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Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

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Interesting ones I hope Lilliputian

 

Not so Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

 

We are all aware of the Great War novels: “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Goodbye to All That”, trilogy’s by Pat Barker and Siegfried Sassoon. This novel should also be on the list as it stands comparison to all of those above.

Helen Smith was the pen name of Evadne Price, who turned her hand to many things over a very long career; she married a German actor, a British soldier and an Australian writer. She turned her hand to romantic novels and writing a column on Astrology, to burlesque before the Great War, to journalism, a writer of plays and screenplays, a broadcaster; she was also the first female journalist to enter Belsen.

The story of how this novel came about is also interesting; Smith was commissioned to write a response to “All Quiet on the Western Front”. It was supposed to be a parody, but on reading the original she decided to write a proper war novel. She settled on the topic on the women ambulance drivers because she borrowed Winifred Young’s diaries and based her writing on those. The whole novel was written very quickly. It was the first of five novels in a series which covered dealing with the war wounded, eugenics, the fate of destitute women and post-war decadence.

It is a powerful and direct novel which pulls no punches. It is dialogue driven and shows all the horrors of war from the point of view of a group of female ambulance drivers. It portrays awful conditions, too little sleep, very poor food, authoritarian leadership, danger from bombs, conveying severely wounded men from the front (some of whom die in the ambulances). It shows that PTSD is not just confined to men from the front. There is a distinct contrast between the conditions the women suffer as ambulance drivers and the feelings of the family at home. The disconnect is very marked. Families proud of what their daughters are doing for the war effort and the country and the feelings of the narrator and her comrades:

“all the ideals and beliefs you ever had have crashed about your gun-deafened ears -- you don't believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise -- you live in a world of cold sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair -- you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it's all about in Christ's name ..”

And a longer quote which underlines the disconnect as Smith speaks in her mind to her mother and her mother’s friend;

“Look closely, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington, and you shall see what you shall see. Those trays each contain something that was once a whole man… the heroes who have done their bit for King and country… the heroes who marched blithely thorough the streets of London Town singing, ‘Tipperary,’ while you cheered and waved your flags hysterically. They are not singing now, you will observe. Shut your ears, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington, lest their groans and heartrending cries linger as long in your memory as in the memory of the daughter you sent to help win the War.

See the stretcher bearers lifting the trays one by one, slotting them deftly into my ambulance. Out of the way quickly, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington — lift your silken skirts aside… a man is spewing blood, the moving has upset him, finished him… He will die on the way to hospital if he doesn’t die before the ambulance is loaded. I know… All this is old history to me. Sorry this has happened. It isn’t pretty to see a hero spewing up his life’s blood in public, is it? Much more romantic to see him in the picture papers being awarded the V.C., even if he is minus a limb or two. A most unfortunate occurrence!

That man strapped down? That raving, blaspheming creature screaming filthy words, you don’t know the meaning of… words your daughter uses in everyday conversation, a habit she has contracted from vulgar contact of this kind. Oh, merely gone mad, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington. He may have seen a headless body running on and on, with blood spurting from its trunk. The crackle of the frost-stiff dead men packing the duck-boards watertight may have gradually undermined his reasons. There are many things the sitters tell me on our long night rides that could have done this.

No, not shell-shock. The shell-shock cases take it more quietly as a rule, unless they are suddenly startled. Let me find you an example. Ah, the man they are bringing out now. The one staring straight ahead at nothing… twitching, twitching, twitching, each limb working in a different direction, like a Jumping Jack worked by a jerking string. Look at him, both of you. Bloody awful, isn’t it, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington? That’s shell-shock. If you dropped your handbag on the platform, he would start to rave as madly as the other. What? You won’t try the experiment? You can’t watch him? Why not? Why not? I have to, every night. Why the hell can’t you do it for once? Damn your eyes.

Forgive me, Mother and Mrs, Evan-Mawnington. That was not the kind of language a nicely brought up young lady from Wimbledon Common uses. I forget myself. We will begin again.

See the man they are fitting into the bottom slot. He is coughing badly. No, not pneumonia. Not tuberculosis. Nothing so picturesque. Gently, gently, stretcher-bearers… he is about done. He is coughing up clots of pinky-green filth. Only his lungs, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington. He is coughing well to-night. That is gas. You’ve heard of gas. Haven’t you? It burns and shrivels the lungs to… to the mess you see on the ambulance floor there. He’s about the age of Bertie, Mother. Not unlike Bertie, either, with his gentle brown eyes and fair curly hair. Bertie would look up pleading like that in between coughing up his lungs… The son you have so generously given to the War.

Cough, cough, little fair-haired boy. Perhaps somewhere your mother is thinking of you… boasting of the life she has so nobly given… the life you thought was your own, but which is hers to squander as she thinks fit. ‘My boy is not a slacker, thank God.’ Cough away, little boy, cough away. What does it matter, providing your mother doesn’t have to face the shame of her son’s cowardice?”

The novel portrays Smith’s alienation on her return to England and her family’s incomprehension when she refuses to return. The attitudes to sexual relations were shocking at the time, but there is a sense of little mattering. It is meant to be a popular novel, using colloquialism and slang (it succeeds in this) rather than a masterpiece. It is an effective and powerful war novel written from a different perspective, but still underlining the horror and futility of war and the bonds it binds between those involved.

