Swimming With Seals, Victoria Whitworth
I enjoyed this very much; although I didn’t feel like jumping into cold water after finishing it, as theGuardian reviewer quoted on the cover did. She’s a novelist but I have not read any of her novels. I liked her writing. This is a memoir about her time living in Orkney. I had an uncle who was born there so I found the descriptions of the landscape and environment very interesting. Harsh doesn’t seem adequate. She is a new arrival and how to fit into a close knit community is one of the challenges she describes. One way is to join a swimming group and her experience swimming every day regardless of weather conditions forms the backbone of the book.

We get detailed descriptions of what it’s like to swim in what many, me included, would regard as impossible conditions. The physical impact on the body is described in all its scientific detail. And the geography and behaviour of the currents in the different bays in which she swims are also mapped out. And yes, there are seals! It would have been nice to have photos of some of the landmarks she describes and I occasionally googled them. Extraordinary physical landscape. And extraordinary history – Picts and Vikings – artifacts of which are constantly emerging from the weathered cliffs and bays.

Interspersed with these concrete renderings of here and now we get memories of her former life, especially of her mother. And gradually we are told of the pressures on her marriage although this never dominates the narrative. Instead it is a journey of discovery – of this amazing place and of a person. All beautifully rendered. I liked it a lot.

From The Corner of The Oval, Beck Dorey-Stein
I was surprised to find this book at our local library. But there you go – always check your library. This was less about the Obama administration and more about the author’s personal journey but I enjoyed it nevertheless. The snippets about President Obama are interesting; but that’s all they are – the title is apt, we are only getting the view from a tiny corner. Having worked in a political office the picture drawn here rings true – the staff hierarchy (Beck as a stenographer is on the bottom), the constant sense of chaos especially on trips out of the office, the lack of any validation of a job well done, the sense of being a bystander at significant moments. It’s also interesting as a story about an emerging writer and the importance of encouragement in that process.

The author doesn’t seem to be a very political person – it’s her boyfriend who is the Democrat campaigner; moving from one campaign to another. Her romantic travails are an exercise in self-deception and you occasionally want to shout at her “don’t do it!!!!” as she keeps being drawn into a very destructive relationship. She writes without any hint of sentimentality or egotism or even any rancour about her colleagues. In fact she’s so self effacing you wonder how she got the job at all. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s an easy read from a unique perspective. Read and weep when you compare it to the current White House.

Diary of a Wartime Affair, Doreen Bates. Another borrowed from the library, but as you can see, they had to get it from Latrobe Library. I love this cover photograph although it is only a bought stock image. Doreen and her lover, named only E, are not so attractive. Nevertheless this is an extraordinary book. Published by the children of the woman who wrote the diary. And what an extraordinary person she turns out to be. Born 25th of April 1906, she died in 1994 at the age of 87. Her twin children who were born in 1941 knew about her diary, which she kept all her life and she used to say they could read it when she died.

It’s an amazing document covering the period 1934 to 1941; ending with the birth of the children. They are the product of a long term affair their mother had with her boss. He was married, she wasn’t. The diary records frank descriptions of their physical relationship. She starts off calling it loving and ends up talking about where and when they fucked. She’s explicit about whether she liked it or not. They do it on the floor or desk in the office, under trees and on meadows during long walks on week-ends or in the middle of the night, sometimes in a hotel, very occasionally in a flat belonging to someone else. We follow as she moves on from describing a degree of discomfort to wholehearted and very frank assessment of the level of enjoyment she takes from each tryst.

Alongside the affair she talks about her treatment as a woman in the public service at this time. She’s in some sort of tax office and is obviously good at what she does. Her manager – not E, it’s a bit unclear who reports to who – encourages her to seek promotion and there’s a lot of discussion about the process and how unfair it is to women. There is an organised group of women bureaucrats who are campaigning for equal treatment – both in terms of money but more importantly for them, opportunities for senior roles. Doreen is surprised to find that she likes them. They encourage her to go for the promotion. She’s not sure it’s worth the bother but with this encouragement does so – for the advancement of women generally as well as for herself. When she gets it, after having to appeal an initial rejection, she gets sent away to Northern Ireland. Which interrupts her plans to have a baby!

