difficulties of engaging with and capturing colour, light, texture, mass, movement, mood etc.  This grappling process is usually only vaguely referenced, however — it’s happening but it’s not what Milner wants to write about.  This is a 1950 book written by a Freudian psychoanalyst preoccupied with babyhood, and she sets about tackling the problem by analysing some free association drawings she’d done previously, seeing in them various aspects of the division and relationship between the inner and outer world, the objective and the subjective.  She explores her anxieties about exploring the inner world and becomes convinced that art is a way of uniting the two halves of experience to make a whole, and that these two halves need to be continually brought into new kinds of contact with each other in order to be made real.  She tells us at the end that, having come to these conclusions, she was able to learn how to paint.  The book was a little more like the Kate Zambreno sort of thing than I might have expected to find in the fifties, in its willingness to foreground the author and make a feature of leaving the working-out process in the finished text.  Milner’s discussion of the relationship between objective and subjective experience can be a bit like watching someone arduously reinvent the wheel.  While I found this a bit tough-going it was also why I kept going — the wheel reinvention process is relatable and her explanations wouldn’t have been individual enough to throw up points of interest without the painstaking earnestness.  There’s a certain period-piece interest in the Freudianism — I’ve never come across this sort of thing in the wild — though I’m really not very interested in the babyhood angle.  Everything is shaped by the fact that Milner is a person beginning with an overdeveloped sense that conscience requires objectivity, and correspondingly has a particularly teeming subconscious — she acknowledges different possible relationships to the concepts but doesn’t get into them.  The analysis of the drawings has all the tedium of people telling you about their dreams, except I must have found some kind of redeeming quality in the absurd juxtaposition of Milner’s straightfacedness with descriptions like “The naked female figure is trying to seduce the surprised-looking duck” and “The serpents are chatting happily together, it is their garden, Adam and Eve, parents, and they can’t be bothered with the ape, in fact they have no idea how awful he feels.”

I did not understand at all how to make the lines and shapes and colours, simply by the pattern they made together, produce a direct emotional effect, one that was apart from what objects of the external world were actually depicted in the drawing.

The problem Milner refers to here — that of how to move from questions of technical proficiency to the business of making something with some creative life in it, capturing the thingness of the thing — isn’t one that faces me at this point.  I’m only half-heartedly trying to improve my drawing.  But I find it very depressing the way learning-to-draw books completely leave out reference to anything that might make you want to draw, to inspiration or a sense of beauty, to any kind of fascination with the visual world in itself, and this was the nearest thing to a corrective I’ve stumbled upon.  Milner says that at some point the Sunday painter must accept that they are not going to achieve technical perfection and try and use what they have to express themselves creatively, and I recently realised this myself.

June Reading

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Short collection of linked short stories about Kyle Murchison Booth, a mid-century librarian who solves or otherwise stumbles across supernatural and sinister situations.  I started enjoying myself more a couple stories in, which makes sense since the afterword explains the first stories in the collection are among Monette’s first short stories.  Booth is pathologically introverted and the inner conflict this gives rise to helps to engage the reader, only Monette started to pile on too much external tragic backstory to explain him, which risks detracting.

The Devil’s Elixirs by E.T.A. Hoffmann

1820s German gothic novel about a monk who rashly takes his vows because a girl laughed at him.  He is led off the beaten track not only by the devil’s elixirs but by ego and the pursuit of a girl.  A circular picaresque journey sees him commit various iniquities,  learn the truth of his cursed lineage and stumble across a conspiracy in the Vatican, his path continually crossed by a double and an immortal painter.  The last real gothic novel I attempted was Melmoth the Wanderer and perhaps it’s the comparison that made me feel this cuts along with impressive swiftness for what it is.  Hoffmann tries a bit too hard at the end to tie up the ends and assure us it does all make sense; personally I didn’t care too much whether it did or not.  The hero is a bit incel-like and has an irritating habit of endangering the success of his stratagems by losing control of himself when alarmed or overexcited, distressing everyone with outbursts of evil laughter or incoherent references to his crimes.  I was quite entertained, though not through investment in either plot or character.  The pleasure of spectacle and authorly contrivance, I suppose.

The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

Discusses the domestic lives of Thomas and Jane Carlyle in themed chapters — servants, ill-health, renovation, finance etc.  Not enthralling but mildly interesting.  The parts about servants were the most interesting. The servant-employer relationship we probably envision most today is very Downton-Abbeyish, where there’s a vast establishment.  More common would have been set-ups like the Carlyles’, who generally had only one servant.  So Jane has a lot of person-to-person interaction with her frequently replaced servant, and with anyone this would expose the strangeness of the mistress-servant dynamic coexisting with the intimacy of their overlapping personal lives, but this seems accentuated with Jane.  Expecting high standards of service (the Carlyles have many special preferences that must be accommodated) she usually begins a maid’s term of employment with the highest hopes, praising her to the skies in such idealised terms that disenchantment is inevitable.  Her hopes extend beyond good service; she is disappointed if her servants treat the relationship as a purely professional one and feels chilled on hearing her maid say “we” meaning, not herself and the Carlyles, but herself and the other servant.  When a maid leaves her service, she writes “I had set so much love on you, and so much hope!”  All this emotional investment must have been catching as Jane’s maids often seem to shed tears over her, of sympathy with her illnesses or of sorrow at parting and joy in meeting — but all the same it didn’t lend itself to stability.

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

A girls’ high school hockey team in the eighties makes a deal with the devil in order to improve their performance and win the championship.  Full of eighties nostalgia and celebration of girls coming into their own.  A pleasant amble.  I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d known just how determined it was not to break out of that amble.

Germinal by Emile Zola

Novel about a miners’ revolt, told from the perspective of Etienne, who, tramping past the mine in search of work, is unexpectedly given a job.  Slightly better educated and more politically engaged than the others, he presents them with the idea of an alternative to the current system, a way out of a life which is constantly taking from them even the little they have.  Etienne is really more a place for Zola to put his camera than a character.  The descriptions of the mine, what it’s like to work in it, the daily life of the community, are all very vivid — Zola has a gift for making this attention to places and habits feel dynamic, like the foreground rather than the backdrop.  And then it’s hard to resist getting swept away by the set-pieces, even if he does add a cherry or floating corpse too many on top.  It’s the inbetweeny bits where sometimes I’d wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if he’d written creative nonfiction about the actual miners instead.  Very good though.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Kate, a widow in her early forties, has married Dermot, a heavy-drinking loafer ten years her junior.  People keep their disapproval of this match largely unvoiced, so that the relationship is allowed to falter under its own steam, undistracted by outside obstacles — until the end.  I think this was the least satisfied I’ve been by a Taylor novel.  The problem seemed to be Kate; she was all type without enough individualising touches.  The central conflict is between her type as intelligent woman of a certain class and age, and her sexually-driven pull towards Dermot.  Taylor did seem intrigued by this conflict but Kate’s attraction towards Dermot never quite came alive to me and in any case I wanted her characterisation to be less type-focused.  More vivid than the relationship’s strengths are the miseries Kate goes through trying to protect Dermot from consciousness of his inadequacies, and herself from the tensions and confrontations that result from his consciousness.  The other characters all had moments I enjoyed — Dermot miserably enduring classical music, Kate’s daughter Louisa taking a photograph of her curate crush at a funeral, Kate’s romantically fickle son Tom having his heart stolen by a girl who’s more interested in eating and drinking than him.  The character I enjoyed most was Kate’s aunt who lives a double life as a humbly hearty hanger-on and avid, heartless analyst of Kate’s character and situation.

