Saturday, 13 June 2015

LEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller

I've read all Fuller's books of memoir about her life in southern Africa. This sounds like an endorsement. It is, and it isn't. They're reasonably good books, but I think I've read them not so much for their quality as for their rarity. If you are American, or British, or Indian, or from any other large group, there are many novels about your experience. If you are Zimbabwean, not so much. The only white Zimbabwean I've ever seen portrayed on screen for example is Leonardo DiCaprio, doing a horrible South African accent.

There's much in Fuller's life that I can identify with, from the dirty to the malaria:
the Fullers . . drank whatever they could find, lukewarm if need be, and had no compunction about using ice made from unboiled water. 'A few germs never hurt anyone,' Dad always said. And if a bout of diarrhea ensued, it simply proved his point. 'See? Keeps you from getting all blocked up.
and
Like most drinking families, we usually aired our feelings late at night.
But I struggle with some of it; the Fullers are clearly somewhat new arrivals in Africa, so there is a sense of foreignness that I struggle to understand: (We) were alone in the house. Although truthfully we were alone only in the ways Westerners speak of being alone in Africa, as if the few hundred locals by whom they are almost always surrounded are part of the landscape, instead of part of humanity"

This novel is the story of the author's divorce. She married young, to an American named Charlie. As with many Africans, she imagined an American could give her stability.
Charlie was a gallant one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness, quietly stepping in whenever he thought we were drinking excessively, ruining our health with cigarettes, or courting intestinal disaster with undercooked chicken. This made the Fullers howl with laughter and did nothing to make them behave differently.

They began their lives in rural Zambia, and unsurprisingly being twenty two and living in a remote location with a small screaming baby did make make for immediate bliss. They therefore moved to America, where they had two more children in short order. They have financial troubles, and their marriage starts to unravel. It's very sad. It's also somewhat annoying. She claims repeatedly that she 'can't understand the accounts' which is an frustratingly female way of dodging responsibility. The financial trouble seems all very American - the poverty of having too much. As she puts it:
True, we had a house, a cabin, some investments, but it turned out we didn't own any of the roofs over our heads, the bank did. We had three horses on some pasture in Idaho, those were ours . . .
Two residences and three horses and you wonder why you're in debt?

Anyway, this is a sweet and touching novel. I recommend it.



FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Irene Nemirovsky is famous for SUITE FRANCAISE, a novel about the German invasion of France, which she wrote during the German invasion of France. It's a fantastic novel, and was almost lost to the world, as Nemirovsky died in a concentration camp while the book was still in draft. Her daughter took a suitcase of her mother's papers around with her for fifty years, and never opened it, fearing it would be too upsetting; and only at the end of her life finally unpacked it and found the novel. FIRE IN THE BLOOD was similarly found in some old papers of Nemirovsky's and while not for me as great as SUITE FRANCAISE, is still a very fine novel. The theme is covered in the opening quotation, from one of the favourite novelists of this blog: Marcel Proust.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitude that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed around them. The represent a struggle and a victory.

The story is told from the perspective of an older man, who watches with fascination his young niece cheating on her husband.
It wasn't just about the pleasures of the flesh. No, it wasn't that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . that was what we wanted.

He feels that his old age has come on him unexpectedly, and references a charming old French proverb - "The days drag on while they years fly by". He has much to say on the relative serenity of middle age:
"They are happy with themselves. They have renounced the vain attempts of youth to adapt the world to their desires. They have failed, and, now, they can relax. In a few years they will once again be troubled by great anxiety, but this time it will be a fear of death; it will have a strange effect on their tastes, it will make them indifferent, or eccentric, or moody, incomprehensible to their families, strangers to their children. But between the ages of forty and sixty they enjoy a precarious sense of tranquility."

The niece's mother is presented throughout as a sweet older lady, but we slowly learn that the narrator was in his time her lover. She was then married to a dying old man, and so wouldn't sleep with him. He left her to travel to Africa to recover. He suffered much over this at the time, but really at heart this is a dark little novel, about how all our sufferings will eventually be eroded by time, till nothing much is left. Here he is, last line of the novel, the last time he saw her before he left for Africa:
"Helene," the dying man called out, "Helene." We didn't move. She seemed to be drinking me in, breathing in my heart. As for me, by the time I finally let her go I knew I had already begun to love her less.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen

This books lies somewhere between the juvenalia and the great works, and I hadn't read it since I was a teenager. These are the joys of having the Complete Works on your Kindle! It's an enjoyable, straightforward read, and it's fun to trace the early outlines of the Austen mind. Here's a charming little bit, right near the end, after hte central couple have got together:
The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the telltale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.
God she's a great writer.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE by Hilary Mantel

From one novel about a university scholarship to another, from one grim 60s childhood to the next. Even the introduction notes how similar this book is to JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN, so it’s bizarre I read them back to back by sheer chance.

