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.)

DANCING IN THE DARK by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is volume 4 of Karl Ove's 6 volume auto-biography, and I feel like I've been waiting forever for it to come out. What is his translator taking so long about? This one is about his year as a trainee teacher in the far north of Norway. Well, that's what it's about in terms of plot. In reality, it's about how incredibly badly he wants to have sex. He is 19, which apparently by Norwegian standard is incredibly late to still be a virgin. In typical Karl Ove TMI fashion, which I love, he tells us that he has wet dreams three times a week. Can this be normal? I would like to ask my male friends but it seems a bridge too far. Here he is:
I would have given absolutely anything to sleep with a girl. Any girl actually. Whether it happened with someone I loved, like Hanne, or with a prostitute, made no difference, if it happened as part of a satanic initiation ceremony with goat's blood and hoods I would have said, yes, I'm up for that. But it wasn't something you were given, it was something you took. Exactly how, I didn't know, and then it became a vicious circle, for not knowing made me unsure of myself, and if there was one thing that disqualified you, one thing they didn't want, it was a lack of self-assurance. That much I had understood. You had to be confident, determined, convincing. But how to get to that position? How in God's name could you do that? How did you go from standing in front of a girl in full daylight, with all her clothes on, to sleeping with her in the darkness a few hours later?"

Later, he begins to get pretty close, managing to get quite a few girls' clothes off while disturbingly drunk. But then he has a major problem with premature ejaculation. This, he hypothesizes, is because he never masturbates. TMI! TMI! TMI! And yet this is why I love these books; I was about to write 'love Karl Ove', because they really seem one and the same. It's so rare that someone you know, either in life or in literature, really tells you what it was like for them. I'm not sure people are really keeping it secret. I more think it's very hard to know what it has all been like. A single day, maybe yesterday, we can do: but to convey your whole life, as Karl Ove's attempting: it's amazing.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy

This is kind of like a French existentialist novel except set in the 1950s in America.

Here's the gleeful narrator: "It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen and to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one' sname on it certifying, so to speak, one's right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake sticker! I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink."

However he finds that despite his odourless armpits he is for some reason still unhappy. Even going on holiday with his friends is hollow: "The times we did have fun, like sitting around a fire or having a time with some girls, I had the feeling they were saying to me: 'Hows about this Binx? This is really it, isn't it, boy?', that they were were practically looking up from their girls to say this. For some reason I sank into a deep melancholy."

The novel makes the point that life is meaningless and happiness largely a personal decision. It appears to have been written when this was still an unusual point of view. It's strange to think that this, so innovative at the time, is now pretty much most people's default.
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Saturday, 11 April 2015

A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes

Well this is a totally wild story. Written in 1929, it is like no other novels of that period. And possibly like no novels of any period.

It tells the story of five children who grow up in Jamaica, and is told almost entirely from their perspective. It is therefore weird and unreasonable, and gets even more so when they are sent home to England in a boat, because the boat is taken by pirates, and they are accidentally abducted. The pirates treat them reasonably well, and the trip becomes a sort of strange holiday. One of the kids falls out of a window, and dies, and is never referred to by any of the children again. Another child begins to treat old bits of ship’s tackle as her babies. The oldest girl, almost thirteen, meets the fate common to oldest girls in bad situations. Meanwhile, the book is very merry. It’s like LORD OF THE FLIES, but told cheerfully.

Eventually, the pirates manage to off load the children on a separate ship, and the children are returned to their parents. They recover , while the pirates are jailed. You almost feel sorry for the pirates.

Here’s a little sample of the surreal feel of the book. It’s the very beginning, and I include it in part because it captures something of the social impact of the end of slavery in the West Indies, a subject I never really thought about before, but which also came up in WIDE SARGASSO SEA a little while ago:
One of the fruits of Emancipation in the West Indian islands is the number of the ruins, either attached to the houses that remain or within a stone’s throw of them: ruined slaves’ quarters, ruined sugar grinding houses, ruined boiling houses; often ruined mansions that were too expensive to maintain. Eathquarke, fire, rain, and the deadlier vegetation, did their work quickly.
One scene is very clearly in my mind, in Jamaica. There was a vast stone built house called Derby Hill (where the Parkers lived). It had been the centres of a very prosperous plantation. With Emancipation, like many others, that went bung. The sugar buildings fell down. Bush smothered the can and the guinea-grass. . . . The three remaining faithful servants occupied the mansion. The two heiresses of all this, the Miss Parkers, grew old; and were by education incapable. And the scene is this: coming to Derby Hill on some business or other, and wading waist-deep in bushes up to the front door, now lashed permanently open by a rank plant. . . The two old Miss Parkers lived in bed, for the negroes had taken away all their clothes: they were nearly starved. Drinking water was brought, in two cracked Worcester cups and three coconut shells on a sliver salver. Presently one of the heiresses persuaded her tyrants to lend her an old print dress, and came and pottered about in the mess half-heartedly: tried to wipe the old blood and feathers of slaughtered chickens from a gilt and marble table: tried to talk sensibly: tried to wind the ormolu clock: and then gave it up and mooned away back to bed. Not long after this, I believe they were both starved altogether to death. Or, if that were hardly possible in so prolific a country, perhaps given ground glass – rumour varied. At any rate, they died.

“deadlier vegetation”!
“by education incapable” !
“At any rate, they died”!
I can’t imagine why this weird book isn’t more famous