Sunday, 19 May 2019

THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald

A bizarre, hilarious, and bleak book.  It's a fictionalization of the life of an obscure eighteenth century German philosopher and writer. Don't let this put off.  It focuses particularly on the part where he falls madly in love with a twelve year old.  Don't let this put you off either.  The thing's a masterpiece.  

It was written when Fitzgerald was seventy-eight years old, and it shows: this lady is no longer playing.  I can't quite tell you what is so wonderful about this book, and I also can't tell you how she does it, but I think it has something to do with the rigour and honesty that can come with old age, if we are lucky.  First, there is the joy of the way she creates the eighteenth century.  The food is horrifying. Here is a dinner: 
 . . . the soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbage water, one of cows’ udders flavoured with nutmeg.
It sounds like a hipster restaurant in Haringey.  Or here is whats on offer at a fair they have been looking forward to - "Kesselfleish – the ears, snout and strips of fat from a pig’s neck boiled with peppermint schnapps."  One young lady has no one to take her to the fair, and is commiserated with:   
A fine young woman still, what a pity she had no affianced to treat her to a pig’s nostril!
Or here is a mother and her daughter, talking about a guest's room: 
"And there is no chair in the room where he might put his clothes at night."  "His clothes! I have not undressed myself at night, even in summer, for I think twelve years.” “And yet you’ve given birth to eight of us!” cried Sidonie.  “God in heaven spare me a marriage like yours!”
In the midst of all this domesticity is the protagonist's (Fritz) idealistic young desire to be free of earthly things and to find a logic that unites all things. He is inspired at university by the philosopher Fichte:
Fichte was speaking of the philosophy of Kant, which, fortunately, he had been able to improve upon greatly.  Kant believed in the external world.  Even though it is only known to use through our senses and our own experience, still, it is there.  This, Fichte was saying, was nothing but an old man’s weakness
He is a talker and a dreamer, who thinks he can see beyond the everyday reality of things.  Here he is talking away to a busy young woman:
…all though he could live without love, he told her, he could not live without friendship.  All was confessed, he talked perpetually.  Neither the sewing nor the forewinter sausage-chopping deterred him. 
So extreme an idealist is he that somehow when he falls in love with this twelve year old, who is not very pretty nor very bright, you somehow believe in his sincerity.  It is gross, but to be fair he does not attempt to sleep with her and in any case most women were married at fourteen.  It makes no odds, in any case, because she is dead of TB before she is fifteen, after some operations without anaesthetic that are almost as horrifying as the soups above.  Fritz marries someone else, but is dead himself in under three years, also of TB; and so are almost all his siblings. 

I mean, thank god for BCG.  I have not done a good job of explaining this novel, but that is I think because I cannot.  I need to re-read it to try and understand it.

Monday, 6 May 2019

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman

I decided I needed to re-read this wonderful book.  Reading it this second time I am struck less by the immediate story - the painful first love - as by the background story: the many years there were to mourn that first love.  I am surprised the first time I did not get that so clearly.  Here Elio is, for example, at the war memorial where he first (sort of) told Oliver he was interested in him: 

I wondered how many people here still remembered the young men they’d lost on the Piave River.  You’d have to be at least eighty years old today to have known them.  And at least one hundred, if not more, to have been older than they were then.  At one hundred, surely you must learn to overcome loss and grief – or do they hound you till the bitter end? At one hundred, siblings forget, sons forget, loved ones forget, no one remembers everything, even the most devastated forget to remember.  . .  In thirty or forty years, I’ll come back here and think back on a conversation I knew I’d never forget, much as I might want to someday.  I’d come here with my wife, my children, show them the sights, point to the bay, the local caffes, Le Danzig, the Grand Hotel.  Then I’d stand here and ask the statue and the straw-backed chairs and shaky wooden tables to remind me of someone called Oliver. 

I was also struck again with how wonderfully the summer was evoked, and an overwhelming urge to move to Italy and ideally to wherever this book takes place specifically.  This is what comes of reading in winter.  Let's just quote a length again, because it's my blog and I can do what I feel like: 
I look back on those days and regret none of it, not the risks, not the shame, not the total lack of foresight. The lyric cast of the sun, the teeming fields with tall plants nodding away under the intense midafternoon heat, the squeak of our wooden floors, or the scrape of the clay ashtray pushed ever so lightly on the marble slab that used to sit on my nightstand. I knew that our minutes were numbered, but I didn't dare count them, just as I knew where all this was headed, but I didn't care to read the signposts. This was a time when I intentionally failed to drop bread crumbs for my return journey; instead, I ate them. He could turn out to be a creep; he could change me or ruin me forever, while time and gossip might ultimately disembowel everything we shared and trim the whole thing down till nothing but fish bones remained. I might miss this day, or I might do far better, but I'd always know that on those afternoons in my bedroom I had held my moment
God it's an amazing book.  I don't think I'll read anything else by Aciman.  I see his next most popular book has a similar theme, and I don't want to be able to see through his tricks.  (I learnt that lesson when BLOOD MERIDIAN destroyed THE ROAD).