 

9 out of 10

Starting The New House by Lettice Cooper

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Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

 

Woolf’s first experimental novel and as with all of Woolf’s work there are acres of print analysing it (some of which I have read). The Jacob of the title is Jacob Flanders and we follow his life from the start to his death in the First World War. We follow through others; the women in his life and we follow at something of a tangent. As one critic has pointed out; the first room Jacob has is the womb and we follow him to his last room; the tomb. The brief scenes just pick out small points about Jacob, individual traits. The narrator keeps reminding us how difficult it is to sum people up and it is difficult to get an impression of Jacob apart from the very general one that he is “so distinguished looking”.

What follows will probably end up being a series of random thoughts and musings rather than a coherent review! Inevitably some have drawn comparisons between Jacob and Virginia’s brother Thoby.

Of the many characters in the book, one of them is the city of London. An interesting example of this is towards the end of the book when Jacob has returned from Greece. Jacob and many of those who love him are linked by an invisible thread it seems. Jacob and Bonamy are sat in Hyde Park. Walking in the same park but not meeting Jacob are Clara and Mr Bowley; as is Julia Eliot: they are all linked by a runaway horse. The thread spreads wider to others with the city as the linking character.

One thing is clear about Jacob’s Room; there is humour and parody here. Jacob is a typical middle class male of the period; a budding colonial/imperialist preparing to take the position he feels is his due. He appears to have no real character and the narrator seems to mock the typical male “heroes progress” narrative we might expect. The power of male patriarchs here is not pro-creative and is distantly focussed:

“In the street below Jacob’s room voices were raised.

But he read on. For after all Plato continues imperturbably … and Jacob who was reading the Phaedrus, heard people vociferating round the lamppost, and the woman battering at the door and crying, “Let me in!” as if a coal had dropped from the fire, or a fly, falling from the ceiling, had lain on its back, too weak to turn over.”

Jacob reads his Greek, oblivious to tragedies going on around him. Jacob writing and essay on the “Ethics of Indecency” contrasts with his attitude to Florinda. He accepts her when she is giving him a feeling of his own sexual power, but rejects her when he realises her promiscuity is not limited to just him.

There are plenty of more obvious jokes; the British love of queuing:

“the faces of those emerging quickly lost their dim, chilled expression when they perceived that it was only by standing in a queue that one could be admitted to the pier.”

Sometimes the humour is sharper as when Betty Flanders makes an odd connection between Reverend Floyd and his cat Topaz;

“Poor old Topaz, said Mrs Flanders, as he stretched himself in the sun, and she smiled, thinking how she had had him gelded, and how she did not like red hair in men. Smiling, she went into the kitchen.”

It has often been pointed out that listen is an anagram of silence and in Jacobs Room much of the effect is based on the gaps, the spaces left by the narration. It leaves Woolf space to suggest other things. There is a good deal about Greek myth floating around and Woolf invokes the traditions of the pre-Hellenic goddess culture (as Graves was later to do in his book on Greek myth) and the characters of Clara and Betty Flanders are very strong.

As it happens I am also reading a book on Woolf and music at the moment, which is fascinating. The storyline between Jacob and Clara here is a mirror of the plot of the Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde.

There is an awful lot going on here and as with all of Woolf many of the meanings are coded; part of the fun is working them out (or having others work them out for you!).

9 out of 10

Starting A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

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A really great review, I want to finally read something by Virginia Woolf, do you have any recommendations for which one to start with?

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Thanks Sazed; my favourite is To The Lighthouse.

 

Albertine by Jacqueline Rose

 

Ever wondered about Albertine, one of the major characters in Proust’s monumental novel. Wonder no more; Jacqueline Rose has written a novel from her point of view. This is a must for Proust fans and adds a feminist perspective to the whole. Rose explains herself thus;

“The germ came when I was re-reading one of the most beautiful passages in Proust- the sleep sequence in The Captive. Marcel walks in and embarks, as he puts it, upon the tide of Albertine’s sleep. As I was reading it, I had a sort of feminist response which is untypical of me. It felt quite overwhelming. I thought “She’s not asleep.” It’s just not possible that he could sit and stare at her; that he could lie down beside her; that he could proceed to do what he does next to her. I thought “No way! This woman is not asleep!””

Rose uses the novel to change, twist and subvert the relationship and other incidents from the book. This also fits very neatly into what Elaine Showalter calls “gynocriticism”, the location and rejuvenation of female characters, looking at their perspective. This is a very interesting attempt at this. It is written in the same style as the book and focusses on not only Marcel, but Albertine’s female friends as well. We hear the voice of Andrée as well, Albertine’s friend and lover.

Sometimes the book feels claustrophobic, but that reflects the relationship in Proust’s novel. Rose does bring Proust’s phantom to life, as she says;

“Imagining the psychic life of Albertine did not constitute a criticism of Proust. Rather it was a response to the space opened up by the author’s own suggestive omission. As Marcel, the privileged but ailing narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with the enigmatic déclassé orphan Albertine, eventually keeping her under constant surveillance, she becomes more and more of a phantom. “

It is an interesting novel; and works well. Rose does avoid Albertine’s Anti-Semitism from the original; the all-consuming nature of the Dreyfuss case was a central part of Proust’s novel. On the whole it’s a fascinating read.