Hilary Mantel is by far the most diverse writer I’ve ever come across. From her lengthy Booker Prize winning history novels of Henry VIII (WOLF HALL and its sequels) to A CHANGE OF CLIMATE, a short contemporary story of child abuse in Africa, to A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, a story of the French Revolution, her content veers wildly around.

AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE is a story of anorexia, before it had a real name. It’s weird to see this girl who is at university wonder what’s wrong with her: you just want to scream: GO TO THE HEALTH CENTRE YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE AN EATING DISORDER. The book ends with in a fire in the dormitory, which kills one of the heroine’s friends, and for some reason also cures her of her anorexia. It sounds climactic, and yet somehow it was mostly anti-climactic. I’ve never been so bored by a fire/murder.

So not one of my favourite of her weird array of novels. Though sometimes you see the Mantel gold shining through; as this, on her miserable childhood, which I’ll leave you with:
Perhaps I should regret my misspent youth, pity myself for having so little fun. But carpe diem is an empty sentiment, now that we all live so long.
That's fridge magnet material right there.

Monday, 11 May 2015

JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN by Margaret Drabble

This book tells the story of a young woman named Clara who escapes her grim Northern upbringing by getting a scholarship to go to University in London. It never ceases to amaze me how many of these novels there are – about people whose lives are changed by scholarships - all of them of course written by people who really did have their lives changed by scholarships. It makes me wonder how many great authors have been lost to the world through a lack of funding. Many, I suppose.

Clara’s own family is distant and joyless. Her father dies, and we are told: “Mr Maugham had provided for his family with a thoroughness that bordered upon the reckless – in so far as a man may squander upon insurance, he had done so.”

In London, Clara finds a friend named Clelia (not a typo) at a poetry reading. She is entranced:
She liked the cosy way they all seemed to assume that the evening was a wash-out, inevitably, and that he whole job of writing and reading poetry was somehow fundamentally ill-conceived. And yet, at the same time, they wanted to think they had done it well The mixture of general cynicism and personal vanity was peculiarly appealing . .
Margaret Drabble was an actress for a time, and you can entirely tell. This is a painfully accurate description of many a night I’ve spent in small theatres.

She falls in love with Clelia, and Clelia’s wealthy family, and more specifically with Clelia’s married brother. It’s more a learning curve than a real romance, and ends predictably in half-hearted tears. No doubt this is most accurate, with many University romances being more about finding yourself than finding someone else; but still I found it all rather a let down. I’m sure there are better uses to be made of your scholarship.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen

Oh go on then. One more time. What must this be? Seventh? Eighth? Really she’s such a fantastic writer. Hardly a wrong note. I’m actually losing my sense of humour about people who don’t agree.

Friday, 24 April 2015

DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY (and its sequels) by E.M. Delafield

This charmingly funny series of books has never been out of print. Apparently somewhat autobiographical, it is daily entries in a diary of a woman living in rural England in the 1930s and 40s. It cost me 99p and after the first I read all the others:
THE PROVINCIAL LADY GOES FURTHER
THE PROVINCIAL LADY IN AMERICA
THE PROVINCIAL LADY IN WARTIME

At first, the world is very sweet and innocent. A huge topic is what the vicar's wife wants for the Women's Institute. It's still startlingly modern though:
Lady B asks me at tea how the children are, and adds, to the table at large, that I am "A Perfect Mother." Am naturally avoided, conversationally, after this, by everybody at the tea table.
or
This disposes once and for all of fallacy that days seem long when spent in complete idleness. They seem, on the contrary, very much longer when filled with ceaseless activities

Later as we enter the war, it becomes inevitably darker. What's sad is as the second world war begins, she talks a lot about what the 'last war' was like, reminding one that a large number of people were so unlucky as to live through both wars (the author was born in 1890). It's also interesting to see modernity on its way. At first, she spends a lot of time complaining about her cook; but later she complains about never having been taught to cook (as if it's some miraculous ability that only a few people possess).

(As a side point: I wonder who is the first female comic novelist? I can't think of anyone earlier than this - so perhaps this book as well as being entertaining is also a historic document.)