#6Degrees March 2021: From Phosphorescence to…

6 Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. You start with a different book each month and link it to six others to form a chain, the more imaginative the link, the better. I hesitated a little about participating in it this month, because I had not read the first book (it’s not available yet in the UK) and because it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing. 

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird has a beautiful cover and the subtitle ‘On awe, wonder and things that sustain you’, which sounds a little too American self-helpy for my taste. But Kate herself rates this book highly, as being comforting and illuminating, as well as well-written, so never say never about reading this.

Another book that I was convinced I wouldn’t like and yet it pleasantly surprised me was Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. I have to admit that I reviewed Peter Swanson’s first crime novel back in the days when I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover and was not entirely convinced. I said there was ‘a breathless cinematic quality to it: an exciting thriller’ but ‘a little déjà vu’. So I (perhaps somewhat unfairly) never requested another of his books since. However, I came across this book at the library and, with lockdown looming, I thought I’d give it a go. I don’t think Swanson will ever be one of my favourite authors, but it was a fun read, with all of the allusions to other famous crime writers and their most famous books.

Bit of an obvious next link, the Swanson that instantly comes to mind is the inimitable Gloria Swanson, screen siren and muse, but also a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. I haven’t read this book Swanson on Swanson, but it looks very intriguing and candid, and apparently does not sugarcoat the Hollywood studio industry at all.

I’ve chosen another unusual, fragmented autobiography for my next link, namely Jean Rhys’ Smile Please – a collection of vignettes about her childhood in Dominica, her youth in theatre in London and Paris. This is the material she so successfully mined in her novels and stories, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that fiction and biography may not be quite as closely linked even in her case, and that she said: ‘A novel has to have shape, and life doesn’t have any.’

Tenuous link next, with a male author whose name is also Jean – namely French regional author Jean Giono. Regional not in any disparaging sense of the term, but because he is most associated with the Provence region in which he lived. He was much admired by Marcel Pagnol, who also wrote novels set in that beautiful area of France. He is best known for his historical novel Le hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof), which people outside France might know from the film adaptation starring Olivier Martinez and Juliette Binoche, and which seems very topical now, as it deals with a cholera outbreak in the 1830s.

Juliette Binoche is the link to the next book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, which became a worldwide bestseller following the film adaptation with her in the starring role. It is also set in a French village (like Jean Giono’s book) and slightly historical, although the past there is far more recent, set as it is in the more traditional 1950s/60s.

For the final book in the chain, I’ve chosen another novel which was published in 1999, the same year as Chocolat and which is also set in a small village, but this time Holt, a fictional town in the American prairies. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong is a book which had been recommended to me by many fellow book bloggers, and they were absolutely right. I certainly enjoyed the pared down, detached style and close observation of a small group of characters.

Once again I’ve travelled far on my monthly Six Degrees journey: from Australia to LA to Dominica to France and Colorado. Where will your associations and links take you?

Friday Fun: Who Has the Fairest Home Library of Them All?

Whenever I search property websites for houses for sale in my dream locations, I am nearly invariably disappointed by the lack of books in most people’s houses. I’m not just thinking empty shelves, as is the case in one of the examples below (where the owner has clearly moved out before marketing her property), but no shelves at all, almost as if books were a dirty concept that should be kept hidden from view. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find some examples that prove that books really do form the best kind of backdrop in your home. And not just on Zoom calls.

A cosy waiting room for guests or reading nook for those who don’t like house parties. From ArchitecturalDesigns.com
Another cosy reading corner, with footstool and lighting, just off the main library (one can but hope). From livemaster.ru
A home library fit for a palazzo – or a LavishLawyer.com
A small apartment need not spell the end of your bookish dreams, as this charming bedroom demonstrates. From domino.com
This room has arched windows surrounded by books on BOTH sides – and ladders! It doesn’t get much better or showier than this. From thenordroom.com
Finally, this is the one that I said featured empty shelves. It is Emilia Clarke’s house in LA, which she has put up for sale. I think I might have enough books to cover up all that space (and perhaps a few left over). From thenordroom.com

Two Very Different Holidays

It seems a bit unfair to feature these two books in the same blog post, as they couldn’t be more different if they tried. And yet… it’s not just because of time constraints that I am comparing and contrasting them. Both of these books are (at least partially) about people failing to understand another culture and being judged for it.