8 out of 10

Starting Equivocator by Stevie Davies

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Thanks Sazed; my favourite is To The Lighthouse.

 

 

Agree with Sazed - your review of Jacob's Room had a lot to think about (I need to go and reread now!).  Also agree with you, as To The Lighthouse is my favourite too, although I have a particular soft spot for The Years.  Not sure though whether TTL is the best one to start with though?  I'd probably give Orlando or Mrs Dalloway a go first, or even The Years.  (My first was Mrs Dalloway, followed by The Years).

Edited by willoyd

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Thanks for the recommendations! :)

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The Hope Chest by Rukhsana Ahmad

 

This was an impulse buy from e-bay and I knew nothing g about it or the author (apart from the fact it was published by virago). As it happens it is a signed copy. It is the story of three young women from quite different backgrounds whose paths cross and dissect each other. One is from London and two from Pakistan (one from a wealthy family and the other from a poorer family struggling to manage). The novel explores identity, marriage and relationships and the way families function. Ahmad says about the novel;

“I suppose I am always preoccupied by that subject of divisions between people. I mean, The Hope Chest, is about how you know the context that you are born into completely separates you from all other people and all other experiences.”

Rani comes from an upper class family in Lahore, Reshma is the daughter of a gardener employed by Rani’s family. Ruth is a Londoner who meets Rani at a private hospital in London where Rani is being treated for Anorexia. Reshma, at 13 is now at an age where marriage can be considered and her family needs the money a marriage would bring. A widow in this thirties is found for her.

The various obstacles faced by young Pakistani women are traced through the three women. The mother-daughter relationship is of particular import. The spaces the women occupy are often quite claustrophobic and restricted. The novel explores their choices and does a good job looking at the way women manage the choices they are given. There is an interesting exploration of anorexia and of mental health issues centring on women’s lives and choices. It moves along quietly and is a good read. Ahmad draws on her own experience and that of her community and describes the way she works thus:

“On reflection I do not feel trapped by my identity/ies, past or present, or restricted by it/them. I use them when I want to. I am not enslaved by any of them. I have the ability to negotiate what I want from each.

The knowledge that I can, like a chameleon, call upon one of several colours, side-step the preconceptions of others, survive in both worlds with a code that is not parochial or narrow in any sense works like an unfailing talisman on the whole.

A fair return, I think, for the loss of a few certainties and a false sense of security which feeds on an unwillingness to change. But, as always, the talisman comes with a condition. You have to surrender the right to belong.”

 

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Quicksand by Nella Larsen

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Equivocator by Stevie Davies

 

An "equivocator" is a person who speaks ambiguously or doesn't tell the whole truth. This is a modern tale steeped in mythology; a novella which can be read in one sitting, from the pen of Stevie Davies, one of my favourite authors.

We come across the role of Equivocator in Shakespeare; Macbeth:

“Knock, knock! Who’s there in the other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale.”

The idea goes back even further as Hermes, the messenger of the gods was also an equivocator.

The book focuses on themes of love, friendship, betrayal and the nature of who we are, the foundations of our identity. Sebastian (Seb) Messenger is a gay man now in his thirties (his age is never really specified) who is doing the academic round of conferences; he is a scholar of ancient Egypt. His partner Jess and he are going through troubled times; mainly as a result of Seb’s inability to commit. Seb’s father, Jack disappeared when Seb was a boy. Jack was a travel writer, possible spy and general enigma who disappeared on the Iranian border at about the time of the revolution. His remains were not found until many years later.

Most of the book is set in Wales at a conference, although there are flashbacks as Seb tries to make sense of his past and looks back to his memories of his father and his first love. At the conference Seb meets Rhys Salvatore, a celebrity academic who was also a close friend of Seb’s father. And so begins the search for Seb’s father, or at least a putting together of the pieces. Davies knows her Greek myth and she is also a scholar of Milton (another equivocator) and there are elements from all over the place here; making the whole thing a delight. There are comedic elements which are worthy of Shakespeare. There are mysteries within mysteries and Davies manages to send up academic conferences in a delightful way. Great stuff; all packed in to 90 odd pages.

9 out of 10

Starting Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan

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A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

I’m not sure what it is about me and Evelyn Waugh; critics have said this is one of the best novels of the twentieth century and I really don’t get it. It is, as ever, a satire on the mores of the English upper class. The title is from The Waste Land:

“I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

This is satire, comedy and farce mixed with the absurd; again I get the sense that Waugh delights in disliking his characters.

Tony Last lives in a rather uncomfortable and decrepit country mansion with his wife Brenda and his son. It is not one of the great stately homes as the description indicates:

“Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey. This, formerly one of the notable houses of the county, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest. The grounds are open to the public daily until sunset and the house may be viewed on application by writing.”

Brenda gets rather bored in the country and as she starts to spend more time in London, she starts an affair with John Beaver, a man of very limited means on the make. The plot is limited and there is a cast of supporting characters who have varying degrees of eccentricity.

