Saturday, 5 January 2019

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain


This is a story that you wish wasn’t true. 

It’s the memoir of a nurse in the First World War, and is an awful journey from innocence to experience, so perfectly archetypal you almost can’t believe it’s real.  The poor woman is just 18 when the War begins, and her contemporaries are exactly that group who enlisted immediately, in a sort of ludicrous innocence that today is almost unimaginable.

Also unimaginable is her adolescence, brought up to be a Victorian lady, a nightmarish condition I am glad I will never have to experience.  She fights hard to be allowed to go to University, and eventually makes it there, so:
 When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans
 She only stays a year.  She can’t bear to be safe while her boyfriend, brother, and friends are risking death, and decides to join the military as a nurse.

Anyone would have found nursing really horrific at that time, but due to her upbringing it is particularly hard for her.  For example, she does not know what venereal disease actually is until "1917, when in a Malta hospital I watched a syphilitic orderly die in convulsions after an injection of salvarsan"

Her boyfriend is given leave for the 24th of December, and she waits for him excitedly on Christmas Day, but instead of him she gets a telegram, telling her he died on the night of the 23rd.  It’s something you would rule out of a novel, as too melodramatic; it’s her misfortune it is her real life.  She then loses two of her friends, back-to-back.  Her brother lives on till almost the end of the war; but then she loses him too.  How is this for horror: after her boyfriend dies, she receives many notes of condolence, but after her brother almost none.  This is partly because people are exhausted by death, but also because potential letter writers are already dead themselves: Didn’t get any letters partly because fellow officers had ‘gone west’ before him in previous offences – the Somme, Arras, the Scarpe, Messines. ..

She tries to find out every detail of his death, but the only other officer in his battalion who survived with him from 1914 to the end is strangely uncommunicative.  Later she learns that this is because the military got hold of a letter of her brother’s that made it clear he was in a relationship with one of the guys in his battalion.  He was likely to be court-martialed,so he may have chosen death on the battlefield rather than the 'shame.'

No surprise then that she never, at any time in the book refers to ‘winning’ the war without quotation marks.  Eventually she has to leave nursing because her mother becomes unwell, and her father, a healthy retired man in his fifties feels he cannot possibly run a home without her, ‘servants being hard to find’.  Thus she leaves men dying on the front to tend to him.  What’s truly bizarre is that no one finds this bizarre.

Her life after ‘victory’ is bleak. 
However deep our devotion may be to parents, or to children, it is our contemporaries alone with whom understanding is instinctive and entire, and from June 1918 until about April 1920, I knew no one in the world to whom I could speak spontaneously, or utter one sentence completely expressive or what I really thought or felt. 

She pays no attention to the peace negotiations. 
I was beginning already to suspect they my generation had been deceived, its young courage cynically exploited, its idealism betrayed, and I did not want to know the details of that betrayal. 

In the end she returns to University, changing her degree from English to History, out of a desire to understand how Europe had ended up in this slaughter, and to see how it might be prevented in future.  She finds it almost impossible to relate to either those just younger than her, or just older, who never saw combat.  She graduates, and becomes a writer, and a feminist.  Your hair curls to be reminded of what women went through for suffrage, and then everything else (who knew the age of consent for girls used to be 13!).  Just as 2018 is the centenary of the end of War, it is also the centenary of women getting the vote; and apparently it was ‘granted’ to us in a wave of appreciation of women’s war work.  It’s amusing to read how politicians suddenly jumped about like cats as they realized that they suddenly had to appeal to the female voter.

Eventually, she marries.  You’d think it would be strange for her husband for her to write a book that is so deeply about her first boyfriend.  Let me note, that while my summary may make you think there is plenty of incident across the 600 pages of the memoir, actually at heart this book has only a single theme, and that is the deaths of her boyfriend, her brother, and her two friends. As she said in a letter: If the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four – which she has clearly done.  Her poor boyfriend, dead at 20, has a road named after him in the French town where he died (the Allee Roland Leighton). Her book made him famous, though even as she writes it she tells us: It is years now since I have been able to recall his face, and I know that, even in dreams, I shall never hear the sound of his voice again

Her husband however, is a veteran; and clearly she is right that we who are not cannot understand what it is like.  She chooses to carry on her wedding day the type of bouquet her boyfriend used to give her, and her husband is completely unconcerned: That it is I, he wrote to her, who shall stand there is but the end of a long story.