Not a great reading month.

 

May Reading

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Artist by Cesar Aira

Novella about Rugendas, a German landscape artist on a painting expedition to South America in the nineteenth century.  I assumed that Rugendas was fictional and was surprised to discover after reading that he actually existed.  Halfway through the novella, Rugendas and his horse are struck by lightning in a very vividly described passage.  His foot caught in the stirrup, Rugendas is dragged by the fleeing horse and the injuries incurred result in facial disfigurement and terrible migraines.  Rugendas paints on.  In the first half, I kind of wanted Aira to unironically go in for reams of grand, lofty description.  In the second half I didn’t feel that same sense of tantalisation; it felt somehow, as we were supposed to, as if we were inside the picture.  Not sure how, though; there are phrases like “Life had become immediate, like a novel,” but I felt inclined to reject them.

Alice by Elizabeth Eliot

Starting in their schooldays, this tells of the narrator’s friendship with Alice, who is somewhat more lively and highly-strung than herself.  Told in a deadpan, one thing after another style, which kind of works but not entirely.  The early section was quite fun but when Margaret and Alice enter the upper class marriage market of the thirties they, and the narrative, flail aimlessly.  There’s a not waving but drowning existential fear thing going on in the murkiness that wasn’t uninteresting but really the whole adult section should have been stripped out and rewritten.

Expelled from St Madern’s by E. M. Channon

Delightful school story from the 1920s about a sinister secret society connected somehow with a previous pupil who had been expelled and, outraged, wreaks her revenge on the school even in her absence.  At one point I hoped the ringleader of this society was the original expelled girl in disguise, but it’s only her cousin.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

Felix is an orphan in his mid teens.  He’s young for his age, having led a rather sheltered life under the wing of an idealistic mother.  Now, as the end of WWII approaches, having nowhere else to go, he comes to live in Jerusalem with Miss Bohun, a distant relative.  Miss Bohun is a classic religious hypocrite, a meanspirited skinflint who is quite in awe of how generous she has been to everyone.  She appears to run a boarding house, the fluctuations in her hostile relationships with her lodgers forming much of the narrative, but it turns out that the question of who is whose lodger is more complicated than it appears.  Felix, despite his desolation under Miss Bohun’s regime, takes her at her own estimation for some time.  I wasn’t quite convinced by the degree to which he does this.  His state of lovelessness is strikingly conveyed and is demonstrated through his relationship with Faro the cat who is his only outlet for affection.  Felix switches loyalties from Miss Bohun and to some degree from Faro when a young widow moves in.  For a while he’s infatuated with her vigorous cynicism, which opens his eyes to another dimension of life.  Over time, however, her obvious impatience with him becomes disheartening, and her judgement of others appears in a sour, petty light.  The household breaks up after a confrontation between Miss Bohun and Mrs Ellis, which ends in disaster for Mrs Ellis.  Before Felix leaves he talks about Miss Bohun with another character, who for reasons of self-interest prefers to think the best of her, and pleads “We’re all human; it’s not for us to be too hard on one another.”  This refers back to a poem Mrs Ellis quotes in a softer moment about life being a “school for love”.  But Felix has not learned the truth of these noble sentiments of generosity and forgiveness and feels wiser for seeing them as wilful self-deception.  He turns again to Faro, with no expectation of finding human affection.  Manning leaves this ending open for interpretation: do we take Felix’s soul to be permanently frostbitten or are his feelings  a painful but temporary phase?  And is his distrust of human relationships truer or falser than hope?  I liked Felix’s arc of learning just what you’re not supposed to learn but the squabbling lodgers and religious eccentricities felt like they should produce an event or two more than they do.  As it was, I thought the already short book wouldn’t have lost anything as a novella.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

Novel from the seventies about a single mother in Japan.  Both practically and emotionally, her resources are overstretched.  At times she reacts with hostility to others, which contrasts a little surprisingly (or not) with the lost, lonely way she feels inside.  Her small daughter is a source both of stress and solace; most moments of happiness are shared with her. But  though not unrelieved, the unhappiness is penetrating.

The Assistant by Robert Walser

Novel about a young man acting as a clerk for an inventor who is trying unsuccessfully to persuade people to invest in his gadgets.  Like The Tanners, the novel’s atmosphere makes me think of bread and butter and coffee, blue skies and sheets on the line, forests and lakes. This was more simplistic than The Tanners — it was written in six weeks and has something of the gesture drawing about it — but still enjoyable.  Joseph approaches the demands of his role and the implications of living like one of the family with erratic, performative seriousness that, in its whimsical earnestness, emphasises his lack of ties and the silliness of expectations for employees to devote themselves to their employer’s interests.  He seems always on the verge of sauntering off down the road.

Abigail by Magda Szabo

Hungarian novel about a wealthy, well-loved girl whose father, without explanation, horrifies her by suddenly sending her to a strict Calvinist boarding school.  The austerity of the regime there is like plunging into ice-cold water and in the first shock of her reaction to it, Gina manages to alienate her classmates and get unrelentingly sent to Coventry.  This is misery beyond bearing but when Gina’s father finally explains why she has been sent away she realises that it is the least of her worries.  The book takes place during WWII and Gina’s father is a General who is secretly working to extricate Hungary from the war and alliance with the Nazis.  Gina has been sent to the most fortress-like school in the country so that she cannot be used as a weapon against her father if he is discovered.  Gina is surrounded by thoughtlessly patriotic support for the war and this revelation propels her into an adult world of care that, while she feels alone in it, seems to help her reconcile with her classmates and live a kind of parallel life.  The relief in the sense of community she discovers makes her feel “how much stronger you were if you faced life as a group, like mountaineers whose very lives depended on an invisible rope linking them together, sharing the same passions, the same hopes, the same waiting and worrying, and were ready to act as one to help any of your number who needed it.”  This theme of solidarity obviously becomes more explicitly relevant to the events of the war.  The Abigail of the title is a figure from the school mythology who not only helps the girls with their personal problems but, like Gina’s father, is working to undermine support for the war.  The identity of this person is clearly signposted to the reader but Gina doesn’t learn it until the end.  This is quite a straightforward novel without particularly detailed characterisation but highly enjoyable and touching both as a story both of school and war.