E and his wife do not have children. and he is not keen on Doreen having one. She is completely matter of fact in describing all of this. While she is deciding whether to pursue her goal she also has flings with a couple of other fellows; who both fall short when compared to E. So she persists in her goal of having a child with him despite it meaning she will be a single Mum. It seems to be a given that E will not divorce his wife and Doreen doesn’t insist on it. Her only condition is that he tell his wife about their affair before she gets pregnant. He finally agrees.

The hurdles she had to overcome are staggering; finding a doctor to treat her during pregnancy and even a hospital at which to give birth – most refused to do so for single women. She had to fight to get leave to have the baby and then to keep her job which was all very complicated (in fact she was better off being single than married, if the latter she would have been out the door). She then had to get somewhere to live and on top of it all she had to deal with ongoing opposition from her mother! She was aided and abetted by her manager – she was obviously a valued employee – and also by her sister. The final part of the diary records her experience during the birth of the twins. She was amazingly courageous and resilient. Her only anxiety was about having to call an ambulance to take her to hospital – concerned that her mother would be ashamed!

The twins both became academics, Margaret became Emeritus Professor of Neuropathy at Oxford and Andrew became Professor of Transport Risk Management at Imperial College London (married an Australian). In a postscript we are told that E’s wife eventually agreed to him spending every second week-end with Doreen and the children as they were entitled to know their father. He died in 1974. Photos in the book show a fairly nondescript fellow making it hard to see why Doreen would pursue the relationship with such vigour. Apparently Doreen’s mother’s hostility to E endured which made family life a bit tricky at times.

Doreen started the diary as part of a project in the UK during the war years called Mass Observation. It includes some very matter of fact descriptions of the inconveniences caused in the early stages of the war. Intermittent bombing made it hard to get to and from work and to and from her mother’s. She describes the round about routes she had to take and how late she was. Also how it was sometimes difficult to get away with E for any love-making! It interesting seeing how ordinary life – tax assessments – continued despite the war. The diary was kept in the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University. I’m so pleased her children decided to publish it. An excellent editing process which scaled back what could have been a much bigger book, has made this slice of life a riveting read. Strongly recommended.

Lanny, Max Porter I loved Max Porter’s first novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, which may have coloured my response to this book. Which I enjoyed but didn’t love as much as I wanted/expected. I think because it seeks to paint a bigger picture. Grief was a very interior book, describing – or rather imagining how – a father and his two young sons deal with losing their wife and mother. A beautiful, poetic, imaginative work. Very short and with only four characters – the three humans and a crow.

This book is also very short, but this time the setting is a village and lots of different voices are recorded resulting in a cacophony of silent sound spread out before us on the page. All in different type-faces and meandering across the page in wavy lines to illustrate visually as well as through reading the effect the author is seeking. That works well; but perhaps lessens the emotional impact of the story.

Perhaps it should have been longer to flesh out the characters more. There are so many and their voices are so jumbled up together they don’t stick as rounded characters. This is the case in particular for our four main individuals – Lanny, his mother and father and the artist who befriends him. We are expected to know enough about them by overhearing their conversations and seeing how they interact with each other and others in the village. Its not quite enough for us to get to know them deeply.

At a superficial level all of the people in the village are well drawn. We hear them talking in the pub, at home, over the back or front fence, gossiping, arguing, putting forward their theories about what is happening. The different voices are beautifully – poetically – captured. The good, the bad and the ugly; conjuring up the life of a small town anywhere.; (memories of Watchupga emerge unbidden). But without a clearer picture of the people about whom these stories swirl, there’s not quite enough to connect the reader emotionally to the plot.

The character of Lanny is also problematic. He’s an outsider, living in a world of his own, a stranger to his own mother and father, let alone the rest of the village. We learn that early on; especially in a funny sequence involving his father and a possible burglar. But he suffers no consequences from this strangeness. Even though, we later learn, he’s been the victim of bullying at school. He seems unaffected by his status as the other.

