Check Out My Tabs Above

Check Out My Tabs Above - All about books and about people with a passion for reading and writing books in all their forms - old and new. Books as love affairs, memories, surprises, identification and physical entities are part of the passion.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Two Selves of Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

‘…every woman needs ‘a room of her own’ — not simply to separate her from husband and children but also to separate her two selves...’ (1978) echoing Virginia Woolf at Smith College USA in a speech entitled 'The Journey Not the Arrival’ : Anne Morrow Lindbergh

As is the way of things, I found a battered blue hardback book on the bookshelves in my little study. It had a label stuck on the spine with faded writing. Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Gift from the Sea. It is written in my writing, so this must be my book. But I didn’t put it there. We did have a big sort out of books both upstairs and down but this book certainly didn’t emerge. Perhaps it’s been placed by the household ghost (another story there…) who is urging me to read it, despairing of my present state of being which rather resembles an over-wound clock.

This book is the modest 1955 edition of a book which has sold, allegedly, over three million copies in 45 different languages. There have been many editions since and I think it is still in print. Up till this week it was never in my mind. I might have owned it but I never read it.

Of course people of my generation are aware of the Lindberghs. There have been books and films … When I mentioned the name my friend Gillian said, ‘Oh yes! James Stewart! In The Spirit of St Louis’ This was the 1957 film telling the story of fold that followed Lindbergh’s 33 hour solo transatlantic flight in 1927. He was a hero of the inter-war generation.

In her memoir Anne Morrow Lindberg tells us of the tall, lanky, handsome figure towering over social gatherings when she as a very young woman, fell in love with this apparently shy quite hero. He taught her to fly and she flew with him on expeditions charting new routes for airlines. They had several children but in 1932 suffered the tragedy of the world wide exposure during the kidnap and murder of their eldest son.
Lindbergh, impressed technological superiority of Nazi Germany, as late as In 1938, accepted a German medal of honour from Hermann Goering and proceeded to accuse British, Jewish, and pro-Roosevelt groups were leading America into war. He was later reinstated and took active part in the anti-German effort.

Anne seems to have lived quietly alongside all this surrogate adulation, fame, notoriety and drama, being the good mother and wife and writing of her own endeavours in North to The Orient, written between 1931 and 1935.
But then, visiting an island, trying to find inner piece she started to write, separating her ‘two selves'. She says I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual palace of life, work and human relationships. And since I think best with a pencil in my hand I started naturally to write.’ (Anne Morrow Lindbergh: a Gift from The Sea.)
And this she did, using shells as the symbols of the progress of her thinking.
The book must have hit a universal chord – particularly among women – because as I said over three million copies have been read in 45 different languages.
If you are interested I have written about what Gift from The Sea says, and how AML says it, on my writing blog A Life Twice Tasted.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Revisiting Honesty's Daughter

Our Iconic Book Group met  on  Saturday to discuss  very significant The Road  by Cormac McCarthy - my views on this book and  Dorothy's reader's commentary on this will be featured on this page next. 

But as well as this we discussed my novel Honesty's Daughter (absolutely their request not mine!) This novel was mostly written in Whitworth Hall, where the Iconic Group meet. Also  this real Hall and its real Walled Garden are the model for Benbow Hall in the novel. Some parts of the Benbow family history are 'borrowed' from the history of the Shaftos, owners of Whitworth Hall for hundreds of years.

In the group we talked about the wide ranging and in depth research demanded by a novel like this: how it is only possible to create a fictional novel if  the historical truths, the authentic details are strongly based in sound knowledge and particular, sometimes esoteric, true insights. 

I have to say that the a strange thing was that - after ten years - I had to go back and read the novel carefully, as a stranger. To my relief it actually seemed good. I wouldn't change anything. It still worked. And  I noted  again that certain themes still preoccupy me in my writing and emerge in many of my novels. Central to these  is my interest in people on the edge, in  the plight of the outsider. 

In this book the themes are reflected as;
 the independence and puzzling autonomy of the Romany people; 
the servant class in Britain in contrast with the ex-slaves in America;
 the plight of the Jewish immigrant in Edwardian England;
 the intricacy of social hierarchy;
 the neglectful mother and  non-communication within families. 

This latter is illustrated in the novel by a perpetual game of chess in the house which is never played face to face. (I had forgotten about that...)