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Retelling of Tam Lin with two sisters at a prestigious artist’s retreat.  Not very good.  None of its elements are done well.  One of those books about the power of stories and creativity and the magic of magic that sometimes attract me with their promise of bright colours but which somehow always disappoint, containing very little of their own subject matter, like something photocopied many times.

The Pillars of the House by Charlotte Yonge

Very long Victorian novel about a family of thirteen orphans, the dutiful eldest siblings bringing up the rest.  Felix, the oldest, sacrifices his status as a gentleman by going into trade to support the family, becoming a paterfamilias at sixteen.  Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe was an exercise in combining the romantically heroic with the prosaic, the domestic and the feminine.  This really dials up the latter elements; Felix is very stolid and forbearing, with no trace of the pocket Byron thing Guy had going, but by the time he’s on his deathbed, dying of goodness as soon as the youngest sibling can be considered raised, Yonge has whipped up some of the same vaguely eroticised Jesus energy.  This is the fifth Yonge novel I’ve read and I expected to enjoy it as it seemed so ultra-Yongeian, being so long and about such a large family.  A hundred pages in, it occurred to me that I wasn’t enjoying it as much I’d hoped; there were too many children being too childish, the dead father being such a saint meant most of the characters had too little to learn, and the narrative was cluttered with yet another character that the family was converting.  The menthol was no longer in a curious harmony with the fruit-flavour cough sweet; perhaps the bad bacteria had overgrown the good.  Seven hundred pages in, it occurred to me that I was enjoying myself immensely and I’d got used to the name Wilmet.  This book doesn’t have whatever neatness Yonge has at her best but somehow it’s immersively quotidian with its sheer volume of domestic and moral dilemmas and bizarre illnesses.  For better and worse, Yonge has a genuine interest in the minutia of domestic arrangements that few novelists can match.  Yonge’s fiction began as the stories she told herself about large families as a lonely child and it’s that lived-in understanding of the internal logic of her imaginary worlds that remains and goes some way to redeeming the outlandishly didactic aspects and tweeness.  She can be so objectively bad and yet she does have creative intelligence.  Traces of childhood stories also remain in that siblinghood is here perhaps the highest ideal of emotional gratification; it’s a kind of familial romance.

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Short (not that short) stories set in the nineteenth century, with lots of romantic trappings — Counts, duels, moonlight, beautiful women, ruined castles etc.  There’s lots of storytellers within stories, a fragmentation belying the “seven tales” of the title.  It feels like a book-length block of writing rather than stories each with their own centre of gravity.  Short story collections quite often feel like that but the surface of Dinesen’s writing is unusually unvarying and uniform, so it lacks the choppiness of most collections.  Too uniform, perhaps, but very accomplished and never misses its footing — except sometimes it feels laboured and sometimes it doesn’t.  The tone is cool, distant and worldly-wise.  Dinesen likes paradoxes a lot, especially about men and women, and I sometimes found them fatuous.  Some of the psychology seems too dependent on the distantly alluded to implications of these paradoxes, and ends up being puzzling and unconvincing.  It wasn’t a quick read; I felt as if I was falling off a smooth cold surface or picking my way through rocks.  And yet although the exterior seemed unvarying, the interior didn’t, because there are moments of exhilarating vividness and wonder and joy amid the sophisticated weariness and stretched connections.  A strange experience of reading two books at the same time, one I liked and one I didn’t.  Three passages I liked:

She had in her the magnet, the maelstrom quality of drawing everything which came inside her circle of consciousness into her own being and making it one with herself.  It was a capacity, he thought, which had very likely been a characteristic of the martyrs, and which may well have aggravated the Great Inquisitor, and even the Emperor Nero himself, to the brink of madness.  The tortures, the stake, the lions, they made their own, and thereby conveyed to them a greater harmonious beauty; but the torturer they left outside.  No matter what efforts he made to possess them, they stood in no relation to him, and in fact deprived him of existence.  They were like the lion’s den, into which all tracks were seen to lead, while none came out; or like the river, which drowns blood or filth in its own being, and flows on.

Like a young shark in the sea, mastering the strong green waters by a strike of her fins, thus did she swim along within the depths and mysteries of the great world.  Your heart would melt at the sound of her voice, till you thought: This is too much; the sweetness is killing me, and I cannot stand it.  And then you found yourself on your knees, weeping over the unbelievable love and generosity of the Lord God, who had given you such a world as this.  It was all a great miracle.

Through all the long months of winter you have been, even in the deep of the woods, exposed to the winds and the bleak light of heaven.  Then, all of a sudden, the month of May builds a dome over your head, and creates for you a refuge, a mysterious sanctuary for all human hearts.  The young light foliage, soft as silk, springs out here and there like little tufts of down, little new wings which the forest is hanging out and trying on.  But the next day, or the day after, you walk in a bower.  All perpendicular lines may give you the impression of either a fall or a rise.  The beech trees’ pewter-grey columns not only raise themselves, and reach forth from the ground toward infinity, the ether, the sun as the earth swings around it, but they lift and carry the lofty, the tremendous, roof of the airy hall.  The light within, less bright than before, seems more powerful, filled with meaning, pregnant with secrets which are light in themselves, although unknowable to mortals.  Here and there an old rugged oak, slow in putting out its leaves, opens a peephole in the ceiling.  The fragrance and freshness encircle you as in an embrace.  The branches, swaying down from above, seem to caress you or bless you, and as you walk onward you go under an incessant benediction.

April Reading

The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

Short novel about a hotel that specialises in royalty and therefore is a hotspot for sinister plots. American millionaires, German princes and nefarious waiters chase each other around. Not only a light read but perhaps the closest thing to a children’s book for grown-ups I’ve ever read. Just not flat enough to lose my interest and didn’t outstay its welcome.

Sisters by Ada Cambridge

Short 1904 novel about four Australian sisters. Despite the fact that it begins with a drowning, I kept expecting this to be a sentimental comedy in which everything gets tied up nicely, more like Cambridge’s The Three Miss Kings. It keeps looking like it’s about to go in that direction! Only then things usually go wrong instead. Only one of the sisters has a happy life, and it’s a parodically bourgeois happiness as the mother of eleven fine fat children. It’s very oddly paced, first taking a while to settle us in with the main characters, following them closely for a while and then dipping in and out of their lives occasionally over large chunks of time. I was startled to realise someone had suddenly got to be in her late thirties. It’s a bit Margaret Oliphantish in tone. Not uninteresting but a bit awkward.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

An ordinary boy gets to take part in an adventure, show what he’s made of and come to maturity. Like Jekyll and Hyde, I felt this had scenes of vividness but contained enough dullness that while I kind of understood the appeal, I didn’t quite. Long John Silver was a good character. Like with Peter Pan, the touches of bathos are some of the best with the pirates.

