Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Hundred-Acre Wood Way of Matrimony: Two People by A. A. Milne

I have to be honest; reading “Two People” by A. A. Milne made me look sideways at my husband. This lovely Capuchin Classic was first published in 1931 and is one of A. A. Milne’s less famous novels for adults. It is a meditation on marriage and an investigation of where and how the individual fits in. It is a piece of whimsy which considers how two people, who may love one another deeply can maintain their own personalities whilst also maintaining a meaningful marriage. A. A. Milne’s lens focuses on that moment when the first flush of love has died away, when the home is settled and so is the routine, when it is easy to confuse boredom for disillusionment.

The subjects of this excellent book are Reginald and Sylvia Wellard. Theirs is a marriage of a middle-aged man to a much younger woman tucked away in an idyllic corner of the English countryside. They are surrounded by material comfort – and unlike most of their countrymen in 1931, know a total lack of want. The period covered by the story – which we assume to be little more than a moment in the history of their marriage, is one in which Reginald writes and publishes a novel, to unexpected commercial and critical success. In her introduction Ann Thwaite notes that even people who don’t enjoy novels about writers will enjoy this book. I think that I would go further and say that A. A. Milne uses Reginald’s novel as a torch for illuminating the differences between the husband and the wife rather than for its own sake.

And differences between husband and wife there are. Reginald the gentleman novelist is characterised by his age and his self appointed intellect. It is as a result of Reginald’s novel that they find themselves more and more in London – in a world more sophisticated and more full of confusion than their rural home. There Reginald is drawn to more obviously intellectual women – but what is he drawn to them for and how to they really compare to his wife? Sylvia, the wife is by contrast characterised by her youth and beauty. Where her husband is intellectual, she is intuitive. Where he seeks out recognition, she is happy to lead a simple life. Where he is interested in society, but often rubs people up the wrong way, everyone who meets her is drawn to Sylvia – whether she is interested or not. Even the household pets prefer her – or so Reginald imagines. In many respects, Westaways, their beautiful country home represents Sylvia, and she represents it. Reginald and Sylvia are like opposing camps – but this is not a novel about marital discord – it is about relatively subtle marital difference.

This gentle theme is explored through the whimsical mind of Reginald. Although the novel is called “Two People” – Sylvia is a strangely off stage character – and there is little insight into her mind. The joke of Reginald’s musings is that, although it is clear that Sylvia is not his intellectual equal – I did rather wonder if he had overestimated his own talents. By contrast, Sylvia shows a mature and careful understanding of her husband. Possibly Reginald is falling into the trap that many have fallen into before and since – of mistaking beauty and calm for ignorance and disinterest. Although he worships his wife it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he does not look at the whole woman – he looks at a shimmering and rather simple image of her. A striking moment of contemplation on this theme is as follows:

“It ought to be possible to carry a very small Sylvia about with you everywhere; in the waistcoat pocket; so that wherever you were, you could take her out and feel her loving warmth in your hand, and hear her say “Its alright darling...” And then of course, if you liked to put her back in your pocket when you were discussing the Theory of Relativity at the club, or talking rather cleverly and humorously to – well, to Lena, or to – well, Miss Voles, say, then you could – if you wanted to”.

By the time I put the book down (in fact, a good while before) I had come to regard Reginald as a rather ridiculous man – whom it would be satisfying to relegate to somebody else’s pocket. In Reginald we have a strange mix of confusion and certainty – and it is for each reader to interpret how self-knowing he really is.

If the novel sounds as though it may be rather heavy based on what I have written, let me correct this. A. A. Milne’s text is light and extremely funny. In Reginald’s world, his cats talk to him, country folk, who are no less irritating that he, irritate him, and townsfolk, who are no less vacuous than he, depress him. His narrative of these adventures is funny indeed. His intellectual pretensions get knocked down more than once. My favourite such moment is quoted below:

“Trouble is, Wellard, Life’s vulgar. Being born’s vugar, dying’s vulgar, and as for living, well, three quarters of it is stomach, and stomachs are damn vulgar”.

On that note, I am thrilled that this gem has been saved by Capuchin. Both Simon at Stuck in a Book and Elaine at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover have also written splendid reviews of this book.

Review of "Two People" by A. A. Milne coming to a dashboard near you... soon

Thanks to the watchful eyes of some of my wonderful readers - I have discovered that the comments feature on my last post on A. A. Milne is not working. For this reason I have taken it down and will re post this afternoon, hopefully with comments enabled.

