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Thursday, December 12, 2013

A sweaty business: Maggie O'Farrell and Instructions for a Heatwave

I don’t know about other families, but in mine, it was quite normal to reminisce about the ins and outs of the 1976 drought for some years after it happened. I was not born until the rather wetter summer of 1982 and even I grew up well acquainted with how the grass went brown and the lawn cratered and an uncle slept in the garden after a family party. Of course, this was extreme weather, British style, which is to say that actually, it wasn’t that bad. But there is something about elemental oddness that puts people on edge and makes them remember things that would otherwise be forgotten. It is this truth that Maggie O’Farrell puts forward in her now Costa short-listed novel Instructions for a Heatwave.

The characters of the novel are members of the Riordan family, Irish, Catholic and living in London without enough water. The man of the house, Robert Riordan, quiet, unassuming and recently retired, has gone out to buy a newspaper and not returned. This inexplicable disappearance fetches back his 3 adult children to their mother Gretta. It is an event which ricochets through their relationships, unravelling loyalties, loves and misapprehensions left, right and centre.

The Rhiodan children cut very different figures on the stage of parental and cultural expectation. The eldest, Michael Francis is a frustrated academic, forced into school teaching by the pregnancy of the English girlfriend who he was forced to marry and who was in turn, forced by motherhood into giving up her degree. His family has been formed and the relationships set in a defensive pose, with nobody being quite the person they want to be. Monica, who in my view was by far the most irritating character in the book, is the Rhiordan’s second child and has always been the favourite and the most overtly loyal. She has in her closet, a morbid fear of childbirth, a failed marriage and a limping attempt at a second marriage and step family. The baby and rebel of the family is Aoife, who is a charming and perceptive outsider whose significant mind is almost wholly taken up hiding her illiteracy from all who know her.

I am not sure that the family atmosphere of the Irish diaspora which O’Farrell captures really exists any more. This was a world in which “no Irish” signs were easily remembered and in which to be Irish and in England was to be thought of as something less than the English. I am not sure that the grandchildren of Robert and Gretta would really be aware of this now. Such casual prejudice has largely been transferred to other groups and many Irish names and indications now go unnoticed by the English. But in 1976 things were different. Thus Gretta clings to her Irishness, and uses it as an anchor for her identity. Her grown up children all reject it to greater and lesser degrees, but are bound to it nonetheless.

The reality of family life is that all parties are hiding things from those they love, in some cases major facts and in some cases simply their state of mind. Artificiality has become a way of life and the consequence of this secret keeping is that relationships have suffered and individuals have been isolated. Here we have a classic Maggie O’Farrell tale of family revelation and the redemptive power of the truth. Although I will not reveal it here, all is not too bad in the end.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Long live Longbourn!

As a rule, I recoil at the suggestion of reading Jane Austen fan fiction, sequels, variations or any other shade of sexed-up increments. As far as I am concerned, the original is always the best. So, I am not quite sure, how I found myself reading, nay, loving Jo Baker’s Pride and Prejudice inspired novel, Longbourn. But I did, and I am not sorry. It was excellent.

Longbourn is the imagined story of the servants of Longbourn – known to literature as the home of the Bennett family in P&P. The story takes place simultaneously with its better known upstairs incarnation, and in fact, continues for a short period after the P&P narrative ends. It takes for its heroes therefore, figures who are hardly more than shadows in the Austen original. Some with names, and some without, in P&P they are scurrying figures who deliver letters and assemble hairstyles. Jo Baker names them, gives them stories and loves and loses and makes them the heart of her narrative. In doing so, she shines a light on the parallel universe of back breaking toil that enabled the clink of tea cups in the regency drawing room.

The main characters from P&P are of course present, some far more present than others. However they are mostly off-stage. This is not a book about Lizzy and Mr Darcy as glimpsed from the servant’s hall. It is about the servants. Reading on my kindle, I rejoiced that Mr Darcy is not even mentioned until nearly 40% of the way through the book. I have always thought that he was over-exposed anyway. Of course, for those who know P&P very well, there is the gratification of knowing exactly where the “Longbourn” story is in the upstairs story line. Baker is also clever in the subtly different ways that she presents Austen’s main characters. She doesn’t radically change any of them, but she does reduce the romance of them.

Jo Baker’s work is more, not less successful because she has attempted something that Jane Austen would never have done. Austen’s work has become synonymous with the so-called 2 inches of ivory; the perfectly rendered account of a small landscape, with no deviations beyond. She would never have attempted to write an account of washing day, let alone the broader vistas of slavery and exploitation which underpinned the comfort of her world, because she knew nothing of them. Jo Baker steps into the space left open by Austen’s approach and is remarkably compelling.