And it has been a long story.  What a life, and what a woman.


Monday, 31 December 2018

WHAT I READ IN 2018


It’s very strange to look back over this blog.  I’m like: who is this person who wrote this blog? She seems to have a lot of energy and a lot of free time.  Also, she has a lot of funny things to say.  I guess we each have our own sense of humour, so it makes sense that reading what I wrote, I often think: that’s exactly what I would have said!  What is really disconcerting is to read a blog post about a book I have entirely forgotten.  It’s like time travel to a former self, and offers the rare opportunity to look at myself at a strange kind of remove.

Other books I remember well, and reading the blog takes me back not just to the book, but to where I was when I read it.  SOMETHING IN THE WATER, I’m sick in a hotel room in Napa.  GRANT I’m on the beach in Mauritius.  NORMAL PEOPLE it’s the sofa of my living room in the middle of the night   If I ever re-read this post, let my future self note: it’s a hotel room in Wisconsin at  4am. 

Best of the blog: CONVERSATIONSWITH FRIENDS by Sheila Rooney, a story of love and friendship I’ve read three times this year already; EARLY WORK by Andrew Marr (just getting in under the bar as I read it in December), which is a hilarious tale of infidelity and procrastination;LESS by Andrew Sean Greer (give him another Pulitzer); and MEMOIRS OF ANINFANTRY OFFICER by Siegfried Sassoon, a memoir of the First World War it is not one’s business to like or dislike but just to respect. 

2019 will the ten year anniversary of this blog, and I’m toying with the idea of re-reading all ten years and 500+ books that went into them.  I’m not sure I have the energy – or the courage.  If I’m surprised by who I was this year, what will it be like to meet that stranger who started this blog in 2010 in a tree house hotel in Kenya?

FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg
BARACOON by Zora Neale Hurston
COUNTRY DARK by Chris Offutt
FRIDAY’S CHILD by Georgette Heyer
THE DEATH OF REX NHONGO by CB George
THE MAKIOKA SISTERS by Junichiro Tanizaki
THE LESSER BOHEMIANS by Eimear McBride
EDUCATED by Tara Westover
EARLY WORK by Andrew Marr
COTILLION by Georgette Heyer
LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner
WAYS OF ESCAPE by Graham Greene
THE END by Karl Ove Knausgaard
CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney
THE WINTER SOLDIER by Daniel Mason
CIVIL CONTRACT by Georgette Heyer
WAR WITH THE NEWTS by Karel Capek
THE KINGDOM by Emmanuel Carrere
SYLVESTER by Georgette Heyer
REGENCY BUCK by Georgette Heyer
NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
EMPIRE FALLS by Richard Russo
A SORT OF LIFE by Graham Greene
STANDARD DEVIATION by Katherine Heiny
GOODBYE VITAMIN by Rachel Khong
TALENTED MR RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith
LESS by Andrew Sean Greer
A SPORT AND A PASTIME by James Salter
HOW TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
NEWLYWEDS by Nell Freudenberger
THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin
ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain
SOMETHING IN THE WATER by Catherine Steadman
THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO by Alfred Russel Wallace
GRANT by Ron Chernow
THE PATRIOTS by Sana Krasikov
LIKE SODIUM IN WATER by Hayden Eastwood
FROST IN MAY by Antonia WhiteA WHOLE LIFE by Robert Seethaler
MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER by Siegfried Sassoon
CHERRY by Mary Karr
TIES by Domenico Starnone
THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrere
IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME (AND OTHER CONCERNS) by Mindy Kaling
MEMOIRS OF A FOX-HUNTING MAN by Siegfried Sassoon
THE HISTORY OF PENDENNIS by William Makepeace Thackeray
HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? by Sheila Heti
CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney
SEALED by Naomi Booth



COTILLION by Georgette Heyer


The Heyer kick continues.  When will it end?  When will I be too ashamed to continue to record it in my blog?