Stella Gibbons: The Swiss Summer was published in 1951 and already shows the desire for escapism of postwar British culture which culminated with Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Lucy Cottrell is observant, good-tempered and diplomatic, and at the age of 40+ she suddenly finds herself invited to a Swiss chalet for the summer. Although the people she gets to spend the summer with are not always the most compatible, she is nevertheless overcome by the beauty of the landscape and not at all put off by the Swiss over-reliance on tourism. She is, however, often embarrassed by the antics of her fellow countrymen, as spotted in some of the hotels and restaurants she visits.

It is a pity that they have to behave like that… because the Swiss do still like us, even though we have no money nowadays…

The entanglements (romantic and otherwise) of the people who visit the chalet over the course of the summer are amusing, and Lucy ties herself into knots trying not to lie but also not to reveal too much to the owner of the chalet back home in England. I haven’t read any Stella Gibbons other than Cold Comfort Farm, and there is none of that exuberant satire here. This is gentle fun, reminiscent in some ways of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April, although without quite such a pleasing resolution. Above all, the descriptions of nature really resonated with me – it’s clear how much the author loved this area. Here Lucy is, unable to sleep on a full moon night.

The soft, sad, brilliant light poured into her eyes as she looked up towards the Jungfrau’s snows, which it blanched to unearthly whiteness; the waterfall spilled out of the radiance down into the vast shadow below the massif; the slopes by Murren were lost in rich brown mists. She looked down and saw patches of shut, colourless flowers scattered up the white slopes; she saw the dizzy precipices of the Monch muffled in motionless milky clouds, and the drifts of thinnest mist twisting and winding down over the highest ridges; they seemed to trail after them long wreaths of dimly glittering stars. There was silence except for the waterfall’s sound, and the air smelled of dew.

Olivia Sudjic: Asylum Road has only just come out, and is the first novel I’ve read by her. I heard her debut novel Sympathy garnered good reviews, but it was the subject matter that attracted me to this one: the heavy spectre of the Balkans and the possibilities of cultural misunderstandings. I understand that, although Sudjic is of Serbian descent, this is not based on her personal experience – she was born and raised in the UK as a third-generation immigrant and only experienced the Yugoslav war from a distance. This book also takes place over the course of a summer, although in three different locations: France, Cornwall and Croatia/Bosnia.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there is quite a bit of Olivia in her main protagonist, Anya, who was sent as a child to live with her aunt in Scotland to escape the war. Anya is engaged to the rather cool and distant Luke, who comes from a well-off and emotionally detached family with pro-Brexit tendencies. Although Luke proposes to her near the beginning of the book, their relationship is fraught with silence and resentment, and is utterly undone after their visit to Anya’s parents and old home in Sarajevo.

The war has obviously touched Anya’s family directly, but the book shows that you do not need to have experienced the trauma at first-hand to inherit its consequences. The inferiority complex that Anya seems to suffer in front of Luke and his family (while secretly despising or making fun of them) is something I have seen very frequently in East European migrants, including myself. This quote, for instance, struck such a chord:

Of the things I cared too much about then, one was appearing civilised. In ethical terms but also in aesthetic ones. I had read the right books, bought thrifted designer clothes, gained several degrees at elite institutions and, in Luke;s flat, arranged an elegant mise-en-scene that in fact held no emotional resonance. They were props, these objects I combed from life, smooth pebbles that had once been cliffs.

They meet Anya’s dead brother’s girlfriend, Mira, who, despite a successful career in publishing, is fed up with stagnation and pro-Putin posters in Belgrade, and wants to move abroad.

It’s only a shame, that’s all. To still be stuck talking about this. Even some of the publishing people I know say that we should move on, stop making art about it, they say we’re in paralysis, which is true, politically, economically, everything. That the worst books coming out of the Balkans are the ones still going on about war… But it seems impossible not to talk about it when these people, these revisionists, still exist, even if we’d prefer to forget it.

This made me smile, because it’s one of the conversations I often have with people about whether there is a tendency to ‘typecast’ a country’s literary output and only a particular type of book gets translated into English. For Croatia and Bosnia, it might be about the war, for Romania it seems to be about the Communist dictatorship in a terribly surreal or experimental or earnest prose etc. etc. Yet, at the same time, the attention span of the reading public in the West is very limited. I’ll never forget the American journalist who told me: ‘Can’t you people just draw a line under the past and look to the future?’

