Saturday, 26 January 2019

THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford

This blog seems to think I have only read this book three times.  I am sure I have read it many more times than that, and indeed I hope to read it even more times.  I really, really, really, love this one.  And I believe it is one of those books, like I CAPTURE THE CASTLE (but much better) that inspires this kind of gnaw-your-own-arms-off devotion among some.  Others, and I see on Goodreads this is a large majority of readers, give it just 4 out of 5 stars.  This shows why democracy can't work, why breaching the 2% on world climate is inevitable, and in general why we are all going to hell in a hand basket.  What is wrong with everyone?

I suspect the key issues here are as follows: 1) Sexism: Read in the wrong way, you could think this was chick-lit 2) Classism: Mitford was rich, and I mean really unearned income, gross kind of rich.  So are the characters.  I see where this could enrage you.  But even the Guardian was still forced to give it major props, and you know that runs counter to everything the believe in. 

It's a hilarious and secretly rather sad story about an extended family and in particular one of its members, Linda, who goes through a number of unhappy marriages and one happy affair.  I've blogged it before here, but I am feeling the enthusiasm this morning, so let me give you some of my best snippets.

Let's just start by quoting extensively from the beginning:
There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs. Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph, hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination to us as children. In the photograph Aunt Sadie’s face, always beautiful, appears strangely round, her hair strangely fluffy, and her clothes strangely dowdy, but it is unmistakably she who sits there with Robin, in oceans of lace, lolling on her knee. She seems uncertain what to do with his head, and the presence of Nanny waiting to take him away is felt though not seen. The other children, between Louisa’s eleven and Matt’s two years, sit round the table in party dresses or frilly bibs, holding cups or mugs according to age, all of them gazing at the camera with large eyes opened wide by the flash, and all looking as if butter would not melt in their round pursed-up mouths. There they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment—click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.
I think of this bit often when looking at family photos.  It is very true.  Someone is always dead.  Or here we are on the fiance of one of the sisters in the book:
Linda pronounced the summing-up. 'Poor old thing, I suppose she likes him, but, I must say, if he was one's dog one would have him put down.' Lord Fort William was thirty-nine, but he certainly looked much more. His hair seemed to be slipping off backwards, like an eiderdown in the night, Linda said, and he had a generally uncared-for middle-aged appearance. Louisa, however, loved him, and was happy for the first time in her life. She had always been more frightened of Uncle Matthew than any of the others, and with good reason; he thought she was a fool and was never at all nice to her, and she was in heaven at the prospect of getting away from Alconleigh for ever. I think Linda, in spite of the poor old dog and the eiderdown, was really very jealous

Okay, let me restrain myself or I will just type out the whole book

FREDERICA by Georgette Heyer

Honestly I am starting to worry I am going into some kind of a decline.  Why am I reading so much Heyer?  Clearly my brain is tired, but is this just a passing phase or is this what aging is?  I am not sure if I am joking or not.  Perhaps I need to be grateful I knocked off the biggies in my twenties: your WAR AND PEACE, your MOBY DICK, your REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST.  What if I have lost my mojo?  Comfortingly I note that about half the FREDERICA posters on Goodreads struggle with exactly this question, while the other half have basically no shame.

That said, FREDERICA is a cheerful Regency romance.  It has some good points: there is lots of fun with new inventions - hot air ballons, and the 'pedestrian curricle' also called the 'ladies accelerator', which is the very first version of a bicycle (internet blackhole on this here, do feel free to click if you have as poor internet discipline as I do). 

Overall though, I did not enjoy it very much.  Unusually for Heyer, the dialogue between Frederica and her love interest was sort of repetitive.  Also, I found it (again unusually for her) a bit anti-feminist.  Frederica is so ludicrously innocent that she doesn't notice she is in love with the love interest until the last page.  It is hard to admire some one so totally disconnected from the guidance of their crotch, which in my experience is usually pretty clear.