In this one, that clearly she was just churning out to pay the bills, we see a reversal of her usual plot.  Here a couple pretends to be engaged (for reasons of inheritance), while the lady tries to make the gentleman she is actually interested in jealous.  

The man she is actually interested in is a classic Heyer hero (dark, brooding, etc) and the one she is just pretending with is the type that's usually the comic sidekick.  Thus you think it is going one way, but instead – fairly cleverly – it goes the other.  She realizes the man she thinks she is loves is selfish and difficult, whereas the the one she is sure she does not love is in fact the very man for her.  Hurray!


BARACOON by Zora Neale Hurston


It’s funny to think that of all the millions and millions of people who were abducted out of Africa to be enslaved in America, and all the reams of print about that experience, we retain the actual personal stories of just a handful of the people who actually lived it – perhaps ten.  This is one of those stories. 

Kossola was the last person alive to actually recall a life in Africa and his abduction from there, and luckily Hurston got to him in time to write down his remarkable life.  He was willing to co-operate, because, as he said:
I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe day go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossola.’ 

Then, because the world sucks, she couldn’t find a publisher in her lifetime.  Luckily though, it’s published now, and it’s an instructive and extraordinarily sad life story.  Kossola (called Cudjo in America) was born in what is today Nigeria.  Unfortunately for him, his village was near the kingdom of Dahomey, which kingdom had entirely stopped all farming and focused solely on selling their neighbours.  A fearsome force, they had 12,000 soldiers (including women) and when they attacked Kossola’s village they slaughtered the old indiscriminately and enslaved the young.  They brought the heads of the dead with them on the march back to Dahomey, and the only break on the march was when they stopped to smoke them, the smell getting to be too much. 

Rather charmingly, Hurston is surprised that black people would sell other black people.  I guess it speaks to a 1930s era world view and set of politics.  To me it seems very strange, because of course black people are like people everywhere: willing to do what it takes to turn a profit.  

Kossola is then sold to a white man who appears to have been attempting to win a bet – that he could bring slaves into America despite this being banned.  He succeeds, but it’s a brief victory, for slavery is abolished five years later.  Poor Kossola!  It’s like being killed in the last week of the First World War. 

Kossola and those who came over with him immediately plan to return to Africa, but quickly realize they will never raise the money to do so.  Thus they plan to form their own little community, Africatown, made up of Africans, because the American born black people are not very welcoming:
So we dance lak in de Afficky soil. De American colored folks, you unnerstand me, dey say we savage and den dey laugh at us and doan come say nothin’ to us
They need land to create their town, so they think to ask their slaver for it, on the very good basis that he owes them.  Just try this:

Cap’n Tim Meaher come sit on de tree Cudjo just choppee down. I say, now is de time for Cudjo to speakee for his people. We want lan’ so much I almost cry and derefo’ I stoppee work and lookee and lookee at Cap’n Tim. He set on de tree choppin splinters wid his pocket knife. When he doan hear de axe on de tree no mo’ he look up and seeCudjo standin’ dere. Derefo’ he astee me, ‘Cudjo, what make you so sad?’“I tell him, ‘Cap’n Tim, I grieve for my home.’“

It goes on; of course he says no.  Eventually they raise the money to buy the land from him, and he insists on full price.  I find this a totally surreal scene: there he is with his penknife while you ask him for a little something in exchange for destroying your life.  The book is full of this kind of telling detail: the last time Kossola sees his son (before his head his cut off by a train); the sugar cane he is growing for his twin grandchildren.  Hurston is a remarkable writer, and perhaps some of this is her; but the Introduction suggests that much of what he says is also verified by external documents (e.g., the raid by the Dahomians).  She tells his story in his own voice by describing her conversations with him, and even these interconnecting parts – about how she sits on his porch – are lovely.  Here they are in a break:

 Watermelon halves having ends like everything else, and a thorough watermelon eating being what it is, a long over-stuffed silence fell on us. 

