A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation, Alison Light
This is a beautifully written account of a relationship with lots of wisdom about life and quotable bits on every page. The author is searingly honest about herself and includes much more of her background than I expected. It’s about her marriage to a charismatic left-wing historian in London who had a big following amongst his students and in the broader left community. I’m familiar with that sort of community even though I had never heard of Raphael Samuel . He was a Marxist historian focussed on a bottom up (ordinary lives), inclusive (working class) approach to history. He taught at Ruskin College, ran all sorts of reading and study groups and was evidently well known in academic and political circles. While he came from an intellectual, European, Communist, Jewish family, she was a working class girl struggling to find her way into the middle class. It took her a while evidently but she eventually became involved in early feminist publishing ventures including the Feminist Review, and, after the events she describes here a fully fledged author. I didn’t know anything about her, but found the book so engaging I googled for more information. Her first published, much anthologised piece was Returning To Manderley: Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class which in Spare Rib. She was 30, he 50 when they married. Their coming together against the backdrop of life in London amongst left wing activists and academics in the 80’s and 90’s is vividly described. She’s very honest about the responses to their romance – scepticism from his friends and acolytes on the one hand and hostility from her parents and friends on the other. His house in Spitalfields, into which she moved when she married, is described in such detail it almost becomes a third character. As does the suburb. The house seems to have been a shambles; a rabbit warren of a place, tiny with only one room on each floor accessed up narrow wooden stairs. A bathroom off the basement kitchen. Not very comfortable! She doesn’t dwell at all on what you’d expect. About what attracted her to him or even about their decision to marry – it was automatically accepted they would do so. For a book about a relationship it is strikingly impersonal. They were together for ten years, mostly happily it seems but there are hints of dark moments. Nor does she speak much about the cancer that killed him, not even the shock of diagnosis and very little about the horrors of treatment. This was over twenty years ago, he died in 1996. It’s taken her this long to have the energy / ability / desire to write about it. Her writing on grief is similar to other books I’ve read on the subject. She’s badly affected. And I don’t think she quite gets to the consolation referred to in the sub-title. Nevertheless it’s a compelling read. She is/was a poet and the writing is often poetic; hence the quotable bits on every page. But it’s the searing honesty that is notable. She refers briefly to projects she is exploring as she tentatively begins a writing career during her marriage. I’m pleased she has indeed successfully completed both – a book about the Bloomsbury set’s servants (Mrs Woolf and the Servants)and about her working class background (Common People). I might seek them out.
Where The Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
I was disappointed with this novel which came highly recommended by reviews and my friend Iola. I thought the set up too implausible; a very young girl left alone with a drunken father, living hand to mouth in the marshes, and finally being left even by him. At five years of age. There’s an explanation, late in the book, about the circumstances that led the mother to abandon them but even then I found it unlikely that the mother would ever have started, let alone, continued in the relationship. And the only sympathetic sibling also has a reason for not returning. Then another boy who befriends her also leaves her. I found it all too implausible. The early part of the book reminded my of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Amazing landscape and I usually like books that invoke nature, like The Preregrine and all of Robert Macfarlane’s books. But here I found the descriptions of the marsh and its wildlife pedestrian and repetitious. I persevered though, and found the legal proceedings at the end of the book quite compelling – even if somewhat derivative, it reminded me of the court proceedings in To Kill A Mockingbird. I was surprised to find myself sobbing out loud at the end of the trial. And I liked the conclusion very much even though I had managed to guess it – something I very rarely do! Endings are usually the most disappointing parts of novels. Here it was the best.