Yours in technological confusion,


Monday, March 22, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club Part Two (Pakistan)

You find me sitting in my study, drinking coffee and reflecting on how much I enjoyed yesterday’s meeting of book club. If you are new to my blog – I belong to a book club of international ladies who have been thrown together in a small town outside Paris – and whose aim is to share and discuss literature originating from, reflective of or in some sense connected with our home country. This week was the turn of Pakistan and the book in the spotlight was the bestseller “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Three Cups of Tea has left a real mark on me. I find myself thinking about it at the petrol station and in the supermarket queue. I especially find myself thinking of it when I look at my huge collection of books – some read, some deserted mid-read, some on the increasingly ferocious “tbr” pile. I guess the point is that I can read them and I cannot imagine my life without literacy. Three Cups of Tea is not a work of great literature. David Oliver Relin’s writing is journalistic and although he builds suspense and character and keeps the momentum– the quality of the writing feels passable rather than good. What keeps this book afloat, what keeps it with its reader long after it is finished is the story itself – staggering, inspiring, brave – and true.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson and his mission to promote peace literacy and understanding in the northern areas of Pakistan. Mortenson begins the book as a trained nurse whose real passion is mountaineering. When his younger sister dies he attempts to climb the forbidding summit K2 in her memory. Extreme conditions, bad luck and dehydration get the better of him and freezing and exhausted he wanders into the remote Baltistan village of Korphe where he is shown kindness and generosity which will change his life and the lives of others for ever. After a long sleep and quite a few cups of tea Mortenson discovers to his horror that Korphe does not have a school. He promises that he will come back and build them one. So begins a epic story of one man, his overwhelming determination to help others, the strange paths of charity, the anatomy of trust and the perils of misunderstanding. There will be dangers and sorrows – there will be fatwas and kidnappings and attacks and even an impromptu (although not entirely consensual) party with the Taliban. Out of this landscape of fear and violence emerge many schools and many literate children.

It is a poignant moment in the narrative when Mortenson’s mentor – and the chief of Korphe village admits to the American his “greatest sadness” - that he cannot read. The urge to be educated is as powerful in the older generation who have lost out as it is in the younger generation who know that they have a chance. The physical privations of these people who live in huts and stay warm by the heat of Yak dung fires are shocking to the western mind. So much so, that their humanity and eagerness to learn in turn are also surprising – but then this is a book with which to challenge your preconceptions, not reinforce them.

It is impossible to overstate how unusual a person Greg Mortenson is. When his humanitarian spirit takes him away from his wife and child for months at a time and into the teeth of danger on the other side of the world – I do find it hard to relate to him. My conclusion is that if that kind of drive didn’t exist then nothing that was difficult would ever get done and sometimes, the better part of valour is putting incomprehension aside and accepting that all people don’t think alike. What is a real pleasure is watching Mortenson’s development from an enthusiastic bull in a china shop to a seasoned fundraiser, project manager and emissary. He is a good judge of character and knows when to lead and when to be tutored – but at the beginning of his mission he is too impatient and dismissive of the customs of Baltistan. Soon he learns that in order to succeed, and in order to truly cross the cultural boundary, he must make time to share three cups of tea.

The schools are built and the children are taught against an increasingly bloody background. The Taliban are on the rise and soon the news that “a village called New York has been bombed” will change everything. Mortenson’s schools – in which students, teachers and villagers remain committed to education in the worst of circumstances, are a fascinating window onto our recent history. Three Cups of Tea is an inspiring read – a lesson in what can be achieved when people from different cultures work together for peace and progress.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The history boy: Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy

I have been looking forward to Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy for a long time, not simply for its epic tale, but because I expected it to be an odd and wonderful form of life writing. That it is. It is a fictionalised biography – a life made into a novel – an act of love that is embellished here and there but fundamentally true and underpinned by a visceral understanding.

The Black Mamba Boy of the title is Jama, the author’s father and this novel tells his story. Jama is a 10-year-old Somali boy and his tale begins on the streets of Aden in the Yemen where he is alone and destitute and Africa is on the brink of war. His only hope of love and survival is to seek out his father, long disappeared and believed to be in far away Sudan. Thus, Jama begins a quest that will take him across continents, over oceans and into adulthood. He travels by foot, camel, lorry and train through Eritrea and Sudan – to Egypt and Palestine and finally to Port Talbot in Wales on a chilly September day in 1947 on board the notorious vessel the Runnymede Park. This is the story of how a child walked straight into a war zone and out the other side and its many faces include danger, brutality and desperation as well as strange moments of human kindness and a deep faith in the future.