At the end he asks her to take some pictures of him.  One in the graveyard with his family (as they all pre-deceased him) and the other as above.  Apparently he wanted to be shown without his shoes on, as if he was in “Affiky” because, as he explained, that’s where he wanted to be. 

I full on ugly cried while waiting for my friends outside a Chinese restaurant. 


Monday, 24 December 2018

COUNTRY DARK by Chris Offutt


I really did not like this book at all.  It starts off being sort of silly poverty porn and ends up in an action movie.  Really, I did not like it. 

I wanted to like it: the back is covered in glowing reviews.  Which now, when I re-read them, to see what I missed, I note are all written by men.  I am unsurprised.  This is an archetypal boy’s book. 

It’s about some teenage boy who returns from the Korean War to Kentucky.  He marries a teenage girl he saves from being raped by her uncle and then goes on to have a bunch of disabled children with her before going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and ending up coming home to kill the man who betrayed him.  Meanwhile he loves his wife and children.  I mean, really. 

I think the worst part about it, was the starkly humourless tone.  I don’t think there is a joke in the whole thing.  This is the kind of writing you do when you don’t know very many poor people. Not to say I have ever been truly poor, but in my experience humourlessness is a privilege of the rich.  Poor people couldn’t get through their lives if they weren’t able to laugh at them.
 
The other worst part was the silly action movie ending.  And the other worst part was the pretentious style. Try this:
The world appeared for the first time beautiful, the air scoured of dust by the rain, each leaf holding a sheen of water.  She could smell the loam and wildflowers, hear the birds braiding their song along the land. 
I mean, I for sure don’t like ‘braiding,’ but I think it’s the use of the word ‘loam’ that really broke me.



Sunday, 23 December 2018

FRIDAY’S CHILD by Georgette Heyer


I have really fallen down the Georgette Heyer pit this year.  I’m not sure why.  I tend to blame it on a rainy afternoon in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, and a certain dusty old bookstore there.  But this can only be half the truth, because after reading my way through the couple I bought there, I went to the other end of the technology spectrum and bought a couple more on Kindle for my iPhone. In my defence, I had thoroughly run out of things to read, and was facing two days staring down the barrel of the city state of Luxembourg.  So: FRIDAY’S CHILD.

I understand from my friend the internet that this is among the most popular of all Heyer’s books, and I would say deservedly so.  Heyer really churned these things out, and I sort of like this idea I have of her, ferociously cynical, chain smoking, turning out these frothy romances by the dozen.  I am even therefore quite fond of the ones where she is obviously re-working an old theme and can hardly wait to be done and get back on the golf course or whatever.  This is not one of those. 

I need hardly describe the plot, but I will anyway. This is one of the ones where a couple has to get married for not very believable non-romantic reasons (in this case an inheritance) and end up falling in love after all.  They joy of this one is that the many characters are entertainingly well-drawn and a real spirit of fun animates the writing.  Heyer would be ashamed of me were I to go so far as to quote the drivel, but it did make me laugh. 

What also made me laugh was a strange feature of Kindle which is called ‘X-Ray’.  I have no idea what this is supposed to be, but it seems like it is intended to provide some kind of summary of the main characters.  Some are described as if a human read the book (e.g. ‘Ravensby: a friend of Sherry’s') but others clearly just pull some text from wherever the name first appears (e.g., 'Ferdy: Ferdy looked at his watch').  But enjoy this one:
God: God is often conceived as the Supreme Being and principal object of faith.  The concept of God as described by theologians commonly includes the attributes of omniscience. . .  
Clearly at some point someone says ‘God’ so the algorithm goes to the dictionary.  It’s hilariously machine learned.  I also very much like the vision of some man sitting at a desk having got to the ‘G’s and having to come up with a definition of God.  

I’m not sure how this blog post ended up with God, but there you are: I guess this time he’s the Omega. 