The Plague, Albert Camus
During the Covid 19 pandemic lots of people have been buying this classic so it seemed a good time for me to re-read it. There’s a new translation apparently. This was a seminal book for me during my school years; and this is my school copy. It led me to giving up on God and religion. So I was interested to see whether it held up. And it did. I love this style of writing which I don’t know how to describe but recognise the same in the novels of Sartre and de Beauvoir. It’s not cold or flat but there is a distancing between author and characters and events. This doesn’t make them less emotionally engaging, which is what I find in a lot of modern, so-called meta fiction or automatic writing which I don’t like at all. Here the characters, while relatively lightly drawn, are compelling and their situation is completely believable and engrossing. There are some beautiful moments, like when Rieux and Tarrou go swimming at night late in the piece. I savoured these moments all the more in this re-reading. Though I did notice the lack of women this time around. Given my memory of its effect on me I was interested in seeing how I’d dealt with the central theme – of Dr Rieux’s rejection of God in favour of humanism – in my school work. I managed to find my old essay; here’s my first page. Much neater than I remembered!
I talk about how Camus rejects any concept of a soul and of the idea of a greater love than human love, God’s love and how hopelessness is a theme throughout. And I think my true thoughts are reflected in these sentences:Thus if the reader of this novel is a Christian he has been shocked rudely into seeing a set of values that do not coincide with his own. He is shown a plan in which man is superior to all. Nevertheless my final paragraph was suitable for Mother Gerard, although to my mind not very compelling: Herein lies the flaw in Camus’ set of values in which a greater being than has no place. Without a god we live the ‘bleak sterility of a life without illusions’, without ‘hope’s solace’. It is a life where the only ‘distinction that can be made between men and for example, dogs; men’s deaths are checked and entered up’. Even Camus is painfully aware of man’s inadequacy. This is seen through the whole epidemic but never more so that at Tarrou’s death when Rieux ‘could only stand, unavailingly, on the shore, empty-handed and sick at heart, unarmed and helpless yet again under the onset of calamity’. He cried ‘tears of impotence’. ‘To become a saint you need to live’, for him death was the final disaster. At school we didn’t give any thought to what some consider the central element of the book, the plague as allegory about the Nazi occupation of France. Presumably the nuns weren’t interested in that aspect. As noted the current pandemic has prompted renewed interest and there have been plenty of articles circulating. I really enjoyed this one by Jacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books which you can see (behind a pay wall but worth it) here. As well as this earlier article by Tony Judt which the New York Review of Books reposted on social media recently. It remains a terrific book, certainly worth a re-read and deservedly recognised as a classic.
The Wagner Companion, Ed. Burbidge & Sutton (The Total Work of Art, Michael Tanner) and Wagner, Michael Tanner
I then embarked on re-reading some of my books on Wagner, starting with these two. This followed our watching Met productions of Wagner operas that have been streamed for free during the current Covid 19 pandemic. A wonderful service to those of us staying indooors as instructed. We have watched the Robert Le Page Ring cycle starring Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Jonas Kaufmann as Siegfried, Parsifal with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, and Lohengrin with Peter Hoffman. I’ll be blogging about them shortly. Michael Tanner’s chapter in The Wagner Companion gives a terrific overview of most of Wagner’s operas and I return to it whenever I see a production. It never disappoints and gives you a much deeper understanding of both the music and the psychological depth of the characters. It’s terrific. As his is short book simply entitled Wagner.
It’s a great overall introduction to Wagner and his works. It includes a brief overview of his life and summaries of all of the operas. It’s told in a very combative style – as are many books by Wagner aficionados as they seek to rebut over a century’s worth of criticism. But an easy read, and recommended if you’re interested.