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Gothic magic realist family saga about the large and wealthy Bellefleur family.  Some members of the family are visionaries while others are playboys preoccupied with racing, womanising and shooting. The Bellefleurs’ immense privilege seems to invite a reckoning.  Oates intersperses stories from the present day (nebulously set) with the past, while imperceptibly doing funny things with the present timeline so that several decades seem to pass in three years.  I liked the weird tone which is both purple and comedic, both doing the thing and making fun of the thing.  It’s less a novel than a compendium of stories, sketches and vignettes, and it probably gets more flaccid past the halfway point.  I enjoyed it quite a lot.

The Ancient City by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges

The thesis of this book is that to understand the ancient Greeks and Romans that we do know anything about, we need to delve deeper into the Greeks and Romans we know almost nothing about, so that we can understand why these civilisations developed the way they did.  Coulanges claims that “Fortunately, the past never completely dies for man.  Man may forget it, but he always preserves it within him.  For, take him at any epoch, and he is the product, the epitome, of all the earlier epochs.  Let him look into his own soul, and he can find and distinguish these different epochs by what each of them has left within him.”  A touching idea but quite a big claim.  For Coulanges the original idea that classical culture branched off from is ancestor worship, which, paired with the worship of fire as representing man’s sacred generating force, becomes the concept of the sacred hearth.  The crucial quality of this idea is that it inevitably leads to patriarchy, primogeniture and parochialism.  The reasoning for this is spelt out like steps in a sum in a way that feels very clear and convincing at the time though perhaps the fact that I had to give up on summing it up suggests otherwise.  Or perhaps it’s because I’m feeling stupid.  Or perhaps it’s partly because Coulanges treats the belief that ancestors depend on the living’s attentions for their life-after-death as the keystone rather than men’s belief that women are earth when it comes to reproduction, which is not the inevitable deduction from the observable facts but the result of men feeling important.  And who knows why that happened??

Anyway, you have a society where every family with a clear, unbroken line of descent traced through the father has its own religion of tending to the dead ancestors and making sure that there will be descendants in the future qualified to continue these duties in the same way.  Every head of the family has excellent motives to be dutiful in this regard because they believe that when they are dead they will join the ancestors and depend in a similar way on their descendants for a continued existence.  Religion and virtue are therefore small and private concepts.  Outsiders to the family have no duty to your gods, nor you to theirs.  Virtue is defined by behaviour within the family circle, to those who have claims upon you.  Others fall outside the range of religion.  Gradually families cluster together in hierarchical groups, each with its own hearth but with a head of the family above the other heads, whose hearth represents the welfare of the community as a whole.  I think.  Then there are several clusters of clusters until you get cities.  The patricians are the people with hearths, the plebeians are the people without, for one reason or another.  Then there is a lot of other stuff about property and the serfs of the people with hearths slowly gaining independence over centuries and the assumption that to have your interests looked after you must be a real part of the body politic, actively involved in governing, and the move from kings to aristocrats ruling their own miniature kingdoms on their country estates, to tyrants to republics.  Leadership is identified with being the person who has the authority and knowledge to pacify the gods.  It’s all got somewhat scrambled now but the point of the book is very much for you to be impressed with the elegant neatness with which one thing leads to another.  Coulanges frequently says things like “[Laws] presented themselves without being sought.  They were the direct and necessary consequence of the belief; they were religion itself applied to the relations of men among themselves” with a slightly odd note of satisfaction in the impossibility of things being other than the exact way they were.  It’s a book that believes it’s showing the power of belief to shape material circumstance.

Although apparently an unbeliever who shied away from biblical subjects to avoid hypocrisy or publicly identifying himself as an atheist, Coulanges emphasises Christianity as an epoch, a discovery of man’s universal brotherhood, an assertion of moral independence and a new understanding of the wider possibilities of religion: “The character and the virtue of the religion of the ancients was not to elevate human intelligence to the conception of the absolute; to open to the eager mind a brilliant road, at the end of which it could gain a glimpse of God.  This religion was a badly connected assemblage of small creeds, of minute practices, of petty observances.”  One of the problems with this is that Coulanges largely leaves out the transition stage between the gods of the hearth, who are only dead men, and Christianity; all those larger gods that he admits were created because they were more easily shared.  I’ve always wanted to know more about how mythologies translated into actual religious feeling and Coulanges doesn’t get into that at all.

I looked to the introduction for help as to how much credulity I should place in Coulanges’ ideas but the one in my copy wasn’t very helpful.  Anyway, skimming over the mountain ranges of history was quite exhilarating.

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

Nineteenth-century historical novel about the sixteenth century.  Lorenzo and Lucia are a nice young couple in love whose wedding is prevented by a wicked nobleman who has plans to ravish Lucia.  They are parted for most of the novel, undergoing various misadventures.  The real purpose of the novel is not to tell their love story but to display various aspects of the sixteenth century — there are set pieces like bread riots and the plague, appearances by historical figures like Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, and ironic commentary on the venalities of society.  The real purpose is also to try to create a model of Christian charity and forgiveness.  The most striking instances are the repentance of a villain, the declaration of a priest’s duty to his flock given by Borromeo to a cowardly priest and the tribute paid to those who helped during the plague.  This was a strange reading experience for me because it seemed to contain two versions of the novel simultaneously; while Manzoni was not ineffective in his aims I can’t pretend I wasn’t frequently distracted by an overwhelming impression of clumsiness, both of prose and construction.  It reminded me of my experiences with Scott in that I was left with a funny feeling it wasn’t about the main characters, but didn’t know who else it was about, and has a curtain call kind of ending that made me feel I’d enjoyed everyone’s performances more than I really had.  Neither Lorenzo nor Lucia are interesting.  For me, the dominating character was the narrator, whose constant asides seemed clunky at the beginning but who I started to get fonder of.  His commentary, usually finding some way of highlighting people’s little foibles and sometimes deprecating his own narration, seemed sometimes laboured but enthusiastic and expressive of enjoyment and shy pride in his task.  I could imagine him taking his own curtain call at the end and it all made me feel churlish for not enjoying it more.  Maybe if it was shorter.

Much of the point of the plague coverage is to criticise the reaction to the plague among those in power and the public.  They stubbornly, irresponsibly deny the threat for a long time, because if they don’t want a thing to be true then it won’t be true!  Then they get hold of the idea that “anointers” are responsible for the plague, foreigners who go about slyly smearing pestiferous ointment over buildings and sprinkling people’s clothes with powders.  Really, I don’t think we’d feel too lost wherever the time machine dropped us off.