Reading it again I realised what I knew ten years ago:  Honesty's Daughter  may seem like a conventional historical novel. But it's not.

A member of the group Geri,(unasked!) kindly gave me her reader's commentary for this page.

Here's Geri: 
Honesty’s Daughter is a fantastic novel.  I enjoyed reading it and couldn’t wait to follow the lives of the main characters: Carmel Benbow, her daughter Astrid and the Romany Keziah and her daughter Honesty..  The locations ranged from beautiful County Durham to Colorado Springs in the United States.
The emotions of the characters are very well portrayed.  We felt for the innocent Honesty Lomas as she was taken advantage of by the King, who should have known better and how Lady Seland could condone and indeed seek a virgin for him made us feel revulsion. But we live in a different time now.
Geri Auton

I felt anger early on in the book when I saw that the Colonel, who was trusted by Astrid’s mother Carmel, was  fleecing her continuously and was not surprised when he did a moonlight flit.  The bond between Keziah the Romany horse-dealer  and Carmel the obsessive gardener  is central to the novel. They come from very different backgrounds but each, in a way, is more royal than the King.

Carmel is so self-absorbed in her garden that she misses  her children growing up and does not realise how aggressive and cruel Michael John is, especially to her younger child, Ambrose, a sensitive boy with musical talent and great compassion for others. His sister Astrid is also compassionate.  She feels so strongly about Honesty’s plight.  Astrid was close to her late father, a scholar absorbed in Romany life - called a rai - and has inherited many of his qualities. Although Rufus is dead, his free spirit presides over the whole novel.

Wendy sets the scene very well – showing how life was for both rich and poor at the turn of the century and the senselessness of World War One.   We travel to The Somme just before the Armistice is signed but still feel  the unpredictability of life in the trenches – here one minute and gone the next – which happened to the batman of  Jack Lomas, Keziah's son. This shocks Jack so much that he stays on for six months, only returning when Astrid goes to look for him. Only then does he feel normal once more.

Even the peripheral characters are strongly built and we get a flavour of their talents and foibles.
Astrid’s friend, Constance, is a complex character - at first sweet and funny, then  demanding and jealous.  when, with Honesty they  travel to her father’s home in Colorado Springs, America. There Honesty  - who has no idea she is pregnant -   has a baby girl and in shock rejects the baby and gives her to Astrid.  Honesty  stays in America but  Astrid returns home with the baby - called Rose, who is a delight to everyone at Benbow Hall. Carmel creates a rose in her garden, called The Benbow Rose. Young Rose's    teenage character is shown strongly at the end of  the novel when her grandmother Keziah dies and her van - her vardo - is burnt at the old lady's  funeral.
‘Honesty’s Daughter’ is a lovely novel.   I will read it again.

Geri Auton has lived in Darllington all her life. After working career in local government she became secretary to the MD f an Engineering firm. She then achieved an Honours Degree in English and Education and began teaching in primary school before moving into comprehensive education eventually becoming Deputy Head.  Now she works with husband Geoff and has two grown-up children and three grandchildren.  She has a great affinity with South West Dorset where her mother was born and her writing often reflects this closeness to that beautiful county. She is working on a novel in this setting.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Balzac (2), Courtesans and Anne Ousby

Caring or Controlling?
Wendy  La Cousine Bette is one of Honore de Balzac’s longest novels - first published in a series of pamphlets -  and is considered one of his best. This novel was considered by some his last great work -  sometimes compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace - and her he wrote it in two months. I sometimes wonder at the intellectual energy of these creative giants (see also the posts on Charles Dickens) compared with contemporary writers who take five years to write what in the end might be considered a moderately fine book.

 I have already written here  about researching the mid nineteenth century demi monde for the next novel when I  had started re-reading all of Balzac with  The Girl With The Golden Eyes. I was  talking at the Kindling conference with writer Anne Ousby *** and discovered that she had just read La Cousine Bette and was loving it. So I asked her to comment on it here.