This is said to be a turning point in Waugh’s novels; the point at which he begins to get serious. Well, he still manages to drag in race and civilization. Waugh draws on his own experiences on his visit to Guyana. When Tony’s marriage falls apart he sets off on an expedition to look for a lost city in Brazil; travelling from Demerara. This enables Waugh to draw his usual parody of uncivilized peoples of a different colour with the same sort of zest he did in Scoop. It also allows him to play with a Heart of Darkness motif (will I never escape from that book). Waugh often said that A Handful of Dust was really about the bankruptcy of humanism. Kurtz’s horror in this novel is the emptiness of secular humanism, which Waugh wants to replace with Catholicism.

Waugh also nods to Proust and the grail quest and plays with a number of ideas. This is a story of human selfishness, but perhaps Waugh does paint Tony Last with some sympathy; especially as Waugh’s marriage had recently ended. However he condemns Last to spending the rest of his days reading Dickens aloud in a native village to a Kurtz type character. The point here is that Waugh thought that Dickens was one of those responsible for the collapse of social restraint (as Waugh perceived it) in British society.

I’ve seen Waugh’s work described as a “theatre of cruelty” and I see the point of that. I also find Waugh’s attitude to women pretty suspect; look at this conversation between Tony Last and his young son’

““Where’s mummy gone?” “London.” “Why?” “Someone called Lady Cockpurse is giving a party.” “Is she nice?” ‘Mummy thinks so. I don’t.” “Why?” “Because she looks like a monkey.” “I should love to see her. Does she live in a cage? Has she got a tail? Ben saw a woman who looked like a fish, with scales all over instead of skin. It was in a circus in Cairo. Smelt like a fish too, Ben says”.”

Another trope that Waugh uses and drags in here is the “Oriental” woman who is portrayed as exotic, promiscuous, primitive and foolish. Racism and misogyny, class and cruelty and to cap it all, the death of a child used to move the plot on. Typical Waugh.

5 out of 10

Starting Blue Nights by Joan Didion

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Virginia Woolf and Classical Music by Emma Sutton

 

This is a fascinating book in which Emma Sutton examines Woolf’s work in the context of her allusions to music (there are many of these). We get a picture of musical life in the early twentieth century and references to a number of the important figures on the musical scene, including a critique of the English folk revival of the 1920s.

Sutton examines Woolf’s experiences with music; when living in London Woolf was a regular attender at Opera and concerts and in later life built up a significant record collection. She acknowledged that music was important to her, thinking of all her works as music before she wrote them. Woolf was initially a great fan of Wagner, going to see the Ring cycle a number of times. Sutton charts Woolf’s changing feelings over the years about Wagner. There is also an extended discussion of The Voyage Out, the plot of which is a critique of Tristan und Isolde.

One example of how an understanding of the musical background can illustrate Woolf’s work will show how interesting this work is. It involves on of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas Opus 111. It was written late in Beethoven’s life when he was already deaf; it is technically difficult and not easy to interpret. It is important to know that in terms of repertoire it was considered that this was a work that should only be performed by men and was beyond female performers. In fact there were different repertoires for men and women; women were taught a different canon of music thought to be appropriate. In The Voyage Out Rachel performs Opus 111 on a regular basis. Early feminists did use music and attitudes relating to piano playing to make points and Woolf does the same here, challenging the gender norms relating to music (Forster did the same in A Room with a View).

There are all sorts of interesting insights into Woolf’s novels and into the musical background of the time. Well worth reading if you are a Woolf fan.

9 out of 10

Starting Fire and Stone by Priscilla Long

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The Icarus Girl

Oyeyemi wrote this whilst still doing her A levels at the age of eighteen! It is an interesting exploration of a troubled child looking at imaginary friends, mental health vs normalcy, identity, twins, loss and conflicting cultures. Ambitious for a first novel. It revolves around Jessamy Harrison the child of a Nigerian mother and an English father. She is eight years old. Jessamy is quite precocious for her age, but she is also prone to difficult behaviours. Whilst in Nigeria Jessamy meets a friend called Titiola (named TillyTilly by Jessamy); a friend no one else seems to be able to see who can make things happen and do things no one else can (going on rides in the fairground when it is closed for instance. TillyTilly can also affect other people as well. For some reviewers the relationship with TillyTilly moves the book into the horror or supernatural genres; I understand why this is;

“A girl was standing silently above her, looking down at her with narrow, dark eyes so dark that, to Jess, lying on the ground, they seemed pupil-less. There was something about her that was out of proportion. Was she too tall and yet too... small at the same time?”

When bad or negative things happen to those around her Jessamy sees TillyTilly’s hand in this and thinks she/TillyTilly is the cause. Initially Jessamy is more excited and intrigued, but in time becomes worried and concerned as effects are felt by those close to her. I think the temptation to move towards horror and supernatural descriptives is a mistake. There is certainly a touch of magic realism present, but it is more about a child working out what influence and power she has in the world and worrying about the damage she may be capable of causing.

The novel moves between Nigeria and England and Oyeyemi manages to illustrate the tensions between cultures and traditions rather well. Modern psychology in England to address the issues and more traditional/religious approaches in Nigeria. Neither of which really work. Jessamy had a twin who died at birth and her discovery of this provides another focus.

I found the ending a little odd and inconclusive and some of the plotlines seem a little naïve, but Oyeyemi is a great writer and TillyTilly’s multiplicity leads to so many possibilities. The novel opens with Jessamy hiding in a cupboard;

“Outside the cupboard, Jess felt as if she was in a place where everything moved past too fast, all colours, all people talking and wanting her to say things.”

