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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hard shoulder reading and the general laments of an exile

A wise man once advised me to never leave the house without a book and apple and how right he was. We had been looking forward to the Dorset wedding of two dear friends for weeks, nay, months and on Friday afternoon I loaded up the car with glad-rags, left enough food for the weekend out for the cat, put out the bins and sped off towards the Normandy coast where we were due to take an overnight ferry to Portsmouth.

It is just as well that I remembered the book and the apple as our car broke down on a motorway on the outskirts of Paris and we were, to be honest, totally buggered. This was a car that was probably not a wise investment in the first place. It was 14 years old and had 250,000 km on the clock when we bought it. When I described it to my Nan, she asked “who gave it to you darling?” and our best friends commonly referred it to as “the shit box”. I tried to mitigate its obvious awfulness by giving it a name. In tribute to its Frenchness and age I called it “Edith”.

So on Friday night, I was jolly pleased that I had packed A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I sat on the smelly, stuffy, hard shoulder of the A86, surrounded by nettles, nibbling my apple, and read. The book is proving to be a most interesting companion, of which, more later.

This has been one of the few moments in France when I have felt the pangs of an exile. Another was when I learned of Paul Willett’s Noho Noir evening in Fitzrovia, which is to take place on 1 July. I wrote about Paul’s excellent Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia here and thoroughly recommend him as a guide to the dark passages and hidden histories of one of London’s most fascinating areas. There will be readings, there will be discussion so if you are in or about London on Thursday and might like to attend you can read more details here. All interested parties should book online and see where Fitzrovian history leads them!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Moll Flanders (*not her real name); A villain of substance, a victim of fortune and an inevitable penitent

As regular readers will know, I was transported by the book acquisition scooter whilst on a recent trip to Shakespeare & Co in Paris, and quite without intention, ended up buying Daniel Defoe’s classic Moll Flanders. The story of the novel is proclaimed on the first page with the words:

of the famous
Moll Flanders, & C.

Who was born in NEWGATE,
And during a life of continu’d variety for
Threescore Years, besides her Childhood,
was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife
(whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief,
Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia,
At last grew Rich, Liv’d Honest,
And died a Penitent”.

Thus, the passage of the novel is not so much a revelation of what happens to Moll, as how it happens. Her personality is all-important as is the sharp eye that she casts upon her times. It is a touching, funny and addictive history of bigamy, incest, prostitution and the heavy burden laid upon the soul by a life of crime.

On one level, Daniel Defoe has written a straightforward morality tale. Moll does all sorts of naughty things for decades, miraculously gets away with them and at last is undone by discovery. Within the horrific walls of Newgate, the infamous prison of her birth, she finally repents of her dreadful sins and is able to live a more peaceful life. She is at pains to point out that her repentance is not simply regret at having been caught, but a true transformation. Modern readers have found it extremely difficult to accept her words at face value and this I suspect has more to do with our modernity than Moll’s mores.

That is by no means to say that there is no subtext to such Puritanism. The relish and gusto with which Moll’s adventures are related, the brevity of the moralistic parts of the story and Moll’s own recognition that some readers will prefer to read of the crimes than bask in the moral sunshine of the penitence are all instructive. The subtext is that Moll is quite a girl: a bold, beautiful, self-reliant crusader against poverty; a street wise product of a deeply brutal society; a thoroughly modern miss in desperate pursuit of economic independence; and an extremely amusing narrator to boot. She has many dimensions and much humanity and that is her charm.

Those interested in reading more of Moll may enjoy looking at Stacked, Bookaholic and this splendid piece by Nicola Lacey on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. As you will have gathered, Moll’s is a picturesque tale and has spawned plenty of dramatisations. I have included pictures of Kim Novak, Nicola Walker and the lovely Alex Kingston playing Moll as well as the book cover.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Travelling Bookcase: Musee National du Moyen Age/Musee de Cluny (Paris)

Yesterday, reading, writing and ruminating efforts were put on hold for a trip to Paris and a wander around the wonderful Musee de Cluny in the excellent company of my friend Jonnie.

Musee de Cluny is the Parisian museum of the medieval age and it is the kind of museum that gives the impression of having displayed only the best of an enormous collection.

I was struck all the way around by how amazingly modern some of the imagery was... So to cut a long story short and because there is nothing nicer that looking at pretty pictures of a Tuesday morning, here is a taste of the middle ages....

