Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, Anne Glenconner.
The title says it all really – the shadow of the crown is not a great place to live. She was a Maid of Honour at the Queen’s coronation which seems to have been the high point in her life. That and her continuing relationship with the Royals. There are pictures to show same. She was born into one of the titled families of England. Because her mother only had girls the grand house and chattels went to a cousin. Sort of interesting regarding aristocratic lives – family upbringings were pretty awful all round. Absent parents – a tradition she repeated. The whole ‘coming out’ business – basically a marriage market. She was rejected by the one she really liked because of rumours of insanity in her family. On the rebound she certainly got the short straw. Her chosen husband was quite crazy. There’s an illuminating comment when she asks him why he chose her and he replied that he knew she could handle ‘it’ which was presumably all the madness that was likely to come her way. Which it does. He bought and developed the island of Mustique; playground of the rich and famous. She became a lady in waiting to Princess Margaret whom she’d known as a little girl. What a meaningless occupation that is. Margaret comes out of this a bit better than other books about her; but still, what an awful life! The lady in waiting wasn’t used to being treated as a servant, she has a go at Australian Governor-General Roden Cutler who made her use the staff staircase when Margaret visited Canberra and stayed at Government House! A revealing anecdote about both the author and the stuffiness of conservative Australia in the 1960s. She had three boys and two girls but always put husband first; leaving the children while she organised lavish country house entertainments. Much hoo hah about having the right dinner guests – which is how Margaret met Roddy! No surprise really that two of her boys were dead at a young age – drugs and Aids. The other was badly injured in a motorbike accident and left permanently impaired. The girls seem to have ended up okay. The mad husband eventually disinherited them all. I couldn’t keep track of houses, children and inheritances and by the end I wasn’t much interested. Vacuous lives writ large.
On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons, Laura Cumming
This was an extraordinary story about ordinary, but being British during the era before the Second World War, emotionally repressed, people. Amazing really, how people can do so much damage without meaning to. It’s the story of her mother who went missing from the local beach for three days when she was very young. She’s recovered wearing different clothes and returned to her father and mother and life continues with no-one talking about that incident but from then on she’s kept tightly bound to the house and not allowed to play with other children around about. Then there’s another incident, when she’s finally going to school properly, on the school bus when a strange woman frightens her by coming up and telling her that her grandmother wants to see her. She is self conscious and doesn’t want this attention – her upbringing has made her very isolated. She doesn’t ask questions of anybody. Not that anybody would have told her the truth. The only outcome of that encounter was her being told she’s adopted. She’s not told anything of her natural parents and she doesn’t ask. It’s that sort of household. She’s an only child living with an unpredictable, authoritarian father and a weak, put upon mother. She’s clever and university is within reach but denied her by her father. Finally she escapes it all – through the good offices of a teacher who recognises her artistic talent. At Art School she marries and has her own family. She never goes back, but the consequences of her strange upbringing linger. She has made one or two attempts to find out what happened on the beach and why she was brought up so isolated and now her daughter, a journalist, seeks to uncover the mystery. It is beautifully told. A bygone age, a close knit village community – everyone else knew her story but no-one interfered. The story unravels like a thriller. By the end you see there was an alternative upbringing close to hand – a tragedy that it was denied her. There’s an Australian connection as well. A great story, beautifully told. Strongly recommended.
Cherry Beach, Laura McPhee-Browne
This is a story about friendship, with a little bit of romance thrown in. But at its heart, its about the relationship between two young women. Very different personalities – one shy and withdrawn, the other outgoing and confident – or is she? It’s beautifully realised; the narrator is remembering their intertwined lives; episodes from their school days in suburban Melbourne and then living in Toronto. It’s quietly compelling. Early on I thought I’d describe it as a ‘sweet’ book but it’s deeper than that implies. I liked it’s sparseness – it’s not over-written at all. Motives for characters actions are left opaque as they are in real life. The self consciousness and crippling fear of exposure in adolescents and young adults; the free- wheeling relationships in share houses where you realise there’s a romance happening through a look, a gesture, body language. There is no great drama here, just a slow remembering life as it was then. Which included an unravelling, not recognised then and only half understood now. The impact on those around the unravelling person – guilt, recriminations, grief – neatly shown. This makes it sound grim but it’s not at all. There are lovely descriptions of different places and acutely observed social situations. Margaret Atwood makes an appearance and you could use the book as a tourist guide to Toronto. I have a personal connection; it’s written by my cousin’s daughter. I was moved when I read that the name of the share house the girls ended up in Toronto had a name –Marjorie – which was the name of the author’s grandmother, my Aunt who died young.
September 1, 1939: Biography of a Poem, Ian Samson
I read a review of this book in the Times Literary Supplement and it received high praise indeed. I love these sorts of books that look closely at a work of art, in this case a poem, and include general digressions on a whole lot of different things. And I love many W. H. Auden poems; especially In Memory of W. B. Yeats. But I was very disappointed; to put it succinctly – not enough biography and too many uninteresting digressions. And at the end of it, I don’t know whether he liked the poem or not. He makes various dismissive comments about it. I think it’s a terrific poem. Samson clearly knows just about everything there is to know about Auden. He had contemplated a biography but decided there have been enough and so limited himself to this reading of one poem. There is quite a bit of interesting information, for instance the sorts of places Auden patronised when living in New York and which may have been the model for the bar in which the poem is set. I just wish there’d been more. Many of the digressions were about the author, and not that interesting. Disappointing.