Here she feels safe. Coming out of the cupboard she has to make sense of the outside world; not an easy task. Some of us are still doing it!

 8 out of 10

Starting Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

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I enjoyed Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi last year, another coming of age novel which certainly couldn't be described as a happy read but definitely a worthwhile one. 

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I'll watch out for that one Charliepud!

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

My first work by Didion, this is a follow up to The Year of Magical Thinking, where Didion wrote about the loss of her husband. This concerns the loss of Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana Roo (in 2005 at 39), not long after the death of her husband. Whilst Didion does cover the adoption of her daughter and some of her earlier life, but she also goes on to relate the effects of aging and her reflections on them.

Didion has worked with words for a living and she is good with them. Her ability to produce descriptive writing is obvious illustrated by this example relating to what would have been Quintana’s seventh wedding anniversary;

Seven years ago today we took the leis from the florist’s boxes and shook the water in which they were packed onto the grass … The white peacock spread his fan. The organ sounded. She wove white stephanotis into the thick braid that hung down her back. She dropped a tulle veil over her head and the stephanotis loosened and fell. The plumeria blossom ..”

Yet, there is no description of Quintana Roo at all, and as the book continues the subject becomes the failure to address the certainties of growing old, illness and death, although the way Didion realises this is a way particular to her:

“One day we are looking at the Magnum photograph of Sophia Loren at the Christian Dior show in Paris in 1968 and thinking yes, it could be me, I could wear that dress, I was in Paris that year; a blink of the eye later we are in one or another doctor’s office being told what has already gone wrong, why we will never again wear the red suede sandals with the four-inch heels, never again wear the gold hoop earrings, the enamelled beads, never now wear the dress Sophia Loren is wearing.”

It is almost as though the subject changes as the book goes on; although Didion does keep coming back to a quote that is repeated throughout the book, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

The memoir is haunting and given the series events this is not surprising:

Could you have seen, had you been walking on Amsterdam Avenue and caught sight of the bridal party that day, how utterly unprepared the mother of the bride was to accept what would happen before the year 2003 had even ended? The father of the bride dead at his own dinner table? The bride herself in an induced coma, breathing only on a respirator not expected by the doctors in the intensive care to live the night? The first in a cascade of medical crises that would end twenty months later with her death.”

As one reviewer has pointed out this is a memoir more about regret than grief, but Didion is always quotable and has some interesting things to say about aging and the way it suddenly seems to be there, as if we had not realised it was going to happen.

It is a powerful memoir with some interesting reflections on aging, but I was never quite sure what it was designed to be.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Peregrinations of a Pariah by Flora Tristan

 

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Quicksand by Nella Larsen

This was Nella Larsen’s first novel, published in 1928 and it has autobiographical elements in it. Helga Crane is the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black father. We follow her over a number of years; initially as a teacher in an all-black school in the south. Then she lives in Chicago and Harlem, before moving to Denmark to stay with her mother’s relatives. A number of suitors pursue her and are brushed aside. Crane returns to America and following a religious experience marries a southern preacher. Pregnancies and unhappiness follow.

That is a rapid dash through the plot which doesn’t do it justice; Helga Crane is a much more interesting character than that. Crane is trapped between two racial identities she struggles with her own identity and never really feels she belongs anywhere although she is in touch with her own sexuality; unusual in a black female character at this time. She tries a number of different ways and modes of living, none of which bring her any satisfaction after a brief period of novelty; she is at odds with the world. As Elisabeth Hudson writes;

“I believe that in writing Quicksand, Larsen was attempting to convey her view that, in American and European society in the 1920s, black women were marginalized to such an extent that there was no place where they could truly be free.

Helga Crane’s unease pervades the novel and the reader instinctively knows that each new start is a false one for the protagonist. The reader knows by the end that Crane has run out of her own inner resources and what happens to her is now out of her control, but she does have an awareness of the exploitation and repression she has suffered.

One interesting point of the novel is Larsen’s use of colours. Skin colour:

“For the hundredth time she marvelled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair; straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair, woolly hair…”

But also the colours of clothes and fabrics, which in a way add to the hollowness of Helga Crane’s world. The writing is stylish and the are some amusing moments, but also a sense of inevitability about the end, It does deserve the plaudits it has received.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Passing by Nella Larsen

 

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I also loved it Pixie and have just finished it!

The New House by Lettice Cooper

 

Split into three sections; morning, afternoon and evening, this is a novel set in one day. The premise is very simple; it concerns a family moving house from a large imposing house with gardens (not quite a stately home, but quite big), to something much smaller overlooking a housing estate. It is an enforced move as the old house is too large and expensive to be managed.

Lettice Cooper lived a long life which might seem unremarkable to some. As well as being a writer and penning a number of novels, she wrote reviews for a local newspaper, worked for the ministry of food for the Second World War, founded the Writers Action Group, wrote a ground-breaking novel about PTSD and spent a lifetime fighting for libraries and Public Lending Rights. Her novels examine class with Cooper coming from a leftist perspective and she even wrote a novel about the Miners Strikes of the 1970s.

