I’ve been reading so much these last couple of months, instead of a single have books blog I have written three. In addition to the ones described here I’ve delved into the world of Henry James which I’ve written about here. As well, I took a few excursions into the novels referenced in The Novel: a biography – so all classics – which you can read here. These are the other books I’ve read over March and April.
The Legacy, Sybille Bedford.
I enjoyed this very much when I first read it years ago and was pleased to find it on my library shelves. I liked it just as much the second time around and unlike other re-readings I remembered much of it. Published in 1956 it’s based largely on her own life – which was extraordinary and a fertile subject for any writer. This, her first novel, covers her childhood which was pretty peculiar. Her parents made an extraordinary couple – an impecunious aristocratic father and an artistic, bohemian mother. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one. But their union provided lots of material for their writer daughter. She was brought up on her father’s estate in one of those parts of Europe which changed nationalities from time to time. Her father’s family were eccentric to say the least; anti Prussian, Francophiles, keen on their aristocratic heritage but impecunious. Her father travelled and collected curios that filled their house. She was often alone; home tutored until relatively late meaning she missed out learning to write properly! School was a shock and she didn’t last long. So she’s mostly self taught. Her family would be up for child abuse now – and properly so. Her parents split up and she spent a lot of time with her father’s deceased first wife’s family – and they were mad too. It’s all very gothic. And beautifully rendered. Her later novel, Jigsaw, which I also loved is based on her adolescent years living on the French Riviera with her by then drug addled mother. Both of these novels were well regarded when they were published but despite this recognition of her talent she only ever wrote another two, making four novels in total. And all were based on her own family and life story and she was criticised for repeating the same things in different books; but you get a deeper understanding of the full picture of that life and those characters – and what an amazing life and what interesting characters they are – when you read all of them. I read the other two earlier this year – A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error – which I’ve written about here. It was always a bit unclear to me which bits of all of these novels were based on real life and which were made up.
Sybille Bedford: An Appetite For Life by Selina Hastings.
This biography reveals what was fact and what was fiction. I wasn’t surprised to find that essentially most of what is included in the novels is true. So the biography covers very familiar ground for anyone who’s read the novels. She was born Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck. The Bedford came from a gay waiter married to acquire an English passport just before the outbreak of the Second World War and not seen since. She became more English than the English and never returned to Germany from which she was exiled by Hitler after writing an essay critical of the Nazis very early in the piece. After her very idiosyncratic early years, described so well in A Legacy, and her fraught adolescence recalled in her later three novels – Jigsaw, A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error, hers was a peripatetic, incident filled life. She was from the start part of the contemporary literary crowd – intimate (in every sense of the word) with Aldous Huxley and his wife, friends with Thomas Mann and his son Klaus and with Martha Gellhorn, and an associate of the Hemingway, Gertrude Stein circle as well as lots of writers in England. Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford played pivotal roles in her recognition as a writer of note. She didn’t write as much as she might have – distracted by love affairs and living the good life – she was very knowledgeable about wine. She also had trouble with her eyes – like James Joyce. As a result she never had much money but got by thanks to the generosity of friends. She wrote a biography of Huxley and very well regarded travel essays. She was interested in the law and wrote about a number of famous trials – Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Jack Ruby, Auschwitz – as well as a comparison of different legal systems. It’s a pity she didn’t write more novels. Her writing is very good – fast moving and well put together. As a person she was pretty awful really; especially as she got older and more conservative. You can find a good review of the biography here. I’ve also read her autobiography Quicksands: A Memoir which was published in 2005 shortly before her death in 2006. There’s lots of material about Sybille out there – well worth seeking out. I’d start with the The Legacy and Jigsaw.