Yes, it is frustrating, yes, we do wish we could escape the burden of the past. ‘The past keeps intruding. We are sick to death of it.’ Anya says at one point. I like the way the author make the narrator ashamed of her family’s rhetoric, how she tries to tone down her emotions, how she endeavours to describe everything without melodrama or fuss. Underneath it all, there is a sense of disquiet, of tension building up… Better to be the crushed victim – or the destroyer doing the crushing? And if this carapace that Anya has carefully built around herself is no longer capable of protecting her – what price tearing it down and starting from scratch?

You have to admire the control with which Sudjic navigates the story of trauma, search for identity and breakdown, and the (not always physical) violence we wreak upon others and ourselves. Certainly not a comfortable read, but an accomplished one, with echoes of Penelope Mortimer and Leonora Carrington.

Theatre Review: Grimm Tales for Fragile Times and Broken People

I discovered Creation Theatre’s innovative shows a couple of years ago and have always hugely enjoyed them. In fact, their performance of The Time Machine at the London Library was the last live theatre I attended in February 2020.

I wasn’t sure how their brand of immersive theatre would work in the virtual environment – and the truth is, it is a very different beast. It’s not the kind of online show where the audience is expected to interact, to type something in or read something out loud, like the very experimental show I saw back in April/May 2020 courtesy of New Diorama Theatre. Instead, it was recommended that we dim the lights, light a candle and sit back to watch and listen (preferably without any young children).

Production images: Creation Theatre.

Although this was an adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ stories, it was much closer in spirit to the original, often quite horrific folk tales rather than the sanitised fairy tale versions we habitually offer to children. Each of the five stories was chosen because of its links and resonance with the current lockdown situation. Death, mental and physical cruelty, a sense of being imprisoned, all make their appearance. Two of the stories are very well-known: ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ (although in a modern, cynical retelling), and ‘Hansel and Gretel’. But ‘Malinka or the Juniper Tree’, ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Physician and Godfather Death’ will be far less familiar to most readers.

Each story is told by a different narrator/actor, all extravagantly costumed and made up, yet with nowhere to go. Literally hiding in a box or a dark room. The extreme close-up on their faces at times, the missing or rotten teeth, the shadows falling on their excessive make-up added to the sense of creepiness. The stories are left unfinished and then we move onto the next, in a pattern that I initially thought was like Chinese boxes, but which was actually more like a braid. Themes disappear and reappear, sometimes just a few sentences spoken by each actor, woven into something that is bigger than the mere individual strands. Some of the sound effects were a bit overpowering at times, which made one or two of the actors harder to understand.

Production images: Creation Theatre.

Yet the show managed to capture the immediacy and excitement of sitting by the camp fire, scaring each other silly with ghost stories, taking us back to our ancestral love of storytelling. Perhaps a bit gimmicky, yet it all seems to come together at the end in a rather moving candlelit finale and the message of ‘You are not alone in the wild woods.’

Grimm Tales is available now on-demand from the Creation Theatre website until the 13th of March.

Friday Fun: In Search of the Perfect Shelf

Of course bookshelves are the best kind of shelves, but I have to admit that I’m nosy and like to see what people put on any kind of shelves. Here are some shelves where you can proudly display your favourite things.

Corner office in your bedroom, although I do wonder how you can reach the top shelf. From curbly.com
Another cute little office, although the shelves are rather high. From DesignerTrapped.com
Would love to have this in my hallway (if my hallway were big enough). From handymano.com
It’s not all about the books – look at these amazing window shelves, from homestratosphere.com
No corner is wasted here, from cottagemarket.com
Shelves around the windows are just my favourite thing – although I do occasionally worry the books might get mouldy. From Instagram.

Theatre Review: #Typical by Ryan Calais Cameron

BY RYAN CALAIS CAMERON
DIRECTED BY ANASTASIA OSEI-KUFFOUR
STARRING RICHARD BLACKWOOD

A powerful exploration of racism and how British society stereotypes Black masculinity. I have to admit that I went into this (online) show without knowing the story of Christopher Alder, but it is a heartbreaking example of the institutional racism and police brutality which recent events and Black Lives Matter have brought to the fore.