The language and imagery of Nadifa Mohamed is not shy. It is proud, powerful, effusive and boldly used. The result is an overwhelming sense of time and place and a narrative voice that speaks loudly and clearly. This is particularly true of the book’s opening sequence, which evokes the heat and dust of Aden in 1935. This is a world a long way distant from our own – but it is conveyed here with real force and intelligence.

Jama’s paths are wild and dangerous and his concerns are the concerns of an exile and an innocent cut loose in a world of experience. He has a powerful sense of identity and a profound loyalty to the ideas of his parents and his people with which he wages a war against displacement. He has a desperate desire, as we all do, to believe in the myths and legends of his identity and the stories that underpin his world. He will not let them die – but will pursue them and the protection and meaning that they contain relentlessly. The unbreakable, almost mystical connection between the parent and the child and the need to craft a story out of a life is cleverly mirrored in the book itself – in which the daughter writes of the father in order “to make him a hero, not the fighting or romantic kind, but the real deal”.

As well as making him a hero, the author is “telling you this story so that I can turn my father’s blood and bones and whatever magic his mother sewed under skin into history”. That she does, for there are two stories here – Jama’s story and the story of a people. Like Jama the people are bombarded, brutalised and bewildered. This novel is a small chink of light on a vast and dark satellite stage – illuminating how the Second World War affected Africa. Historical insight comes from what Jama and boys like him actually did and how they were used. It also comes from gems of explanation within the text. My favourite is this:

“In Rome, Mussolini the opportunist, the failed primary school teacher, that syphilitic seller of ideas fallen from the back of a lorry, that gurning midget, counted how many hundreds, even thousands he would need to claim dead before Hitler would deign to cut him a slice of the victory cake”.
Jama, destitute boy and hero of history is also a very real boy and man. Mohamed develops his character through torment and survival into a hopeful and many layered being – a microcosm of his age and a living, breathing person upon the page. Black Mamba Boy is a deft novel and a telling piece of life writing. I have included a picture of the book and a picture of the author.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Love, regret, recrimination and responsibility in Siri Hustvedt’s New York: What I Loved

Now for something completely different. Siri Hustvedt’s third novel, which has been on my TBR pile for too long, is not so much a story, as a revelation in three acts. It is intelligent, mature and surprising. The story is told by the aging art historian Leo Hertzberg. Leo has unexpectedly found love and marriage in middle age. He is a thoughtful witness to events and recalls for the reader long hidden and half obscured memories. Leo’s new wife is the younger writer Erica and together they move in the unforgiving world of the New York art scene. The opening events of the book see Leo purchasing a painting of an unknown woman by an unknown artist. He seeks out and becomes firm friends with that artist; Bill Wechsler. Bill is married to the laconic and morbid poet Lucille. The model in the painting is the vivid sexual Violet. These five characters will be connected for life, by love and geography and circumstance and memory. The two couples have children born only weeks apart, and those two boys, Matthew and Mark become the second generation of this avant garde family. But this is no family saga, the reader must prepare to be challenged and disturbed.

The book has three distinct phases that might be entitled “love”, “grief” and “thrill”. The three phases are broken up by two untimely deaths. In both cases, the reader is told of the deaths unsentimentally. The first phase of the novel is about love and the establishment of ideas. It has the flavour and feeling of an introduction, with just enough mystery to keep the reader hanging on. The second section of What I Loved is a candid and incisive rendering of grief. Just when the reader begins to think that they understand the meaning of the book, it turns, in its third incarnation, into an unstoppable psycho thriller. Hustvedt’s writing is beautifully paced and perfectly sustained throughout. However, this is no conventional novel and the reader cannot expect every loose end to be tied up and every mystery resolved. For the most part events will be explained, but there are dark mysteries of character, explored in the novel and no light will be thrown upon them for the reader. There is just enough information for the reader to formulate an idea of the characters, but never so much that we are beyond doubt in our analysis. We must content ourselves that there are some corners of the human soul that we can never comprehend.

