Portraits of women reading is perhaps one of the loveliest examples of ‘memes’ in art history, particularly in the 19th century and particularly in France. Was it the rise of the middle classes and of leisure time? Were the men boasting that their wives and daughters were well looked after, well-educated and could therefore spend time on that frivolous pursuit of reading novels? Or was it that there is a certain stillness in the act of reading which men as doers felt that they could not or would not choose to quite live up to? Or was it simply a respectable form of voyeurism for rich men/art collectors? Whatever the reason for it, it has left behind some beautiful paintings (all in the public domain, as far as I know, but please correct me if I am wrong).
While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
On the top of my centre-right bookshelf I have an odd assortment of old editions by favourite authors (many of which I bought second-hand at school jumble sales). Here are three which I have read many times and probably will reread in the future.
Sylvia Plath: Letters Home
This book represents my ‘way into’ Sylvia Plath, who became one of my favourite poets (she still is, by the way, although I am less interested in her biography by now). I found this rather massive book in the English language bookshop in Vienna when I was about 12 and had no idea who Sylvia Plath was. In fact, I thought it was going to be a bit like Daddy-Long-Legs, which was a book I loved at the time (the film too, with Cyd Charisse). Clearly, my parents had no idea who she was either, or they might not have approved the purchase of it for their overly dramatic, moody, poetically inclined pre-teen. But of course, this is the carefully sanitised version of Sylvia that her mother got to see. Nevertheless, impressive enough to make me scoop up everything else she had ever written or that had ever been written about her.
Elizabeth Goudge: The Herb of Grace
This is one of those books I came across at a book sale. Although the cover was pink and yellow (an uneasy combination of colours), I picked it up because I loved the author, having read The Little White Horse aloud to my mother while she was cooking, and also enjoyed The White Witch, The Middle Window and The Heart of the Family (I laboriously ticked all the other books I’d read on the inside cover). Again, I must have been 12-13 at the time and I’m not sure what I got out of this book about post-war trauma, adultery, forgiveness, love and friendship, other than the many references to The Wind in the Willows. Goudge’s style feels old-fashioned and quaint nowadays, has perhaps not aged as well as Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Taylor, but she was my introduction to that kind of writing, which one might call the ‘furrowed English middlebrow with an ironic raise of the eyebrow’. I don’t mean any contempt, by the way, as I love this writing style, although as I grew up I tended to prefer the more mordant wit of Muriel Spark or Nancy Mitford.
Now that I am reading the Cazalet chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, I can say that this trilogy reminds me of that better-known series.
Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur
Having adored Gerald Durrell’s evocation of his family’s life in Corfu, which we had read out to us in class while we were doing arts and crafts (I was always far more interested in the book than in the crafty side of things), I borrowed Lawrence Durrell as soon as I could from the library (ah, the charms of benign neglect by parents and librarians!). The baroque prose and evocative landscapes of the Alexandria Quartet enchanted me. I soon graduated to the Avignon Quintet, of which this is one, perhaps my favourite, with its description of Christmas in a crumbling chateau in Provence (yep, the love of chateau and France have been a constant in my life). What would I think of it twenty-odd years later if I were to reread it? I now prefer the more pared down style of writing, so would it give me indigestion from all the riches?
It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.
Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.
Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.
In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.
At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.
He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…
In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’
Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for
our language has not come from the future,
it has crawled from a cave
and rowed to so many shores
that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.
Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:
I told no one
how old he was
More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.
The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.
Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept
I believe in separating your working and sleeping space, but I’ve heard of plenty of writers and readers who feel at their most comfortable (or most inspired) in their bedrooms. And what about if you have no other space for writing? So here are some elegant solutions to this quandary. Which don’t involve lying propped up on cushions in bed (although that is perfect for reading).
WWW Wednesday is a meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.
The three Ws are: What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you think you’ll read next?
Nelly Arcan: Folle
Still taking my time over this one, reading a few pages at a time. Not that I don’t like it, but it’s taking you too deep perhaps in a troubled, jilted, suicidal woman’s mind, so you need frequent breaks.
Elizabeth von Arnim: Elizabeth and Her German Garden
The perfect contrast to the above, this charming and gentle reflection of the passing of the seasons in a garden is calming even to a non-gardener but flower lover like myself. Plus, it’s a wife’s bid for having her own personal space, so what’s not to like?
Pierre Lemaitre: Three Days and a Life (transl. Frank Wynne)
Not really a crime novel as such, but a very believable description of a young boy’s way of dealing with guilt when he accidentally causes the death of another boy. Excellent social and psychological observation, although the end feels somewhat fortuitous.
Elizabeth Jane Howard: Marking Time (Cazalet 2)
Another feel-good book supposedly – although the subjects in this second book in the series are rather grim: war, death, abortions, abuse, cancer…
Goran Vojnović: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland (transl. Noah Charney) – representing Slovenia for #EU27Project, also an attempt to get my Netgalley shelves cleared.
Alison Lurie: Real People
A book about writers at an artists’ colony reminiscent of Yaddo, this satirises pretentious artistic egos and relationships. Apparently, Lurie was banned from Yaddo and other such places after publishing the book.
Well, that was the plan, at least, when I wrote this post at the weekend, but I ended up reading the Alison Lurie book before starting on the Elizabeth von Arnim one, so you will have seen the review of Real People already.