Her writing is beautiful, and her characters are bold and real. The narrative focuses on the interlinking stories of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, James the footman and Sarah the maid. To the extent that Longbourn has a Lizzy below stairs, it is Sarah although I must say that it was the development of Mrs Hill that most touched me. In P&P Hill is often present in fleeting shadow form (and for those who have seen it, who could forget Alison Steadman’s Mrs Bennett constant screaming refrain “HILL”…). In Longbourn she is a complete person, brave, loving, intelligent and cruelly used by life.

Pictures are of the book, the author and the Longbourn of the 1995 series. Happy reading all.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Travelling in shadow with John Le Carre

A friend of mine’s father considers that there is no finer novel nor more complete intellectual exercise than the wonderful Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Although I don’t think I would go quite as far as that, I am very, very fond of it and very much in love with its hero, George Smiley. It came as a surprise therefore to recently discover that there is Smiley beyond the famous trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Two rather splendid novellas, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality kept me company on a recent trip to Italy.

In Call for the Dead, Smiley finds himself investigating the death of a civil servant who has only just been subjected (and passed) a security check by Smiley himself. He has apparently killed himself, but Smiley smells a rat and chases down the truth from leafy suburbia to dingy London pubs and Thames side garages. He is nearly killed twice but manages to survive with his wits, his outstanding spy-craft and the help of Mendal and Guillam (trusty side-kicks who will be familiar to Tinker, Tailor fans). I read the book in a hill-top town called Ravello on the Amalfi coast on a day when the whole place was blanketed in cloud and I think that rather helped me to get in the mood. I could just about see the page although neither I nor anyone else could see normal things like buildings and pavements.

The day after (and with a little more sunshine), I dived straight into A Murder of Quality. This is a strange novella for Smiley to have become embroiled in as it is really a straight forward murder mystery, with elements of spy wallpaper. It is not about espionage. Rather it is about the brutal murder of a non-conformist teacher’s wife in a public school. It deals, as Le Carre is wont to deal (and indeed, there is no reason why he shouldn’t) with the overwhelming significance of class in British society – its power to shape and distort and dehumanise.

These are simple easy books but they show how Le Carre never lets his standards slip. The writing is fluid and excellent, always saying just the right amount and never too much. His books are always about something and he never falls into the trap of thinking that because he has a genre that means that there is no need for substance or thought.

Smiley is a character who has repaid strenuous effort and thought on his creator’s part. He is a complex and flawed wonder. One can’t help but slightly take the impression that Smiley is an idealised version of Le Carre himself. He is divided between the intellectually curious academic and the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted memoriser of dangers, the wounded cuckold with much to prove and the Smiley who actually wants to win and to be the best. His social position is deliberately ambiguous, as Le Carre puts it in Call for the Dead “Smiley, without school, parents, regiment or trade, without wealth or poverty, travelled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express”. His cleverness and reserved nature and loyalty to those who deserve it make him lovable, but equally he is a most flawed hero. Both Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality testify to this. I will not say how as I don’t want to spoil the books for readers of this blog – but he emerges at the end of both of them a little more shadowy than before.

Readers of this blog may recall that I have had a foray down the path of espionage before, and very much enjoyed it, here.

As usual there are other excellent opinions around. In particular from Double O Section and From Smiler with Love. I have included a picture of Le Carre and of Ravello, but for the purposes of this blog, you will have to imagine it dripping in cloud.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy (belated) birthday, Charles Dickens, you put this blogger to shame

I realise that I must be possessed of the procrastination gene. The reason for this is that during the international Charles Dickens is 200-fest which took place in February, I was actually reading (courtesy of a kind gift bearer) Claire Tomalin’s door stop biography Charles Dickens – a life. Yes, reader, I was so near to actually blogging on a topical subject that others were thinking of *at the same time*. However, the glare of the popular was all too much, and somehow it is now, in late March that I am finally cogitating over what I really thought of it.

When it comes to Charles Dickens, it is fair to say that I have history. That history is that I love his work, for all of its sentimentality, I absolutely love it. Also, I have always got the impression that, for all of the laudable charity work and modernity of the man, he was in many respects cruel and difficult. Tomalin’s book has not disabused me of either of these views, and so it has not revolutionised what I think about Dickens. As usual she is a cracking biographer, who sets the scene before her reader and does not make too many judgements.

There were probably 2 major revelations, 1 of which puts me to shame and the other of which is just a point of interest, for your delectation.

First, Tomalin really brings out and hammers home how astonishingly prolific Dickens was. Not for him, putting off a measly blog entry for 2 months. He could write 2 classics at once and it is not as though there were major sacrifices of quality or depth. No, he was just a remarkably fast and industrious worker. I am shamed, but also inspired.