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

Roman biography of Julius Caesar and eleven emperors.  Apart from The Ancient City the only book I’ve read about the Romans was Tom Holland’s Rubicon, which left me bewildered and repelled by a glimpse into a world peopled by childish psychopaths.  The empire is more repellant and psychopathic still, with even the less notable emperors being characterised as the kind of people who “spend hours alone every day doing nothing more than catching flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen,” to choose an innocuous quote.  At least we needn’t believe all of it, as Suetonius seems to have dutifully set down everything that was said about the emperors, good and bad, and our own sense of proportion tends to reject, rightly or wrongly, such endless fussily elaborate displays of evil.  Suetonius deals with the good and the bad, the public and the private separately, so that someone might have been sounding relatively respectable before we come to a sentence like: “So much for Gaius the Emperor; the rest of this history must needs deal with Gaius the Monster.”  I couldn’t help attempting to construct little straw house “psychologically realistic” impressions of them that kept getting puffed away.  I can understand how Robert Graves got I, Claudius out of it.  Emperors aside, I enjoyed the background details of Roman life, particularly the religion and entertainment stuff.

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman

Short story collection.  This didn’t blow me away as much as The Wine-Dark Sea but it’s much the same sort of thing.  A couple of the settings are romantically historical but most of these are narrated by men seemingly near the 1970s publishing date, even if the events they describe happened in the past.  Their voices are sober, resignedly gloomy and morose.  It was with a little surprise that I realised that the last story seems to be attempting a slight caricature of this voice.  I pinned down one of the things that gives Aickman his particular flavour; the amount of mundane corroborative detail, often somehow vaguely surreal in its own right, which surrounds the strangeness.  It somehow both accentuates the strangeness by contrast and hustles it past you in disguise.  Aickman’s work makes me think of an overheated English living room at an undefined point in the twentieth century, the decor of which is stuck at an earlier undefined point in the twentieth century.  The aesthetic of the dated, the stuffy, the stodgy mingles with the more elevated and grotesque aesthetics of the past and the supernatural to give me the same impression of soft, muffled thickness that Henry James gives me.  I get it with James but with Aickman it’s to do with the combination of the stodgy with the sensual, which I don’t quite get.

March Reading

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The house of the title is an absurdly opulent, anachronistic display piece bought by the main characters’ father after a lucky investment.  His wife, who didn’t even know they were rich, feels out of place and terribly guilty about having so much when others have so little.  She leaves her children behind to spend her life serving the poor.  Maeve, eight years older than her brother Danny, assumes responsibility for him; he is saved yet dominated by her.  The loss of the house, rather than their mother, is the blow which shapes their lives.  Their father marries again and dies having rather unrealistically failed to make due provision for his children. The stepmother gets the house and Danny is evicted aged fifteen, thrown entirely on his sister’s hands.  The outrage and shock of this break with the past and the future they had been expecting vibrates for some time.  The narrative has a kind of horseshoe shape.  When the vibrations begin to calm down, figures from the past start showing up again, culminating in a full reunion at the house.  Patchett has a very smooth, bland prose style which flows easily and the shape of the story is satisfying yet I couldn’t help wondering why Patchett had chosen these characters and this particular story to make that shape.  Danny’s passivity, his only passion being his career in real estate, in imitation of his uncommunicative father, the brittle, inexplicably wicked stepmother — these ingredients are not promising in themselves.  It seems a little strange too to write a story these days in which we are invited to feel outraged sympathy for people evicted from the paradise of moulded ceilings, though to be fair part of the point of the house is the strangeness of the family ever having had it at all.  There was a lot here that seemed strange for someone to feel strongly enough about that they chose to write them, even if it did slip down easily enough as a consumer.  Maeve, full of energy, capability and potential, seemingly squandered in an undemanding job and the lifelong protection of her brother, was the most interesting character and, insisting on her contentment, begs the question of what is the waste of potential anyway.  There’s something curiously slippery about the book.  The recovery of the past occurs and there is a kind of virtue in it yet it’s hard to say what.

A Daughter of Today by Sara Jeannette Duncan

Short 1894 novel about Elfrida, a young lady who begins by pursuing artistic training before being forced to realise that her talents may lie in criticism instead.  I enjoyed the first fifty pages of this most, laying out Elfrida’s difficulty as a person who feels like somebody with talent, who strikes everybody around her as being unusually intelligent and perceptive, but who is yet to manifest this as in a properly visible way.  “Nobody could see, as she did, without having the power to reproduce; the one implied the other” — or does it?  At its best Duncan’s treatment of her heroine is interestingly balanced between sardonic and sympathetic but sometimes Duncan gets bogged down in Elfrida irritatingly representing the strenuously broadminded, art-for-art’s-sake trends of the era and not being quite nice.  Much of the novel is devoted to her friendship with Janet, who combines literary success with being a nice typical English girl.  The mixture of real friendship with painful jealousies and mutual barriers to complete respect for the other is promising but isn’t executed quite as well as it could have been.  But I’d read another by Duncan.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

An account of the 1665 plague.  Oddly told in that Defoe narrates from the perspective of a character based on his uncle, so as to allow him to present a witness account of events he didn’t experience himself while sticking closely to the facts.  I’ve previously found Defoe’s style a combination, difficult to explain, of dry and compelling, and that was the case here.  It was oddly soothing, in fact.  After some “I do love law and order but” havering Defoe comes out and says that he thought shutting up houses, the infected and uninfected together, was a bad idea, making people more determined to escape and mingle.  Defoe discusses the economic impact of the plague, which I hadn’t really thought about before (it seemed more obvious just a bit further into coronavirus).  Thousands fled London, leaving their employees behind.  Defoe praises the charity that poured in from the rest of the country but admits that it’s probably just as well that thirty or forty thousand people died who could not have been supported if they had lived and were prevented from being driven to ravage and unrest.  More women died in childbirth without the assistance of midwives.  In the darkest days of the plague, people would talk to each other even if they didn’t know each other!  It was the same when there came a miraculous week in which over a thousand people fewer died than the previous week, for no apparent reason.  People had started recovering from the plague more often and very soon Defoe is lamenting people’s stupidity as they decide there is nothing to worry about anymore and cease taking precautions.  It was all quite interesting though Defoe does go on some repetitive tangents.