Here’s Anne:
' When it comes to classical literature I confess I’m an inverted snob and often choose the easy option – screen adaptations of famous works. The small, dense type-face of such books is difficult to read and I soon lose interest.
However, despite my prejudices, I’ve had to eat humble-pie. I’ve just read Cousin Bette.
From the first page, when the bourgeois Captain, Monsieur Crevell, posed and postured his way across the page, I was hooked. Each character is unforgettable.
Cousin Bette is set in mid Nineteenth Century Paris and deals with the rise of the middle-class – the bourgeoisie – with all its acquisitiveness and political and social ambition. Balzac referred to it as ‘a mean and sordid age.’The book is peopled with Grotesques. Baron Hulot is a lascivious, debauched, selfish man – a terrible father and an unfaithful husband, who is totally unaware of his shortcomings. This is a hypocritical society where people cling to a thin veneer of respectability and Baron Hulot demands respect and filial duty from his children. However, he has no scruples about impoverishing them by throwing money at the demi-monde - the famous singer/courtesans, Josepha and Celestine. These are powerful women who use their beauty and sex as bargaining tools for wealth and social standing. Madame Marneffe is a ‘respectable’ married woman who runs four lovers at once, playing each like a fish on a rod. She will stop at nothing to get what she wants – power and money.
These degenerates are like an orchestra ‘playing’ their particular vile instruments while the conductor controls and whips them into a frenzy. And The Conductor? Why poor, dowdy Cousin Bette of course. Her bitterness and hatred for the Hulot family carries the plot along at a cracking pace. As the poor relation of the family she has been slighted and patronised all her life and vows to make them all pay, especially her cousin Adeline – Baron Hulot’s virtuous and beautiful wife.

There is no fairy-tale ending to this book but Cousin Bette remains with me in my dreams and I am on my guard.' 

*** Anne Ousby lives on the Northumbrian coast. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and broadcast on Radio 4 and her stage plays have been performed widely in the North East. The television drama 'Wait till the Summer comes' was broadcast on ITV. Her first novel Patterson's Curse was published in 2010 and her new novel The Leopard Man will be published in 2012.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Magic of John Fowles

Books we love we read more than once or twice
In 2009 I was asked by superweblogger Norman Geras to write a piece about a novel that had affected me. Recently Norman contributed a piece to this page (Go back four posts...)  so it made me look at this one again. I thought it would fit very well with this new love affair blog of mine.  I wrote the piece for him and because at that moment I was thinking about time and shape-shifting for An Englishwoman in 
FranceJohn Fowles 012

Some thoughts on John Fowles’ novel ‘The Magus’.*
‘… it must substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent. My only plea is that all artists have to range the full extent of their private lives freely. The rest of the world can censor and bury their private past. We cannot…’ John Fowles, in his introduction to the revised 1977 edition of The Magus.

Of the hundreds – even thousands – of novels I have read in the last forty years The Magus is one of only two novels - the other is Alan Garner's Owl Service - which I read to the end and then turned straight back to the beginning to read it again to find out what the heck it was about.

My bafflement is not unique: many people emerge from reading this long novel with a feeling of floundering, of not-quite-knowing. John Fowles wrote to one schoolgirl, ‘What one writes is one’s own explanation, you see, and if it’s baffling then the explanation is baffling…The Magus is trying to suggest that reality, human experience is infinitely baffling…’

The Magus tells us the story of Nicholas Urfe, a kind of mid-century intellectual everyman touched by post-world-war-blues and the edges of existentialism, shot through with heavily-worn learning and the cynical naiveté of personal, sexual and political inexperience. Nicholas is a fool rushing in where only magicians and shapeshifters tread.

Fowles tells us elsewhere that as a child, being short-tongued, he used to call the ‘earth’ ‘urf’ and perhaps that’s where Nicholas’s surname comes from. Occasionally, as I re-read the novel to write this piece, I wondered whether Nicholas Oaf might provide a better clue to this intriguing character.
The young, intelligent, self absorbed Nicholas goes to the Greek island of Phraxos to teach in a high school, just as John Fowles himself did as a young man on the real island of Spetsai.
John Fowles 011
On Phraxos, bored with the school and the teaching, Nicholas falls in love with the light, the landscape and the natural environment of the island – as did Fowles in his diary:
I walked through a small brake, and a woodcock flew off from under my feet. A lizard scuttled away. It was very warm, airy; I struck off the road and came to a cliff facing westwards. I sat on the edge of it, on a rock, and the world was at my feet. I have never had so vividly the sense of standing on the world; the world below me.’