In 1998, Christopher Alder, a former British army paratrooper, was injured during a fight outside of a night club in Hull and taken to hospital for treatment to a head injury. He was arrested by two police officers for a breach of the peace after apparently becoming aggressive and taken to the police station. CCTV footage from the custody suite shows him being dragged in by officers and left lying face down on the floor, motionless, with his trousers around his ankles. Officers stand around laughing while he lies there, dying, for 10 minutes. A post-mortem failed to establish the cause of Christopher’s death, but a later inquest returned a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’. Five Humberside police officers were put on trial for the manslaughter of Christopher, but the case later collapsed, and all officers were cleared. In 2011, the Government publicly apologised for breaching Christopher’s right to life, right not to be tortured or treated inhumanely, and the right not to be discriminated against.

Photo credit: Franklyn Rogers, from Soho Theatre.

This roughly one-hour one-man show is a real tour-de-force for Richard Blackwood, who manages to convincingly portray both Christopher himself and the characters he encounters over the course of his fateful last evening against a very plain, minimalistic decor. The story is told through music, lighting and Blackwood’s face and body, which seem to effortlessly shapeshift from middle-aged, slightly overweight, to tall and debonair, to somewhat shy and awkward, from aggressive punter in a nightclub to drunk girl on a night out.

The show starts with the oldest cliché in the book: a man waking up and getting ready to go out, while musing about his circumstances. And yet, in this context, the cliché works – because we find out this is a man like any other, his race doesn’t matter at all. At least not while he is at home. We discover he is middle-aged, divorced, looking for a career change, looking forward to spending time with his two boys the next weekend, feeling rather lonely, starting to worry about aging, not doing too great a job of looking after himself with food and exercise. He sounds like so many people we know, and yet completely himself and unique at the same time, with the rhythm and lilt of his delivery. There is wit and self-deprecation in there a-plenty, as well as word associations and clever one-liners, such as ‘I scare myself half to life’ when looking in the mirror, or ‘Marriage is the process of finding out the type of man your wife prefers to you’. Not knowing what to expect, I almost had the feeling I was watching a comedy show – and that innocence is perhaps the best attitude to have when sitting down to watch this show, because what follows comes as a complete shock.

Christopher goes out with his friends, commenting that they are ‘just old men talking about old shit’. Even though his friends seem to have sunk into domesticity and blandness, he is nevertheless determined to enjoy himself. As he queues to get into the nightclub, as he dances inside, as he chats up a girl, he encounters numerous micro-aggressions, which end up not being all that micro. Every time, he talks himself down from losing his temper and reacting violently. He keeps repeating: ‘They need me to be the bad guy. I know the cost. Leave me alone.’

The scenes at the hospital and the police station are brutal but incredibly effective. They are also, mercifully, much shorter than the humorous scenes establishing the character in the first half, or the growing discomfort we experience as witnesses to both the overt and hidden discrimination he experiences as he goes about a very normal Saturday evening in a city centre somewhere in England. There is a crescendo of abuse, but above all there is a complete unwillingness to listen or to see the person in front of them as anything other than the stereotype of aggressive black guy. Holding his hand to his head wound, Christopher keeps repeating: ‘I am the victim here. I just want to be heard. Nobody’s hearing me.’ The final scenes, with the repetition of the words ‘I can’t breathe’ and the shaky camerawork, have an added poignancy after the death of George Floyd. Blackwood’s face fills the whole screen and forces us to look into his eyes. It is impossible to look away, it is impossible to remain unmoved.

First performed in 2019 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before transferring to Soho Theatre for a sell-out run, this exciting hybrid of theatre and film was shot during the pandemic on location at Soho Theatre. It certainly deserves to be seen, shared and discussed far more widely, so it’s good to know that it is now available as Theatre on Demand from Soho Theatre and Nouveau Riche productions.

Highly recommended for all of you who have missed theatre as much as I have.

Photo credit: Franklyn Rogers.

February 2021 Summary

Books

It is absurdly early to be writing an end of month review but a) I’ve got some online theatre to watch and review over the last few days of February; b) with some translation edits coming in and another planned full day of working on my novel, I don’t think I’ll have time to read and review any more books.