Opera’s Second Death, Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar
I’ve dipped into the Slavoj Žižek part of this book, which relates to Wagner (the Dolar sections relate to Mozart) in the past. However after watching Parsifal again recently, I went back and read it in more detail and found it wonderful. Though perhaps it’s only for the aforesaid Wagner aficionados! Chapter headings give you a feel for the contents – which are pretty over the top: The Death Drive and the Wagnerian Sublime, Tristan’s Journey to the Bottom of the Night, Kundry’s Laughter … And Her Kiss, The Feminine versus Woman. I loved it all but you have to be interested. Terrific writing but requires concentration and sometimes a few re-reads of different sections before what he’s talking about becomes clear. He talks about the different operas all mixed together as well as an amazingly large number of films and books to make his points which are all about the psychological complexity of Wagner’s works. I was taken with this analysis of Kundry’s character in Parsifal, which it has taken me a while to understand (along with the whole opera). Wagner has an ambiguous relationship towards the feminine – she is both the cause of man’s fall as well as his redemptrix, hence the constant tension between the real woman versus the eternal feminine. Kundry unites these opposites as she is both the devastating seductress and the angelic redemptrix. Gave me new insights into the opera and in particular the Kundry / Parsifal dialogue. Somewhere in his analysis – I think in the Feminine versus Woman bit Slavoj provides a very accurate (to my mind) description of the female orgasm. He also tells us that when Wagner suffered the heart attack that killed him in Venice on the 13th of February 1883 he was working on an essay On the Feminine in the Human. Wagner could be Simone de Beauvoir; The oppression of women is a symptom of the history of humanity’s degeneration; woman is a victim of power structures determined according to masculine principles and reproduction, of the system of ownership in whose interests marriages are arranged and families founded; female emancipation thus forms part of the regeneration of the human race. His last written words included a typically Wagnerian twist; However the process of the emancipation of women only proceeds in ecstatic convulsions. Love – Tragedy.
Goldstein, Volker Kutscher
After that deep dive into the sublime I came up for air with this light and frothy detective story. I’m not given to detective novels generally but this is one of a series on which the wonderful television series Babylon Berlin is based. I wrote a little bit about the series, including a link to a trailer here. I find it really interesting to compare the two and to see how the writers of the show have expanded the story lines into a much more compelling narrative and at the same time made the characters more complex and satisfying. This is especially true of our detective Gereon Rath and his off sider Charlotte Ritter. All the same, the bare bones of the series are there in the books; including, although much more lightly drawn, the economic, social and political backdrop of the Weimar republic. Thus far, unlike the first two books, this story, which is of an American gangster visiting Berlin – for nefarious purposes or otherwise, that is the question – has not appeared in the show. If you had to choose you’d go for the series, otherwise these books are a light diversion. When I bought them a few years bak only three had been translated into English. There might be more now, given the popularity of the television series. Here are the two paper books I have ; the first is on my iPad. Silent Death was the basis of the third series of the television show. The lead actress in a movie being produced and funded by a shady underworld figure keeps being murdered. By whom? And why? The television series hasn’t got to Goldstein yet.
Life Itself, Roger Ebert
I’ve had this memoir on my iPad for ages and continuing my objective of reading the books that I already have (although I’m no longer denying myself the pleasure of buying new ones), I finally got around to reading it. I bought it after seeing the documentary on Ebert of the same name at MIFF some years ago. The documentary was compelling. He had an amazing life including many years as an alcoholic and then in his later years experiencing throat cancer. His early years as described here brought images of nineteen fifties and sixties American television series Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. He fell into journalism and then into film reviewing remarkably easily. He wrote a couple of screenplays. The book scoots along but is not as compelling as the documentary. He barely talks about films presumably because he’s written about them elsewhere. He has interesting encounters with a few move stars that are nicely done. And he barely talks about the terrible cancer and the treatments that he endured. I really like his film reviews and I loved the documentary and I’d recommend them before this. Here’s the trailer for the documentary.
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow
I gave this to Eleanor for Christmas as, following Ronan Farrow on twitter as I do, I saw lots of very positive reviews and comments about it (all retweeted by Ronan – as you do!) She enjoyed it although saying at times it made her so angry she threw the book against the wall. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect although people on twitter described it as unputdownable and a thriller. I was wary of such high praise. But, it was exactly that! Terrible story brilliantly told. The networks of powerful men fully exposed. At considerable personal cost to the author; knowing how it all ended you feel like shouting at him to be careful when he notices cars in his neighbourhood and gets strange messages about the weather on his mobile. He just passes the cars by and deletes the messages. Lots of details that you are not fully aware of from the reporting. It went on for so long. So many women damaged in the meantime. Not just by Weinstein. Nauseating. A really good read and worth all of the praise it has received. Interesting to see the backlash against Ronan beginning. All power to him.
