2014….My Reading Best Bits !

Rather than compile a list of my ‘best’ books of 2014 , I thought I would write a short piece about two ‘box sets’ I have read this year and which have had a massive impact on me.

Both of them are translated fiction which is interesting as I don’t tend to read much fiction in translation. I do read a lot of Francophone fiction, which of course includes Canadian and African fiction, but I read that in the original.

One of my choices is by an enigmatic woman and the other by a man now famous for letting it all hang out so that is quite a nice balance , as it happens!

The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante :trans Anne Goldstein

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These tell the story of Lena and Lila born into the Neopolitan slums just after the second world war. Three volumes are currently available in English, a fourth volume is to be published in Italian in early 2015 with , hopefully, the English translation following towards the end of the year.

Why are they so compelling ? Ferrante creates a ghetto that you can almost smell and taste, the characters fizz with life. Lila and Lila are the two central figures but many of the other characters reappear throughout the narrative , all caught in the web which pulls both women back to the neighbourhood they try to escape.

Ferrante explores the tensions and the joys of a female friendship. She also looks at the political history of Italy in the late 20th Century, still reeling from WW2, and the impact of feminist thinking on the lives of women during that time.

Ferrante herself refuses all interviews and very little is known of her personal circumstances. There has even been speculation in the Italian press that “she” is in fact a male writer. Ferrante herself remains impassive :

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard : trans Don Bartlett

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In terms of self publicity, Knausgaard is about as far away from Ferrante as you can get.His six volume opus, ironically titled Min Kamp in Norwegian, has been a publishing sensation in his native country, although the writer now lives in Sweden, and throughout the world.

So far only three volumes are available in English with the fourth expected in Spring 2015.

I am going to see Knausgaard at Foyles in January 2015 and I expect I will have more to say after that ; I did, however, listen to a recording of an interview with him over the summer. In it he described how he decided that instead of taking things out when writing fiction, he wanted to see what would happen if you left it all in.The novels are all finely crafted but the minutiae of life is recorded. As well as bringing him unexpected fame, the novels have also brought Knausgaard into conflict with his family as he describes his father’s descent into alcoholism, violence, his own marital problems as well as his wife’s mental illness with an almost brutal honesty. What results is a modern day Scandi Proust.

Books 1 and 3 are very bleak, but I hadn’t expected the humour in Book 2. I defy anyone who has had small children to care for not to recognise something of themselves in those pages. Karl Ove adores his kids but describes his battle to cope with the every day grind and drudgery of life at home with small children when he is a stay-at-home parent. Eventually he conquers his own resistance and surrenders to domesticity.

What had once irked me, walking through town with a buggy, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby buggy with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminised nature of what I did; now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or refusals to go any further or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon.Once a crowd of Japanese tourist stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look ,and tell your grandchildren what you saw!

There goes a Scandinavian man has become a catchphrase in our family !

Whilst Ferrante and Knausgaard have been the outstanding reads for me during 2014, I feel I must give an honourable mention to the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard who died in January 2014.

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The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family from just after WW1 through to 1958. Martin Amis has credited Howard,his step-mother, with encouraging him to read more seriously and become a writer.

I came to EJH late , only starting the series after reading her obituaries. Whilst I think it is fair to say that some volumes are stronger than others, I was swept up in the lives of the family, their hopes, love affairs and treacheries. Much social change is recorded too and I wished I had discovered the books earlier as they were a window into the world in which my parents grew up and gave me a greater understanding of some of their anxieties. I dreaded starting All Change as I knew that would finally be the end of a fantastic journey.

Happy New Year and happy reading in 2015 !

 

 

 

 

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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A novel about the Bloomsbury Set presents some challenges but Priya Parmar has stepped up to the plate in her book to be published by Bloomsbury on 30th December 2014.

The cast of characters is large and shifting, made doubly confusing by their love of (multiple) nicknames for each other together with their habit of hopping in and out of each others beds with alarming regularity.

