Claire Tomalin: A Life of My Own

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Claire Tomalin as a biographer, having read her biography of Dickens and Dickens’ ‘invisible woman’ Nelly Ternan, as well as well-documented and sensitive recreations of the life of Samuel Pepys, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield. But she found her vocation rather late in life, as she admits in this very frank memoir A Life of My Own, and her career has been almost accidental, often resulting from changes to her personal circumstances rather than any ambitious planning.

Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries

Tomalin’s life is a mix of privilege and hard blows. As she herself admits: ‘I’ve had a life with tragedies in it. But also extraordinary good luck.’ Born to well-educated but unhappily married parents, brought up bilingual and evacuated from home during the Second World War (changing schools very frequently), she entered a charmed circle of talented friends at Cambridge, who later became influential journalists and critics. She married young and had several children in quick succession, but her charismatic reporter husband Nick Tomalin was an inveterate womaniser, who kept planning to leave her but eventually came back. When he was killed by a missile attack in Israel in 1973, Claire was shocked but must also have been relieved. She built a new life for herself as a single mum supporting her four children, working as Literary Editor at The New Statesman and the Sunday Times. She knew everyone who was anyone and had affairs with younger men, such as Martin Amis. She lost a baby and her last child, a son named Tom, was born with spina bifida. She describes her struggles to bring him up as normally as possible, but also found an army of willing childminders. Her middle daughter, who always seemed the most cheerful and well-adjusted, committed suicide when she was 20. She found late love with her second husband and lifelong friend, playwright Michael Frayn.

During happy times, the description of her music and book-filled life, with frequent trips abroad and full of big names, can sound slightly elitist. Yet she is often very modest and full of subtle humour. Although she names a few lovers, she is on the whole discreet about all the men offering themselves to the young widow as ‘admirers, consolers, wooers, romantics and would-be seducers’.

Claire has a breezy way of dealing with sad events in her life, dispatching them in one unsentimental paragraph. No self-pity is allowed to creep in at all, but her stoicism made me as a reader feel very uncomfortable. For example, about her last reconciliation with her first husband:

Nick grew more pressing. My daughter Jo was now twelve and I decided I should consult with her. I told her he was eager to come back and said I thought he would never change and that we could make a better life without him, and maybe I could marry a steadier partner one day. She listened, and then said in a very small clear voice, ‘I want Daddy.’ And I answered, in a voice which I made cheery, ‘All right – we’ll have Daddy.’

At times, this breeziness can descend into callousness, such as when she describes falling in love with Michael Frayn, who was still married at that point.

… Michael and I were now living together. Our long friendship, in which we had talked and confided in one another about our lives, had turned to love. It was an overwhelming experience. It also caused pain and difficulties for everyone. We tried to give up our relationship more than once, and never could. The situation was resolved very slowly through the generosity of his wife…

Maybe the previous generations are far less puritanical than ours (and the younger ones). Or perhaps this is the way to deal with things in life, to tell yourself a certain story and not agonise over other possible interpretations.

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Weekly Summary 15 Oct 2018

Earlier in the week I attended an event that wasn’t really meant for me: it was about how to get published as an early career academic or Ph.D. student in the field of comparative literature. My days in academia are long since over, but just occasionally I dream of writing the definitive work combining anthropology and literature from across the world. But the reason I attended this event was that I was curious to see if it was just as difficult to get published in this field as it is in the world of fiction. And one difference was immediately obvious: you get in touch directly with a publisher and write a book proposal with perhaps 1-2 sample chapters, rather than have to write the whole book and then find an agent. Getting published in academic journals, however, is much more difficult than publishing opinion pieces in various online or press publications, since you need to get peer reviewed.

I did not deliberately set out to buy books this week, but somehow a few of them did stalk me and end up on my doorstep…

I have fond memories of reading Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood together with our professor at university back in the days when I studied Japanese. Since then, however, I’ve not always been equally impressed with his work. I loved Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I have a soft spot for The Wild Sheep Chase (because I am secretly obsessed by the island of Hokkaido). I was fascinated by Underground and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, mainly because they follow my own interests. But I have felt no urge to read Colorless Tsukuru or Men Without Women or IQ84. So I guess you could say I am a fan of earlier Murakami (and of the ‘other’ Murakami – Ryuu). Still, I could not resist the beautiful, colourful edition of his latest Killing Commendatore, both because of its allusion to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and because the blurb sounds interesting.


 A thirty-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. When he discovers a strange painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances. To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.

So I spent most of my Saturday wading through the lengthy book. Verdict? Overall, quite enjoyable, but far too long and self-indulgent in terms of descriptions and repetitions. I enjoyed the exploration of the artistic impulse in general and portrait painting in particular. It has been described as The Great Gatsby meets The Picture of Dorian Grey, but reminded me more of the folktales and ghost stories of Ueda Makinari, who is referenced in the book itself.