A Girl of the Limberlost, Gene Stratton-Porter
I love Twitter for the serendipitous way it leads me to interesting things. Recently it prompted me to re-read this book, which I loved in my youth, when JK Rowling tweeted about how much she loved it. To be more specific she wrote how frightened she has been as a girl reading about a particular episode – the death in quicksand of the heroines’s father. Stratton-Porter was famous – I thought especially in the USA – for a series of books written in the early years of the twentieth century; I don’t know how I came to get hold of them. An article by Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books in 2009 discusses her books, some of which sound awful, racist and a bit mad. But like me she loved A Girl of the Limberlost . You can find her article (behind a paywall) here.
The first in the series is, Freckles, which was published in 1904. It was also the first that I read. This copy is a UK 1936 reprint that I found in a second hand bookshop – increased in value from 3/6 to $20. It’s the story of an intrepid orphan – a forerunner to Huckleberry Finn I reckon who ends up being hired to protect trees in the Limberlost. The Malcolm article tells us thaws a real place in the State of Indiana. He has to camp out and becomes very familiar with the landscape and wildlife and eventually meets the Angel. He also does his job so well, the rich owner of the Limberlost adopts him and he somehow inherits an Irish title along with a lot of money! Malcolm says the books were written for young adults but on the spine this is described as a love story full of charm and appealing sentiment.
For a long time whenever I found a book in the series in a second hand shop I bought them although I now see they are all currently available on Amazon! A Girl of the Limberlost is the second in the series; a grown up, married with children, Freckles plays a small part. I don’t know when it was published. I have this very old copy – chewed in the top corner by our long departed Cavalier King Charles spaniel Nutsy who loved the flavour of old book binding glue!
I dusted it off (literally) and re-read it when I saw the Rowling tweet. We are back in the Limberlost, this time with Elnora who is having a very hard time of it. Her mother blames her for her father’s death in quicksand – the mother, pregnant with Elnora, was unable to assist him. I think I may have seen a film of this but have only the vaguest recollection. It’s a very old style of story-telling. Chapter headings give the picture: Chapter 1: Wherein Elnora Goes to High School And Learns Many Lessons Not Found In Her Books. In fact she is humiliated; having the wrong clothes, no books and, when she discovers there are school fees for out of towners like her, no money. Her mother had deliberately set her up for this humiliation. But Elnora’s lovely nature and determination, and friendly neighbours save the day! Towards the end we get Chapter 23 Wherein Elnora Reaches a Decision and Freckles and the Angel Appear and finally, Elnora finds true love, demonstrating her integrity and steadfastness along the way. As I did when I first read it, I cried during the early chapters! Enough said. Silly and sentimental. But I love it. I have two others in the series – both very old and I suspect they’ll fall apart if I ever try to read them; The Keeper of the Bees and The Harvester (which Malcolm says is a terrible book).
The Diary of a Provincial Lady, E M Delafield
A review in the Guardian led me to this strange little book. As noted in that review here, it’s never been out of print. It’s as terrific as described. The narrator’s voice is completely disarming as is her attitude to all of the characters – local aristocrat, worthy committee ladies, old school friends and indeed all of the others she interacts with. I loved the portraits of her husband and children that emerge from very short but pointed references. She includes little memos to herself – ranging from how to plant bulbs to how to properly bring up children – following her encounters. These are very tongue in cheek and very funny. Along with the humour you get a real sense of how people lived in England at the time – both pros and cons. I assume the woman on the cover of this edition is Mrs Delafield. It only takes about an afternoon to read and is well worth that small effort.