Parmar has chosen to look at the group through the prism of Vanessa and Virginia’s complicated relationship. The book spans the years 1905 (just after the death of their father) to 1911 and Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

The story is told by a series of fictionalised diary entries created by Vanessa as well as ‘ correspondence’ from her and other members of the set. It begins with the Stephens family’s move to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury and the start of the Thursday ‘at homes’ . Together with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, the sisters preside over a household determined to kick at convention

Adrian was being pedantic and trying to persuade Virginia to change into evening clothes.

‘I do not see why I should wear a corset in my own drawing room,” said Virginia crossly. “You can breathe? Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Because you are a lady, Ginia,”Adrian repeated.

“And therefore not entitled to breathe?Since I do not need air, I will swim around the drawing room like a fish.The what will you do?”

Virginia’s logic.

Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship is tense. Virginia’s fragile health causes Vanessa to be ever watchful. Her sister’s moods can warn of an impending storm.

When Virginia is in a good mood, she enjoys hysterics. It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages the squall.

We follow the family through their travels and adventures however the central event in the novel is Vanessa’s courtship by and eventual marriage to the painter, Clive Bell.

Vanessa resists Clive at first only to marry him and become blissfully happy – for a short time. Her happiness is shattered by Clive’s infidelities,  first with her own sister and then with an ex-lover.

Apparently, I have misunderstood our marriage. He never thought we would be constricted by provincial fidelity. He never thought I would be so narrow minded, so Victorian, so unimaginative , as to confuse a marriage and a love affair. He never thought I would interrupt his personal freedom in this way.

Vanessa’s relationship with her sister is irrevocably altered. When Vanessa meets Roger Fry, the art critic who eventually became her lover, she warns her sister ,

No Virginia. You ruin. You ruin whatever you see coming between you and me. Roger is to my lover. He is my friend, but that hardly matters. We have a fragile, particular friendship, and you will destroy it if you can. As you destroyed my marriage. You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. At first it was a little difficult to follow who was who despite the list of characters which appears at the front. Things did eventual fall into place and telling the story through diary entries and letters did create the atmosphere surrounding the sisters, their acolytes  and of the times in which they lived.

Of course the story is ultimately tragic but there is a thread of humour running through it, particularly in Lytton Strachey’s correspondence with Leonard Woolf, then stationed in India. Strachey is constantly promoting the idea of Woolf marrying Virginia – hilariously he even prepares the ground by proposing to her himself only to have to somehow dissolve this disastrous engagement.

Behing it all stands the cpmplex but alluring Virginia, determined to write groundbreaking fiction

‘Why must a novel begin at the beginning? Who declares such a rule? Who defends it?” 

Vanessa And Her Sister is published by Bloomsbury on 30th December. My thanks to Netgalley for the proof.

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

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Ghost stories at Christmas became a tradition in The Victorian era. Dickens’ most famous ghost story is, of course, A Christmas Carol which I re read last Christmas and can thoroughly recommend. This year, however, my eye was drawn to The Haunted House on a visit to our local Waterstones.

First published in 1859, the billing on the front cover is a little misleading.

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A Christmas Carol had met with enormous success when first published in 1846.A Christmas book from Dickens had become a national institution.. By the time The Haunted House appeared in his periodical, All The Year Round, Dickens was overwhelmed with work and therefore approached some of his writer friends for contributions. The Haunted House is therefore a ‘Jacob’s Join’ of a book with stories from Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell as well as others less well known today.

The premise of the book is that a gentleman looking for a home in the country is drawn to a house standing alone on the edge of a village.

It was easy to see that it was an avoided house – a house that was shunned by the village , to which my eye was guided by a church spire some half a mile off- a house that nobody would take. And the natural inference was , that it had the reputation of being a haunted house.

The narrator determines to take it anyway. He is of a sceptical mindset and wants to conduct an experiment .He and a group of friends will rent the house and live there alone, even without servants (!) , until Twelfth Night. They will then gather together to recount what they have seen in order to compare notes on the supernatural.

