I have resolved not to buy any new books for the whole of 2019. Because I’ve got so many unread books piled up in my study, or on my iPad. You buy on impulse and then for whatever reason – changing mood or circumstances or a better offer – the impetus to read it dries up. I’ve bought lots that for one reason or another I’ve never opened. It’s time to do so!
I’ve got some wriggle room. I can borrow from the library – we have a grand modern one nearby that I am keen to take advantage of. And I can keep checking out my neighbour’s book exchange opposite. I’ve already utilised both those options in the books I read this month; a few more than usual as I was housebound for a bit recovering from my burst appendix drama.
I continued my nostalgic return to existentialism; first by reading the third volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Force of Circumstance. I enjoyed it a lot, especially her reflections on The Mandarins which I read a little while ago and which I loved. Interesting to have her take on who was who and who was not who. Although I think her denying that Henri was based on Camus was a bit disingenuous. But interesting all the same!
I really liked the extracts from her diaries of the time; especially during wartime. They make you feel you’re living through it yourself. But by the end I was a bit over it all and don’t think I’ll continue with her later volumes. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the public controversies she deals with. Nor did I know anything about a lot of the people she references. And I wasn’t interested enough to google. The Algerian war was clearly a defining issue for both Simone and Sartre and their opposition to it was clearly brave and farsighted and took up a lot of energy for a long time. But her views on many other contemporary issues haven’t really stood the test of time. Writing all of this was a massive undertaking and whilst she obviously gilds the lily sometimes, she’s at pains to try to be truthful. I’m glad I read it.
Having refreshed memories of the work of both Sartre and Simone I felt ready for The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell which I purchased ages ago but didn’t want to read until I’d updated my existentialist credentials. I’m glad I waited, especially until after the course on Being And Nothingness I did last year. See my blog on that here. Sarah writes so clearly about all of the philosophical ideas encompassed in the word existential. The conceit about the cafe doesn’t get much of a run but is cute while it lasts. I think she could have expanded a bit on her own interest in existentialism which she touches on obliquely. Its a stimulating read and recommended for anyone with an interest in this sort of thing!
Back to Daphne du Maurier with the novel, Mary Anne. This is a 1955 edition which I found in my neighbour’s book exchange. Look at the Mills & Boon / Georgette Heyer type cover. Daphne objected to being described as a romantic novelist and this cover actually misrepresents the book which is a good bit darker than a swashbuckling romance.
It’s dedicated to the woman whose story it tells, Daphne’s great great Grandmother, Mary Ann Clark, died Boulogne, June 21st, 1852. The second dedication is a nod perhaps to Daphne’s father who was the most celebrated actor of his age, or at least to her theatre connections. It’s to Gertrude Lawrence who was to have acted the part on the stage, died in New York, September 6, 1952.
What a life Mary Anne led. She was the mistress of the Duke of York, the favourite son (it says on the blurb) of George III. Daphne became interested (the blurb says it was only to be expected that feminine curiosity would be aroused) when she discovered that Mary Anne’s memoirs were burned on the orders of a Royal edict no less. While it’s a rollicking tale it’s not a romantic one. You get a real feel for the period; the precariousness of life – success or failure dependent on connections, reputations, luck and the capacity to see an opportunity and seize it. Hard to lift yourself out of where you were born – especially if you’re a woman. Mary Anne’s quick wit and courage saw her do so.
Headstrong from the get go she made a disastrous marriage that stymied her later life choices. But she was attractive and bold which is how she came to be the Royal mistress. And when discarded by her betters she was bent on revenge – hence the memoirs. She over shot her mark though and spent time in goal, for defamation of all things. Thereafter she lived in France. Like all of Daphne’s books this is very well written and a quick and easy read. She thanks a couple of researchers for their assistance – at the British Museum and Public Record Office and scouring books, papers and documents of the period – so I assume it’s historically accurate. Well worth the effort, an amazing story.
A friend gave me More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Adam Sisman. There is an earlier volume as well. In addition letters between he and the Duchess of Devonshire have also been published. That’s a lot of letters! He was obviously a great correspondent.