I read this in my most absolute favourite format: an out of circulation library book.  Even better, it had a torn dust jacket.  I just love that dirty smell and the feeling that a book has passed through many hands. 

This is a story about a man who destroys his life over the course of a few days. It’s not totally clear why, but as a starter for ten I’d say he’s an alcoholic with untreated depression.  He offends a major customer, cheats on his wife, and etc.  In a way it looked kind of amazing.  He absolutely burns his bourgeois life to the ground. 

What I found especially interesting was how explicit it was, for a book written in 1934.  Try this, the opening paragraph:

 OUR STORY opens in the mind of Luther L. (L for LeRoy) Fliegler, who is lying in his bed, not thinking of anything, but just aware of sounds, conscious of his own breathing, and sensitive to his own heartbeats. Lying beside him is his wife, lying on her right side and enjoying her sleep. She has earned her sleep, for it is Christmas morning, strictly speaking, and all the day before she has worked like a dog, cleaning the turkey and baking things, and, until a few hours ago, trimming the tree. The awful proximity of his heartbeats makes Luther Fliegler begin to want his wife a little, but Irma can say no when she is tired. It is too much trouble, she says when she is tired, and she won’t take any chances. Three children is enough; three children in ten years. So Luther Fliegler does not reach out for her. It is Christmas morning, and he will do her the favor of letting her enjoy her sleep; a favor which she will never know he did for her. And it is a favor, all right, because Irma likes Christmas too, and on this one morning she might not mind the trouble, might be willing to take a chance. Luther Fliegler more actively stifled the little temptation and thought the hell with it, and then turned and put his hands around his wife’s waist and caressed the little rubber tire of flesh across her diaphragm. She began to stir and then she opened her eyes and said: “My God, Lute, what are you doing?” “Merry Christmas,” he said.

This is more middle aged sex than I was ready for.  It also gives you a good sense of the energy of the writing. There are a huge range of characters who the protagonist annoys or upsets, and they are all drawn with vigour. I'm surprised neither this author nor this book are not more famous. 

Saturday, 4 May 2019

BAD BLOOD by Lorna Sage

A pregnant teenage girl in the 1950s made a lot of people very angry. Most particularly, in the case of this autobiography, the teenage girl herself.  Written when Lorna Sage was an old woman, this memoir of her early life still burns with rage, and I found it wonderful and curiously inspirational. 