Monday, 17 December 2018

THE DEATH OF REX NHONGO by CB George


"This is a story of five marriages and one gun."  A great tagline for the cover, if not totally accurate, as the focus of this book is much more on the former than the latter.  

A character in the book makes an observation that could also have been a great tagline: ‘It is hope that causes most of the problems.’  The bonus of this is that it would have worked not just for this Zimbabwean novel but for most Zimbabweans' lives for the last twenty years.  

Rex Nhongo was the nom de guerre of Solomon Mujuru, an important liberation era military leader, who unlike many important leaders around the time Mugabe wanted to become President actually managed to survive beyond the liberation era.  He went on to become a fabulously wealthy businessman, whose wife remained in politics, and died in mysterious circumstances in a fire.  This being Zimbabwe, for mysterious circumstances obviously read murder.  

In any case, this is all by-the-by, as THE DEATH OF REX NHONGO has next to nothing to do with Rex Nhongo, and is not at all what this book is about, though I am sure it helped get international reviewers interested, because the outside world always assume that people who live in dictatorships do nothing but think about dictators day and night.  What this novel is actually interested in is marriages, and how they work.  The first marriage we meet is that of a taxi driver called Patson, who finds the gun in the back of his car; and then we learn of the marriage of one of his riders, who is part of the British embassy; then there is an American businessman; and a domestic worker.  They're variously happy and unhappy; honest and dishonest; sexual and not; just as real relationships are.  

The end is sort of unsuccessful, with lots of highly dramatic narrative telescoped into a few pages, plenty of death, and a very dubious ‘supernatural’ plotline that for some reason has to do with West African folklore. The end didn’t matter though; this was still for me a very successful novel.  It was an impressive feat of imagination across contemporary Zim, delivering a believable range of characters across race and income levels.  I’m wild to know who wrote it, as CB George is a nom de plume.  Despite how accurate it is about Zim, I’m going to say it’s not a Zimbabwean.  It has a very precise feel for the expat world, so that’s my guess; but I’ll have to wait till I’m back in Harare to sniff it out a bit further. 

Well done to them, whoever they are, for creating the city so well; I’m proud my relatively small, currently unlucky hometown has so well been immortalized in literature, not just in this book but in many others.   (This year, see Petina Gappah’s ROTTEN ROW).  Our authors have served us better than our politicians. 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

THE MAKIOKA SISTERS by Junichiro Tanizaki


Regarded by many as the finest novel of twentieth century Japanese literature, THE MAKIOKA SISTERS is the story of four sisters in the years leading up to World War II.

It's really a rather sad book, though based on the plot alone I wouldn't be able to say why.  The plot is: they want to get the two younger sisters married. And I guess it ends happily, with both sisters on their way to the altar.  This is the traditional happy ending.  But here you go with the bizarrely anti-climatic last line of the book:
Yukiko's diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.
That gives you the flavour.  This book is much less about plot, than it is about all the many ordinary days that make up all our lives between plot points.  You meet the love of your life; then you still go to the dentist that afternoon. You still go to work. One day he will propose and on that day you might be wearing tight pants or a kimono that creaks. 

Based on my summary above, giving the dates it covers, you'd think it might be a book about politics, but it is almost defiantly not.  It's purely, almost aggressively, about domestic life, and life before the war.  Tanizaki was writing it during the war, so my theory is that this is why; he wanted to recreate a world that was already decaying, and that is what gives it is sadness.

The sisters themselves (I am sure not coincidentally) capture this movement from past to future, with the one unmarried sister a classic Osaka lady (which I now know means reserved and delicate), and the other more modern, wearing Western clothes and even having her own business making dolls.  The family is going down in the world, and the reason they are struggling to marry is they are overestimate who they can get. At the beginning they decline a perfectly nice man because his mother might be mentally ill; at the end they are glad to accept a guy with no money and a sketchy past. 