This novel was written in 1936 and reflects the changes in the English middle classes after the First World War. The family involved is the Powell family; Mr Powell has recently died and Mrs Powell can no longer manage the house; although she does not really accept this. Her daughter Rhoda lives at home and is in her 30s. Her brother Maurice lives nearby with his wife Evelyn and their daughter. The final sibling Delia lives and works in London and is engaged to be married to Jim. All the family are rallying round to assist with the removals, including Mrs Powell’s sister Ellen. As you may have gathered there is not a great deal of action (pretty much none in fact) and the pace is slow. We see the situation from the perspective of all the different members of the family, noting their different feelings and their particular tensions. We see Mrs Powell resentful that she has to move, selfish and used to getting her own way. Rhoda is dutiful and caring, knowing she is expected to care for her mother, but also longing to break free. We see the tensions between Maurice and Evelyn who have different aspirations; Evelyn feeling the importance of moving up the social ladder and becoming wealthier whilst Maurice has vague egalitarian leanings (which, as he is a capitalist owning a small part of the means of production, he will do nothing about). Delia is a freer spirit and gets frustrated with them all and wants Rhoda to break free.

Cooper is a skilful writer and there is some perceptive analysis here. Rhoda ponders her feelings on moving:

“Today, she thought is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack and if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin tomorrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.”

And it is Rhoda who seems to get the most time as she struggles with her role and her relationship with her mother:

“'If, thought Rhoda, you could, just for a single minute, get inside another person, and look at yourself and everyone from them, what a difference it would make to all the rest of your life!”

Mrs Powell and her daughter-in-law (Evelyn) both worry about seeing and meeting the poorer classes from the housing estate. Cooper draws clear parallels between the oppression of the working classes in housing estates and slums and the situation of women like Rhoda.

Cooper is able to make the reader understand the motivations and feelings of all the characters, even the unlikeable ones (and there are a number of those) and this is one of the strengths of the book. It is a vignette of family life, a character study and a picture of a social change which took place between the wars. For those who like thoughtful and considered novels.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Cotter's England by Christina Stead

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Thank you Pixie!

Philip Larkin: A writers life by Andrew Motion

 

How do you review a book like this? An erudite and scholarly examination of a poet with (to me) repugnant opinions. He has written some great poems and yet he was undoubtedly racist and right wing. His relationships with women were complex and he had a horror of commitment which led him to have long term relationships with two particular women and for some time a third. Larkin is a bit of an enigma as well. He turned down the chance to be poet Laureate twice and spent most of his working life as Librarian at Hull University; just across the river from where I grew up. He was known as the Hermit of Hull.

Motion does not shy away from Larkin’s opinions and the contradictoriness of his character. Larkin had a great love of Jazz and wrote a column on it in a national newspaper for years; being a great fan of Armstrong et al. Yet he can say when writing to the novelist Barbara Pym;

“I’m afraid I always feel London is very unhealthy – I can hear fat Caribbean germs pattering after me in the Underground”.

 He wrote of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1969:

“ fudge the whole lot of them, I say, the decimal loving, n*****r loving, army cutting, abortion promoting, murder pardoning, daylight hating ponces, to hell with them, the worst government I can remember.”

He was a great fan of Margaret Thatcher when she became prime minister of course.

There is no doubt he could write poetry; especially when he wrote about one of his obsessions; death. This is Aubade;

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Motion also does a very good job of unpicking Larkin’s complex emotional life, although does become tedious of repetitious after a while. What beats me is why any of them tolerated him; possibly because none knew the total extent of his involvement with the others, except perhaps Monica Jones. Anyway, Motion has done a good job of combining general biography with literary biography and I feel I have spent way too much time in Larkin’s company; a man whose views I loathe.

And yet there is This be the Verse;

“They fudge you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fudgeed up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself”

This first verse of which speaks to many.

Anyway; off with Mr Larkin.

8 out of 10

Starting Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

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Passing by Nella Larsen

 

Another great novel by Nella Larsen, set in Harlem in the 1920s and written in 1929. It is about two childhood friends, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, written in the third person from the point of view of Redfield. One of the keys to the novel lies in the title. Passing indicates, in this case a person of mixed heritage passing as someone who is white (in this novel Kendry). But this is not just a novel about race, Larsen addresses sexuality and gender as well. The plot revolves around Kendry passing as white, even for her husband who is a racist.

The novel starts with a chance encounter between the two women at a restaurant after they lost touch when they grew up. Sometime after this chance encounter they meet again (reluctantly on Redfield’s part) and then there are suggestions that Kendry is having an affair with Brian, Redfield’s husband and there are risks that Kendry’s husband will discover her secret. The plot builds to a tragic climax.

There ae a number of subtexts in the book; the relationship between Clare and Irene is clearly complex and given the clearly sexless relationship between Brian and Irene there has been conjecture that he was homosexual. Larsen demonstrates the psychological costs of racism and sexism. Of course scholarship around the novel inevitably tends towards some disagreement, but one of the more interesting arguments is posed by Jennifer DeVere Brody who argues that Redfield and Kendry represent two differing ideologies in conflict. That for me rings true.

Redfield is intrigued by Kendry;

“She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friend.”

But she also has other concerns in her own life;

Security. Was it just a word? If not, then was it only by the sacrifice of other things, happiness, love, or some wild ecstasy that she had never known, that it could be obtained.”

