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.

An Evening With Ian McEwan

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Today sees the UK publication of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. On 1st September I attended the Guardian Reader event at The Cadogan Hall at which Ian McEwan was interviewed by journalist and novelist, Jonathan Freedland.

I haven’t read The Children Act as yet . I only picked up my signed copy last night and so I can’t review it at all.  I also can’t say whether this little report of the evening contains any spoilers – I’m just recording some of the things discussed at the event.

McEwan began the evening with a reading from the very beginning of the book (pp1 -8). The main character of The Children Act  is Fiona May, a High Court Judge in the Family Division. At the opening of the book Fiona’s personal life is about to enter a crisis as Jack, her husband of many years, announces his intention to have an affair with ‘ A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife.’

Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t want the marriage to end but, Fiona wryly reflects ‘ The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later,’

Just as her private life goes into turmoil, her professional life becomes challenging when she is asked to preside over two very difficult cases, most particularly a case concerning a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are withholding consent to life-saving treatment for him.

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Freedland opened the interview by pointing out the strange coincidence that this book is being published just as the sad news of Ayasha King and his family is all over our TVs and newspapers. McEwan was quick to point out that although that case did involve a Jehovah Witness family it did not , as far as he could tell, involve religion per se. Rather, he thought, it was best described as a ‘cascade of chaos’ .Terrible consequences have been unleashed by pushing bureaucratic buttons and now a poor child is languishing in a hospital without his family.

His novel concerns a rather different scenario of a teenager who knows his own mind and is refusing life saving treatment. The title of the book refers to actual legislation, The Children Act 1989, and the over-riding principle appears on its flyleaf – ‘ …the child’s welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration.’

Over the age of 18 one can refuse medical treatment but where that person is a child, the courts become involved in any dispute  and so we have the collision between the secular mind and sincerely held religious beliefs. We seem to be undergoing  a national period of soul searching concerning the welfare of children at a time in which it has become clear that terrible abuses have occurred .

Freedland pointed out that in the book McEwan seems to be very critical of the role of so called experts in such cases. McEwan agreed that he particularly wanted to highlight the role of Roy Meadows on whose say so more than one woman had been wrongly sent to prison. This was also a failing of the judiciary. Judges can be both brilliant and awful. Terrible miscarriages of justice do occur.

Freedland remarked that he seemed remarkably well disposed towards lawyers. McEwan agreed that lawyers had had a bad press since Shakespeare but he finds that on the whole they speak eloquently and write well. They enjoy jokes about lawyers and he would rather stand in a British court where the separation of powers offers protection against the perversity of whatever government is in power. This, of course, is not the case in many parts of the world.As a lawyer myself, I felt my admiration for him grow!

The language of the best judgements is, he has found, quite extraordinary. He mentioned particularly the judgements of Sir Alan Ward. The tone of these can be both witty and sceptical and the range of historical and philosophical references is vast. Rather like novelists, judges read and criticize  each others work…..and rather like novelists, they are toughest on those who are foolish enough to have left the conversation.

Freedland asked about the significance of Fiona’s childlessness to the novel. The absence of children is something McEwan has written about before and here he referred to A Child In Time where the absence of a particular child is harrowingly described. He feels we are all the owners of the children we once were and carry our own lost childhoods with us. In his view we are still that child to some extent. That was very much in his mind when he wrote A Child In Time.

Fiona has faced a dilemma that many women at work now face, she has delayed having children  and now finds herself without a family. The point of Fiona’s childlessness, though, is that in the boy she finds the hint of the child she never had. Fiona is very intelligent but she is not emotionally articulate.

Freedland then alluded to McEwan’s own brush with the family courts and wondered whether this had in anyway influenced his choice of subject. By way of explanation, McEwan went through a very bitter divorce and custody dispute with his first wife. McEwan found his own experience immensely painful and he doesn’t want to speak or write about it at all. There is a passage in the book where he talks about the ease with which adults persuade themselves that to divorce will be best for their children. He thinks there is an almost consumerist rush for a younger wife or a richer husband which he refers to as moral kitsch.