I was quite good at sticking to my February in Canada plan and, although I’d have liked more Quebecois authors in the mix, I remained faithful to my plan to read only what was already available on my bookshelves. I was fairly happy with all of the six Canadian books I read. While the subject matter of the Inger Ash Wolfe crime novel did feel like far too well-trodden territory to me, I was intrigued and inspired by Anne Carson (as ever) and surprised and delighted by Carol Shields and Marian Engel. In fact, I enjoyed Bear so much that I instantly decided to read another Marian Engel book, Lunatic Villas, which was very different to Bear, although the portrayal of harassed motherhood is very similar to Celia Fremlin‘s The Hours Before Dawn, but on the humorous rather than the sinister side of things.

In addition to Celia Fremlin, I also read several more crime novels:

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for our Virtual Crime Book Club, which was fun although not quite as good as the hype makes it out to be. I do generally struggle with books written by celebrities, as I feel: a) are they just cashing in on their fame and writing books because everyone thinks it’s an easy thing to do?; b) do they really need any more money, when they have n other sources of very good income? However, to be fair to Osman, it is a witty book, mostly because of the characters and the age group depicted (showing what a variety of types of people you can find in a retirement community, not all old people are boring and cautious etc.). The plot does have some rather too convenient coincidences and a bit of an odd coming-out-of-nowhere conclusion, but I liked it enough to want to read more about these characters on a very occasional basis.

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev: This is a book of many parts and many tonalities, which might put some readers off, but which really appealed to me. It is a thoughtful analysis of why a scientist would choose to collaborate with an evil regime, how science can be subverted, and how ideals go out the window. It is also a historical picture of the mess and lack of certainties after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is of course also a spy thriller, with a sinister opening and a mounting sense of dread. Yet, in certain parts, when the would-be assassins are embarking on a road-trip to find the rogue scientist, it becomes quite comical, even farcical. All in all, a really enjoyable read.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse: February always puts me in the mood for skiing and therefore a mountain setting, so this book set in a Swiss mountaintop hotel seemed irresistible. The claustrophobic setting is indeed the star in this novel, the author clearly knows her Swiss winters, but the plot seemed rather far-fetched and I wasn’t that keen on the characters’ rather histrionic reactions to everything.

Finally, with a lingering glance back towards my January in Japan love, I read a graphic novel adaptation of No Longer Human, which was far more explicit and creepy than the novel, but also diverged from the story in interesting ways. I also read the first volume of Bungo Stray Dogs manga, in which Dazai is a detective with some supernatural powers – I’m not sure how appropriate it is to make fun of Dazai’s suicidal tendencies, although, given he made fun of them himself at times in his work, it’s probably OK. Plus, it features all sorts of other writers, Kunikida Doppo with a very bureaucratic mentality, Edogawa Ranpo who is firmly convinced he has supernatural abilities but in fact is simply very good at questioning and detecting, Akutagawa, who is a skilled adversary and so on. For someone obsessed with Japanese literature and familiar with most of the authors featured here, this is an absolute riot!

So 12 books, of which 2 graphic novels, 6 fitting the Canadian theme, and 4 crime novels. Only three books in translation (or other languages) this month, a low proportion by my standards, and an even gender distribution.

But have I contributed at all to #readindies? Well, hard to tell. Most of the books were bought second-hand and at the time of publication the publishers may have been independent, but have since been bought up (McCleeland and Steward are Penguin Random House now, Fourth Estate is Harper Collins, Pandora Women Crime Writers is Routledge). But I have found a few. My Quebecois writer is published by Editions Druide, a small independent funded by the Canadian and Quebecois governments and the Canadian Arts Council. Bear was published by Nonpareil Books, an imprint of Godine, an independent publisher located in Boston, Massachusetts. And Untraceable is published by New York-based New Vessel Press, which specialises in translated fiction.

Films

I’ve watched mainly TV series this month (Lupin, The Sopranos, My Brilliant Friend), but the few films I watched were very good:

  • a rewatch of Do the Right Thing, which was a classic film of my teenage years and still stands up so well today (sadly, not much has changed);
  • High and Low, a Kurosawa with a good deal of social commentary and personal dilemma, about the kidnapping of a child;
  • Uppercase Print, the latest film by Radu Jude, the case of a young student who was investigated by the security forces during the Ceausescu years – an unusual mix of actors reciting from the security files, interwoven with extracts from TV documentaries of the 1970s and 80s. This was hard for me to watch, because I was so familiar with it all from my childhood, but it’s an interesting piece of history that should be preserved for the next generation (or for those who are not familiar with what it’s like to live in a dictatorship).