Secondly, so much ink has been spilt on Dickens’ relationship with women, whether they be wives or daughters or mistresses or whores. What Tomalin does, which for me was new, was to look at his relationships with men.  One gets the impression that although he liked a good time, and his male friends had to be able to drink and carouse with the best of them – he did not like to be outshone. I found myself thinking that this attitude was somehow pre-figured by his troubled relationship with his charming, hopeless, feckless father. Dickens’ best friend, John Forster, was in some respects the most significant personal relationship of his life. It was certainly the longest lived and the least chequered. It suggests a trust and candour on Dickens’ part that I did not find so much evidence of in his other relationships.

Tomalin’s account of the breakdown of Dickens’ marriage is engaging. I have used the word “breakdown” but that is somehow wrong. The reality, for those who have not read about it, is that Dickens was married young to an apparently sweet although not enormously interesting young woman. After 22 years of married life, and upteen children, Dickens simply left her and lived in barely concealed sin with a young actress called Nellie Ternan. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: the story of Nellie Ternan and Charles Dickens, next stop in the biography train, methinks.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Once on a blog on fire

In about 2000 Once In A House On Fire was everywhere, like a track that everyone was listening to except me. In book shops and coffee shops and on buses, the lot. I was working like a maniac for my A Levels at that time, on the final straight to my long time ambition, to get into Oxford. What with Chaucer and John Donne and Suetonius and John Stuart Mill and all the rest, a passing interest in Andrea Ashworth’s memoir, available in all good book shops and not the subject of an imminent examination, was put on the deal-with-me-another-day shelf.

That “other day” has just come to pass, and 12 years after first deciding upon it, I have read Once in a house on fire. It has set me on fire too. It is a candid, monstrous and poetic source of truth and light and I am amazed by it.

Andrea Ashworth’ story begins when she is 5 years old and her painter and decorator father dies in a freak accident, leaving her young mother a widow with two little girls to look after alone. There then follows a tale of two step-fathers, of beatings and punchings and unending anxiety. In addition to the violence, there is sexual abuse, although this is less serious and shorter in duration. It feels wrong to be calibrating such things but there you are. Andrea’s mother shrinks from a nice looking good time girl to a bruised and emaciated desperate heap of whom even kindly relations despair. All of this takes place against a backdrop of grinding poverty, potato dinners and periodical homelessness.

Most of us can remember things from childhood, but Ashworth seems able to remember things as they happened. Her memories do not have the feeling of having been re-processed and squished into convenient shapes and sizes. They are what they are. They are both real and urgent.

Like that other memoir of domestic warfare Chelsea Child, there is a mismatch between the deprived circumstances of the writer in childhood and her ability to write so fluently in adulthood: one is left wondering how she managed it. The big difference is that in the case of Once In A House On Fire, we know from the inside flap that Ashworth is (or at any rate was) a junior research fellow at Oxford. Therefore, we know that despite it all, somehow, she must find a means of escape. As a result, I for one raced through the narrative, looking for where the road out must be.

Truth, it turns out is stranger than fiction, and Ashworth was never on the receiving end of a “big break”. There were no towering intellectuals in the family or the neighbourhood, no amazingly inspirational teachers. She did get a scholarship, but could not take it up. So, she went to a bog standard school like all of her neighbours. Hers was the triumph of an outstanding mind against a sea of troubles and the terrible truth is that it must have been in some way attributable to those troubles. She is not too shy to acknowledge that.

The strange love and attachment which the abused feels for the abuser is dealt with – both in the person of Ashworth’s mother, and in the child herself who admits to remember the pulls of love towards men who beat her up and treated her as a household slave. There is nothing shy or pedestrian about this novel, and I find that I can’t say more than that.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Curiouser and curiouser: A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