McEwan was asked about the significance of the world of work in his novels as several feature particular professions. He explained that the background is never the first inspiration for him , it is always the story but that he felt work was extremely important. Work went missing in the modern novel for which he blamed Henry James. James preferred his characters to have a private income so that he could explore the human condition without distraction.  McEwan is not persuaded by this. Work is often the key to our identity, it is where we meet our friends and often our lovers.

He revealed that the professions of airline pilot and architect particularly interest him.He had been thinking of William Golding’s The Spire whilst contemplating the Shard the other evening and wondering whether the building  was a triumph or a disaster ……..he had come to the conclusion that it was actually rather brilliant. Bermondsey needed something like that on its skyline!

He is more and more interested in a form of social realism in the novel, to look at where we are going now and , it seemed to him, work must be part of that. In the 70s he had flirted with the post modern , existentialist style . For example in The Cement Garden he deliberately didn’t say when or where it was……he can now reveal it was Stockwell in 1976! At this time he thinks there was a mistaken belief that  not specifying the time or place made the work more universal. That he now rejects, you only have to think of supremely regional novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to see that that is not the case.

McEwan was then asked about the length of this novel, like several of his others it is short at 55 thousand words. Did he feel that a story is best told concisely? He joked that he resented the implication that he couldn’t write a long novel , it is almost as if we were discussing sexual prowess. At one time of course we didn’t know the word count of a piece of writing, now it is there at the bottom of the screen.

He finds it interesting to move between the space and patience of a longer novel and a shorter one ,where necessarily there is a paring down of sub plot.He thinks Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were masters of the art of the short novel. In fact  the close of this novel pays tribute to Joyce’s The Dead. He thinks this is the supreme example of a novella and he couldn’t end without acknowledging it.

The evening was then opened up to questions from the floor and I have chosen just a few of the ones I found most interesting as I am mindful of my own word count.

A member of the audience revealed that he had studied Enduring Love for A-Level and he wondered what McEwan felt about being a set text author and whether there were any of his books he felt were unsuitable for study in school.

He does have mixed feelings about being ‘forced ‘ to read a book and wonders whether any of those readers will ever come back to him. His own son had studied Enduring Love and he found it most disconcerting to find notes lying round the house starting ‘ McEwan thinks…. McEwan is trying to say…..’. He also told us that on one occasion he had given his son the benefit of his thoughts to help with an essay. His son had come home with a D grade !!

In his opinion,  his first two volumes of short stories and The Comfort Of Strangers are unsuitable to study in school. They are so dark and depressing and you have enough to contend with when you are sixteen. He is really not sure about being a ‘ set’ author, it makes him feel dead.

A female member of the audience asked him about his favourite female authors since often his protagonists are female but all the authors he had mentioned were male.

He is very fond o the writing of Rose Tremain. He is also re-kindling his affection for Virginia Woolf. He fell out with her in Atonement but recently visited Charleston and felt her presence. His disenchantment was caused by what he thought at that time was a lack of backbone in the narrative although he feels differently now. He particularly recommended her Diaries.

He was then asked about Will Self’s article in which Self accused George Orwell of being a mediocrity. McEwan hadn’t read the article so couldn’t comment on it specifically but felt that Orwell was just about as far away from being a mediocrity as it was possible to be. Orwell captured the sensible voice dealing with difficult issues. His ghost can be heard in the voices of James Fenton, Timothy Garton-Ash and his very dear friend Christopher Hitchens, all fine journalists . Orwell of course was the first to bring pop culture under scrutiny.

The evening then ended with some general musings on current affairs.He felt that this summer has seen the darkest news cycle that he can remember. It has turned him into a news junkie……he starts the day with the Today programme, moves through the news channels during the evening , ending with Newsnight. In between he reads all the broadsheets and the New York Times. He may never find the time to write another novel again.

His current project is a screen play, first conceived in 1991 with a neuroscientist friend. It deals with the subject of deep brain stimulation. At the time it was originally written, of course, we didn’t even carry mobile phones but it foresaw in some way Google and the impact of the internet. He wants to see if this can be revived and brought up to date.

This is just a flavour of the evening we also discussed the effect of trauma on the psyche, whether he had read The Goldfinch ( he hadn’t!) and Scottish Independence. It was a fabulous evening , McEwan is an intellectual dazzler and a gifetd raconteur  and was ably coaxed on by Freedland. I am really looking forward to reading The Children Act.

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