With one son not caring very much about films and the other having very fixed ideas about what he wants to watch and generally poo-poohing Mubi, saying they only have films that about five people in the world want to see (despite all the evidence to the contrary), our chances of watching films together are decreasing. Meanwhile, I’m getting a little tired of doing things that don’t interest me simply to fit in with someone else’s taste (I’ve had years of practice with their father – and look how well that turned out!). Maybe the pressures of being together all the time is starting to get to us all…

The Emotional Labour of Women

I recently read an article about how men have finally discovered the hidden labour of childcare and household concerns that women have been doing for decades or even centuries (alongside the workplace). I’m tempted to argue that it is nothing new: divorced fathers discover it when they share custody and no longer have the luxury of being purely ‘fun Dad’ and asking their partner what their child likes to eat or when parents’ evening is. Of course, there have been many fictional depictions of the chaos of motherhood that fathers could have referred to, but I suppose there is a difference between reading about it (and many would perhaps not choose to read about it) and actually experiencing it for yourself.

Two of those depictions I coincidentally read this February half-term, which was actually more peaceful than many others because: a) we couldn’t go away anywhere; b) although I was working full-time, the boys didn’t have to sit glued to their computer screen for home schooling purposes many hours every day, which makes them restless and grumpy. So, instead, they learnt ‘life skills’ such as cooking, laundry and cleaning.

Marian Engel: Lunatic Villas (February in Canada read), 1981.

Harriet Ross is a divorced single mother, a freelance writer with a weekly column entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Depressed Housewife’. She lives in a Toronto street that has been gentrified, but her own townhouse is a bit ramshackle, as it has become the refuge for a ragtag assortment of children and teenagers (some of them her own, some of them fostered for various reasons), depressed sisters, random old ladies, eccentric neighbours, spiteful ex-husband and his new crusading wife and so on.

While each of the people in her life seem to have problems and demand something from her, although she is being pulled in all directions and can hardly hear herself think at times, Harriet shows a generosity of spirit that is finally somewhat rewarded when she herself falls ill and the neighbours all pitch in to help her.

For all the grim realities depicted (alcoholism, drug-taking, child abuse, mental illness, manipulation, family courts), there is a certain joyfulness in the chaos depicted here, and a lot of solidarity amidst all the abandonment and betrayal. But there is no sugarcoating of the difficulties of being the lynchpin of a family:

Mornings are precious new beginnings, every day a chance to exorcise yesterday’s and before yesterday’s sins: mostly. Harriet begins her day very carefully, without shaking it hard enough to break the thin film of semi-consciousness that keeps her close to her dreams. She scoots downstairs as soon as the alarm goes off, puts the kettle on, collects the paper: and this year, the first in fourteen, takes the coffee and the paper upsatirs again with her, the better to protect herself from reality. They are really better off without her in the morning, the mob, and as long as there are milk and sugar and bowl and spooons and four kinds of cereal on the table they consider themselves looked after. Then, in bed, pretending to read the paper that is in fact reading her, she counts flushes, scrapes, shouts, clouts, hears Sim’s gruff ‘Get on with it, you guys,’ before his great thumping exit and slam; Melanie’s ‘Pervert’ to Mick’s ‘Slut’ and the resulting clashing of spoons; piggish little snorts from the twins; Sidonia, late and serene, descending the stairs like a queen… ‘Ma, where’s my…?’ can be dealt with more easily from upstairs.

Not all of the scenes are from Harriet’s point of view, and we get many different perspectives on her household, but also on life more generally, including this delicious rant about marraige by neighbour and friend Marshallene:

Marriage is a state for which I am sublimely unsuited. I dislike housework of all kinds and am well known for scorning the culinary arts. Little dinner parties make me want to get drunk and little black dresses make me want to stuff myself and burst out of them. I am capable of walking around a vacuum cleaner left prominently in the middle of the hall floor for a week. I am past child-bearing… I am no help and no comfort to anyone. I am a writer and writers are notoriously self-centred. I do not have to look at the outside world to find my material, nor do I need to live out someone else’s life to survive…

Although the narrative gets messy and bewildering in parts (no doubt reflecting the messiness of Harriet’s life), it is a warm-hearted, often very funny book, completely unsentimental about families and friendships, very clear-eyed about the often contradictory feelings in our bosom. A slice of life which reminded me of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn, 1958.