Fowles obsesses about the light, writing again in his diary - ‘It and its absence are life and death. It reveals everything and spares nothing. It can be both achingly beautiful and consoling; it can be terrifyingly ugly.’ – and simply all of this is all reflected in the novel in the way the Island weaves its spell on the young Englishman Nicholas Urfe.
John Fowles 010
The spell is personified in Conchis, a millionaire resident who lives in an exquisite villa on a headland. Using beautiful identical twins as bate, he lures Nicholas into his world in which nothing is what it seems and reality changes according to Conchis’s whim and will. To unleash this magic, Conchis tells Nicholas fantastic stories which change form and meaning; he uses masques and staged scenarios masterminded by himself, playing mind games with Nicholas – and of course with the reader, who is driven to identify with Nicholas’ fear and angry bewilderment, in order to hang onto the crazy course of the novel.

It strikes me that The Magus is a narrative of mind and meaning that can only exist in novel form. There was a disastrous – even laughable - attempt at a film which focused ridiculously on sado-masochistic sequences which are only one illusory element in the series of games which Conchis plays on Nicholas Urfe. The more successful filming of his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman had a screenplay by Harold Pinter who cleverly tackled the job by treating the screenplay as a kind of metaphor for the novel.

But we need no esoteric knowledge to relish this novel. It works on so many levels – it works as a quest novel; a novel of adolescent rites of passage; a novel of place and the natural world; a novel shot through magic realism, (meeting Matthew Strecher’s definition - what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something 'too strange to believe.
This novel can be all things to each reader. Perhaps it is this all-encompassing nature – so full of adolescent energy, firing on all cylinders – which is baffling for the kind of reader who wants a safe journey, a sure narrative and a distinct - more or less predictable – ending. She or her needs this to take him or her through a novel.

I read The Magus twice: in its first edition in 1967; then I read his revised edition in 1977. How odd, you would think, to revise your novel and put it out there again! At the very least this showed that The Magus, for John Fowles, was clearly unfinished, highly personal, business. (There is another discussion there…)

But for me there is no doubt that The Magus is John Fowles’ masterpiece. It is an historic novel of the mid twentieth century - trailing the smoke of D H Lawrence, Alain-Fournier, James Joyce, Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, but marked by its own distinctive signature of intensity, its sense of magic, its confusions, its challenges to the reader, all of which are entirely unique to John Fowles.

Rereading the novel yet again I was worried in case I would find less in The Magus to relish. But in fact there is more. Since I last read it I've written a good number of novels myself. So now, as well as still appreciating all the other elements, I am reflecting on the courage, the originality, the riskiness of the writing and the structure of the novel. And, strangely, I am now in the middle of writing a novel myself which is set in an ancient magical place and involves unexplainable time illusions that may baffle the reader.
This has been a bit of a risky departure for me, but re-reading The Magus has been inspiring. It is as though John Fowles (who tends to scatter Frenchisms in his prose) is shouting across the ether. ‘Courage mon brave!’
If you liked it then, you will like it now. Worth a second or third or FOURTH read (2012)  for anybody ...

Is anyone else out there still reading John Fowles

Monday, 19 March 2012

Kindle, CreateSpace and Great People

Instead of celebrating Mother's Day I spent my weekend with some great  people - Anne, Erica, Eileen, Judith, Martin,Joy, Geri (and Hilary and Mary in mind if not in body) - working alongside my friends and colleagues the lovely Avril, the very wise Gillian  at our  Our Room toWrite Conference Weekend. For all of us it - writing tutors and students - it was a  steep learning curve.

Our ambition was to demystify  - for keen and talented writers - the disciplines and processes of producing high quality Kindle and hard copy versions of our novels and short stories. In other words, to publish our own work to the whole world, even into cyberspace.

The challenge for Avril, Gillian and I is that we didn't just want to tell people how to do it, we wanted to show them.

So. using a laptop, projector and a screen  we showed these writers how to make a Kindle book, right  from the process of editing a manuscript to the highly prepared level neccessy for these processes, onto how to design covers, and then - actually doing it there in public (!) - to publish the book there and then on Kindle.

New Cover for Lizza
 I used a new revised and edited edition of  my children's book LIZZA as an exemplar. There was a cheer when we hit 'Publish' and the novel went up and our there. It's up there now, although it still needs a few 'nips and tucks' so I will go in and refine it when I get my breath back. (Youcan do thyis with your Kindle, which is great...)