Following my evening at Canada House, I found a second-hand copy of A Door in the River by Inger Ash Wolfe (Michael Redhill’s pen name for crime fiction). I bought the coming-of-age novel about a wannabe writer That Summer Feeling by Mark Hodkinson after reading the author’s article about how the publishing industry needs a wake-up call and setting up an independent publishing house Pomona. So blogs and articles, reviews and Twitter recommendations definitely work in getting me interested in a book.

I was sent Margaret Millar’s Vanish in an Instant by Pushkin Vertigo to review on Crime Fiction Lover. I already have a good stack of Margaret Millar’s – she is one of the original and best when it comes to psychological thrillers and domestic noirs. Last but not least, I borrowed Fatou Diome’s novel about the female immigrant experience in France Celles qui attendent (Those Who Are Waiting) from the library. 

The highlight of the week, however, was the very rainy film-binging day at the London Film Festival on Sunday. I watched a Romanian and a Russian film.

Still from the Film ‘I Do Not Care If…’

The Romanian film directed by Radu Jude was ‘I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians’. An unwieldy title but very appropriate, as it was a quote given by the Romanian military leaders just before carrying out a massacre in Odessa in 1941. This is an uncomfortable part of Romanian history which has been swept under the carpet: in the early 
part of the Second World War, the Romanians were allies of the Germans on the Eastern front and there was plenty of anti-Semitic and Fascist rhetoric in the late 1930s in Romania. Rather cleverly, the film tells the story of the events obliquely, via a historical reenactment in the present-day, in which the young female director of the show Mariana tries to be as historically accurate as possible, and encounters severe objections at a personal and political level. Despite a slow start and scenes of gratuitous nudity, it was a great way to show how unwilling nations are at dealing with collective guilt and how easy it is to whip up nationalistic discourse, as well as a look at how difficult it can be for a young woman to be taken seriously in a macho society like Romania.

The second film, Russia’s Summer, was more nostalgic and fun: a look back at the rise of underground rock culture in early 1980s Russia before Glasnost. I’d never heard of Viktor Tsoi before, but my Russian friend who accompanied me to these films said that everyone remembered where they were the day they heard about his untimely death in a car crash in 1990. He was the Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison of the Russians, and his lyrics grew increasingly political. The film was shot mainly in black and white, which gave it beauty and a fairy-tale quality in what was a rather shabby, poverty-stricken reality, and there were great Western pop references. Especially memorable: a punk protest scene on a train to the music of Talking Head’s Psychokiller but of course ‘none of this happened’.

Viktor Tsoi (played by Teo Yoo) and his friends on the beach.

Friday Fun: Villas for an Indian Summer

This week has been surprisingly warm, which has given me hope for my my annual holidays coming up very soon. Although I’m not really expecting an Indian summer, these posts are all about dreams, aren’t they? These are the villas I might consider to share my dreams with me.

Villa in Provence from MagDeco.fr

Have lunch with friends (perhaps warmly wrapped up) in Italy, from havenin.com
Hiding between trees is always a good look, from petitehaus.com
Undeniably easy to maintain courtyard, but a bit more green would have been nice in this Italian-type villa in the US, from Jetradar.com
Spanish villa – I could almost see it as a backdrop to a musical. From Pinterest.
This French villa is actually for sale if you fancy running your own B&B, from maisondote-a-vendre.fr

World Mental Health Day: Mental Health in Fiction

Today is World Mental Health Day. Call me morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by mental health issues both in real life and in fiction. I seem to have quite a few friends with different mental health conditions, have suffered from depression on-and-off myself and have always read research papers on the topic. For a while, I was tempted to become a psychiatrist, except I couldn’t face going for so many years to medical school.

I find the self-help books often surprisingly unhelpful, and it’s a bit hit and miss with memoirs. I appreciate the honesty and find them inspiring in small doses. But, somehow, fiction describes it best – and there certainly is no shortage of such fictional treatments (pardon the pun). From Dostoevsky’s Idiot (who really only suffers from epilepsy and a good heart) to that well-known Victorian disease, hysteria in women, in The Yellow Wallpaper, from the graphic descriptions of electro-shock therapy in The Bell Jar to the horrific wards in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it seems that we are endlessly fascinated by the unpredictability of the human mind.

Now that I’m out of the danger zone myself, I’ve read more books on this topic in recent months. Books that I might have avoided 18 months ago. Although never explicitly diagnosed, in Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill we probably encounter (spoiler alert!) schizophrenia or paranoia, and various other conditions in the secondary characters. Meanwhile, Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen describes a horrific slo-mo fall into depression and self-destruction – exact diagnosis is not always possible or useful.