The Light of Common Day, Diana Cooper
I found this book in a second-hand bookshop in Holbrook on the way back from Canberra – it’s worth checking out both second-hand bookshops in that town. This is the second instalment in a three volume biography written by Diana – who was once described as the most beautiful woman in England. She was married to Duff Cooper, mother of John Julius Norwich and grandmother of Artemis Cooper – all of whom I have read and enjoyed very much. Duff Cooper’s diaries are terrific, as is his biography of Talleyrand. John Julius wrote a wonderful book called Shakespeare’s Kings which compares the history plays to real life – fascinating. And Artemis wrote, with her husband the historian Antony Beevor, Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949 which is terrific as well as a great biography of her friend (perhaps Godfather) Patrick Leigh Fermor. She also co-wrote the third volume of Leigh Fermor’s memoir about walking across Europe, The Broken Road which is also wonderful. Joe and I met Artemis and Anthony following a Wheeler Centre function which I’ve described here. I found this book interesting because of all that previous reading – but it wouldn’t be for everyone. It covers a period when she was performing in a medieval religious play in New York and the stuff about the play and the people involved is a little tedious. Except when it’s funny; she’s a little miffed when King George V tells her that it can’t be too hard as she has no lines to learn. She knows this to be true but wishes he hadn’t pointed it out! She’s very open and without any snobbishness herself. From time to time, especially towards the end she just transcribes letters to and from Duff and excerpts from her diary which is a bit lazy. Like Duff’s diaries it gives you an insight into the lives of the Upper Class in England between the wars. The Coopers travel on the famous, or infamous, yacht trip with Edward and Mrs Simpson just before he abdicates. Being greeted by dignitaries on places around the Mediterranean coast, formal and informal parties – the King playing his bagpipes; all ridiculous really. She’s very interesting on the ups and downs of Duff’s political career – he was Minister for the Navy – and she did the fit-out of both his official residence and the yacht! Which they travelled in to Norway. I was disappointed that she declined to add more to the copious amount written about the abdication itself, although Duff goes into it in his diaries- he tried, along with Churchill, to find a way to save the King from abdicating. All very interesting if you want to delve into the lives of the rich and famous.
Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson
I’ve rather given up on modern novels, but I gave this as a Christmas present to a friend and she liked it, so, supporting small independent bookshops post lockdown, I bought it from one in Sydney Road. I’m pleased I did. It’s hard to describe and on the face of it seems pretty silly – children who burst into flame when they get upset! But for some reason it all hangs together quite well. I think the blurb, which is a bit of a back-hander, sums it up; I can’t believe how good this book is. A young woman whose life is not going anywhere gets called up by an old school friend, who has wronged her in the past. An offer of a job – baby-sitting the aforementioned children; well remunerated, sumptuous living conditions. Why not? The friend is married to a much older man, a US Senator in the running to become Vice-President which brings in an element of political chicanery. It’s all a bit of a romp and I enjoyed it.
The Women In Black, Madeleine St. John
Back to the classics and another re-reading; prompted by watching the 2018 movie by Bruce Beresford, Ladies in Black. The novel was published in 1993 and I read it around that time although I was disappointed I couldn’t find my original copy! I remember enjoying it but feeling it was a bit slight. Watching the film I felt something from the book was missing; perhaps a dark undercurrent about Australia’s treatment of migrants, and of women. This seemed confirmed in a feminist critique of the film I found on Twitter, but which has now vanished. And why would it be published now? A mystery. From memory the criticism was that there was too much focus on frocks which, while pretty, wasn’t the point. So a re-read was in order. I enjoyed it much more this time around. To my surprise I found that the film did stick pretty well to the story but at the same time the essence of the novel was somehow missing. It’s hard to describe how and why – perhaps in its playing up the comedy elements; although they are certainly in the novel. The book shows, very subtly, how migrants were dismissed by real Australians at the time – wearing funny clothes (ie. too smart), eating funny food and therefore untrustworthy. And, in an understated way, it also shows the incredibly limited options open to women at the time – the horror of the patriarchy unchallenged is fully observed and quietly judged wanting, but it’s not up in lights. This sort of comes through in the film, but is buried beneath somewhat repetitive the colour and movement – lots of shots of the doors being opened and customers flocking in, and yes, lots of frocks. Both are worth re-connecting with. It’s a lovely film but a better book.