I loved Patrick’s trilogy A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and (published posthumously) The Broken Road. These tell the story of his journey from 1933 to 1935, the Great Trudge he called it, across Mitteleuropa, from London through the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as Istanbul was then). He was 18 when he started and the first of these books was published when he was 62 years old. He never managed to finish the third and final one which was edited by his biographer, Artemis Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron. I’ve also read the biography, entitled simply Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventurer by Artemis Cooper as well as Patrick’s A Time To Keep Silence which is about what he calls monastic sojourns he undertook in the 1950s.
With this background I loved the letters; especially those that fill in some of the gaps in the stories for example what happened to his Romanian friends from whom he was separated by the Iron Curtain for years. They were treated badly. I also enjoyed all the references to writing and getting the first two volumes published along with his anxiety about finishing the third, which he never did. It almost made me rush out to get the first volume but by the end I’d had enough. His personality comes through loud and clear. He’s a great correspondent, enthusiastic about everything he’s experiencing. There are great descriptive passages about what he is seeing – often historical sites but also of nature. He’s obviously very charming to those he’s mixing with. He’d be hard to resist. At the same time he’s very conservative, an inveterate snob and has been described as a sponger by enemies (I think Evelyn Waugh). He certainly spent a lot of time staying in other people’s houses either writing or just being entertained. He was obviously welcome because the invitations kept coming. There is a strange selection of photos that seem to be in no particular order; but I loved this one of Paddy, as he was always called, taken in 1936 or 1937 when he was 21 or 22 by his Romanian lover, Marie-Blanch Cantacuzene. She was in her thirties. You can see the attraction.
These letters also reveal a bygone age of British influence around the world. He’s in and out of different embassies and hobnobbing with expatriate Brits everywhere he goes. Very revealing about how the other half live – or lived. Also very entertaining. But what William Dalrymple called this last marvellous treasure trove of Leigh Fermor prose maybe this one is for reader’s who are already fans.
A book I’ve had for ages, on my iPad but without ever opening it is A Month In The Country, by J L Carr. I can’t remember who recommended it although I know it’s very highly regarded. Though sometime that doesn’t translate to a contemporary reading. No disappointment here. This a gem of a book; rightly described as a masterpiece. Even though it is tiny; almost a novella. It only took me an afternoon and evening to read. But it’s very beautiful writing. Very spare, not a word wasted. A meditation on recovery (from the trauma of war), on friendship (in the moment – no questions asked), on what it means to be part of a community (or not). And most of all its about the mystery of romantic attachment. A lovely sense of place – in the country – pervades everything. It’s been made into a movie – I can’t imagine how as it is all described from the point of view of the narrator and much of it is what is going on inside his head. I thought it almost a perfect piece of writing.
A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir by William Waldegrave was recommended by a person called John Rentoul who I followed on Twitter. Waldegrave was a Minister in the Thatcher Government. His book is a wry, self deprecating look at his very privileged background, what impelled him to a political life, what he did when he got there and what he thinks of it all now. There are some astute observations about the practice of politics in general. You get a first hand glimpse into the lives of those born into hereditary privilege (very limited for the girls!) and of the networks that smooth the way for them. As well you get glimpses into what it takes to be a successful leader. Waldegrave came to realise that he didn’t have the necessary stuff but believes Margaret Thatcher had it in spades. Glimpses of Margaret in action are interesting. Whilst he’s a Tory, he isn’t overly partisan although his basic conservatism sneaks out from time to time. He saves his most savage criticism for one on his own side of politics, in relation to a scandal that effectively ended his career. There’s a sense of scores being settled. But it’s dispiriting to see how easily the media and the public can be manipulated to accept a certain version of events. Give us everything in black and white; give us outrage and someone to blame. Rather than boring facts and necessary nuance. Very pertinent today. Worth a read if you’re interested in politics anywhere.
I returned to Simone de Beauvoir when I was loaned The Blood Of Others by a friend. She, having previously loved this, was not so keen on a second reading. I, on my first reading, loved it. I’d like to re-read the bits about the process of writing it from the second volume of Simone’s autobiography The Prime of Life which I read last year. It was well received when it was published. There were shades of Sartre’s Roads To Freedom Trilogy in the interior monologue that she uses where you’re not sure who is talking and the context. Beautifully written. Intense relationships. All about freedom; what is it? What are its consequences? Great.