Herein lies the major problem with the book – there is an absence at its centre. Which there was at the heart of Grief which we heard Max Porter talk about at the Wheeler Centre. There is no detail at all given about the mother whose death is mourned. We were told heaps had been written but in the end it was all chucked out – as completely unnecessary which it was. That’s because the mother’s absence is given great emotional heft due to the responses of her husband and son’s to that absence.

This is not the case here. We needed to feel more for Lanny in order to be concerned about the events described. While there is an attempt at this in the concluding pages, it comes too late and seems contradictory to what has preceded it.

There’s a bit of the imaginary thrown in, as there was in Grief. This time in the form of a figure akin to the Green Man of English folk tales. Here, he takes the form of Dead Papa Toothwort who appears to be a tree; bringing to mind one of Tolkien’s Ents. There are one or two in the village who appear to be communicating with him; to know that he is being awakened, and able to interpret what he is saying and doing. I liked his character and observations very much but it was hard to discern what impact he was having on events. Notwithstanding that I liked the dazzling wordplay and poetic merging of old and new that he represented.

But the overall story was a little disappointing. I’m probably being pernickety – a lesser novel from Max Porter is still a superior novel to most.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know: The Fathers Of Wilde, Yeats And Joyce, Colm Tóibín I received two copies of this book for my birthday earlier this year; from two of my oldest friends. They both know me very well! I enjoyed it a lot. He’s a beautiful writer and can make any subject a joy to read.

The book is a compilation of Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature Tóibín gave at the Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in November 2017. I like the title which comes from what was famously said by someone about Lord Byron. It’s an appropriate one for the three fathers discussed here. There were three on: the father of Oscar Wilde, about whom I knew very little, the father of William Butler Yeats about whom I knew quite a lot having seen a film about him, and the father of James Joyce about whom I knew a fair bit from his novels but also from James’ and Nora’s biographies. As well, the book includes a lovely introduction that takes the form of a stroll around Dublin taking in various landmarks relevant to the lives being discussed. Better than a Google map next time you’re in Dublin.

Oscar’s Dad certainly was An Eminent Victorian: Sir William Wilde. Unlike the others he was successful in his profession as a doctor and was wealthy. Obviously very gifted but with one or two fatal flaws that may have been passed on to his famous son: hubris and an incapacity to suffer fools gladly. He was intelligent and gifted and in addition to his medical practice was intensely interested in cultural matters. He actively participated in, and sometimes led, a number of Irish national projects. He was knighted for his contribution to the Irish Census. Like his son he was brought undone by a libel action, albeit one pursued by his wife who, herself, comes across as an amazing person. I’d like to know more about both of them and the bibliography appended to the book shows me where to go.

The essay on John Yeats describes him as The Playboy of West Twenty-Ninth Street which is a reference to his long sojourn in America. He went there in 1907 to make his fortune as an artist and died there in 1922. There’s quite a lot of material for a biographer to work with, and for a lecturer to distil into something manageable. He wrote lots of letters to everyone including William Butler and the quotes from them are quite something. Tóibín thinks this self imposed exile made the father-son relationship better as in his correspondence the father showed astonishing freshness and seriousness on art and life, and on poetry. All very well, but he deserted his wife and family, living off his daughters mostly. Typical feckless Irish man!

Even so he’s not quite so bad as John Stanislaus Joyce. This section is entitled The Two Tenors: Jame Joyce and His Father and once again there is plenty of material to work with, not least the son’s novels. Tóibín believes James had to leave Dublin where his father loomed large, in order to escape him.

The downward spiral that John Joyce inflicted on his family is a dispiriting read. They moved into smaller, more squalid premises time and time again. Despite being given every opportunity to improve his situation, he refused to make the slightest effort to do so. Perhaps because he wasn’t living with the consequences of this fecklessness, James Joyce loved his father and according to Tóibín, sought in his work to recreate, reimagine, and fully invoke him. I find him completely infuriating.

If you are not familiar with these dissolute men, this is a great overview of their lives with some interesting observations about the impact they had on the creative talent displayed by their offspring.


One Response to Books Read: May – June 2019

  1. [...] BOOKS My best books, amongst many read, for the year have been: Diary of a Wartime Affair. I love this cover image even though it is just a stock photo. There are photos of the real people in the book. They don’t look like this. I talk, at length, about this wonderful book in this blog. [...]

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