The Essence of the Thing, Madeleine St John
And I enjoyed this one – St John’s second novel. Again, I remembered reading it but thought it was slight. I found it much deeper on a second reading. It traverses the break up of a relationship from the first bombshell from Jonathon I want you to move out … It just isn’t working to the end and Nicola wondering why she could not – just now – feel anything other than an all-engulfing, and quite unutterable, sadness. And in the middle lots of interesting ideas about relationships – how the affected parties feel and how their friends – both hers and his – adjust to the new situation. It reminded me of Ivy Compton Burnett’s Family and Fortune, with lots of dialogue between different couples propelling the story along. It all feels very true. I highlighted bits. These are Nicola’s friends Geoffrey and Susannah -Geoffrey making a hasty exit to avoid Nicola – You don’t hear us men going on and on; Susannah – You have no occasion to. Geoffrey – Can it really be as simple as that? Susannah – The thing that’s wrong with women is that they go on and on, and the thing that’s wrong with men is that they don’t. There’s a nice little cross reference to The Women In Black, when Jonathon puts a tape (boot-legged from the BBC) on in his car; some footling tale about some shop assistants in an antipodean department store fretting about their wombs and their wardrobes and other empty spaces – ye gods! No wonder women were forever peering into one’s soul! They were compensating for their own innate emptiness. Jonathon, as you can see, is a bit of a repressed twat – unsurprising as he is a solicitor by trade. He actually reminded me of someone – who shall remain nameless. The title comes from a line running through the story about marmalade. Before she knows he has unilaterally ended the relationship his mother gives some to Jonathon for Nicola . While Nicola, devastated, is taking her first faltering steps to a new life, Jonathon contemplates the marmalade left in the flat, it was Nicola’s and they were not now in a shared-marmalade situation. He knew he’d been right in principle, in essence: it was just the mundane details which took a bit of getting used to. Too bad about the marmalade. The balance between bitter and sweet was the essence of the thing. There are nice reflections throughout the whole novel about love -nothing is more serious, it’s about taking risks, and isn’t just for the tolerant, and humble, and imaginative. An easy read, but lots of depth, should have won the Booker!
French Exit, Patrick De Witt
This is another book I read because of a film. Of the same name it starred Michelle Pfeiffer who I think is terrific – The Age of Innocence, Dangerous Liaisons! She was wonderful in this and recognised as such by the critics. Here’s an interview with her. Those same critics generally thought the film itself a bit of a muddle. I enjoyed both film and because there was such a lot in it – multiple conversations and ideas about the meaning of life – I was keen to read the book in order to understand it better. The very wordiness of the film made the book necessary! But like Ladies In Black I found that the film didn’t get the essence of the film. Which really was asking the deepest question there is – what is the meaning of life? Most explicitly alerted to when one of a ragtag group of people who have attached themselves to the main couple – a widow and her son – reads an Emily Dickinson poem: How happy is the little stone that rambles in the road alone. That’s the subject – we are all alone in the world, and nothing really can help us on our journey. Very deep, but hidden by the surface elegance of the movie. We start amongst the monied people of New York where a widow with a past and her son find themselves forced out of their hitherto privileged lifestyle. Seemingly because of the mother’s disregard of financial advice. Selling the mansion and its contents mother and son sail to Paris with the cash in a bag; as well as a cat. Hinted at early, but explicitly later, to mother and son the cat is the embodiment of their dead husband and father. Both the milieu and the cat reminded me of the film Birth starring Nicole Kidman (which I also loved). It’s all a bit mad. But after considering both book and film a lot I’ve decided I like it because it is essentially existential. It’s central question is – what gives meaning to a life? Mother and son seem to have had it all but they’re curiously adrift. The son appears aimless; his only clear interest appears to be supporting his mother – to the exclusion of all else, including girl-friends. He refuses to participate in the normal things a young man would – illustrated by his refusal to compete in an arm wrestling contest with his love rival. The mother appears to be avoiding setting him up for the future. She is intent on getting rid of the cash – giving it to people she meets, waiters in cafes, offering it to a refugee who, sensing something immoral in the gift refuses. Over time the motley group gathers around our socially disconnected pair. They seem to be aimless, amusing themselves with inconsequential games. The question seems to be what is important in living a meaningful life?Reputation? Friends? Money? What makes a successful mother-son relationship? What makes a family? What’s important in a loving relationship? The book included backstories about the mother and the son – which helps us understand them better. And the book’s ending was darker and more explicit than the film where it was just implied. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea but I liked it a lot.