The most recent book I read on this topic also has a woman struggling with mental health issues (in all three of these books, it is the woman who suffers – hmmm), namely The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer. This was also my contribution to the #NYRBFortnight. [There is another excellent book published by NYRB which relates to this subject and which I might tackle next: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a non-fiction book by psychologist Milton Rokeach, who brought together three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed they were Jesus Christ.]

The unnamed narrator of the the Mortimer novel (or named only as Mrs Armitage, thus being denied of any identity of her own that does not relate to hear role as daughter, mother or wife) is a woman who can’t stop getting married and having children. We never quite find out the exact number of her brood, nor any of their names, except for the oldest daughter Dinah. We do know that she is in love or believes she is in love with Jake, her current (fourth) husband, who has become a successful and well-paid film director. But clearly there is something missing in her life, a gap that she tries to fill through babies, although she is somewhat ambivalent about them once they are there. They tear her apart with their ceaseless demands, yet she clearly would do anything for them.

She sees a therapist but finds it less than useful (he wants to talk about her previous husbands and her father, which she doesn’t believe to be relevant). Most of the book is constructed on dialogue, which prove to be hugely revealing of character.


“Do you like children, Mrs. Armitage?”
“How can I answer such a question?”
“Could it be a question that you don’t wish to answer?”
“I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn’t say a word. It’s like the inquisition or something. Are you trying to make me feel I’m wrong? Because I do that for myself.”
“Do you think it would be wrong not to like children?”
“I don’t know. Yes. Yes, I think so.”
“Why?”
“Because children don’t do you any harm.”

Except, of course, indirectly they do. A year before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Mrs Armitage expresses all the boredom and frustration, being slowly stifled by domesticity and colluding (sometimes quite happily, sometimes feeling she has no choice) in her own oppression. She is given some ‘happy pills’ but still has a breakdown in the linen department at Harrods. Her husband, the insufferably self-absorbed Jake, convinces her to have an abortion and sterilisation, but she discovers almost immediately afterwards that he has been having an affair with an actress. This was one of the most angry and poignant parts of the story and I was devastated to hear that it was autobiographical. But with what admirable control Mortimer takes real life and transforms it into fiction!

Penelope Mortimer, from the National Portrait Gallery.

This all sounds terribly depressing, but the book refuses to be self-indulgent and self-pitying. Instead, it is just the right proportion of fierce and funny, ironic and devastating. Reading it can feel a bit surreal, particularly at the beginning, when you wonder just why the heroine makes so many marriages and children. I particularly enjoyed the  pitch-perfect non sequiturs, whenever Mrs Armitage replies to anyone. She refuses to allow herself to be defined or questioned or pinned down by her victim. She refuses to be a victim, although she sometimes seems in danger of getting crushed by raw emotions. Her revenge is often sly, indirect, simply by ridiculing the men in her life. A woman’s weapons at a time when there were few other weapons available. But at other times, she explicitly calls out for women to rebel… although that letter (significantly) never gets sent. Still, this passage resonated particularly at this moment in time:

You have a vote, Mrs Evans. Now, why don’t you take advantage of it? I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened. Dear Mrs Evans, let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! you’re too weak! Get out! Come back…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easy when they take away love.

Peter Finch kisses Anne Bancroft on the forehead in a scene from the film ‘The Pumpkin Eater’, 1964. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

If this be insanity, then perhaps all women (at that time) were insane. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable response to difficult external circumstances. Yet, although it encapsulates a certain time period, it also feels very modern (and also quite American, so that I often was startled when I came across references to London in the text). Perhaps I say American because it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s home life. I think the two of them would have got along very well.

The Past Has a Name and Always Catches Up with Us

A little piece of flash fiction today, inspired by a prompt during one of the workshops at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol earlier this year.

His voice preceded him.

‘Ain’t this just the quaintest place? Is it Hogwarts or what? Look, it’s even got the date written on the frontispiece or whatever you call ‘em bits.’

‘Bet they don’t have air-conditioning in this old pile of stones, eh? … Mind the step, honey, can’t be having you spraining your pretty ankle, Mary Lou.’

Only then did he materialise in the doorway. He had lost some hair and put on weight, but it matched the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. His clothes were trying just a little too hard, I thought. Birkenstocks and bermudas, a red bandana knotted carelessly around his sunburnt neck, as if it had just fallen from his head while playing a particularly tricky guitar solo. He still clicked his fingers when he expected everyone to burst out laughing at his jokes.