That Kindle process took one and a half hours.   That will be my standard time in future. (The fist time I did it, myself, it took a day...)

Next, Avril - there and then - showed the writers how - using -  great covers can be designed by amateurs. I described doing the same thing -as I did for LIZZA using  Microsoft Publisher but could not demonstrate it, as Publisher was not on the laptop we had there.

Then using the CreateSpace software Avril - quite brilliantly, I think - took a manuscript of her novella  When You Hear the Birds Sing  through to the point of Print on Demand publication,  the more complicated process of creating your own paperback book on Print On Demand. She made it seem very do-able and inspired us all.

Of course what we kept saying was - you need patience and the willingness to to do and redo until you get it right. You, need patience with the process and - most imprtantly - with yourself.

We were keen that this process-experience was supported with paperwork which people could go away and put into practice everything they had experienced at the conference. I called these the Room To Write Ladybird Guides to Kindling and creating a Print on Demand Book. This was writing exercise in itself for Avril and myself - to created directions stripped of the  sometimes esoteric repetitions and misdirections in the literature.

Our students really appreciated these documents, I think. Theye went off with these to support their Kindle and CreateSpace Adventure.

Wilting a little, we spent some time of the last afternoon discussing the function of writer's blog for a writer who wanted to use this medium both for developing their own writing and for supporting her or his publications out in cyberspace. Avril, Gillian and I talked about our own blogging experiences as well as Judith, a course member has a well establishe writer's blog as has Anne. Martin, Eileen and Geri - I think! - decided to have a building their own blog.

As a tutor it's always good to know that there are concrete outcomes from your work. I have a very good feeling that several of these writers will go on to produce high quality publications and develop interesting blogs which will reflect the multiplicity of talents of these dedicated writers. They are participating in the democratizing revolution which is transforming the international world of talented writers.

I came home - as I am sure did they - exhausted but satisfied that something really happened on our Kindling Weekend. I also came home to choclates and wine and handpicked daffodils and two wonderful cards from my lovely son and my very special son-in-law. I don't know whether it was the exhaustion of the great conference or the lovely words on the cards, but I ended up in  (very happy) tears.

I will post photos of the conference when they come from writer,Geri as she has evolved now as the Room To Write Official Photographer.

Comments sent by the lovely people:

It just gets better and better – nothing could have bettered the weekend. Thanks entirely to you and Avril and Gillian. Generous is the word to describe you with your time your know-how, your friendship – and we happy few are the lucky ones and we know how lucky we are. Rest of the week cancelled to get down to the nitty-gritty! Erica
I am definitely going to set up a blog very soon.  Thank you for all your hard work.  The three of you always put so much effort into the conferences that you set up for us and I found it really worthwhile and interesting’ Geri
Thanks for an excellent weekend. I feel tired, excited, inspired but also, more important, very keen to put some of the masses of ideas that you and Avril have given us into practise. Watch out for my forthcoming Blog. Now have a rest!!! Martin
What an amazing week-end! I have the confidence now to upload my work to Kindle and create my own hard copy book on  As ever Wendy Avril & Gillian have put in the hard work to save the rest of us time and money when learning and applying new skills. Many thanks to Room to Write.  Judith
To be in at the birth of a Kindle book was amazing. Wendy Robertson’s LIZZA emerged  red-faced yet beautiful into the Kindle World. Thanks to Avril for passing on her wealth of knowledge and expertise on creating a hard copy of our Kindled books and Gillian saw to everything else. The usual wonderful food, company and ambience at Whitworth. Fantastic Weekend, Thanks for everything. Anne O

 Many thanks for the exceptional weekend.  It was the best yet.  My thanks to you and Avril and Gillian, you worked so hard and now I'm hoping to go ahead with Kindle and also create a blog. Eileen

Monday, 12 March 2012

Betty Miller On The Side of The Angels (2)

Isaiah Berlin: Betty was a pensive and melancholy girl…she also had a quality which I can only call moral charm… 
Betty Miller, to a girl who asks her advice about becoming a writer: You should get married as soon as possible and have children. You have to conform with the outside world, do all the rituals of being a wife and a mother – but keep true faith to yourself and hide every trace of it.’   
This hyper-domesticated response describing  the  life of a writer - as deep undercover in domestic territory as any commando - also fits Honor, the main character in her novel On The Side of The Angels .