It is fair to say that the standard of the various contributions is variable. Unsurprisingly Dickens’ genius shines through. On making enquiries in the village pub, the landlord calls his stable boy , Ikey, to tell the gentleman what he knows:

This gentleman wants to know,” said the landlord,”if anything’s seen at The Poplars.”

“‘Ooded woman with a howl,” said Ikey, in a state of great freshness.

“Do you mean a cry?”

“I mean a bird ,sir.”

Dickens’ story The Ghost Of Master B’s Room ends on a very poignant note. If you know anything of Dickens’ childhood and personal life,it is impossible not to feel sad :

No other ghost has haunted this boy’s room, my friends, since I have occupied it , than the ghost of my own childhood, the ghost of my own innocence , the ghost of my own airy belief. Many a time have I pursued the phantom : never with this man’s stride of mine to come up with it, never with these man’s hands of mine to touch it, never more in this man’s heart of mine to hold it in its purity.

I had looked forward to Wilkie Collins’ story as I am a great admirer of The Woman In White and The Moonstone but I found it a little disappointing. Elizabeth Gaskell’s is stronger. Somehow it reminded me of Thomas Hardy, perhaps the rustic setting. One of the ‘stories’ is written entirely in  rather overblown Victorian verse and I must confess I skipped that one!

The collection ends with a very short piece by Dickens The Ghost In The Garden Room, the final sentences of which do resonate today :

Finally, I derived this Christmas greeting from the Haunted House, which I affectionately address with all my heart to all my readers :- Let us use the great virtue, Faith, but not abuse it………

This is an interesting piece of Victoriana which does serve to show how central Dickens was to the literary scene of his day.

With that, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and in the words of one of Dickens most famous creations :

God bless us, every one!

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An Evening With Marilynne Robinson

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At this time of the year, the blogosphere is filled with favourite books of the year and so  I thought I would finally get round to writing about my favourite author event of 2014.

On 13th November, Marilynne Robinson was interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank Centre following the publication of Lila, the third of her novels set in the mid West town of Gilead and following the fortunes of the Ames and Boughton families. What follows is not a verbatim account of the interview but will, I hope, give a flavour of the evening.

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Lila is a repeat of the story in the earlier books Gilead and Home but told from a different point of view, that of Lila, wife of Rev John Ames who is the narrator of Gilead. One of the issues of storytelling, Robinson finds, is to get sufficient dimension. In John Ames’ version [ Gilead] he is writing a letter to his young  son and therefore he is necessarily writing to his son’s mother. It is really like parents telling different stories.

Is Lila, though uneducated, intuitively wiser than her husband John Ames? Lila describes knowing a place before it was known. She is not self-aware in a conventional way. She is outside the sense of things and outside consciousness .

Runcie pointed out that taken as a whole, the stories of Gilead, Home and Lila feel like a parable and the Book of Ezekiel and the Prodigal Son come to mind.

Robinson is haunted by Biblical paradigms . The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that if you absolutely love someone you see them in a state of grace. God sees you more purely . The father sees his son at a distance and runs to him. If you love someone, you want to stop them from hurting themselves but it they do, you still love them.

Runcie remarked that there is a high moral seriousness to Robinson’s writing. She replied, dryly, that she was glad to be assured of that. She prefers to call it aesthetic . Good behaviour is beautiful. Humans are an amazing flowering on a planet. We have the freedom to care for one another and to forgive. She calls this a beautiful uniqueness.

Jack Boughton specifically asks for forgiveness and John Ames cannot give it to him. Robinson explained that she has created a theological Rubik’s cube. Jack Boughton may be at odds with his culture but he sees something John Ames and his father can’t. Gilead is a small self-blinded community. Jack lacks the moral confidence to point out that they are violating Christian standards. They are both wrong and both right.