Larsen holds all the tensions together and delivers an open ending, which to me added to the complexity. This is a novel I would hope to come back to and a favourite. But I still think if I had to choose, I maybe preferred Quicksand.

9 out of 10

Starting The Bone People by Keri Hulme

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Fire and Stone by Priscilla Long

 

This is a collection of personal essays that is based on Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” The touchstone for long is herself, her family and its history, but from there are forays in many different directions. Long roams around science, literature, history and politics, often in a very personal way; the writing incidentally is excellent.

There is an essay on Neanderthals and the growth and spread of the human species, which is interesting and speculative. The essay on the brain is an A to Z with sections on plasticity, Oscillation, dementia, the hippocampus, Wernicke’s area, xenial relations and many others. Throwing stones is about Long’s experiences in the 60s. Death makes an appearance with essays about the death of parents and the suicide of a sister. A reflection on the nature of autobiography is again an A to Z with random snippets linking well. For example I is entitled; Who am I?

“I. Who am I? Who am I when I’m sleeping? Who am I when I’m dreaming? Am I still the third child born to my parents during the war year of 1943? Am I still a reader? Am I still a writer when I’m sleeping? Am I a twin? Am I a Seattleite? Am I still descended from Scottish and English and Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants? Am I still 2.9% Neanderthal? When I an sleeping what happens to my opinions? Am I still a woman? Am I anybody?”

There is an essay on the banjo relating to the period when Long was into traditional American music and learnt to play it. It consists of a series of reflections of six songs. The chapter on the genome is fascinating and includes a discussion on Chomsky’s language theories. The essays on the Archaeology of Childhood and Solitude were very thought provoking. One of the highlights for me was the comparative essay about Wallace Stevens and Meret Oppenheim.

This an eclectic collection of essays, written beautifully with much to provoke thought and reflection.

 9 out of 10

Starting Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe

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Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan

 

Autobiographical novel by Irish writer Brendan Behan. Behan was brought up in a strongly republican household, her mother was a close friend of Michael Collins. Behan joined Fianna Éireann, the youth section of the IRA at 13. When he was 16 in 1939 Behan went to Liverpool with some explosives with the intention of blowing up the docks. He was arrested and because of his age ended in the borstal system. He was in borstal in England until his release in 1941.  The novel is split into three sections. The first part covers a two months stay in Walton prison in Liverpool on remand, this illustrates the brutality of day to day prison life. Part two tells about a brief stay at Feltham waiting for a place at Borstal. The final part covers his stay at Hollesley Bay Borstal.

Behan writes well and captures the accents and tones of his fellow inmates very well. There are working class young men from London, Liverpool, Scotland and the North East and Behan captures their voices accurately. He starts the book with his arrest;

“Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs: “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart, Boy, there’s two gentlemen here to see you.”
I knew by the screeches of her that the gentlemen were not calling to inquire after my health, or to see if I’d had a good trip.

I grabbed my suitcase, containing Pot. Chlor., Sulph Ac, gelignite, detonators, electrical and ignition, and the rest of my Sinn Fein conjurer’s outfit, and carried it to the window.

Then the gentlemen arrived. A young one, with a blond Herrenvolk head and a BBC accent shouted “I say, grab him the behstud!”

When I was safely grabbed the blonde one gave me several punches in the face”

In the police station Behan gives his well-rehearsed statement:

“My name is Brendan Behan. I came over here to fight for the Irish workers’ and Small Farmers Republic, for a full and free life, for my countrymen, North and South and for the removal of the baneful influence of British Imperialism from Irish affairs. God Save Ireland”

Behan’s construction of prison life is complex and not always what you expect. He makes it clear that Irish working class Catholics and English working class Protestants have more in common than their middle and upper class masters on either side. This is reflected in the Marxist analysis espoused by the Official IRA who argued that class was more potent than religion and should be a unifying factor.

Behan captures the monotony of prison life, the importance of tobacco, of friendships, the variable food. At that time the prisoners did work on a variety of jobs (including sewing mailbags). Behan finds his way around and through the system. There is casual violence, but Behan seems to avoid most of it by being just as tough as he needs to be, but mostly by his charm and friendliness. He describes relationships with the authorities, not good in Walton, much better in Hollesley. There were sexual relationships in prison. Behan does not ignore them, although he is careful as homosexuality was still illegal when he wrote the book. His language is coded but clear, as is his own bisexuality.

What the book does need is a good editor; it’s too long and is sometimes dominated by the sheer strength of Behan’s character and is now clouded by the mythology surrounding him. As Augustine Martin said in 1963;

“Brendan Behan does not invite critical comment on his work. The whole character of the man discourages it. The public image that he has created is so tremendously alive and exuberant that one is inclined to regard the writing as a mere casual offshoot of his rollicking personality. As if, in fact, the work was there as an excuse to display the man. Again one feels a little silly in treating his work with more attention and respect the he allows it himself.”

Behan is an amiable companion who seems to realize that although he hates the British state, he actually gets on very well with the British working class. Given what he intended it is very difficult not to like Behan as he goes on what is a voyage of discovery about his “enemies”.