Since reacquainting myself with Daphne du Maurier, I was keen to try My Cousin Rachel which I’d never read. I felt sure it would be amongst my mother’s books but no such luck. As you can see I got it from the library. It reminded me of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady; I suppose because of the Italian connection. The narrator is Philip, the unworldly country boy, determined, but unable, to hate the interloping, glamorous cousin Rachel who may be responsible for his beloved guardian Ambrose’s death. Or maybe not. The ambivalence is nicely done. It’s not as compelling as Rebecca but a good read nonetheless. On the subject of Daphne, I liked this article on the Five Books website which describes her as one of the most overlooked writers of the 20th century
I chose my final book read this month because I loved the title Tell Them Of Battles, Kings And Elephants and also because Patti Smith posted a copy she was taking on tour on Instagram. If it’s good enough for Patti! It’s by the French author Mathias Enard. If I’d known anything about his other books, for which he has won prizes but which sound pretty tough going, I probably wouldn’t have selected it. Which would have been a pity because I liked it a lot.
The wonderful title comes from Rudyard Kipling, of all people; Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. [From LIfe's Handicap.] Beautiful.
So we are in the realm of fairy tale perhaps. It is a novel inspired by imagination. A visit by Michelangelo to Istanbul; summonsed by the Sultan Bayezid to design a bridge to cross the Golden Horn. Michelangelo goes because he’s fallen out with Julius II, the so-called warrior Pope for whom he is designing a tomb. All of these characters are real. The visit is not. And so the story continues mixing fact and fiction. The Grand Vizier Ali Pasha is real as is the poet Mesihi of Prishtina. And it’s true, as described in the book, that Leonardo da Vinci designed a bridge that was impossible for engineers of that age to build. (Apparently it has recently been successfully realised thanks to new technology).
It’s a fancy to say that Michelangelo based the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome on the Basilica of the Hagia Sophia. But it’s a nice idea. There are lots of ideas about creativity; we see Michelangelo struggling with how to conceive the bridge. He walks around the city; he sits and draws things other than bridges. He visits seedy bars with the poet. He haunts the harbour and watches ships from all over the world unload their cargo. He witnesses an execution, a slave auction. He has a dagger made. He has to know the city before he can design the bridge.
While he’s walking and observing he’s thinking about religion, comparing and contrasting what he’s experiencing here and what he knows of home. East and West – Istanbul, infidels, Rome, christians, Sultan, Pope. There are interludes reminiscent of Arabian Nights – the dancer he is smitten with delivers monologues beside his sleeping figure. She speaks about strength and weakness, of exile and refuge, of love and loss.
All the while intrigue abounds; in Italy there are enemies who seek to undermine him with the Pope (truth again). Here in Stambul he awaits his promised reward for designing the bridge but it doesn’t come. Is the Italian speaking Turk who appears late in his visit a friend or foe? Will the Sultan betray him? It all comes to a very satisfying conclusion. Beautiful writing. Enhanced by our own visit to Istanbul a few years back meaning I could visualise the descriptions of the Hagia Sofia, the Bosphorus, the Galata Tower. Somewhere in the middle of the book we come back to the words in the title, spoken by the mysterious dancer as he sleeps with his back turned to her:
You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvellous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety. Tell them about all of that and they will love you; they will make you the equal of a god.
I had one disappointment which is not a bad average. But I do hate not finishing a book. Why is that? For some reason it feels like a failure on the part of me, the reader, not the author. I really loved Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk but I didn’t finish her 2018 Man Booker prizewinning novel, Flights. An unnamed narrator describing random encounters with strange people in airports and unnamed places. Gothic horror – museums filled with grotesque specimens. That was the end of it for me. It’s described as an ambitious and complex novel. Too ambitious for me! I later read that the original Polish title, Bieguni refers to a an obscure and possible fictional Slavic sect who reject settled life for an existence of constant movement. Its been described as an existential novel; adding to my sense of failure for having given up on it!