 Honor’s  baby, her toddler and her husband Colin (like Betty’s own husband, an army doctor in a wartime military hospital) define her actions, reactions and carefully delineated emotions. She perfectly evokes the sensual lassitude of  a still nursing mother with her  slightly messy domestic setting with strewn toys  and stained romper suits. Our Twenty-First century empathy for her dilemma is somewhat allayed by the full time but almost invisible presence of Edith the nanny/maid who , being cross-eyed  and not too bright, is unfit for war-time service, so is available. 
Betty’s  daughter Sarah,  in her introduction to the novel, says  her mother saw herself as thin skinned and very shy, as domestically incompetent  with an excessive fear of people. Whether or not this is true of Betty these characteristics are  deeply echoed in the character of Honor in this novel.
However although we note this apparent lassitude, with Honor sitting in chairs and deckchairs musing the time away, the reality of Betty’s own character is better expressed by her daughter’s description. Whenever I think of my mother, I see her in the dining room…typing rapidky on  her battered Olivettti portable, or , pen poised over her manuscript, rubbing her nose with her spare finger while she polished a sentence … then as soon as my father’s key was heard in the door. Typewriter, manuscript. Reference books and all were at once swept of the table and hidden away from sight. 
It is a fact that On The Side of The Angels replicates elements of Betty’s wartime experience in the wake of  her husband’s role as a physician and psychiatrist on army service.  In a note to the writer John Verney Betty said: ’…it is (but for the Commando Officer) an almost exact picture of the military hospital wherein Emanuel was a Lt .Colonel during the war… the book is very close to reality.’
The novel focuses on the social nexus of a military hospital where the professional  men are in  uniform, seen relishing their quasi-military patriotism and pirouetting around  the very peculiar CO who acts like their liege lord bestowing and withdrawing favours at will. The women – including Honor and her more feisty sister Claudia – are seen as intruders in this very male dance. The well drawn, charismatic Commando officer is a fictional device to add to the narrative thread of the story. But many of the others are, I think, close portraits, including  - in the middle ground  - Adrian Stephen, brother to Virginia W.
Running through this excellent novel like silver strands through are important ideas such the impact of  war on the individual, the seductions of  patriotism, the volatility of  identity, the cultural definitions of crime  and  the tacit nature of unexpressed love.
The details - of the house, of food, of the dances in the Officer's Club are perfect. But I most  enjoyed Betty Miller’s deeply sensuous, highly interiorised style which offers   an intricate psychological balance to the weight of these extravagant ideas. 
However , at the time, her dense, luscious style had its critics among people close to her.  Her mentor the writer St John Irvine was among these.  ‘Words intoxicate you … You have a high, if hysterical, sense of language and a quite extraordinary seriousness…but you overwork your words and you yield too much to your seriousness…’
Her friend Rosamund Lehmann is  a bit Parson’s Eggish:  ‘It is so intelligent and – rare treat – has a moral problem in it. Sometimes too stressing of sensuous impressions … as if anything a little overdone for my taste but there is some wonderfully vivid and sensuous writing; and the characters are stereotypically clear.’
As thin-skinned  writer myself I can imagine how  discouraging such views of her well-wrought work must have been. She wrote only six novels, only one of which is still in print -  Farewell  Leicester Square  Also a new edition of this novel On the Side of The Angels, introduced by Betty's son Joanathan, is due out in May
Much is made in the reportage of the fact that Betty Miller’s  literary reputation was finally established by the publication of her biography of Robert Browning  and her subsequent membership of the Royal Society of Literature.   However, in the end she only wrote six novels. One wonders how her deep talent for fiction would have developed if she'd had more positive encouragement for this form of writing from her circle, where a kind of benevolent  literary snobbery pervades the commentary.
As I read this novel I kept thinking of the work of Virginia Wolf with  her streams of consciousness and James Joyce with his tumbling piling on of detail.  Virginia famously abandoned thoughts of being a mother to focus on her art.  Perhaps Betty’s  talent for fiction was hijacked by her lack of confidence and found some expression in her focus on family life where, after all, one is always imagining lives to be lived or abandoned, lives rebuilt, or ways of surviving within th crucible of the family. That takes sensitivity , imagination and psychological eenergy.
Or perhaps she was just not given her due, in her time. Was there pure sexism in some of the  guiding critiques of her acquaintances and friends? Of her first novel her respected advisor  St John Ervine said. ‘Aren’t there enough novelists in the world  without you adding to their number? Aren’t there too many women novelists and not enough cooks?  If you had written to tell me that you burnt your manuscript  and made a fine cake I’d have cheered.'
This is a fine, absorbing novel. I recommend it to everyone.
 A small note: to the twenty first century reader this is definitively a novel of  the professional middle classes. The maid Edith is dismissively drawn (Called uncouth twice but that’s about it…) . But then one could say such things of Virginia Woolf.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