 7 and a half out of 10

Starting Eccentric Fish by Dolly Sen

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Eccentric Fish by Dolly Sen

This is one of Dolly Sen’s collections of poetry. Sen has seen a great deal of the mental health system in Britain. She says herself;

“I had my first psychotic experience aged 14 and stopped going to school. A series of dead end jobs followed. Pretty early on I decided I didn’t want any more of the 9-5 shhhhhhh and spoon race, and began to write … and maybe watch 70s cop shows”

Sen recounts the history of her experience of the inside of the mental health system in two excellent autobiographies. Apart from writing poetry and autobiographies Sen also blogs, performs, is a mental health consultant, has written a novel, been involved in Mad Pride and much more.

This collection of poems is from 2007 and they are wide ranging and often tackling difficult subjects. Some are quite quirky as well:

“Psychiatrist conference

Free pens!

I took one

Before I went to talk to docs on

What it is like to be mad

The ink was temperamental:

Wrote only half the words

Nobody knew what I wanted to say.

I scream in frustration – arrggghh

But those are not my words

Just what you made say

Psychiatrist, read between the lines

Stop giving me things that do not work.

This is not a poem but a moan but I put it in the book anyway”

There are hard hitting poems here, one in particular about someone on the edge of society called Please Don’t Touch

“Spit stains corners the mouth that can’t explain

Scars mean some human contact in his life

Detritus on his head, in his head

Grey hand holding that blue can

Inducing disgust in every fudgeing human that passes

His unwashed absolution ensuring

The distance of everyone

So no-one can see the tears in his eyes”

Sen doesn’t do easy or neat, but she is eloquent and passionate and these poems are worth looking up.

 7 and a half out of 10

Starting Some tame gazelle by Barbara Pym

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Peregrinations of a Pariah by Flora Tristan

 

This is the record of Flora Tristan’s travels to South America in 1833-4. Flora Tristan was a socialist writer, activist and feminist. She was the grandmother of the painter Paul Gaughin. Her father was a colonel in the Spanish navy and her mother French; they were never married. When her father died in 1807, Flora and her mother were left in poverty. Flora’s mother fired her imagination about her wealthy relatives, most of whom lived in Peru. Tristan married young and by 1825 had two children with a third on the way. Leaving the children with her mother Tristan struck out on her own. She coloured lithographs, worked in a confectioners and became a lady’s maid to and English family. She also travelled to England, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and also as far as India. She also wrote to her father’s younger brother in Peru to introduce herself. He sent her a small amount of money and granted her a small annual income. Tristan met a naval captain who had been to Peru and the stories he told fired her imagination. In 1833 she set out on the naval captain’s ship for the Americas; the only woman on board the ship. This book is the story of that trip.

Tristan’s tale is descriptive and she does a good job of describing local conditions, local dress and customs. She makes clear her detestation of slavery and the need for liberation. Her descriptions of the sea voyage is more limited as she spent most of the voyage suffering from seasickness. There are almost two strands running in parallel. One is a description of the progress in relation to her family and the general politics of Peru (which they were heavily involved in). The second is a description of the geography, the conditions of the population, their customs and culture. Tristan is very clear that she is opposed to slavery and oppression and very much in favour of the rights of women.  Her comments on the unstable political situation are perceptive. She did not have any success with the inheritance she felt she was entitled to but she does provide good descriptions of the protagonists in what was, at the time a civil war. She also describes a battle that took place near to where she was staying at the time.

Tristan does take note of the conditions and dress of women and of the indigenous peoples. Her gaze is a distinctly European one; whilst she is sympathetic to the plight of the poor she finds their conditions and what she describes as their “odour, ugliness and stupidity” personally repugnant. Tristan does express strong opinions; she does not like the English either and is somewhat ambivalent about the Church, although she does describe the inside of a fair few convents.

Tristan is opinionated and some of her views are unpleasant, but she does tell a good tale and her story is readable and fascinating. Some of her views are very modern and her attitude to women’s rights foreshadows later feminist movements.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting This Census-Taker by China Mieville

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Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

 

This comprises of four novellas and two short stories; written by Chang in the 1940s. They contain opposites in tension (spiritual and physical love, East against West, tradition clashing with modernity). The effects of war and western influences are never very far away. The settings revolve around Hong Kong and Shanghai. Chang was not immune to the tensions in her own country and despite initial success in her own country, when she was forced to move to the US she struggled to relaunch her career. She died a recluse in 1995.

There is an acidity to the writing which is delightful and Chang has a perceptive way of building and showing character. In the title story a young divorcee is falling in love with a wealthy playboy;

Whenever they were in public, he made sure to give the impression of affectionate intimacy, so now there was no way to prove that they had not slept together”

When he gives her up and despair sets in her family’s response is telling;

“People who don’t have money can’t just give up, even if they want to. Shave your head, become a nun, and when you beg for alms, you’ll still have to deal with people.”

Chang’s powers of description are also very powerful; one of the stories begins;

The tramcar driver drove his tram, the tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on ... the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad.”

But most of all Chang looks at the role women in a changing world; trapped by social constraints and a very limited supply of options. Some of the characters fail, others succeed to an extent, but Chang creates memorable and convincing characters who command attention.

Although Chang is better known now; she still does not get the attention she deserves and she certainly does deserve a wider audience.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Pao by Kerry Young

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