Marian Engel’s novel portrays urban life in Canada in the late 1970s, but Fremlin’s novel takes us to London two decades earlier. With much younger children to cope with (only three instead of seven, but one of them a baby), Fremlin’s Louise is a stay at home mother, but just like Harriet, she cannot count on anyone else to help her.

Her husband is the breadwinner and expects some peace and quiet when he comes home, but, with a baby that refuses to sleep at night, Louise is completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and gradually losing her grip on reality.

This is a much tighter, well-paced book, with a very clear narrative arc. Fremlin initially doesn’t put a foot wrong in depicting the frustrations of a well-educated woman trying to be reasonable, yet feeling increasingly out of her depth. When the schoolteacher Miss Brandon moves in as a lodger, Louise initially feels judged, but then gets increasingly suspicious about this mysterious guest and her motivations. Every turn of the screw, we as readers get more anxious and suspicious as well, although we realise that Louise’s sleeplessness makes her a less than reliable witness. The only fault of the novel is that the reveal through the use of diaries does feel rather Victorian. Overall, however, there is a very grown-up, knowing and ironical tone which I find sadly missing from most of the psychological thrillers being published today.

Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account.

Although the author is at pains to point out that she didn’t mean to portray the husband as a monster and that expectations were probably different back in the days when she wrote the book, she also makes the very acute observation in the preface:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Which. brings me back to the article with which I started this book, in which fathers say that they did enjoy getting to know their children better but that it also is incredibly hard work, and that they are starting to experience some of the guilt that mothers feel about never quite doing or being enough in all areas of their life. Will the concept of fatherhood and fairer distribution of household labour really change permanently, as the article asks somewhat optimistically? Or will it be more similar to my experience, when any complaints about labour not equally shared, were met with: ‘well, get a cleaner or a nanny’? (Which might make you wonder if this is more of a middle class problem, except I remember my working class and rural relatives behaving the same… and the extended family coming to the rescue in those instances.)

Friday Fun: Mansions with Musical Links

Not that we need any excuse to show beautiful mansions or palaces, but, following the Canadian novel about musicians that I read earlier this week, I was inspired to find a bit of a musical theme to the following gorgeous pictures.

Chateau Vendeuvre in Normandy, still privately owned, does not really have any famous composer living here, but does have a rather annoying musical theme tune when you go the website.
The Sarkozy-Bruni household lives in this mansion. Carla Bruni of course was a model and singer before she became Madame Sarkozy.
The Chopin Museum in Warsaw is considerably grander than Chopin’s birthplace in the country manor house, where his father was a tutor. From muzeum.nifc.pl
Leith Hill Place in Surrey was a place where Vaughan Williams spent most of his childhood. It is currently being restored as a National Trust property. From nationaltrust.org.uk
The house of Robert and Clara Schumann in Leipzig, where they moved right after they married. The couple met in Leipzig too. From Leipzig.travel
The grandest privately-owned mansion in the United States, the Biltmore Estate, hosts annual summer music festivals. Still home to the descendents of the Vanderbilt family, from romanticasheville.com

February in Canada: Additional Writers

Mathieu Boutin: L’Oreille Absolue (Perfect Pitch), Druide, 2013.

Mathieu Boutin is a Quebecois originally trained as a musician – and in fact worked as a violonist doing private gigs to support himself through law school. He practices as a lawyer and then became an editor of law texts for a publishing house. As if he weren’t busy enough, he also wrote several children’s books on the side, and this was his debut novel for adults. I met him in 2015 at Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland, where he was on a writing retreat, gave a reading and of course signed his book for me. I am giving all this background, because in this novel we find all of his knowledge of music, experience of a musician’s lifestyle and the very readable style that is often more present in YA or children’s literature than in literary fiction.

