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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.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Norwegian Wood: too much sex, not enough cats


Last year a truly lovely Japanese lady, who I now miss very much, introduced me to the work of Haruki Murakami. She recommended Kafka on the Shore which I read slowly but with great enjoyment. It is the kind of book that surprises you at every turn but not in the usual way. It is not a case of dramatic “you-didn’t-see-me-did-you” twists. Rather, it is like stepping through a series of new paradigms, each slightly stranger than the last. Just the sort of thing I like. And there are talking cats, so you can’t ask more than that.

Because it is all so odd, I decided not to jump into Murakami feet first. I thought that he is probably the mind of writer who repays careful and considered consumption.

Thus I find myself, well over a year after Kafka, having read my second Murakami, Norwegian Wood.

As you may be able to guess from the title, this novel has its feet planted firmly in the 1960s. It is the nostalgic memoir of an enigmatic student in Tokyo, Toru, who is up to his ears in free love and student protests. He is smart and interesting and as his girlfriends comment, he does have a funny, spare kind of way of talking. His problem is that his best friend has committed suicide and Toru has responded by, essentially falling in love with the best friend’s girlfriend.

It does not take long to work out that the girlfriend is none too well either. Through her Toru meets a kindly middle age woman whose life as a mildly unhappy provincial piano teacher has been destroyed by false accusations of sexual assault from an adolescent girl.

At the same time, Toru starts seeing another girl who accosts him as he eats alone in a restaurant. Midori is vibrant and funny and seems very real. She talks about sex incessantly and in great detail. If she were a modern day girl, she would definitely be a text-pest. Apart from the girls, and Toru’s conservatively minded room mate, whom he names “storm trooper” to amuse others, Toru only really has one friend. That friend is an almost pneumatically promiscuous clever clogs called Nagasawa. Nagasawa has the sweetest girl in town and cheats on her all the while, except that he doesn’t really see it as cheating.

As I read, I imagined Toru as a young man, good looking but not extremely so, ordinarily dressed. He is standing up and surrounded by the girls and the dead friend and Nagasawa and they are all prodding him, trying to push him their way. He has before him the living and the dead and the nearly dead as well as the pursuit of love and the pursuit of non stop you know what.

I enjoyed his tale and thought it was good. I am not sure that I thought it was more than good though. I was surprised that it was a straight story, albeit quite a poetic one. I am ultimately saddened by the lack of talking cats.
For many, Norwegian Wood is their favourite Murakami and there are plenty of other, differing opinions to be found. Some of them can be seen at: Katie’s Book Blog, Steve Reads and Middlebrow Magazine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good morning, Mexico City

OK - so I am not actually there now, and this picture is about 3 weeks old. Still cool though...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Made in Chelsea circa. 1930

I ordered Chelsea Child by Rose Gamble from Amazon and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised when it turned up. It had been recommended by a friend but I didn’t know anything about it. I do however live quite near to Chelsea, so I do know about that. But when this book rocked up I was stumped. The battered dust jacket spoke of a family of 7 living in 1 room and scraping a living on the wages of a char. I knew that Chelsea, now pad of choice to the super rich, had once been popular with artists. However, Chelsea’s history as a slum town was a complete revelation to me.

But that history is here, between the covers of an almost completely forgotten and certainly out of print memoir. Reading it has been like discovering an extra blanket on the bed during a cold night.

The Chelsea Child in question is Rose Naylor, or Rowie as she is know in her family. Rowie is one of 7 children who live with their parents in 1 room of a structurally unsound shack in circumstances of staggering privation. They eat scraps, sleep on tables and wash in the water used to prepare their dinner. As I read, I squirmed at the thought but also at the knowledge of my own softness.

Each child exhibits an iron loyalty to their Mother who slaves to feed cloth and care for them. She works all hours and runs home in her lunch break to cook dinner for her family. Their Father is a different kettle of fish altogether. He is a domestic monster. Frustrated by his own unemployment and emasculated by his wife’s industry and hard work, he lingers around the inadequate home, bubbling with rage. There is, in consequence domestic violence which is terrible to read. Almost worse however, is the constant threat of temper. His disposition sits in the corner of the room like a dirty bomb that may be set off at any time by some unwitting word or action, wholly innocent and unremarkable to any other living soul.

But if I have given the impression that this is some sort of misery memoir, then I have done it wrong. It is funny, well written and wholly without self pity. Rowie and her sisters are funny, clever and enterprising, sometimes in surprising ways. When the hospital in which they are each treated demands contributions, they stage a street version of “Little Women”, with the Naylors in the title roles. Rowie describes the production thus:

We swept the yard and tried to board up the chickens. Geogie ad Lu humped the junk from the shed back to clear a space for the stage and hung the green curtain from Lu’s bed over a washing line in front of it. Ethel lent a couple of kitchen chairs in case there were any adults – everyone else would have to sit o the ground. Advertising was by word of mouth, with threatened bashings from Lu and Georgie if any of their own particular mates failed to turn up. But a concert was rare and our neighbours knew us, and they came. The yard was packed and some had to hang out of the scullery window. The play was unrecognisable and the audience totally baffled by the plot, but it was all made worthwhile by the deathbed scene”.

These children are literate and imaginative and industrious. In their own day they would have been known as “slum children” but they give the lie to the idea that the poor are or ever were, stupid. They survive on their wits, their humour and their hard work and they are a challenge to us all for it. Rowie is charming and confident and self-reliant and she gets that from her family. Her mother, her siblings and her neighbours are the source of her wonder. She values herself and so came to be valued by me, one of her readers.

In addition to being a touching family and individual story – the book is a disquisition on history and the little life. The family is plagued with illness. They suffer Diphtheria and Meningitis. They live on a diet which would shock a church mouse. But at the same time, they are fit as fiddles and would put my flabby frame to shame. They are of their age. History is the thing that sweeps them up and moves them on, and in a way, they don’t have much to do with it. Thus, they are transported around the city in the pre-war slum clearance and housed in a flat so spacious and luxurious that Rowie cannot sleep. After that the war comes and scatters them for good.

There is a constant tension to this memoir. The children speak cockney but the prose is perfect received English and there is no real explanation as to why that would be. Rowie is clever, and goes to a posh school, where she struggles in a good natured but very obvious way to adapt to a radically different society. She is a bright girl, but she doesn’t cover herself in glory academically and I find myself wondering desperately – what happened to her? I know that she wrote her memoir and that she read it on Radio 4 but other than that her destiny a delicious mystery.