A Writer of Talent: Betty Miller (1)

Betty Miller

I am now deep in the novel On The Side of the Angels by Betty Miller, originally published in  1945,  On his Must Read list Norman Geras tells a story in praise of a novelist Betty Miller (see below...) Here is a novelist of whom I have nevery heard and I was very curious, I have ordered a copy of Goodbye Liecester Square in the Persphone edition but I got hold of a copy of the 1985 Virago edition of On The Side of The Angels which has a beautiful  introduction by the late Sarah Miller, Betty's  daughter.

I see now that this year  the there is to be a new edition (May) of this novel, introduced by her son the polymathic scientist, artist and entertainer  Jonathan Miller.

It has a much more snazzy cover but I hope they have not abandoned the Sarah Miller introduction which I find fascinating, It is full of insight, anecdote and understanding.

I am enjoying the novel and will write  more about it here, But I wanted to post this here today, before I rush off to ny birthday tea. It will perhaps  to complement the  post on my other blog which is a poem about my own mother which I hope might show similar insight,

Tomorrow: More about Betty Miller


Thursday, 8 March 2012

Norman Geras's Must-Read Pile

A Book for Every Step...

One of the pleasures of wandering the web in the last few years has been the discovery of the Weblog of Norman Geras . I relish Norm's irony and perception as he comments  in depth on poiltical and social life in Britain and the world. His posts include observations on literature, music, cricket  - and more or less everything.
It's great that Norm has agreed to share with us his must- read pile. Looking at his pile I nearly entitled this post Promises to Myself. I suppose that's what a Must-Read pile is. It's also, I think, like the centre of a bookish spider's web which ultimately includes every book one has ever read.  

Norman Geras Thanks to Wendy for inviting me to write about what's on my must-read pile right now. I'd better start with the confession that I don't have just a pile, I have a whole shelf. It currently holds some 60 titles. I keep telling myself I can't acquire any more novels till I've cut the number by... ooh, half. But then something catches my eye in a charity shop, or I absolutely must have another book by an author one of whose novels I just finished reading, and so it goes on. Anyway, I won't inflict the whole shelf on you. Here's a representative sample of 10 books that are to be read.

Eventide by Kent Haruf
This is a sequel to Plainsong by the same author, a novel I read a couple of weeks ago and liked so much that I have to get to this follow-up soon. It's a bit like Anne Tyler, except set in a small Colorado town rather than in Baltimore. Actually, it's like Tyler only in that it's life going on for ordinary people in different varieties of family, and quietly powerful.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë
This is the last step of a reading project of mine, of which I have several. I've read all of the Brontë novels (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) apart from Villette and I need to complete the set.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
It's a book I haven't read yet - still! Enough said.

Portrait of the Bride by Betty Miller
I recently read her Farewell Leicester Square and was mighty impressed by it, so resolved to get hold of some of her other titles, most of which are out of print. Lo and behold, visiting my Mom in Israel last month I spotted Portrait of the Bride among her books and she kindly let me take it. In this case I love the physical book even before I've started it. It's a somewhat battered old copy, published by Blue Ribbon Books Inc, New York, in 1936; and it's an ex-library copy, with a cancelled stamp from Norelius Community Library, Idaho. The borrowing slip is still attached to the back endpaper and reveals that the book was borrowed 55 times between September 1941 and January 1991. For what would I want a Kindle?

In A Free State by V.S. Naipaul
I've never read anything by Naipaul and I doubt I would have got to him but for the fact that a friend kindly gave Adèle and me a copy of this one at Christmas, and urged us to try it. So I'll give it a go.