It’s the story of two violonists. Young David is an itinerant musician, competent but no genius, desperate to prove to his family that he can make a living as a musician, but also quite enjoying the various freelance gigs that he gets to do as a member of a quartet (the other members of the quartet all being beautiful young women). Meanwhile, Robert is in his fifties and has a steady job as a violonist in the second row of an orchestra. Although he has the perfect pitch of the title, he is quite content to never quite be the musical genius his glamorous, hugely talented pianist mother had hoped he would become. Now even he has to admit his mother is suffering from dementia, but he can’t bring himself to put her into a home, where she wouldn’t be able to play piano any time she felt like it. He also wants to help David to build a career, but his social skills are poor and he makes David feel uncomfortable.

It is a fun read, especially for those who are fond of classical music. It has many specialist references, some of which were probably way over my head, but which I enjoyed nevertheless. For example, do you know that the Italians and French call the sound-box in a violin the ‘anima’ or ‘âme’, which means ‘soul’, while the English use the more prosaic term ‘sound box’? Then there is a beautiful passage, which reminded me of the description of the circulation of the plague in Hamnet, which links the death of Bach in 1750 with a squirrel dropping acorns in the village of Thoiry in the French Jura, which grow into a beautiful oak tree that then gets cut down and used to make a beautifully-sounding violin that David inherits from his uncle.

Although the ending seems a bit too coincidental, it makes for a refreshing change to read about characters who may appear somewhat strange, but overall are quite nice… and passionate about what they do. And of course there are sharp digs at those who hire classical musicians for various corporate or life events, but treat the musicians like servants and don’t even like the kind of music they play. It’s a shame that Boutin doesn’t seem to have published anything since, because I’d really like to read more by him.

Inger Ash Wolfe: A Door in the River, Pegasus Crime, 2012.

The Canadian author Michael Redhill uses this pseudonym for his Hazel Micallef crime fiction series. I had seen the author talking about his work at Canada House in 2018 and found his literary fiction interesting, though challenging. So I wanted to give his crime fiction a whirl.

Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef herself is quite a lovely creation: middle-aged, divorced, sensible, a pillar of the community in Westmuir County, Ontario, trying to look after her fragile yet stubborn elderly mother. However, the story of women in captivity being forced into prostitution is one of those themes that I’ve become heartily sick of in recent years. Perhaps it would have made more of an impression if I had read the book when it first came out. It is certainly not badly written, and at least one of the victims manages to get out and plan a revenge. (Although she is a killer on the rampage, you cannot help but wish her well – or at least have conflicted loyalties.)

Anne Carson: Plainwater

I’m not quite sure how to describe this volume – it’s a collection of essays, some fragments of poetry, something like travel memoir, flash fictions… a little bit of everything, really. There doesn’t seem to be a unified theme. We have the poems (not sure if they are real or imagined) of Mimnermos, an Ancient Greek hedonistic poet, and also a series of interviews with him. A whole section of poems dedicated to towns: desert town, wolf town, memory town, town of the exhumation, town of my farewell to you and so on. Some sections felt almost trite, and I was unsure whether they deserved to be included,

It’s impossible really to review Anne Carson’s work: half of the time I think she is far too clever for me and I cannot possibly keep up with her. The other half of the time, she makes me want to stop and ruminate, she provides me with so much inspiration and source material for my own poems.

My favourite part was the section entitled The Anthropology of Water, which starts with the words:

Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried.

It is actually about a trip that the narrator makes, a pilgrimage to Compostela, when the pain of seeing the father sink into dementia becomes too much. Although there are place names, historical figures such as El Cid, and descriptions of towns and landscapes and the people the pilgrim meets, it is of course equally about an inner journey.

To look for the simplest question, the most obvious facts, the doors that no one may close, is what I meant by anthropology. I was a strong soul. Look I will change everything, all the meanings!… After all, the only rule of travel is, Don’t come back the way you went. Come a new way.

There is another road trip, this time in the American Mid-West: Indiana, Kansas, Colorado. The voyage also becomes a reason to delve deeper into family relationships and sense of identity – there are very interesting observations here about gender and, as you might expect if you’ve read anything else by Anne Carson, an ambiguous feeling about love, almost a fear of the physicality of it. Everything meaningful should be happening from the neck upwards, the poet persona seems to say – or is that where our greatest power to wound lies?

Humans in love are terrible. You see them come hungering at one another like prehistoric wolves, you see something struggling for life in between them like a root or a soul and it flares for a moment, then they smash it. The difference between them smashes the bones out. So delicate the bones.