Private Papers by Margaret Forster

Novel about a mother and her daughters.  Penelope was an orphan herself and wanted to create the ideal family in compensation.  None of her daughters’ lives have allowed her to vicariously experience the kind of happiness she had in mind and she doesn’t understand why this is so: she insists that they were happy as children and is angry that they don’t seem to agree.  The conceit of the book is that Penelope writes a narrative to try and prove to her own satisfaction that her children’s childhood was all it ought to have been and to try and pin down the point at which things went wrong.  Her daughter Rosemary, abrasive and rebellious, discovers the narrative and can’t resist writing a response.  The novel is about the pain of contradictory subjective realities; the pain of having others reject something that seems utterly undeniable to you, and the pain of being judged for rejecting something that seems utterly false to you.  Rosemary’s strident, caustic rejection of everything her mother says is a little too exaggerated, a little too obviously calculated to convey this theme, but it still worked for me.  The other central theme is the nature of family; there is some kind of bond between these people who otherwise have nothing in common, as even Rosemary admits, but why, and of what nature is it?  It is the limits Penelope and Rosemary come up against in their narratives that ultimately define family feeling.  Like The Dutch House, this was compelling in a way that was hard to put my finger on, given that it chronicles a succession of circumstances more than events.

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

Fantasy novel about a girl who has been brought up as a priestess, destined to sacrifice herself at the age of fourteen.  On the day of her sacrifice, she is rescued by a stranger and taken on as a kind of helmsman instead.  The first quarter or third of this felt a little stilted and I never quite got interested in the heroine.  She spends much of the book being willing to help others to further their plans without inquiring into what those plans are, without being the kind of person who makes elaborate plans herself.  I can understand thinking that it might be nice to put the kind of character who would ordinarily be a minor character into the spotlight but there are drawbacks.  Her love interest has similarly been raised for unquestioning self-sacrifice; this works as a bonding theme but might have worked better if the plot hadn’t required that both of them reject their programming in an instant as soon as someone suggests they save themselves instead.  However, at a certain point the energy of the plottiness won me over and I had a lot of fun.

The Long Shadow, Appointment with Yesterday and The Spider-Orchid by Celia Fremlin

Psychological thrillers from the seventies.  The Long Shadow, the best, is about a woman whose well-known egocentric monster of a husband has died.  She genuinely mourns him for who he truly was, holding on to her knowledge of his awfulness while everyone else rewrites his character as some kindly paragon, though part of her grieving process is growing away from the self who hurried to meet his demands.  Appointment with Yesterday is about a woman who adopts a new identity as a cleaner in a bid to escape from her dark past.  The Spider-Orchid is about a man who finds himself aghast when his life is disturbed by his mistress finally leaving her husband for him.  All of these have some kind of thrillerish element but it becomes clear that nothing too bad is going to happen to anyone important.  The real point of the books is the zippily sardonic commentary on domestic foibles and ego, draped over the spindly bones of the plot.  Astute and very readable but insubstantial.

The Daughters of Danaus by Mona Caird

Another 1894 novel with daughter in the title.  The story of Hadria, who has a genius for composing but thanks to domestic obligations, emotional manipulation and social norms is forced to suffocate her gift.  The book starts with Hadria and her siblings holding a spirited debate over the power of an individual over circumstance: does the individual mould their circumstances, as Emerson claims, or might even a great individual be defeated by circumstance?  Hadria’s part is to argue that these circumstances represent the lowest common denominator and therefore it is just the greatest individuals who are liable to fall foul of them.  She is not, as yet, fully convinced of her own argument, but it’s the thesis of the novel.  I do have such affection for these earnest Victorian novels which attack the “how to live?” questions as if they might thrash out the answers right here and now, undeterred by not being deathless geniuses.  Caird takes very seriously the idea that life is a pitched battle between women and the patriarchy and the urgency of this seriousness helps compensate for some inevitable dullness in a novel where characters do little but explain their opinions to each other.  Motherhood is the focus of Caird’s polemic.  Hadria feels that motherhood as it exists in the current state of society and in history humiliatingly reduces women to animals, that it is not possible for women to meaningfully consent to motherhood under these circumstances and that they cannot be held responsible for the children produced.

Hadria looking out of the window: “Nature in her most maternal and uninspired mood—Mother earth submissive to the dictatorship of man, permitting herself to be torn, and wounded, and furrowed, and harrowed at his pleasure, yielding her substance and her life to sustain the produce of his choosing, her body and her soul abandoned supine to his caprice. The sight had an exasperating effect upon Hadria. Its symbolism haunted her. The calm, sweet English landscape affected her at times with a sort of disgust. It was, perhaps, the same in kind as the far stronger sensation of disgust that she felt when she first saw Lady Engleton with her new-born child, full of pride and exultation. It was as much as she could do to shake hands with the happy mother.”

“Throughout history, she reflected, children had been the unfailing means of bringing women into line with tradition. Who could stand against them? They had been able to force the most rebellious to their knees. An appeal to the maternal instinct had quenched the hardiest spirit of revolt. No wonder the instinct had been so trumpeted and exalted! Women might harbour dreams and plan insurrections; but their children—little ambassadors of the established and expected—were argument enough to convince the most hardened sceptics. Their helplessness was more powerful to suppress revolt than regiments of armed soldiers.”

This is all very uncompromising but I felt Caird wimps out in excluding Hadria’s two children and her relationship with them from the narrative.  When they are brought up, Hadria says “They represent to me the insult of society—my own private and particular insult, the tribute exacted of my womanhood. It is through them that I am to be subdued and humbled. Just once in a way, however, the thing does not quite ‘come off.’” and

“It gives me a keen, fierce pleasure to know that for all their training and constraining and incitement and starvation, I have not developed masses of treacly instinct in which mind and will and every human faculty struggle, in vain, to move leg or wing, like some poor fly doomed to a sweet and sticky death. At least the powers of the world shall not prevail with me by that old device. Mind and will and every human faculty may die, but they shall not drown, in the usual applauded fashion, in seas of tepid, bubbling, up-swelling instinct. I will dare anything rather than endure that. They must take the trouble to provide instruments of death from without; they must lay siege and starve me; they must attack in soldierly fashion; I will not save them the exertion by developing the means of destruction from within. There I stand at bay. They shall knock down the citadel of my mind and will, stone by stone.”

However, we hear nothing else on how she feels about living with them and caring for them, and as the novel is about how hard it is to get away from domestic claims this seems like a lacuna, whether Caird didn’t dare go so far in making Hadria unsympathetic as to show her in action not loving her children, or just didn’t want to have to deal with them.  One of the parts of the novel I enjoyed most was Hadria’s setting out to live in France for a short time, leaving her home to pursue music.  Her music is too new and difficult to win popularity, however, and she is getting very worried about money by the time her attempt to fulfil her potential is permanently cut short by her mother’s illness.  Her mother will die if Hadria upsets her by pursuing her own happiness, and this enormity is beyond Hadria.  The novel ends with Hadria grieving for the loss of her talent and hoping to find, somehow, some way to be useful.  This question of what to do after the end of all your hopes is one you see more often in older books, I think.  The novel doesn’t have as much “geniuses versus the plebs” lofty obnoxiousness as it might have done, since it’s keen for the plebs to stop wasting their potential, but it’s somewhat inherent in the premise.

