I’m still not typing because of my arm – also the reason I didn’t write a blog in November. Very frustrating but it gave me time to do lots of reading and I really enjoyed all of the books I read over the month.
Kiss Myself Goodbye, Ferdinand Mount
I loved this book. It’s a detective story told with great verve and very suspenseful. The author is a prize-winning, prolific historian and previously the speech writer for Margaret Thatcher. He knows how to write a great narrative. This is about his aunt – she’s pictured with her brother on the cover above – with whom he had a lot to do during his youth. She was married to his father’s younger brother and unlike the rest of the Mount family they had a lot of money. Ferdinand and his sister spent their school holidays at her very palatial homes. Plural because she was often changing her residences – not the only thing she changed over her lifetime. Aunt and Uncle also had an apartment at a swanky hotel in London where they stayed, being treated like Royalty, when visiting town for shows. Young Ferdinand and his sister were often in the party along with their cousin about whom some mystery was also attached. The title – taken from a popular 1920s or 30’s song – is apt reflecting as it does the Aunt’s approach to life. As the author discovers over the ten years investigating her background she was often kissing herself goodbye and starting a new life. By trawling through public records; births, deaths and marriages registers and occasionally assisted by serendipitous chance discoveries – an article in an upmarket House & Gardens type magazine, a letter from New Zealand – he gradually uncovers a truly remarkable life. From a very humble beginning his Aunt re-invented herself time and time again, gradually rising to the elevated circumstances that Ferdinand found her in during those youthful holidays. His investigations – outlined so cleverly in the book that you feel you are on the journey with him – uncover brothers who are sons, family friends who turn out to be related, babies adopted and babies sent back, close encounters with famous people (T. S. Eliot, Edward Prince of Wales), and finally the source of all that money. At the very end he puts forward a theory about her true antecedence which takes you back to that cover photo and peering closely at her face to see whether the likeness to another person identified by the author actually exists. If true it would help explain how she had so much chutzpah and how, given different circumstances, and gender she may have become a captain of industry. This is a fascinating roller coaster ride. I’m going to get hold of his other family memoir. Strongly recommended.
The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
I bought this book quite a long time ago having read something that recommended it to me. And it’s another one that I resolved to read this year. When I initially dipped into it I had found it confusing and impenetrable – I can’t imagine why because reading it this time I loved every word. Originally published as four separate books in the 1950s and in this single version in 1962, it’s recognised as Durrell’s masterpiece. A lot of people I know read it in their youth. I loved everything about it; the loquaciousness, the characters, the descriptions of Alexandria and Egyptian culture and especially the structure of it. The same story is told from different perspectives. The first Justine is really from the perspective of the narrator about whom we learn very little initially. He delivers his manuscript to Balthazar who corrects his interpretation of events. In the third book, a minor character thus far, the British diplomat Mountolive comes to the fore. Finally our narrator returns to Clea, a disinterested bystander in the earlier parts, to discover what’s happened to everyone. And so, over the course of the four different tellings you gradually understand more and more about the events and relationships between the characters that were outlined in the first part. You come to understand the real nature of the relationship between Justine and Nessim, why the poet Pursewarden committed suicide, the link between Mountolive and Nessim and so on. It’s a palimpsest – each new narrative laid over the last – enlarging and deepening your understanding of events. And of the characters – their personalities, relationships and motivations. There are fantastic descriptions of Egyptian life and culture. Jan Morris says in the forward to this version ‘the city of Alexandria colours the entire work – the geography of the place .. the meshed Arab backstreets..the hashish cafes of the slums … the sandy approaches to the Western desert .. the mansions of rich cosmopolitans’. Alexandria is as much a character as any of the humans involved in the story. I loved everything about it.
Not A Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections, Jenny Erpenbeck
I’ve read two Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels – Visitation and Go Went Gone – and seen her at a Wheeler Centre event which I’ve blogged about here . I really enjoyed both her writing and hearing her in discussion. She came across as a very thoughtful, progressive person and this is confirmed in this book. It’s a compilation of writings including bits and pieces of memoir about her childhood years in East Berlin and also speeches she has given from time to time, mostly when receiving awards for her books. All of the pieces are interesting. She spoke at the Wheeler Centre event but about her ambivalence about how her childhood in East Berlin has been interpreted by people in the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And her pieces here reflect that; while there are hints that her family may have been affected by repressive politics – in Germany or elsewhere it’s not clear – her childhood memories are of a very secure environment where she could ride her bicycle and skate on roads that ended in dead ends. She can see things in West Berlin from her Grandmother’s apartment – the tops of buses, a clock. But there is no sense that she, or her family, are hankering after anything. This is despite the fact they have family in West Berlin who they visit from time to time. It’s all very interesting reading about the experience of an ordinary girl who has grown up in East Berlin and and and what she feels about reunification. She feels that her childhood experience has been erased by history in a sense. She queries the accepted narrative about the fall of the Berlin Wall; asking what does freedom really means if you have no money to do anything and no desire to travel anywhere. This also permeates her latest novel, Go Went Gone. There’s an unexpected (given the usual narrative) sadness about the good things about life in East Berlin that have been lost. She talks about that in this Guardian interview. This book also includes her reflections on some of her novels; how she came to choose topics and technical issues about writing. I haven’t read the ones she discusses and they sound a bit grim so I probably won’t. But she is interesting talking about the mechanics of writing a novel. I’m interested in following up anything that she writes in future.