Also, though this is not Heyer's fault, I read this on Kindle, and really the publisher has gone for a most depressingly tasteful cover.  You know what I want, and it is total contempt for female readers, and it is here.


DAISY JONES AND THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid


This book is curiously more-ish.  It’s the story of a band’s ascent to stardom and then immediate implosion, mixed up with a couple of love stories. 

The author presents the story as a series of snippets from documentary interviews with the band.  I found this a little gimmicky.  I also didn’t think it was used as well as it could have been.  Everyone’s story was inconsistent, but not nearly as interestingly inconsistent as it would actually be in real life, when we all remember the version of the story that makes us look either best or worst (depending on our specific hang-ups). 

That said, as I said: it’s more-ish.  Like a packet of Java Cakes, I kept on going when I should have stopped, for example to go to sleep in a hotel room in Madrid so I could wake up early to work.  It made me realize how fabulously elemental the classic rock’n’roll story is.  Your classic rock star story, which this is, is a mash up of some the great achetypes.  It’s almost always an underdog story; it involves a steep unexpected rise, and a satisfying fall; usually it involves a comforting homily of the dangers on getting what you wish for (which is very nice for the rest of us, who haven’t managed to be rock stars.  Makes us feel like we’re not missing out, though of course we are.  I’m sure large quantities of transactional sex must be really fun for at least the first decade).  Add to this that this novel also had a couple of interesting love stories, and no wonder Reese Witherspoon has optioned it for TV.

One of the interesting love stories was about a woman who decides to work through infidelity with her husband.  I can’t think when I last read a contemporary American novel in which any one was so sensible.  It’s always a load of nonsense about once-a-cheater-always-a-cheater as if life was an after-school special you could manage with rules, instead of a chaotic mess. So I liked that too.

In summary, a great book for a long flight.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undset (Trans. Tiina Nunnally)

This book is a story of a 14th century woman, from birth to death.  It’s a thousand pages of incident, but as always with books of this historical distance all you come out of it thinking is THANK GOD FOR BIRTH CONTROL. 

Kristin is born to a well-to-do family in Norway.  She is a major daddy’s girl, and bar one unrequited love affair with a servant boy leads a pretty ordinary life until she falls in love with a handsome older man named Erland.  Unfortunately she is already betrothed.  She sleeps with him anyway, which I did not find an especially big deal, but this is because I am not from the 14th century.  Guys, it’s a really big deal for everyone but especially for God. 

Eventually she is able to marry him, and go on to have seven sons in eight years.  But this is only the beginning, and I won’t try and summarize further, because the book is really the story of her whole life, and as such is packed with all kinds of things: the ups, the downs, all the in-betweens. It is like a real life and thus hard to summarize neatly.   Lives, I notice increasingly as I get older, really have no thematic unity - this is one thing that makes them so difficult.  The problem you are solving keeps changing.

I was struggling with myself to describe the appeal of the book, but the Introduction did it well, I think:

(It) achieves an exceptional sense of accumulating dailiness, of momentous actions concatenating  in all sorts of minute and unexpected evolutions

Also very appealing is the level of research, that creates in intense domestic detail a really distant world, of dogs, and mead, and un-medicated births.  In addition to birth control you thank god for vaccination and antibiotics, because people die at incredible speed and in large numbers. One major character gets a minor cut from a blade, and his arm swells up, and everyone knows: that’s it.  Quick as that.   

Side bar on the author: Sigrid Undset was an impressive workhorse.  Her father died at 11, pushing them out of the middleclass, and so she abandoned her dreams of university to take at 16 a job as a secretary, that she held for ten years.  She wrote furiously at night, stories as she put it about  “you or myself or any of us office-worms”.  She then went on to fall in love with a much older married man, take on board his 3 children as well as have 3 of her own, 2 of whom were disabled, and get divorced, all while pumping out multiple books and winning the Nobel. 

KRISTIN is thought to be her masterpiece. The introduction comments on the special sadness that comes from leaving a long book you know you are unlikely to read again.  I feel that way now.  It was a success at least for this office-worm.

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.