Every character in the novel is one of an artist, an academic, an art critic or a child. Between them, there is an obscene amount of navel gazing and self analysis. The characters, even the children, appear to spend so much time assessing the significance of their own thoughts that it is a wonder that they ever produce any of the various paintings and books that they are working on. They are peculiarly unproductive people and their world is at best rarefied and at worst faddish; it is unquestionably indulgent. Leo, as an art historian, slowly going blind is the embodiment of this powerlessness. The idea that he, as a blind critic, cannot take on anything new, but can only recall past scenes is also a crucial theme developed by the author. We begin to see Leo as cursed by age and experience rather than informed by it. It is Leo who pronounces “use had nothing to do with art. It [art] was by nature useless”. However in What I Loved, art is not useless, it is the lens through which all of our characters see each other and understand themselves. The author uses art to illuminate the artist and the object. Sometimes her long descriptions of art, which the reader cannot see, can feel laboured, but generally they are successful. Art is the conduit for several of the tensions which pepper the book; the tension between seeing and blindness and between knowing and ignorance. Painting, sculpture and arrangement can also be secret languages, only known to the intended and impossible for outsiders to understand. For all of our characters, having a family will be the ultimate creative act; and certainly their most frustrating one.

Art is also a symbol for the themes of substitution and transformation in the novel. The characters, who are for the most part, not related to each other, take on family roles and slip into the identities left vacant by their deceased loved ones. In some cases characters seem to do this willingly, and in other cases their behaviour is dictated for them by events. Identity, gender, body and mind are fluid concepts, and our characters move between them with the passing of lives and the desertion of parents and lovers. Even Leo’s love, for his son, wife and neighbours contorts throughout out the years. However, he never loses the ability to love, despite the dreadful losses and betrayals that befall him.

The book boasts a small but well drawn support cast of characters, weaving in and out of the story and helping to populate the bitchy and fickle art scene that the main characters know. This does not quite amount to the “Dickensian” quality that has been described by some critics; it is not broad ranging enough. What I Loved is a story of individuals, not a picture of a city. Other than the character of Leo’s son Matt who is rather unconvincing, all of the protagonists have been carefully put together, just like one of Bill’s works of art. Every word reads as though it has been thought over again and again. There is a restrained care evident in the prose that adds to its power.

The characters are professional thinkers, but they can still misunderstand those nearest to them. Illness and degeneration can exist right under their noses, and they only seem to see it when it reaches its ghastly conclusion. In its final third the novel becomes an extraordinary race through a terrifying underworld populated by drug-addled desperados, anorexic self-harmers and people for whom art and violence are the same thing. The reader is asked to suspect posing posturing publicity seeking shock artists of the darkest crimes. Leo is intelligent but he seems unfitted for the thrilling climax written out for him. It is a chase across New York and across America, a chase for love and for understanding; a battle against evil and a fight to recapture what Leo loves, or what he thinks he loves. The most remarkable aspect of What I Loved is that it is totally candid. The loves, losses, erotica and betrayals of the characters are told without romance and without sentimentality. Love and death are routine and inescapable. Leo informs us that his parents were “Jewish Germans” prior to 1933 and that “that phrase that no longer exists in any language”. The fate of his family in the holocaust hangs heavy in his mind, and right from the beginning, the reader has a sense of Leo as a man bound tightly to tragedy. He understands how horror can forge a community. By the end of What I Loved the characters will be both bound together and lost to one another by their shared memories.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bold Lives, Bold Interiors: the Alpha and Omega of Bloomsbury

The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the washing machine is fixed – so what could be better than a spot of musing on one of my favourite subjects: the decorative arts of Bloomsbury. If I had any skills in that department, my husband would come home to find that I had taken a paintbrush to his suits and carved a cherub on the front door. Because I haven’t, and to maintain our good relations, I limit myself to books about how the Bloomsbury group decorated the space that surrounded them.

My latest indulgence is “Omega and after: Bloomsbury and the decorative arts” by Isabelle Anscombe with a foreword by John Lehmann. This book tells the story of the long defunct Omega Studio, interlaced with the extraordinary personal tales of the people who founded and ran it.

In 1913, one year before the outbreak of the Great War, Roger Fry, the enfant terrible of the British art establishment founded the Omega Workshop in London’s Fitzroy Square. He did so with the help of his friend and lover, the artist Vanessa Bell and another artist, who was not yet a lover of either of them; Duncan Grant. The Omega Workshop was set up to provide work for struggling artists. The idea was that they were able to spend a few days per week decorating furniture and fabrics which would then be sold by Omega. In this was they were afforded a little money and the time to pursue the development of their talents. The style was simple and striking – gone were the days of the lace tablecloth and the covered piano leg.