It's done with a light hand, but it's very successful; at the end I was left feeling almost homesick for pre-war Japan.  That's if you exclude all the Beri-Beri.  I wasn't so keen on that.  (I had no idea it was such a big issue in Japan.  Click here for very interesting history, one of the few where the rich get what they deserve)


Wednesday, 12 December 2018

THE LESSER BOHEMIANS by Eimear McBride


I gave up on this book within the first page.  Here’s the opening:
I move.  Cars move.  Stock, it bends light.  City opening itself behind.  Here’s to be for its life is the bite and would be start of mine.
Remember.  Look up.  Like the face of god was lighting me through these grills above, through windows once a churn this hall, and old men watching below. 
Oh dear.  Regular readers will know I abhor this sort of thing.  Listen, if you want to write poetry, I have a suggestion for you: don’t write novels.

Luckily however about three weeks later I ran out of things to read.   Faced with the terrible alternative of being alone with my own thoughts I picked up this book again.  I’m glad I did, because the story was an interesting one – a love affair that takes the participants (one being 18 and the other 38) entirely by surprise.  It was interesting to see them struggle against how improbable the affair is.  I also enjoyed the mis-en-scene, being the 90s, and drama school, a period and a world that I remember and which alternately makes me feel soft on the inside and sweaty with shame on the outside.  I also came round to enjoying the writing.  Try this, when she is waiting for him at his local:
LaterBreath of winter on me, brain crawling little from drink, I sit where he was with The Devils that nigh and read my book like pub doors are quiet and will not look up for him.  Then at my shoulder Women in Love? – stoops to my cheek but gets an earlobe – Thought you’d be long past the Lawrence phase.  Well, hello to you too, I lifting my eyes to him, damp and cold-faced from the wind.  Have a few in you already?  I do.  Better catch up, and to the barmaid – rubbing heat in his hands – Two, when you’re ready, and a salt and vinegar please.  Come on, that table’s free.
And this, right after they first sleep together:
Silent in his room.  Cigarette.  Sit of shift?  I halfly dress.  Stay or leave? What do men expect?  What would I like?   To know exactly what he considers to be the right what now. 
On the sex, there is a lot of it.  And really this I admired, because it is well done and I think that’s very difficult to do.  It was probably (brace yourself) the most beautiful anal sex scene I’ve ever read.  I know.  Not that list is long, but there you go.  Second runner up I actually read a few months ago;  A SPORT AND A PASTTIME.

Get on Amazon fetishists: here and here. 


Tuesday, 11 December 2018

EDUCATED by Tara Westover



Tara Westover has an upbringing ideal for the dinner party anecdote.  Her family are Mormons so Mormon that other Mormons think they have gone off the edge.  The first very dubious sign is when the father decides, based on a line in Isaiah, that milk is evil, so they all have to eat their cereal with molasses.  It’s all downhill from there.  He gradually pulls the children out of school, till by the time it is Tara’s turn (she is the youngest) she doesn’t get to go at all, and her ‘homeschooling’ curriculum is 100% to do with how to work in a scrapyard without safety equipment.  Her father does not believe they need safety equipment, because they are under the Lord’s protection.  The same logic apparently holds after a major car accident, in which her mother incurs what appears to be brain damage.  She is treated not at a hospital but in their own basement, where the medicine is lying in the dark.  Eventually she emerges, allegedly not that much different, except for the occasional inability to tell her children apart. 

One of Tara’s older siblings decides he wants to go to high school, and is allowed to enroll and eventually goes to University.  Tara is inspired also, and while she does not go to school, she teaches herself enough to get into the big Mormon school, Brigham Young.  This is a bigger achievement than it sounds; though she can read, she has had little access to books other than nineteenth century Mormon prophecy.  Scale of her ignorance is shown by the fact that she has never heard of the Holocaust before it comes up in Art History class.   From here the book follows the classic arc of the poor kid makes good, with Tara going on to Cambridge and to Harvard. 

Oddly however, interesting as the above triumph-over-unusual-personal-circumstance was, what was more interesting to me was Tara’s struggle with whether or not she even wanted to triumph.  While her parents don’t object to her going to school, and even are proud of her for it, they don’t actually want her to learn anything there.  Or get vaccinated, for example; or wear a tank top; or question whether or not her brother should beat his wife.    The relationship with her family eventually breaks down, and her father sincerely offers her a way back in if only she will agree with everything he thinks.  Tara has to make a terrible decision between her own mind and her family.  She choose her mind.

