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Friday, May 27, 2011

Don't say "what", say "pardon" darling, and do as the Provincial Lady tells you....

Finally reading E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady has been a proper homey sort of pleasure, and not just because I am now able to fully understand Simon at Stuck in a Book’s shorthand …. It is a funny and engaging read although, and I am wondering quite how to put this, it didn’t set me on fire if you know what I mean.

The Provincial Lady, or PL as she is known to those who love her is the married Bridget Jones of the 1930s. Now, before you all cry in protest, there are more than a few similarities. Both PL and BJ are profoundly English, profoundly middle class characters who harbour slightly lefty views without knowing quite how to express them. They both recognise the absurdities of the narrow world they live in, but in a kindly way, and knowing that they are an inextricable part of it. Neither of them know how to get out of situations they don’t want to be in. They both write a not quite daily diary, not least because they are both quite funny and intelligent and life just doesn’t offer sufficient opportunities for them to show it. Which brings me to my last, resounding similarity: these are two girls who are really of their ages.

PL is a married lady of the home counties with a husband glued to the Times, a demanding French nanny, a son at a school she can’t afford and a daughter begging to be sent to any school, a woeful lack of servants and a constantly mounting overdraft. Because she is actually rather lovely, she is much in demand. There is Our Vicar, Our Vicar’s Wife, Lady B and numerous others constantly chasing her tail. PL is a dreamer after literary recognition and an imaginer of glamour and society. She lacks social assertiveness, but maybe she would not be as nice if she had it. She is a shopper and a luncher and a reader of novels over cups of tea. She is a mum who wants to be a star, and who can blame her. I loved the slight decadence of her character.

There is another side to all the spending and the dreaming of course and that is a lack of consideration for those who are less fortunate. I see this but it does not diminish the book for me. Books, like life, are not full of perfect people. E. M. Delafield, who I suspect was writing from experience has captured perfectly the displaced arrogance of the English upper middle classes in the interwar years, when they could still recall a luxury life but could no longer afford it. I am not weeping for them, but it is good to hear the story from the horses’ mouth.

So why the lack of fire? Well, I suppose that after a while, I found it a tiny bit boring. Once I had met Our Vicar’s Wife a few times, and realised that PL’s husband Robert was never going to put down the Times and come over all Don Juan and that PL probably didn’t want him to anyway, I felt that I had got the gist. Some have loved this book more and some a lot less. There are interesting opinions to be found at Serendipity, My Porch, A Good Stopping Point, Behind the Curtain and Pining for the West. I have included pictures of book covers and of the author.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The return of the weekly portrait: Christina Stead

I am enjoying Cotter's England so much, there is simply nothing else for it. Here is a picture of its author, Christina Stead. More of it and her later ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vivia Ibiza! (and Formentera...)

I wish I could say that the reason my blog has been a bit of a wasteland recently is because I have been in Ibiza in manner of hippy ex-pat. Sadly, this is not true, but I have been there for a week, and these are some of the sights seen:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Not so meek: the People’s Act of Love

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek is one of those books that I have been carting about, unread for years. Well, those years were wasted years, because it is brilliant. Although, it has to be said that it is not exactly gentle. It is a story about cannibalism, terrorism, castration, starvation, mutilation and general brutality. It abounds with ice, blood, isolation and fear. Its people are people who, in their various ways, are not fully human. When their humanity does show, it is all the more marvellous for it.

The stage is a town deep in Siberia in 1919, under shaky military rule. The temporary governors are regiment of Czechs longing for home but knowing that it is far away and will probably never come. They sit at the end of the Trans-Siberia railway, like ducks, waiting for their Bolshevik attackers. The town subject to their rule is home to a collective of castrates, Christians of a sort who worship sexlessness and separateness.

I can’t decide whether The People’s Act of Love works best as a novel of groups or a novel of individuals, but I think that is partly the point, because this is a book about the tension between collective and individual values. On the one hand, the entrapment of the Czechs is perfectly rendered. On the other hand, the portrait of its leader, Matula, who is a vicious petty-tyrant trapped at the head of a paper army in a town of castrates, held in place by a circle of muscle and weakness, is one of the best elements of the novel. He is every inch as rotten as any other character.

There is an end of the world feeling about The People’s Act of Love. By that, I don’t mean that it is apocalyptic. I did not feel that there was a sense that this world was heading for disaster; but rather that when disaster happened, nobody would know or care apart from those present and that were it not for the hidden eye of the novelist, history would never know. That makes it sound more depressing than it is. There is a touching love story here, between the Jewish Czech army officer, Mutz, the gentle castrate Balashov and widowed mother, Anna, whose destructive, voracious promiscuity makes her the subject of unwarranted disgust in this tiny town. They are outsiders all. What is it which holds all of these people together? Is it love, and if it is, is their love different to other people’s loves? Is there a difference between loving a person and loving an idea?

All these questions; and I haven’t even got on to the cannibal yet. The presence of a man who kills and feeds on man and is of super human strength and stamina somewhere in or around the town is the dramatic centre point of this novel. It is terrifying, not in a cheap way, but in a precise, chilling savage way. It holds so much in its focus, and asks so many questions, without becoming cluttered. It is a perfect horror. Hang on to your hats, and trust your instincts say I!

Plenty of ink has been spilt about this book, and I have enjoyed this piece in The Guardian by Irvine Welsh, as well as blog posts by Booklit, Keep the Wisdom and Gibberish.