Things I Learned On The 6.28: A Guide To Daily Reading, Stig Abell
I enjoy books about books; my favourites, read a long time ago are A History of Reading by Alberto Manuel, Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, The Child That Books Built (wonderful title) by Francis Spufford and Great Books by David Denby. This one wears its scholarship lightly. I always enjoyed listing to Stig Abell when he was editor of the TLS on that magazine’s weekly podcast; he’s a very lively and engaging character. He wrote this book while in that role – from which he has now moved on to be a presenter on something called Times Radio in the UK. He’s also a columnist for the Sunday Times. This is a record of his daily reading on the train to work when he was editing the TLS -a commute time in total of around an hour each day. He selected a theme for each month; for instance Crime in January, Shakespeare in March, Poetry in September with a concluding Lucky Dip in December. Nice idea. Within those themes you get a quirky selection of books. For instance in January he read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and a Margery Allingham novel rather than the usual suspects. At the end of each chapter he lists suggestions for further reading and this is where he includes the traditional choices; for crime – Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith James Ellroy etc. The choices he makes about the books he considers are all very personal; in the Shakespeare chapter he spends a lot of time on the sonnets and I wasn’t much interested in Titus Andronicus. And I was disappointed in his selection of Rumi, William Blake and Lord Byron in his chapter on poetry. Only Emily Dickinson was familiar. But that’s the thing with books like this – you get introduced to authors you haven’t experienced. I liked his account of reading Moby Dick although he hasn’t persuaded me to read it. Wanting to be engaged by a novel I will take his assessment of Swann’s Way as endorsement of my decision not to read it – a novel of sensuous detail, of an accurate and moving account of remembering, but lacking in waves of any real emotion other than artistic euphoria. This is art for the artist, not for the heart- felt reader. He includes bits of biography about the authors; some of which was new, some not. The whole book is interspersed with bits and pieces that take his fancy; for instance about the reading of diaries, changes in the discourse around gay life, the etymology of words, famous literary rejections etc. The death of Toni Morrison in August, when he was reading Translated Classics prompts an appreciation of her work, especially Beloved. He’s very well read; as you would expect of an editor of the TLS and anecdotes and quotes from a whole range of writers and books about all sorts of things enliven the text. He is bold in his judgements. Embarking on reading his wife’s much loved copy of Nancy Mitford’s Love in A cold Climate he wonders if it is a museum piece and perhaps not for me, but decides so long as he gives himself up to the detailed, pitch-perfect sense of its characters and their habitat and not expect more he may appreciate it. His final verdict; like early Evelyn Waugh, brilliant but slight. And in his opinions. I agree with these – great opening lines bring joy, happy endings are good although not always necessary, semicolons serve a purpose, the best novels always include at least one likeable character. And I like his view that literary fiction should not value difficulty as a quality. Fiction should never be merely fibrous. Greatness, it seems to me, is always readily accessible to the mind. Yes! Yes! Yes! This in response to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled which he doesn’t finish. He reads three non-fiction books in November and I was interested to learn about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. He found Susan Sontag’s essays impressive but not moving. Throughout you get, in small asides, what amounts to an endearing picture of family life and a little about what it’s like to be a part of London literary life. He comes across as a very open person. This is just a tiny snapshot of what is in this thought provoking book that contains lots of insights into reading and literature and surely justifies his view that reading and rereading form one of the great human acts to be celebrated, its very plurality to be enjoyed, not to be ossified by pseudo-intellectual bores who want to show off about how clever they are. Recommended.