On glass......

In stone.....

In fabric.....

Of gold.....

In mosaic….

And in wood......

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club: Part Six (America in Europe)

Some Book Club meetings are easier to cater for than others. When we discussed Three Cups of Tea we did so over delicious Pakistani snacks, and for our Rebecca meeting, I baked a tray of scones. But our discussion of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway was the winner in terms of feasting. We sat down to acres of tapas – with olives and cheeses and dates wrapped in ham and baked peppers and all sorts of lovely things. There was also plenty of red wine – although probably not quite as much as is consumed in the book.

The Sun Also Rises was Hemmingway’s first successful novel and it is short and sad. The narrator of the story is the hard drinking, eternally frustrated Jake Barnes and his subjects are his fellow American ex-patriots living in Paris in the 1920s. They seem to drift around the city in loose formation, drinking, talking about drinking, having romances and waiting for their money to show up from home. Jake homes in on a handful of characters in particular. He introduces us to Robert, an emotionally pathetic ex-pat novelist with a boxing background and an inferiority complex. Then there is Michael, a hard drinking, heavy spending guy who has to share his fiancĂ©e with every other man who comes along. The jewel of the novel is Brett, a woman of beauty, daring and staggering abandon, who everyone else is in love with. Most of all, Jake homes in on his own character; his visceral but unfulfillable love for Brett; his status as a member of a lost generation; his anti-Semitism; his need to be at the centre of things. This rag-tag band of souls leaves their makeshift homes in Paris and head south for Spain to see the fiesta. There, before the spectacle of the bullfight, Brett’s sensuous impulses and the groups’ collective tolerance will be tested to their limits.

Hemmingway’s writing is often imitated but seldom well. At its best it is an adjective-free series of clipped, masculine statements that builds up an emotionally convincing narrative – made clearer for all the things left unsaid. If you are a reader who likes flowers with your prose, this may not be for you. It is minimalist and unfussy. Because the language is cut down the symbols in the story become supremely important.

Jake and Brett make the central symbol. She is a woman who is literally addicted to sex. Hemmingway does not tell us why, he leaves us to wonder – but what ever the reason, if a man shows the least interest in her (and they usually do), then there is no stopping Brett. The man who loves her most however is Jake and he is impotent and can never give her what she wants. Jake is one of that small band of much pitied soldiers who were injured in World War 1 and never made love again. Together, Jake and Brett symbolise the so-called “lost generation” that Hemmingway was a part of. These were the people who lived most of their adulthood in the shadow of the First World War – and for whom there was no chance of innocence. Although both Jake and Brett want happiness, they are irreconcilable. Their love, which might have worked out in another corner of history is drained of joy and morality.

I loved it. I thought it was a moving and authentic read with real people and real disasters. I don’t know that I cared too much for the characters. I liked the self-knowing realism of Jake, but his pals were pretty charmless. Brett was the kind of character who was interesting because of the way she lived rather than anything she said. In fact, her conversation in the novel was almost entirely dominated by references to being “tight”. The Sun Also Rises is a novel that does a good job of dividing people. There are excellent and various bloggy opinions available from Mrs B at The Literary Stew, Gary at How Books Got Their Titles, Clover at Fluttering Butterflies, ANZ Litlovers Litblog, Steven Riddle at Flos Carmeli, Cody at Swann’s Thoughts, Linda at The Fill in the Gaps: 100 Project, For Comrades and Lovers and Ed Gorman.

I have found a picture of Hemmingway and since I learned from Gary at How Books Got Their Titles that Brett Ashley was modelled on Lady Duff Twysden I have also included a picture of her sitting alongside Hemmingway and friends in Paris. There are also a couple of shots of the 1957 film with Ava Gardner, hmmm; I feel a Book Club movie night coming on.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dreamer, Publisher, Novelist SPY: the strange birth of the Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Continuing with this week’s theme of being inspired by Simon at Stuck in a Book, I find myself with a most unusual read. Simon, Polly at Novel Insights and Claire at Paperback Reader are heading up an informal read along of The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns.