Runcie asked why Lila feels such shame. Lila is fallen in the sense we all are. People who are in poverty, who are ignorant, feel shame. They are embarrassed and this, in Robinson’s view, is the major part of the cruelty of poverty. Shame reinforces injurious cultural norms.

Lila’s baptism is central to her story. Robinson’s own tradition is Congregationalist. There are only two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. They both symbolise deep care.The cosmic force of water has always fascinated her. A member of the audience asked about the response of a younger readership to the biblical references. Robinson replied  with a flash of humour that she writes what is on her mind and she doesn’t find resistance to it. She can’t write something deliberately to be appealing.In the writers’ workshops she teaches the Old Testament from time to time. It is part of our inherited culture, for example, why is a book called Absalom! Absalom!

Runcie felt that whilst there was tentative hope in Lila, all the Gilead books are quite sad.Robinson doesn’t like the word pity and she objects to the word sad. We live in the knowledge of our own mortality. This is a profound thing. It is a fact of humaness, indeed it is what dignifies it. Runcie wondered if there is another word for pity or sad. Robinson cannot find an alternative word……..that is why she has to write novels.

Runcie wondered about the sense of loneliness there is in Lila and , indeed, in all the Gilead books. Robinson’s roots are in N. Idaho. People went there and no-one followed them so she is programmed to think that loneliness is a great Idea. She was brought up to be self sufficient.

Is she done with Gilead? She can’t be sure. She starts to write when a voice is clear in her mind.If a voice speaks to her persuasively then she may return there.All three books so far are free standing, they cast light on each other. In her view it is perfectly legitimate to read them in any order.

When she writes, Robinson needs solitude. She also needs hope, she doesn’t want to succumb to cliché . When she is writing and she likes what she is producing she can work for twelve hours. If she doesn’t feel engaged, she doesn’t work at all.She has to feel that there is a nucleus around which something is gathering to gain weight.

She had great happiness when she was writing her first book Housekeeping. She was in Brittany in France and she felt being there helped her to focus on Idaho. She never thought that it would be published. She showed her manuscript to a friend, who in turn showed it to the person who became Robinson’s agent. When she is writing she starts at the beginning and then she does what seems to be the next required thing. She never even writes an outline.

This was a remarkable evening. Robinson’s serenity leaves a long lasting impression and it was fascinating to have a glimpse at her method of working and to hear her discuss the themes in the Gilead novels .

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Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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There is plenty of atmosphere in Jo Bloom’s novel set in London’s East End in the Summer of 1962.

Vivien Epstein , a young Jewish hairdresser, has left her hometown of Manchester after the death of her father and come to London in search of fame, fortune and Jack.

Jack ,a young Jewish journalist ,had visited Vivien’s father, Phil, shortly before his death to talk about Phil’s days as an organiser in the ’43Group’. Phil had been instrumental in  the group’s fight against Moseley and the fascists in the East End decades before. Jack, so Vivien was told, was researching for an article. Jack and Vivien had a brief but intense affair. Jack promised he would come back for her but has since fallen off the radar.

 

Viv gets a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. The seedy world of Soho at this time with its prostitutes and strippers is lovingly recreated. The air is thick with the smell of hair lacquer and there are frequent references to the fashion styles and music of the time.

In fact the hit by Helen Shapiro, a young Jewish singer, became a bit of an ear worm for me when reading the book.

Vivian soon finds Jack but their relationship is fraught with danger. Jack is working undercover for the 62Group and has infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. The 62Group , like like their fore-runners, are Jewish activists working to defeat the fascists who are again openly campaigning on the streets of the East End.

Masquerading as a fascist, Jack is feeding back details of the NSM’s plans .He is finding the pressure unbearable but it is imperative that he doesn’t betray himself. The NSM are a group of violent thugs who openly boast of their hatred of Jews and Blacks.

Again, Bloom is expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and menace that surround the party. These passages read like a thriller and I found myself anxious to turn the page in order to find out what would happen next.