The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett

The second in the series.  Nicholas is off on a business trip to Trebizond in 1461, dogged by a new enemy.  He and his enemy suffer alternating misfortunes at each other’s hands.  There’s a sea voyage and a decadent court and abductions and disguises and double-edged conversations. Once again, things the characters have known for some time come as revelations to the reader though they’re often relayed almost as if we too have known them all along.  The sense of adventure and spectacle is engaging and my ambivalence about Dunnett is under control though still there, and there more than in the first volume.  The ostentatiously suppressed histrionics irritate me more than they move me and the snakes and ladders rhythm of the pacing grows predictable.  Nicholas is still not quite as special as Lymond, but Dunnett will insist on largely telling his story through the incessant analysis and speculation of others on his character which, while it distances us from him and makes it possible to withhold knowledge from us more fairly, amps up the specialness too much for my taste.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

Novel from the collective perspective of four girls growing up in the fifties.  After a lifetime of gruelling poverty their grandmother received an inheritance which enabled her to buy a farm and gain the upper hand over her abusive husband.  She feels she has done more than enough for everybody and always has one foot out of the door, emotionally and literally, though her house is the hub of the family, where her daughters and their children keep returning.  The novel tells, out of chronological order, of the bad marriages and deaths and disappointed hopes that have made the family what they are.  There’s something very autumnal about the atmosphere, richly elegiac, and the emotional implications of the events are archetypal as well as personal.  This is more literarily ambitious than the Patchett or Forster but either the characterisation or the style would have needed to be more finely realised for this to fully burst into flower.  But it’s a pretty good book.

February Reading

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Novel about Bram Stoker, with particular reference to his role managing Henry Irving’s theatre and his relationship with Irving and Ellen Terry.  O’Connor’s most enjoyed aspect of writing is clearly the creation of flashy verbal surfaces.  He likes vituperative outbursts and luvvie-isms.  I found these oddly contextless and unmoored, on the whole.  Stoker is a person of suppressed resentment and longing for recognition and belonging.  When famous names raged at him or expressed affection for him I had the same feeling of disbelief that I often get when authors invent a character whole cloth to interact with real historical figures.  This possibly reflects something important about Stoker’s real self but added to the somewhat hollow impression of the novel.

As We Were by E. F. Benson

Memoir/cultural history by the author of the Mapp and Lucia books, looking back on the Victorians from 1930.  He was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the most striking thing in the book is a queasy-making excerpt from his father’s journal about eyeing up an eleven-year-old as a prospective wife and proposing to her when she was twelve.  This was Benson’s mother.  The rest is anecdotes about the eccentricities of dons, society hostesses, and celebrities like Wilde and Swinburne.  One gets the impression that the father was rather awful — and that Benson appreciated the way his father’s position placed the family at the centre of society.  It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder how much hobnobbing with royalty being a Victorian Archbishop involved but Benson makes it clear that it certainly involved some.  The book didn’t make a strong impression on me but was enjoyable enough.  I like stories about the olden days from people who saw enough of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to have a sense of how things changed.

Blue Boy by Jean Giono

Autobiographical novel about growing up in the early twentieth-century French countryside.  The writing lacked the crispness of The Horseman on the Roof, though both books often deal with the same subject of intensely experiencing the natural world.  But the main character of that book had his own concerns and was less overcome.  This is a writer’s memoir (sort of) about soaking up impressions and feeling so heavy with them that they will have to be released.  The world Giono writes about isn’t an idyll — there’s quite a bit of violence/gruesomeness — but somehow he writes about it as if it was.  And then he briefly describes going to war when he grew up and breaks into a bitter outburst about war and the lie that the natural world is called “France” and “Germany”.  Representative quotes:

“Doves were singing on the roofs.  They had tiny voices of blood and desire.”  

“He always talked to me aloud in his bare room.  At first there was only his voice, but after a little while, when the air was warmed, the echo of the walls began to play and there were three or four voices mingled.  Then, in the background of the discourse, a little drumming began like the drum that makes the bear dance, and it would touch my stomach as if with fingers.  Then all was peopled with various voices, broken and reflected echoes, slow sounds that arrived after having been bounced against all four walls; then it was a conversation with the inhabitants of the mystery, and the story screamed about Odripano like the whirling of a great flock of birds.”

“At my every gesture the gift of myself flowed through my veins like sweat.”

“The sky was pressing on my back, it was touching the birds that were touching the trees; the sap came from the rocks; the big snake yonder in the wall was rubbing against the stones. The foxes were touching the earth; the sky was pressing on their fur.  The wind, the birds, the swarming air currents, the swarming ants in the earth, the villages, the families of trees, the forests, the flocks, we were all pressed, atom against atom, as in an enormous pomegranate, thick with our juice.”

He seems to be trying to lift something that is too heavy.  I kept visualising the book as a kind of cowpat made of oil paint in different colours.

Theory by Dionne Brand

The narrator is almost forty and has been spending the last decade working on her dissertation.  The book is in four sections and three of them deal with her relationships with ex-girlfriends, all more sociable and emotionally intelligent than the narrator.  The narrator tries to pinpoint where it went wrong in these relationships as well as what they were able to give to each other.  The voice is pedantic, searching for pompous precision yet there’s a momentum about it and sometimes I’d find myself reading passages aloud.  The narrator is preoccupied with ethical responsibility and is just about able to admit, after some hard work, to her failures in generosity to others.  She doesn’t think of herself as someone who is good with people.  In this aspect she almost attains meekness, only to break out the more strikingly into irrepressible grandiosity when it comes to her dissertation.  The dissertation is a kind of attempt to single handedly reset the western world’s default of whiteness and maleness.  It’s loomed large through all the book but in the final section we find that there’s barely room for her in her apartment because she has essentially written her dissertation several times over and needs to preserve the sheets of paper spread all over the place as a record of her thought processes.  She’s used different theorists as a lens for the dissertation but resents that she can’t just come out and say what she wants to say without using somebody else as an authority.  When she was in a relationship, she was an important person being distracted from her work.  Combining relationships with the dissertation was an excuse not to give her best to either of them.  Now it’s just her and the dissertation, she assures us she knows she has to finish it but if she does it’s probably going to be a matter of stopping at an arbitrary point rather than achieving her ambitions.  I felt quite fond of her and enjoyed the book but it perhaps helps to have had some experience of academia.

The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

Novel from the twenties about a set of rooms in a mansion which appear and disappear and in which people discover their true selves.  I was attracted to the premise and the little we get that actually deals with it shows that Lindsay might have done something more interesting with it.  However, I can’t remember the last time an author so wilfully steered their story in the wrong direction at every opportunity.  For Lindsay, the whole set-up is an opportunity to create a tragic love affair between a girl in her twenties and a fifty-seven year old man, and even that aim is pursued in the dullest way possible.  It’s all about the elaborate setting up of meetings between them and the logistics of the lies they tell.  We finally got through to a smidgen of potential but I can’t say I was struck by Lindsay’s metaphysical worldview as some readers were.