I am not reading along because I have read the book a couple of times before and know it to be a wonderful read. There are excellent reviews already at Stuck in a Book, Verity’s Virago Venture and Harriet Devine’s Blog. The novel is typical of Comyns’ unsentimental and spell-bound style and holds in focus a chilling depiction of domestic bullying and the transformative powers of the imagination. It is clear-sighted and interesting and quite unique. It is also cheap on Amazon, so if you haven’t already, maybe give it a go.....

Because it seemed silly to read along, I thought that I would read something else, which has been sitting on my shelves starring at me for some time, and which has an odd and little known connection to the Vet’s Daughter.

My Silent War is the autobiography of Kim Philby. If you don’t know the Kim Philby of history, you may know the Kim Philby of literature as he has spawned numrous literary alter egos, most notably Bill Haydon in John Le Carre’s classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The Kim Philby of history was a notorious double agent; a man who, at the height of the Cold War rose to the top of the British Secret Service, whilst also being a loyal agent of the Soviet state. With his fellow communists Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, he formed part of what has now become known as the Cambridge Spy Ring. My Silent War is an extraordinary book because in it Philby speaks with his own voice; showing the simmering loyalties of “Stalin’s Englishman” and the web of lies that he wove for those around him. He describes the tension between appearance and reality; between what he must have looked like to his colleagues and what he actually was, with real mastery and not a little egotism.

One such colleague, to whom Philby was, or seemed to be close was Richard Comyns Carr, the husband of the novelist Barbara Comyns. Theirs was not a polite office friendship but a close association and a constant round of dinners and drinks parties. So much so, that when Richard and Barbara married immediately after the Second World War, Philby loaned them his own holiday home for their honeymoon. It was there that Barbara Comyns had a dream that inspired the Vet’s Daughter. And so an unexpected and half-obscured path connects the lady novelist and the unrepentant spy.

But the connection does not end there. My Silent War is a book with two prefaces. The first is by Phillip Knightley, Philby’s scholarly biographer and the second is by an altogether more shadowy figure in his history – the novelist and mystery man Graham Greene. Greene’s foreword is compelling but ultimately rather fawning and not worthy of Greene’s usually critical stance. However, Phillip Knightley in his introduction tells us that Greene may have been the man whom the British authorities sent to Moscow to try to persuade Philby to return home. So Greene’s words at the opening of My Silent War stand as testimony to his regard for Philby, but possibly also, his one time “brief” to turn a double agent into a triple agent.

Graham Greene was a man with one foot in the secret service and one foot in the literary world. The foot that was in the literary world was one of Barbara Comyns’ biggest and most influential fans. He consistently championed her unusual and striking novels, including the Vet’s Daughter. Indeed, he even published her first book, Sisters by a river when nobody else would touch it.

My Silent War is an interesting read. It doesn’t shed that much light on the Vet’s Daughter, but it is an fascinating side track in the life of its author. It will be a surprise to nobody who has enjoyed the Vet’s Daughter to learn that it was inspired by a dream – it has a profoundly dreamlike quality about it and the creative and resilient power of the mind is one of its chief themes. I think that political espionage interested Barbara Comyns less than personal betrayal and as she rather dismissively commented “all of our friends turned out to be spies in those days”.

I have included pictures of Barbara Comyns (looking remarkably like Greta Garbo as Vaishnavi has commented), Kim Philby and Graham Greene (looking remarkably similar, I wonder if anyone ever saw them together….). For good measure, Kim Philby’s most famous literary double, Bill Haydon, as played by Ian Richardson also makes an appearance.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My book taste picture....

Simon at Stuck in a Book, who is the source of many good ideas, has had me wracking my brain for at least two days. His challenge for those who choose to accept it is to find an image which sums up one’s reading taste. If possible, we are to avoid including a picture of a book or a specific character.

After a considerable amount of rumination, I settled upon the wonderful From up the Rise by Stanley Spencer. This painting forms part of Spencer’s Church House project in which he imagined a series of biblical scenes in his home village of Cookham. This painting reflects my preference for twentieth century literature with ancient themes, English settings, an emphasis on character and a profound feeling for the oddness of everyday life. It is domestic but it is not narrow. It features the ordinary but of course concerns the extremely extraordinary. It is very human but not at all mundane. The villagers in the picture are about to witness Christ’s first miracle at the marriage at Cana. I am an interested sceptic when it comes to religion, but I do like a bit of magic – so here it is, and not a cup cake in sight.

Do you have a picture that sums up your reading? If you do let’s see....