The life of Omega was driven in no small part by the relationships between its founders – relationships which were of Byzantine complexity. At the time of foundation the love affair between Roger Fry, middle aged widower, and Vanessa Bell, young married mother was gradually unfolding. Vanessa was married to the kindly philandering Clive Bell and was drawn to the artistic verve and conversation of Fry. The Omega project was inextricably connected with their feelings for one another. When the Omega Workshop folded 6 years later, that too owed much to the personal. By that time, Vanessa was deeply in love with the homosexual Duncan Grant and the two were engaged in a companionable partnership that was to last for the rest of her life. Six months after the birth of Vanessa and Duncan’s child, the writer Angelica Garnett, the Omega Workshop was closed.

Its death was due in large part to the fact that Vanessa was now tied to the rural home that she shared with Duncan and her children. Whilst the workshop closed and its goods were sold off, Vanessa and Duncan set about decorating what would be the most famous example of their domestic vision: Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex. This is a house, which can be visited today, and where every surface is painted, every corner designed. The lives and loves of the inhabitants and their commitment to their home is writ large on every wall. The style is bold, colourful, arresting and was born in the Omega Workshop. It is a million miles from the austere propriety of the Victorian and Edwardian houses that Roger, Vanessa and Duncan grew up in.

This book is a super contribution to the slightly overcrowded library of Bloomsbury themed books. It tells the story succinctly and is beautifully illustrated. Being a woman who would paint the surface of the dining room table if I could, I was a little disappointed that there was not more on how the Omega and Bloomsbury style has impacted upon later generations. Clearly the style still resonates today and Charleston’s many visitors must have in some small way reproduced its visions in their own homes. It would have been nice to read about this. For the moment I shall have to content myself with pictures. I have included a few of various Charleston wonders.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Storms and tempests be gone! The several perceptions of Angela Carter

Last weekend I decided that the best way to take my mind off the worst gales that France has seen in a while was to settle down to a bit of Angela Carter. This seemed fitting as I discovered Carter a few years ago in equally inclement circumstances. I was in Ukraine of all places with my husband and a few friends for a skiing holiday. Now, I am not one of life’s skiers – not by a long chalk. So I spent most of the holiday – deep in the Carpathian winter, curled up with a hot chocolate and Angela Carter’s wonderful final novel Wise Children.

This weekend’s bad weather choice was the Virago Modern Classic – Several Perceptions. Several Perceptions was Carter’s third novel and in 1968 won the Somerset Maugham prize. It is the short and highly intense tale of Joseph – a confused and disorientated rebel without a cause whose disorderly life has been turned on its belly by the desertion of his adored girlfriend, Charlotte. In many respects the novel can be read as an allegory of the freedoms and adversities of the “swinging sixties”. Our characters wander around in a mad hatter world where they can do anything and yet seem to do nothing. Finally a resolution of sorts is reached via a bewildering carnal escapade and a drunken party – neither of which are communicated without irony.

Like many of Carter’s other novels – it deals wonderfully with a community of misfits – depicting with a sharp eye the kindness and the cruelty that can lurk just beyond the word “eccentric”. Carter presents her characters as the flotsam and jetsam of the sixties revolution – people who have been slightly lost in a cultural idea. What is more – the popular bohemia of that era is shown without gloss and sentimentality. Carter manages to celebrate the era without revering it.

There are few writers who are able to describe with the power and humour of Angela Carter. Sometimes the writing is so good that I read it again – savouring each word. For example these words are used to describe the slightly adorable, desperately unhappy prostitute Mrs Boulder:

“Viv’s mother had a bright white steeple of curls on top of her head; this fragile construction slid sideways as she drank during the course of an evening while the bright peach false face she assumed upon her natural features began to run with moisture until she looked like a pink stucco Venetian palazzo about to subside into a cascade of mud and rubble into a canal”.

Carter’s description of Maggie, the tin whistle playing sidekick to an Irish band, is equally striking:

“It was a tilted, brazen face, a carefree slut’s face; she was a raw boned country girl, young and very rackety, the spirit of Saturday night in small country towns at the back of beyond, a neighbourhood bad girl, meaning no harm”.

Carter surveys humanity thus – with breathless and powerful irreverence.

The only sadness of my time with Several Perceptions is that I did find Joseph unsympathetic – and although I realise that this is intended – still it is a barrier to my loving the book in the way that I loved Wise Children. For me Wise Children was the height of Carter’s achievement as a novelist – but all of the ingredients – the humour, the strange optimism and that little bit of magic – are here in Several Perceptions.

I probably ought to stop associating Angela Carter with rotten weather though – I don’t want to have to wait for another storm before reading more of her work.

I have included a photograph of Carter and of the shutter - smashing havoc wreaked outside during my reading.