Martin Eden by Jack London

Martin Eden is a rough and ready sailor who, already interested in learning more about literature, meets a young woman from a higher class who represents a higher sphere of existence to him.  She inspires him, with class and culture and love all muddled together with aspiration.  Martin hasn’t been just any hoodlum, he was the supreme hoodlum of his circle, the one who won fights and was rewarded by the admiration of men and the adoration of women.  Full of vitality, he sets about the exploration of a new world with confidence that it is only a matter of time before he masters it.  It isn’t long before he decides that he wants to create books as well as read them.  At one point Martin expresses his impatience with what he calls the “god” and “clod” schools of writing; the one too high-flown and the other too determinedly dreary and sordid.  Much of the point of Martin’s characterisation is that he reaches both ends of the spectrum, combining boundless joy in his apprehension of the great, noble emotions with a need to access and practice this through practical, demonstrable expertise and knowledge of the seedy side of life.  He has his intellectual break-through moment when Herbert Spencer’s explanation of evolution shows him the importance of biology, which he clings to in a tiresome, 1909 kind of way.  “It is the breath of the universe I have breathed,” he tries to explain to his love interest, with regard to the dry grass he is sitting on, which has “achieved its reason for existence” in having scattered its seeds, in answer to her protest against his insistence at looking at everything with “such dreadfully practical eyes”.  Less appealingly, he later breaks out into a vehement rejection of socialism as opposed to individualism: “The world belongs to the true nobleman, to the great blond beasts, to the noncompromisers, to the ‘yes-sayers’… Your slave-morality of the meek and lowly will never save you.”

His belief that the physically strong will necessarily take precedence in life echoes his belief that hard work will create merit which will then be recognised.  He studies and writes with manic energy, sleeping only four hours a day. The processes of refining his intellect and the practical and emotional hindrances he encounters are portrayed with a very granular level of focus.  This is a goldmine for people who like books about learning.  I enjoyed Martin’s balls to the wall ambition and pure enjoyment of his own literary efforts, reading them over and over after they are rejected, trying to work out what could possibly be wrong with them, but also just for fun.  There aren’t enough books about creative joy.  Anyway, the joy doesn’t last.  Martin had soon realised that his beloved’s family was smugly mediocre and ignorant, superficially cultured but lacking the real interest in philosophy and art he would have loved to find in them.  The relationship is unnaturally prolonged by Martin’s belief that love means nothing else matters, but of course comes unstuck.  This is a severe blow and Martin stops writing, but the really mortal blow is the final proof that success or failure has nothing to do with merit.  After generating many manuscripts and sending them out over and over again, to be baffled and frustrated by the lack of response, his luck changes.  One of his works, an argument against mysticism, is published and is one of those books that no one knew were timely until they arrived, initiating a flurry of conversation.  This timeliness and attention means that publishers are falling over themselves to bring out all Martin’s other works.  Martin is disgusted.  This is no reward for merit but a random turn of the wheel.  It shows him that the kind of recognition for which he worked was never on offer.  This gives a person of his temperament nothing to live for and the novel ends with a detailed description of his suicide.  London apparently intended the novel to be an attack on individualism — but “I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.”  I certainly wouldn’t have minded more indication that Martin’s experimentation with big blond beast support wasn’t intended as just another of his excellencies, though he ironically notes his compassion for the poor as individuals as a weakness in a Nietzchean hero.  But of course the suicide is an indication of ideological unsoundness.  However, in London’s novelistic universe Martin’s superiority is an obstacle to the kind of social connection that might have saved him, and the story London wants to tell is primarily that of a martyr to superiority, not that of someone who fails to pursue his opportunities for solidarity.  A satisfying novel of the type that exhibits a personality type in relation to the world.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Harry Potter at Yale plus #MeToo and wealthy privilege.  There are eight secret magical societies and a ninth society that is supposed to monitor the others.  Alex has had a difficult life and has been given a scholarship to Yale and a place in the ninth society because she can see ghosts.  She finds it hard to fit in and there are sinister things afoot.  Engaging enough that at this point I intend to read the next but at the same time less propulsive than I was expecting.  It had a kind of flickering effect, with pieces that worked better than others, with ambitions to being its own thing it isn’t ready to commit to.  A big part of this is the social commentary stuff which is never very incisive and at times is particularly clumsy and superficial.  There’s a lot of room for someone to do the whole “evil glamorous rich people only not glamorous” thing though.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

A mild, stolid youth named Hans Castorp comes to visit his consumptive cousin in a sanitorium for a few weeks.  He finds the institutional routine surprisingly seductive and doesn’t mind at all when he is discovered to be tubercular himself.  It’s clear early on that the experience of the book for us is supposed to be the same as that of sanatorium life for Hans Castorp — the passing of surprisingly large amounts of time in pleasant but not exciting ways and the suppression of the demand for immediate results.  Hans Castorp becomes more intellectually curious than he ever would in normal life and meditates on various subjects.  He becomes friendly with Settembrini, a revolutionary humanist he finds very radical and advanced at first but who seems more like a dear old cast-off teddy bear when he meets Naphta, a Jesuit who represents nihilist fanaticism.  They stage endless arguments for Hans Castorp’s soul and enjoy themselves until they don’t.  It becomes more and more clear that the content of their argument is meaningless; they are a satire on the uselessness of theory and attempts to permanently win humanity over to any one cause or mode of thought.  Nevertheless they help to temper Hans Castorp’s mind.  It is the end that really made me wonder what it was all for, because it’s shaped like a climax but is really just a breaking off.  Possibly it is just Mann’s afterword which is making me feel it was supposed to be something it wasn’t, because a random snapping off of the experience was always one of the most likely ways for the book to end and perhaps the best.  He reads a thesis on his work comparing Hans Castorp to grail questers and says yes, perhaps that was what it was all about, and suggests that Hans Castorp reaches the grail of wisdom when he snaps out of his daze on the outbreak of WWI and rushes back to the world to fight.  The final description of Hans Castorp on the battlefield is striking in the context of all that has come before but I’m not sure about it being more real.  Anyway, I quite liked the book and its peaceful irony — because it is, above all, ironic that Hans Castorp should find such peace surrounded by the sick and dying— but didn’t love it.  I enjoyed such episodes as Hans Castorp Visits the Sick, Hans Castorp Goes Skiing, Hans Castorp Listens to the Gramophone and Hans Castorp Attends a Seance.  I enjoyed cousin Joachim’s stoicism and the idiotic amusements resorted to by the patients.