The Survivor, Jane Harper
I don’t have a photo of this book because I’ve loaned it to Hilary across the road. Jane Harper’s books are very loanable. She’s also an exception to my resolution to avoid grim – which means in particular refusing to read or view anything that involves dead women! This is because I really enjoyed her first book, The Dry which I have written about here, and her third, The Lost Man which I’ve written about here. I don’t seem to have written about Force of Nature but I enjoyed that too. I saw her speak at the Wheeler Centre and enjoyed the discussion very much, she was so down to earth it was great. I’m a fan. This one is a return to form. It’s set it in Tasmania and as with all of her books the location is vividly drawn. She really gets small towns! The characters are sympathetic – more so than in The Lost Man and very authentic. As she writes more they are becoming, as all thrillers are, a little formulaic. As in The Dry we have a fellow coming back to his home town having left in disgrace because of an event in the past that continues to haunt everybody. It’s another small town where everyone knows everyone else. Secrets come to the surface, old friendships are sundered and reputations undone or restored as the case may be. It’s a good easy read but there are small forays into delving deeper into a critique of gender roles and small town mores. It would be good if Jane went further with this in her future books.
Taking avoidance of grim to another level I spent a little bit of time delving into P. G. Wodehouse. I particularly like the Jeeves stories and read the ones in this Penguin edition that I borrowed from Terry and also a number in an ebook the Jeeves Omnibus Volume 1; there are three volumes in this series but the stories don’t seem to be in the right order. The Penguin edition starts with Bertie’s initial employment of Jeeves which is appropriate. They are great fun but also surprisingly erudite. Lots of quotes from Shakespeare are inserted cleverly into the various plots that mostly go over Bertie Wooster’s head and I was delighted to find Bertie himself at one stage referring to Schopenhauer as a dreary sad sack. Amazing that they were written in the nineteen twenties. Surprising also that there are so many stories set in America. Lots of gentle skewering about class and gender roles. Some might find the comments about women off-putting but I took them as being tongue in cheek. A good way to relax and excellent for avoiding grim.
Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer
This is another book I’ve had for ages, having picked up this very fine hardback copy I think in Hilarys library across the road. I actually read reviews when it was first written which was in 2007. It caused a bit of a fuss as Germaine is wont to do. Deliberately of course. And good on er in this instance. It was terrific; both about the subject at hand but also about the writing of history and how the prejudices of those writing it can distort the truth. Very little is known about Shakespeare himself and even less about Anne Hathaway. Germaine shows, quite convincingly in my view, how all previous Shakespeare scholars have foisted on the world a hostile interpretation of Anne Hathaway’s character and about Shakespeare’s relationship with her. This is based on very few known and verified facts. She was older than him. She was pregnant before they married. They lived apart for most of their marriage. By looking closely at the records of Stratford, church justice records, births deaths and marriage certificates, wills and commercial records, Germaine shows how an alternative interpretation could be just as accurate. It’s a bracing read and in many ways lots of fun. She is conducting a polemical debate with these historians – bardolators she calls them. And obviously she takes a feminist line. Sometimes she seems to be doing the same thing she’s criticising – drawing long bows from little or no evidence. The difference is, she admits it. She doesn’t completely convince that Anne Hathaway was an independent, successful business woman. Nor that she was involved in publishing her husband’s work after his death. But that’s not the point. She disputes the accepted version of the marriage and shows that it’s based on prejudice rather than what is actually known about the couple. Along the way we get a great feel for what it was like to live in an Elizabethan village at the time. The omnipresence of the church – people were always being called to account by church authorities for various conduct. Pregnancy before marriage was common but woe betide the unmarried pregnant girl who wouldn’t identify the father. Alongside the church the local government authority- the corporation – was monitoring people’s lives. Every activity was regulated – what sort of craft you could pursue, what your status was – gentleman or yeoman. Women were involved in a lot of commercial activity – making malt, keeping pigs and making ham, haberdashery, money-lending. Over the course of Anne and Will’s marriage much was changing in England. Closure of the commons was causing riots around Stratford. Plagues and droughts befell the people. It’s all here in this wonderful book.