Although its purchase took me back to Auden because at the same time, at Readings (where, in January, we were breaking our self imposed ban on buying new books) I bought a copy of his first published volume. Which includes his elegy to Yeats in full. One thing I learned from Samson is that Auden re-worked his poems a lot. And in the Yeats poem he eventually deleted this reference to Paul Claudel: Time that with this strange excuse / Pardoned Kipling and his views, / And will pardon Paul Claudel, / Pardons him for writing well. Which explains why this verse is not included in the poem you find on the internet. Claudel was accused of collaboration because he supported Petain and the establishment of the Vichy Government; although later it was revealed that he was anti-Nazi. He’s also the bloke who committed his sister, the sculptor Camille Claudel, to a psychiatric institution for thirty years but that’s bye the bye. Auden probably took out the reference when his anti-Nazism became known.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani I borrowed this from the library via an inter-library loan and there was a big sticker on the front, so I could only photograph the back! Nice picture of the author. We saw the De Sica film at Cinematique and it was as beautiful as I remembered it; the alluring Dominique Sanda as the mysterious Micòl and handsome Helmut Berger as her sickly brother – piercing blue eyes. The fellow who played the narrator, Georgio, Lino Capoicchio isn’t so well known but was lovely – as the naif abroad. The film made me interested in reading the book and I had all those faces in mind as I read. There are interesting divergences from the film which can be explained by the need to shorten the story. There is more in the book about the inter connectedness of the two families in the Jewish community in Ferrara as well as the distinctions between different Jewish sects. Georgio and Malnate have a closer relationship than the one depicted in the film and the the relationship between Micòl and Georgio blunders along for a while before finally being ended after Georgio’s talk with his father which is depicted so beautifully in the film: In life, in order to really understand the world, you must die at least once. So it’s better to die young, when there’s still time left to recover and live again. In the book Georgio works himself up into a lather thinking there has been a relationship between Micòl and Malnate but you are left not knowing whether it happened or not; whereas in the film he sees them in flagrante. Overall the film effectively captures the elegiac quality of the book. Notwithstanding the fact that the final round up of the Jewish families of Ferrara depicted in the film is missing from the book it is effective in illustrating the book’s epilogue.
Weathering, Jenny Ofill
I liked this very much although other people may not be so keen. It’s been very well reviewed but it is a very particular style of writing which is the same as this author’s previous novel which I talk about below. This second one does not have as strong a story line as the first but it has the same very short paragraphs and also takes a while to work out what the story is about. Which is really, the state of the world and how ordinary people deal with the associated anxiety of our current age. Our narrator is a small town librarian. We get glimpses of the people she interacts with at work which includes co-workers and library users. Also her neighbours and friends, one of whom she helps dealing with correspondence she receives from her role as a public speaker talking about climate change. Her husband and son are also drawn in the same fragmented way. She’s very close to her brother who has some issues to deal with. And we get glimpses of her mother. While these feel like fragments the characters emerge, I wouldn’t say fully, but well enough by the time you finish. As does the narrator’s back story. You care about what happens to them. Like its predecessor this is very short and won’t take long to read.
This is her first book, Dept of Speculation which I loved. This is a different cover to the one it had when I bought it as an eBook; that’s the thing about electronic books, they can just change them willy nilly! The other one was prettier with clouds which also suited the style of writing, but so does the jigsaw motif. She tells stories through tiny glimpses. Telling it slant as Emily Dickinson would say. This one was about a crisis in a marriage which you only realise at the end. What I really liked about both these books is that they don’t include any larger than life characters, and nor are there any unpleasant characters. There are just realistic, ordinary people trying to live their lives as best they can. An indication of how slowly these books creep up on you is the fact that as soon as I’d finished each one, I immediately wanted to read it again. You feel at the end, that having grasped what it is about, you may have missed something significant that has been said. I haven’t yet got around to a re-reading (so many new books to read) but given time, I’d like to. Maybe that time is now.
The Sea & Us, Catherine De Sainte Phalle
I loved her previous book, the memoir, Poum and Alexandre. I was disappointed with this one. Harold has returned to Melbourne from South Korea where he has lived for years, avoiding family connections because of things that happened in his childhood. He lands in my neighbourhood – up in East Brunswick – so it was fun to read about places in Sydney Road that are familiar. The Brotherhood of St Laurence op shot features quite strongly. But there were too many plot points – you could have had about five different novels; about his landlady’s life, about his family history, about his life in Korea and all the characters he interacts with there, even about his life in pottery. You get fragments of all of these different things which is not enough to make them interesting. You don’t really care what happens to them – at least I didn’t. I think this should have been a much longer book – with characters, incidents, motivations – described in much more detail. Maybe there’s material there for more than one book. In shortening each of these elements I thought plausibility went out the window at critical times. A father finds a daughter and watches over her from afar – although to not much effect – too coincidental. People fly back and forth from Korea with ease – money is no problem for our narrator even though he doesn’t have paid employment. A couple of other characters are sketched out very lightly but have no real impact on the story. And there was none of the luminous writing we saw in her memoir. So, very disappointing when you know she is really a wonderful writer.