He was surrounded, as always, by a gaggle of ladies. This time they were elderly and American, to match his newfound accent. They followed his every move with the requisite giggles, gasps and applause. He was their tour guide, their leader, their go-to person. As he had once been for us.

Weekly Summary, 7 October 2018

The week started with an X-ray (no bones broken, luckily) and an ankle which got steadily better but still got painful and swollen at the end of the day, especially after a hectic commute or a long car ride. So I cancelled some of my plans, most notably the Winchester Poetry Festival, which I had been looking forward to for months. I bought the tickets back in April and was looking forward to seeing Kathleen Jamie, Pascale Petit and Rebecca Goss again, as well as listening to World Voices

There was another reason why I cancelled my trip to Winchester (which would have been an all day trip). Motherly guilt played a part.

At the time of booking, I thought it would be one of the weekends when the children would be with their father, but plans had changed. I’ve been going out quite a bit lately and not seeing them at all even on weekdays. I’d also just attended a parents’ evening about GCSE revision and felt I’d neglected my older son’s exam preparation. Although he is reasonably conscientious, he does need the occasional reminder or a check of his work. So in the end we spent Saturday going through all the exam topics and setting a timetable for revisions, especially with his mocks coming up at the end of November.

One event I did attend this week was at a small community theatre in Islington, The Pleasance, where I saw Aid Memoir by Glenda Cooper – a satire about international aid and TV appeals, making us question our own often patronising attitudes towards humanitarian crises and the ‘deserving’ recipients of aid. A short but really powerful piece of work (which chimed with my personal experience at both the giving and receiving end of the equation). You can read my full review here

Well, if I couldn’t go out much, then the books came to me. A modest haul by my standards this week (and about time too, I can hear you think!). I received my Asymptote Book Club title for September, which is a short story collection from the Asian continent (I will say more once everyone has received their copy). I also got a French edition of Finisterra by Carlos de Oliveira, following the enthusiastic review on The Untranslated blog. My supportive community of L’Atelier Writers recommended Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft to encourage me to finally finish my darn novels. Let’s hope that it does the trick! And Raven Books have sent me an ARC of The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts, out in 2019.

I have also selected two NYRB titles to take part in #NYRBFortnight, as seen on Lizzy Siddal’s Twitter feed. Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is proving horribly timely, ferocious and funny so far. Meanwhile, Jakob Wasserman’s My Marriage (the man’s side of the story) may have to wait until November, when I will inevitably take part in German Literature Month, as hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. Other authors I may use for that month (from my Berlin haul): Eva Menasse, Marlen Haushofer, Fred Uhlman and Martin Suter.

Six Degrees of Separation: From the Outsiders…

Six Degrees of Separation is one of the few memes I join in on a regular basis, as it is always a joy to see how our minds work so differently… Hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book. 

This month we are starting with The Outsiders by SE Hinton. To my shame, I’ve not read it, but I know it’s a classic about teenage misfits rebelling. I used to watch films about teenagers more at that age than read books about them (I liked to pretend I was older than my years in my reading and that’s why I cannot understand the passion for YA literature nowadays.

One book about confused teenagerhood that I did read and hugely enjoyed was Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. As a matter of fact, everything by Judy Blume was relevant and daring to me in my early teens.

Another book about God that I read very seriously in my teens was St. Augustine’s Confessions. It is an incredible work for its time – describing with much gusto the sinfulness of his early years and how he converted to Christianity, including all of his doubts and lapses. 

From a real-life saint to a nickname in my third choice, namely Simon Templar, the Saint of the long-running series by Leslie Charteris. A James Bond like figure, halfway between a villain and a hero, he is described as a Robin Hood type of conman and avenger, hitting at the rich, venal and corrupt.

Speaking of Robin Hood, Sir Walter Scott was one of the authors who most contributed to popularising this hero in Ivanhoe. Another novel by Sir Walter Scott that I enjoyed a great deal was The Bride of Lammermoor, which famously provided the basis for Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

There have been quite a few books or stories turned into operas, and one of the most moving adaptations is Madama Butterfly by Puccini, partially based on Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème. How much of it was autobiographical is unclear, but Loti was certainly a naval officer and travelled extensively throughout the world and wrote evocatively if somewhat voyeuristically about ‘exotic’ places.

My final choice is also set in Japan but not at all ‘exoticising’ matters. It is Fog Island Mountains by my friend and very talented writer Michelle Bailat-Jones. Set in a small town awaiting a typhoon in the Kirishima mountain range, which play an important part in Japanese mythology (and are the legendary birthplace of the Japanese Imperial lineage), it is an evocative, poetic story of marriage, grief, betrayal and anger.

So three continents and three languages in this month’s selection of links. Do join in and see where this free association might take you…