For me, this is clearly a mistake.  Just lie!  But somehow she feels she can’t do that; and so the book is rather bittersweet, and I think therein lies its power.  It's a bestseller, which I think is partly down to the fun of rubbernecking survivalists (who can resist?) but in larger part down to its odd divided nature, as an elegy to something the author is glad to have lost.  

Sunday, 9 December 2018

EARLY WORK by Andrew Marr

Let's begin with this book's beginning:
 Like most people trying to get by in something like the regular current of American life, I don’t act like a total asshole to most people I meet, and am generally regarded as pretty nice, mainly because I leave myself vulnerable to hearing out other people’s crises and complaints for longer, on average, than would be merely polite. And the fact is, I do tend to like people in practice, even though I’ve built an airtight case against them in principle. It’s a natural response, I guess, to being raised by relatively kind parents who taught me to be polite and decent and to rely on the company and help of others, but to also consider myself smarter and, on some fundamental level, more deserving of complete fulfillment than anyone in the world besides maybe my sisters.
I mean, how can you not love it already?  What a fabulous pair of sentences, packed with interesting ideas, and written in a contemporary voice that remarkably doesn't seem pretentious.  This sets the tone for what is a wonderful book about cheating on your girlfriend.  I particularly enjoyed its fun dialogue:
"What do you do, Gil?" I said.
"I work for ThinkBright?" he said  "We do design and tech consulting?"
"The Lord's work," I said. 
I urgently need an opportunity to say this in normal conversation.  People are always telling they are bankers and such like.  I also liked this:
"Okay, but do you like living in Virginia?" she said pointedly.  “Is living in Virginia lowering or heightening your sense of existential dread?” 
“My basic status is medium-happy,” I said. “We'll have to move when Julia gets the next thing, so it's not useful to analyze it too much.  Do I need to have a position?  I'm not running for office.  I'm not trying to be the president of selfhood."
And this:
"We're adults," I said, the universal marker of childish behaviour.  "This doesn't have to be a big deal."
It wasn't just the zippy dialogue I enjoyed (though that's enough).  It was also a thoughtful story about about choosing between two good options, as even while cheating on his girlfriend he continues to really like her:
I still loved Julia.  That wasn't really in question.  I had plenty of love.  It was, I was realizing, a callous kind of love.  That seemed to be all I had to give.  Anyone I was with would realize that eventually, I thought, with my feet in the water, so really the goal was to create the illusions of depth for as long as possible.  Not for the sex, no.  For the company.  Other people were interesting, and the more privileged time you had with them the less bored you would be.  They would teach you how to live, or at least entertain you while you failed to learn.  And it wasn't entirely selfish, because, to other people, you were someone else, too, someone interesting, even if you knew you weren't.
And it wasn't just about romance, either.  Both of the women he is involved with are writers, as is he; and one of the more interesting parts of the novel are his efforts to write, at which he is failing.  He procrastinates, he deletes, he makes excuses, while both the women who are waiting on him continue to work: they write, and he doesn't.    I found it a striking part of the story; you'd think he has all the power, because frankly he is the one doing the choosing, but somehow he doesn't; he's winning in terms of other people, but somehow losing in terms of himself.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg


Natalia Ginzburg had a very interesting life, but you’d never know it from reading this memoir.  She had an impressive career, a husband who died resisting the Fascists, and knew many interesting people.  The book is heavy on the latter.  And by interesting, I mean racist.  This is only partly a joke.  FAMILY LEXICON is a love story to Ginzurg’s immediate family, who have all the embarrassing quirkiness of true blood relatives. 