Sage spent much of her childhood with her grandparents, a vicar and his wife.  Here are the opening two paragraphs:
Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on.  He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn't get up to much. I was a sort of hobble, he was my minder and I was his. He'd have liked to get further away, but petrol was rationed. The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it - except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him.Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime's mutual loathing. In life, though, she never invaded his patch; once inside the churchyard gate he was on his own ground, in his element. He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined, marked with mortality. He had a scar down his hollow cheek, too, which Grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came home pissed and incapable.
Yikes!  Indeed, this is a non-traditional vicarage.  The vicar hates his humdrum life and fills it with liquor and (when he can) with women.  Here’s his first affair, with the local nurse: 
He and Nurse Burgess, now MB for short in the diary, pedal to paradise every day of the week, including Sunday. Trailing a cloud of midges, they'd hump their bikes off the road, through some muddy gateway and, behind the hedge, hug and knead each other among the mallows and Queen Anne's lace and nettles dusty with pollen.
(Side point: she does actually have her grandpa's diaries, which are bizarrely covered in comments from her Grandma!).  Anyway, let me say: God, I love the writing.  Regular readers will know how I like to quote at length from books I really like, and I am really having to restrain myself from just typing out the whole book into this post.  In any case, the affair comes out, acrimoniously; but this is a small town in the country so they all are trapped together.  Indeed, when the grandpa is long dead the nurse starts visiting the grandma everyday for her insulin injections. Sage comments:
This is another aspect of rural life that’s lost now that the middle-class diaspora has populated the countryside with property-owning vagrants: the peculiar hell of having to live with such substantial ghosts from your past. 
She is hilarious on the countryside in general.  Here’s an interesting insight, from her time helping out on local farms: 
Farming life seemed a perpetual-motion machine, or an effect of gravity, something cyclic and unstoppable.  Actually, it was because this kind of small-scale tenant farming was vanishing that the impression was so strong.  Ways of life have been dying out in rural England time out of mind, at least for two hundred and fifty years since the great wave of eighteenth century enclosures.  It’s the sense of an ending that’s timeless.  The best symbol of this version of pastoral is a rusting and discarded piece of farm machinery in the corner of a field. 
The book is fully of interesting views on the world.  Here she is on her grandparents, for example, and the fact they mostly lived off their son-in-law:
The grandparents weren’t grateful.  They both felt so cheated by life, they have their histories of grievances so well worked out, that they were owed service, handouts, anything that was going . . . . Did they love me?  The question is beside the point, somehow.  Certainly they each spoiled me, mainly by giving me the false impression that I was entitled to attention nearly all the time.  They played.  They were like children, if you consider one of the things about being a child is that you are a parasite of sorts and have to brazen it out self-righteously. 
But leaving aside the quality of the writing, and the interesting view on the world, mostly what I love is the temper.  You don’t often get to hear the true voice of women of that period.  Here she is, once she gets pregnant:
My parents’ plan was that I should go to a Church Home for Unmarried Mothers, where you repented on your knees (scrubbed floors, said prayers), had your baby (which was promptly adopted by proper married people) and returned home humble and hollow eyed.  Everyone would magnanimously pretend that nothing had happened, so long as you never seemed to be having a good time or  developing too high an opinion of yourself – from now on you could count yourself lucky if they let you learn shorthand and typing.  . . My father was appalled and also triumphant.  Just as in the old days he’d done his best to beat vicarage corruption out of me, now he righteously denounced me for my scandalous offence against decency, monogamy, and my mother.  He galloped off on his high horse, chivalrously saving her once again from the horrible past. . . .
Rest assured, she does not go to the Church Home. Her boyfriend rather heroically marries her, so she can still go on to university, and they both get Firsts.  But this triumph over adversity is less interesting than the adversity, and the fury with which she meets the adversity.  Here, for example, is her experience of a cosmetics demonstration at school:

. . make-up that made you look neat, presentable, vulnerable; serviceable make-up that once you’d left school would last all day behind a secretary’s desk with judicious touching-up; make-up for getting engaged, with pink nail varnish to math the lipstick when you showed off your ring.  And above all prophylactic make-up.  That particular shade of pink lipstick, the hint of turquoise in the awful eyeshadow, were contraceptives.  They spelled heavy petting, waiting, saving for a semi.  The only contraception available to adolescent girls was mythological, back in 1957, so why not Pond’s Vanishing Cream?  Gail and I held hands throughout this scary demonstration of Whitchurch sexual realpolitik. 

Okay I've got to stop.  But really it's hilarious and brilliant and made me feel less alone in the world.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019


I am in what I assume is the  minority of readers who come to this classic by way of the Gambia.  I always like to read a book set in the country I'm visiting, and so I read JL Carr's A SEASON IN SINJI when on holiday there. I enjoyed it, so thought I would read this one, which is by far his more famous work.

It shares a lot of similarities with SINJI, involving war veterans, reflections on niche aspects of English culture, and a ragingly homosexual undertone throughout.  Just like the other one, it is about two men who find they have a lot in common but somehow are mysteriously separated by the end which is apparently tragic despite them being so extremely straight.

That's pretty much it: two guys become friends over the course of a month and then it ends.

I did enjoy the way in which they met - as veterans they recognized each other.  One has a facial tic, and almost as soon as they meet the other says:
 "Oh come on," he said. "I don't need to be told you didn't catch that twitch on the Great Eastern Railway, so we may as well start straight away swapping stories about the same bloody awful place."
I would be interested to know the extent to which that really is the experience of verterans; that they find each other easy to spot.  Much of the book is about church restoration, which is more interesting than it sounds.  I also therefore enjoyed learning about religious architecture; here for example is an offhand comment about a church:
It was an off-the-peg job: evidently there had been no medieval wool boom in these parts.  This had been starveling country, every stone an extortion.  
How interesting!  Who knew there was a medieval wool boom and that you could see it in churches.
Overall, though, I'm not sure why this is such a classic.  I found it a bit plotless and a little dull.

LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis

Here is a book about a man’s heroic refusal to be reconciled to his own life.    I found it sort of revelatory.   I guess we must live...