What Maisie Knew by Henry James
Another of my projects - to make my way through the works of 'The Master', which is what he is.

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
I'm told both by women in my family and by women outside it that this is a marvellous book. I just gotta read it.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
This one I bought not long after reading Mantel's A Change of Climate. I've enjoyed all of her books that I've read (which don't include the biggies), so it's a safe bet.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
Yet another of my projects, to do the complete works of Philip Roth. I've got through 21 of them to date, and I'm not about to stop. He's a towering figure in American fiction, Carmen Callil notwithstanding.

The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley
Picture of Norman GerasI didn't know anything about either the book or its author until a few days ago when we were round at my daughter Jenny's. She said I would like it and encouraged me to take it home. Jenny has a pretty good, if not infallible, idea of the sort of books I like, and the success rate of her recommendations is high.
Norman Geras  is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester. In a long academiccareer, he has contributed substantially to the analysis of the works of Karl Marx particularly in his book Marx and Human Nature and the article 'The Controversy About Marx and Justice', which remains a standard work on the issue.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Reading William Trevor's READING TURGENEV

William Trevor is the master – probably the best in the last fifty years -of the short novel and the short story. He can give us a whole world in the compass of a short story or a short novel - as he does in Reading Turgenev. His style is intricate. He is a close observer of people and events but stays at a slight distance from them. His insights and thoughts are felt with his heart but written with his head and what emerges in his tender, precise prose is a universal truth about how people live their lives..
In Reading Turgenev in a village in Ireland an innocent young woman marries the awkward bachelor, draper Elmer Quarry – a marriage which remains unconsummated.  Elmer is afraid of women.  ‘Elmer had never before embraced a girl.’   although there were some fraught incidents with a stout hotel keeper.  Mary and Elmer share the house above the shop with Elmer’s sisters who are toxically jealous and make her unwelcome and unhappy.
The story is told backwards as fifty six year old Mary returns from psychiatric care into the her own community. We share in Mary’s exquisite  mourning of her only lovem the fragile Robert - her cousin and beloved childhood companion who helped his mother on the farm and read  poetry and Russian novels.  As a young woman frustrated by her barren, colourless marriage Mary starts to visit Robert and we see her gentle courtship where Robert reads Turgenev with her and they wander through the churchyard where his relatives are buried.
It was hot among the gravestones,
The grass was long between the graves like hay waiting to be cut even though it was spring.
‘A secret place,’ he said.
‘Yes it is.’
Stunted thorn trees bounded it within its stone wall…Some gravestones luched crookedly; thos flat upon the graves had mostly sunk at one end. ‘
Robert dies and Mary’s behaviour becomes more unconventional, and - a target for the jealous sisters – she is committed to a psychiatric ward. The whole novel is told from the perspective of the woman in the psychiatric ward and we have exquisite side-glimpses of her fellow patients, But she – and we – know she is not mad. She is just biding her time. She slips into institutional life for many years, playing the part, but living her own inner life and  – we eventually learn – not taking the medication. She returns home to the elderly Elmer and continues to bide her time. We see her making a nest in a loft room, squirrelling all Robert’s remaining things there. Her strength of character and purpose at last emerges when she manages to have Robert disinterred and reburied in his beloved graveyard. She is happy.
Trevor moves smoothly between times and points of view in a witty and – despite the contrary events –life enhancing story. In his pristine clear prose Trevor shows presents  events and the interactions to show us  the interior lives  of Mary, Elmer and Robert. He shows how village culture and custom dominate small lives. He shows us the cruelties and deceptions of apparently ‘normal’ people. He shows us how the lives of the individuals are not seen as important as the life of the community, rendering an almost glacial passivity in Mary, who is the victim of these cruelties and deceptions. This of course ultimately demonstrates the power of Mary  actions – first in her gentle and determine courtship with Robert and then  decades later, her power to ensure that Rober is buried where he would wish to be buried.
The under song in this novel is the way that the natural world provides the backdrop for this unique love story.
The heron is a symbol of their love:
‘ … (heron)… neck extended, it dipped its long beak into the water, no doubt fishing for trout, although the distance was too great to allow them to observe how successful these efforts were. It stuttered closer to the water on its ungainly legs, spread out its wings and flew away.’
Very highly recommended to both readers and writers.