I have always deeply loved the work of Michael Holroyd. On this blog, I have reviewed Basil Street Blues, and I have also enjoyed, but in a non-blogging way, his biographies of Augustus John, Lytton Strachey and his “group” biography of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their families. All of this Holroyd mania is based on something more than the simple fact that I enjoy reading about the people and periods that this writer addresses. I also find his narrative voice funny and intelligent and humane. But, even beyond that, the work of Michael Holroyd brings out some secret childhood part of me that does not otherwise get much of an airing. The reality is that if life had been different, I would vey much have liked to be a private detective.
I imagine myself, possibly in the 1920s or ‘30s with a flat in London, armed only with an A to Z, a good knowledge of Somerset House and an ability to get chatting to anyone. Like all romantic detectives, I believe that most of the time, things are traceable, and one discovery leads to another. If it doesn’t, then I am content to consign it to history. That appears to be how Michael Holroyd gathers information. He never seems to be in an awful hurry and he accepts, as all thinking biographers must, that there will be gaps, probably better described as gaping chasms, in his knowledge.
The reason for this gushing introduction is the enormous sense of sadness I felt, in reading the final chapter of his latest offering A Book of Secrets; Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, in which he describes it as “my last book”.
A Book of Secrets is about a collection of women, books and a place, that all connect to Ernest Beckett, second Baron Grimthorne, a 19th Century banker and have-a-go politician. Beckett had a wife and children and he also had mistresses and they had children. Holroyd focuses on those who resided and were born on the wrong side of the blanket. He alights first on Beckett’s mistress, Eve Fairfax whose bust was modelled by Rodin during her glory days and sold to a museum in Johannesburg in more straightened times. Then he moves to the potential offspring of a liaison between Beckett’s son and a married woman (whom he later married himself). From this his focus falls on Beckett’s most famous illegitimate daughter, Violet Trefusis nee Keppel. His adventures weave in and around the lovely Villa Cimbrone, near Ravello and take in the modern day survivors of his protagonists, both biological and emotional.

The story of Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet Trefeusis is well known already, as is the affair between Violet and Vita Sackville-West.

Really, I was most interested in Eve Fairfax. She fascinated me because I had never heard of her, and she seemed to sit on the edge of so many things. She appears to have suffered greatly for the fact that Beckett never married her and nor did anyone else. As a result, she ended her life destitute and rightly described as a “genteel tragedy”. She was positionless and that was her problem. Her contribution to history appears to have been an enormous scrap book, in which the great and the good were encouraged to write and stick things. We must assume that many of them did so under duress and with a degree of embarrassment. By the time Eve dies, she is 106 years old, and I almost wept for the sadness of her life. I felt that Holroyd was completely right in his comment that although she lived in Victorian and Modern times, she seemed to belong to neither.

A Book of Secrets is exactly that. It is by no means all worked out, but the mysteries are there, as is the desperate desire to know about oneself and others. It has been a pleasure reading it and I recommend it warmly.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Will anyone called VESEY please stand up?

As some readers of this blog may have picked up, I really love names. I like to know why names were given to people and where they come from. If you had occassion (and I don’t suggest that you would) to give me a cheque, I would almost certainly take the opportunity to ask you what your middle names are.

Thus, in reading Elizabeth Taylor’s 1951 novel Hide and Seek, I spent a good deal of time pondering on the main male character’s name. Who ever heard of a man called Vesey? I certainly haven’t. I don’t even know how to say it. I wonder whether it is “vee-see” or “ve-see” or what. The name, although it is not really important speaks of the authenticity of the book. The characters are not made to please you, but readin of them one gets a powerful sense that they are real.

The novel concerns the love between Harriet and Vesey. Harriet and Vesey belong to the generation of people born in the early 1920s. In both cases, their parents were both more revolutionary and more conservative than they themselves were. Harriet’s mother was a suffragette and is appalled at the lack of ambition and idealism exhibited by her daughter. At the same time, she is a social conservative, desperate for Harriet to be settled. Vesey’s mother is a much more louche character but is not really interested in him at all. His aunt, who is to an extent in loco parentis to him, looks upon him as a dangerously radical person in the house and a hopeless layabout outside of it. Harriet and Vesey, for their part are twice embarrassed, first by parental exhibitionism and second by their own failure to really “do” anything.

Vesey seems confident, but he isn’t really. He talks a pretty big game, but in reality he lets himself and other people down on most, if not all, occasions. Harriet doesn’t seem confident and she isn’t confident. They are both crying out for a normal life, preferably in one another’s arms. Their chances seem to die on the alter of pride and repression and because neither is bold enough.

Thus, like many ladies before and since, Harriet marries another, less for love and more because nobody else has turned up. Her husband, Charles pursues her slowly and tenaciously. Rather than seducing her, he persuades her, and she is persuaded because she believes that Vesey is gone for ever.

In fact, he is not gone, but I will not spoil the book for those who have not yet been delighted by it. It develops into a beautifully balanced study on marriage and fidelity and love and I enjoyed it very much. It is all the more powerful as Elizabeth Taylor had a passionate affair during her own marriage (described by Nicola Beauman in her excellent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor).

It is unquestionably well written and well constructed. I found myself caring about the characters. As a study on the nature of marriage, its powers and its frailties, I must say that it has not knocked the wonderful Someone at a Distance off my top spot.

Other excellent opinions can be found at Frisbee, Daydreams and Delights, Harriet Devine and Book Group of One.