The NSM hold rallies and campaign meetings which the 62Group aim to disrupt. The violence of the fascists is sickening :

At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all.When a cricket bat cut through the air close by and someone screamed, he knew it was time to run, but after a couple of steps ,a hand shot out of nowhere and punched him in the face.

“No, not me -” he shouted.

He tried to stay on his feet but his attacker hit him again.He cried out, expecting another punch, but it never came. Instead a big man with heavy cheeks took hold of his attacker’s arm, threw him to the ground and kicked him until he couldn’t get up. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Bloom explains at the end of the book that the NSM did exist and was on the rise in the 1960s ,led by the vile Colin Jordan. Similarly, the 62Group really was part of the Jewish community’s fightback to keep the fascist off their streets. The characters and events in the book whilst realistic are , of course, the product of Bloom’s imagination.

Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December and has a wonderful cover – not that I would ever judge a book by that, of course !!

My thanks to Jo Bloom for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Getting Colder by Amanda Coe

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As we move into December, the title of this novel seems particularly apt.

Screen-writer Amanda Coe examines the fall out in an already fractured family after the death of the mother, Sara. Nigel and Louise, her children, are both grown up now with their own difficult families but 35 years earlier, Sara abandoned her children to live with Patrick, now an old man but at that time a fashionable playwright and darling of the Left.

In the aftermath of their mothers death , Nigel and Louise descend on the ramshackle cottage in Cornwall which Sara had shared with Patrick to pick over her possessions and also the reasons their mother left them all those years ago. Getting Colder is in fact the name of a hide-and-seek type game they used to play with their mother when they were children.

Both Nigel and Louise have been left damaged by their mother’s betrayal. Nigel’s years at boarding school have left him with an anxiety related digestive problem. Louise, dumped with a godmother as her carer, has constant feelings of unworthiness. Her neediness is spilling over into her relationship with her own two children. Patrick is an intensely unlikeable ,self-obsessed and self pitying bully and it is hard to see what Sara had ever seen in him.

“I’ll never forgiver her, you know. Leaving me like this.”

He meant Mum. Well, rampaging end-stage cancer was hardly running off with the milkman. Nigel pushed the sugar bowl his way appeasingly.

“Ashes,”said Patrick. “O God.” And to Nigel’s dismay, he wept. Nigel hated this, always had,the way Patrick detonated instantly into high emotion, winding you in the backdraft.

Into this heady mix comes Mia, an attractive young student apparently researching Patrick’s almost forgotten writing  but someone who has an agenda of her own.

“My cock doesn’t work,” he had told her, a few days into the blouse-button routine. ” Shut up shop years ago”

It had made everything more possible. Even at its most enjoyable, sex always made Mia feel she was missing the point of something other deployed to enhance their status by claiming to find it transformational – much like those who trumpeted their love of the theatre.Well, she was different, as usual. Her pleasure was mild enough when she fancied someone, like Jonathon; it would have been downright impossible with Patrick.

Each chapter of the novel is seen through the eyes of Nigel, Louise or Mia. Each episode is prefaced with an extract from notes, letters and cards written by Patrick and Sara over the years and through which the trajectory of their love affair and its consequences can be traced,

Given the subject matter this could be an extremely depressing read however Coe’s witty style saves the book from becoming gloomy. Here, a young Louise , who has recently been shown a sex education film in school, tries to work out why her mother has left her father for Patrick :

But Louise knew, unlike her friends that any or all of the improbable facts imparted about adult sexual behaviour had to be true. The weirdness must take place, because why else would Mum leave Dad, and them? Since nothing made sense, you had to believe in a compulsion you couldn’t understand. It was all because Mum wanted Patrick’s penis in her vagina. Dad’s penis wasn’t good enough for some reason.

The clue to the result of Nigel and Louise’s search is found in the quote from Ted Hughes which appears on the frontispiece  :

‘What happens in the heart simply happens’

A very enjoyable read and thank you to Ursula Doyle and Virago for the advance copy.