The Novel, Michael Schmidt
Given this book is so large I’ll give progress reports. I’m up to chapter 19 (out of 45) and page 320 (out of over 1100). I loved Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets: The History of Poets and Poetry which I read years ago – before my blog. So Joe gave me this shortly after it was published in 2014. It’s a 700 year history of the novel in English and I am enjoying it very much. It’s a massive undertaking. There is a mix of novels I’ve heard about and those I’ve not – obviously. I’d never heard about the very first novel according to Schmidt, Mandeville’s Travels, but some I have read Thomas Malory. Some authors get chapters to themselves like John Bunyan, Lawrence Sterne. I thought Jane Austen got her own but she is in with Fanny Burney in a chapter entitled Manners. The three Brontes are considered together under, appropriately Gothic Romance. In others -he mixes things up chronologically, for example Daniel Defoe, Truman Capote and J. M. Coetzee in a chapter on Impersonation. He’s including as many women as he can although they are outnumbered by men by a lot so far. But I’ve learned a bit about Aphra Behn who sounds remarkable, Zora Neale Hurston who I knew about but haven’t read and the familiar ones; Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane and the Brontes along with some others. It’s a dense read but I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s a bit of a challenge to read, especially with my sore arm! I’m doing it downstairs in an armchair with the book supported on cushions.
Overview of the Year.
This will be my last blog about books for this year – saving my arm. So I’ll give a short rundown of all that I’ve read during the year. Lots more than usual I think primarily due to our two lockdowns due to COVID-19. supported me reading more books. I keep a list in Notes on my iphone which I’ve copied below. It seems so long ago that I was reading the first dozen or so. In total I read 56 books – I’ll keep adding any I read in December. The single biggest category were classics, some read for the second time – 17 in total. All fiction, and probably my most enjoyable reads for the year. Second biggest category, a total of 12, were memoirs which I find myself drawn to more often these days. I only read 11 books of contemporary fiction and was mostly disappointed with what was on offer. This might be because I was avoiding grim tales but for me there were no immersive, revelatory experiences to be had in this category. I read and enjoyed 7 non-fiction works that don’t fit into other categories – a couple of five star ones amongst them. Finally I read six books about opera – actually Wagner – and 3 biographies. I’ve given them star rankings out of five.
*****Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks.
**The River Capture, Mary Costello.
*Becoming Beauvoir, Kate Kirkpatrick.
*****Letter to D: A, Gortz
*****Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Alexandra Fuller.
***Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, Anne Glenconner.
****Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me, Deidre Bair
*****On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons, Laura Cumming
****Cherry Beach, Laura McPhee-Browne
**1 September 1939: Biography of a Poem, Ian Samson
****The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani
***Weather, Jenny Ofill
*The Sea And Us, Catherine de Saint Phalle
***A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation, Alison Light
**Where The Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
*****The Plague, Albert Camus
****The Wagner Companion, Ed. Burbidge & Sutton (The Total Work of Art, Michael Tanner)
****Opera’s Second Death, Slavoj Žižek
****Wagner, Michael Tanner
***Goldstein, Volker Kutscher
**Life Itself, Roger Ebert
*****Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow
***A Girl of the Limberlost, Gene Stratton-Porter
*****The Diary of a Provincial Lady, E M Delafield
*The Man In The Red Coat, Julian Barnes
****Greek To Me, Mary Norris
****Wagner And The Erotic Impulse, Lawrence Dreyfus (2010)
*****The Years, Annie Ernaux
****Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan
***Those Without Shadows, Françoise Sagan
****The Heart-Keeper, Françoise Sagan
**Nightingale, Marina Kemp
****Last Days In Old Europe, Richard Bassett
****Sunday, Georges Simenon
*****The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
*****Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, Roger Scruton
****The Golem, Gustav Meyrink
*****Royal Highness, Thomas Mann
*****Magic Mountain, “”
*****Doctor Faustus, “”
***The Doctor Faustus Dossier, Ed. E. Randolph Schoenberg
*Things I Don’t Want To Know, Deborah Levy
*The Cost of Living “”
*****Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross
***Heat, Bill Burford
****L’appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, David Lebovitz
*****The Photographer At Sixteen, George Szirtes
*****Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh
***The Echoing Grove, Rosamond Lehmann
*****Kiss Myself Goodbye, Ferdinand Mount
*****The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
****Not A Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections, Jenny Erpenbeck
***The Survivor, Jane Harper
****Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer
** Such A Fun Age, Kiley Reid
****Smiley’s People, John Le Carré
****Call For The Dead, John Le Carré