Her father in particularly has a deliriously good time, accusing everyone of being nitwits and identifying ‘nitwitteries’.  He likes spending weeks in the mountains, and insists the whole family come too: “You lot get bored,” my father said, “because you don’t have inner lives.”  He  has – as many older men do, having been so fortunate as to be born into the heyday of patriarchy – strong ideas on food, and on how it should be served to him and what other people should do with it.  
If we used our bread to mop up pasta sauce, he yelled, “Don’t lick your plates! Don’t dribble! Don’t slobber!”For my father dibble and slobber also described modern painting, which he couldn’t stand.
He would say, “You have no idea how to behave at the table!  I can’t take you lot anywhere.”
I would like to have enjoyed it more, and I did at first; it was kind of like looking through someone else’s family photo album.  It's fun at first, the hairstyles, the puppy fat, but after a while you get bored and just keep going to be polite. 

Friday, 30 November 2018

LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner


In desperation I did a line-by-line review of this blog post at BookRiot, looking for things to read, and bought a lot of second-hand books on Amazon.  This one is a real find. 

Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of an unmarried woman who after her father’s death moves in with her brother’s family, moving from the countryside into London.  She lives with them for some twenty years, until suddenly, after a visit to a florist shop where she is utterly beguiled by some foliage (yes, really) she insists on moving back to the countryside.  It is a sort of terrifying story, because once back in the country she realizes how very unhappy she has been in the city; and it makes you think how easily you can let the decades slip by without noticing how you really feel.  

She loves the landscape, but more than that, she loves being the master of her own time.  In London she was ‘busy’ with the family; in the country she is not busy at all, though at first she tries to be, reading the guide book and going on walks to landmarks.  As she puts it:
She knew in her heart that she was no really enjoying this sort of thing, but the habit of useless activity was too strong to be snapped by a change of scene. 
Chilling.  I am sure much of most of our lives can be described as useless activity.  

In any case, she is much happier, rambling, eating meals at odd times, and so on.  Then one night she finds a kitten in her rooms, and while she is playing with it it scratches her, drawing blood.  Her heart pounds, and she makes a sudden realization:
She, Laura Willowes, In England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil.
To which I can only say: ?

Indeed, the book has taken a turn.  We learn that her enjoyment of the night, and the wild places; the fact that she can turn the milk sour with her mind; all this is due to the fact that she is indeed being pursued by the Devil.  She is delighted, meets the local coven, communes with the night, etc.  It sounds crazy, and it is, but is has its own sort of internal logic. 

When she does eventually meet Satan, we sort of understand her embrace of him as having to do with what today we would boringly call gender issues.  As she puts it to him, speaking of her relatives (who she is very fond of):
They say: “Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year?  Perhaps a hot water bottle.  Or what about a nice black scarf?  . ..  But you say: “Come here, my little bird!  I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest made of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.” . . .  
. . . One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick.  It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day . ..
She wants to avoid the fate of most women, who are, despite their endless domestic activities, fundamentally unimportant. 
Respectable countrywomen keep their grave-clothes in a corner of the chest of drawers, hidden away, and when they want a little comfort they go and look at them, and think that once more, at any rate, they will be worth dressing with care
Given the date (it’s funny to think the author didn’t even have the right to vote) I understand this gender lens on the topic.  But for me, who has had privilege of suffrage from birth, what I more took from the book is the importance of not leading your life by other peoples’ standards - that is, the importance of your own daily freedom. 

I also took from it a profound admiration for the writer as a writer.  Enjoy this, on her mother who was kind of neglectful, in a gentle way:
During the last few years of her life Mrs Willowes grew continually more skilled in evading responsibilities, and her death seemed but the final perfected expression of this skill.  It was as if she had said, yawning a delicate cat’s yawn, ‘I think I will go to my grave now,’ and had left the room, her white shawl trailing behind her. 
Or this maid:
The maid who brought her morning tea. . . had an experienced look; when she drew back the curtains she looked out upon the day with no curiosity.  She had seen it all already
Or her rather religious sister-in-law
Laura . . . had commented upon the beautiful orderliness with which Caroline’s body linen was arranged therein. ‘We have our example,’ said Caroline.  ‘The grave-clothes were folded in the tomb. . ..
The introduction calls Townsend ‘one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the last hundred years’ and I am shocked I never heard of her before; huge thanks to BookRiot for sorting me out.