Surely you haven’t got bored of me showing you magnificent home libraries and bookshelf possibilities? Here are a few recent favourites. I do hope I am not repeating myself.
I was supposed to be setting off next week on a (self-made) writing retreat in the north of England. [This is beginning to look increasingly unlikely, but I am still hoping against all hope.] My first time away from home since Christmas 2019, a much-desired change of scenery and a chance to work peacefully on some new writing ideas. I’ve realised that most writing retreats seem to be monastic-style cells, with minimum of distractions, set in a pretty landscape, and perhaps with a comfortable communal area (and someone else preparing your food, ideally). Here are some which caught my eye.
When I wrote a blog post last week about the books I had recently bought and how I got to hear about them, I thought this might be a fun series of blog posts to do every month or even every two months. I certainly did not expect to have another large pile of books to write about only a week later! But here we are, what’s done is done and cannot be undone, and here is the pile:
Admittedly, the one on the top is more of a necessity than an impulse buy – a brief compendium of Italian grammar, so that I can keep up with my Italian lessons, which I am enjoying tremendously.
Some of them I have been sent by publishers – although I should probably admit I begged for them. I am a huge fan of Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen, and his latest book The Rabbit Factor (transl. David Hackston) is not out until at least the end of October, so I may have cried a little on Orenda Mamma’s (aka Karen Sullivan) shoulder until she took pity on me. I think it will wreak havoc with my carefully laid plans for October reading. Maclehose Press sent me the ARC for Even the Darkest Night (transl. Anne McLean) which isn’t out until 22 February, 2022. I may not have read a lot of literature from Spain (as opposed to the South Americans), but from what I have read, Javier Cercas (‘the other Javier?’) is one of my favourite authors, and this is the first in a series of crime novels set in Barcelona (clearly a far more crime-riddled place than Madrid, according to authors at least). Finally, Kaya Days by Carl de Souza (transl. Jeffrey Zuckerman) is my first book from Mauritius, thanks to Two Line Press and the Asymptote Book Club.
Each of these books has a little story to them, which made them irresistible in my eyes. I had already heard of Singapore-based author Clarissa Goenawan whose novels are set in Japan and who won the Bath Novel Award in 2015, but when I heard that her debut novel Rainbirds was going to be adapted for a TV series, I thought it high time I actually got hold of it.
Publisher And Other Stories had a sale and I had always heard such good things about Mexican author Yuri Herrera and yet never read any of his works, so I couldn’t resist this three-novels-in-one edition (containing Signs Preceding the End of the World, Kingdom Cons, The Transmigration of Bodies, all translated by Lisa Dillman).
I have read and reviewed Swiss author Joseph Incardona before, and met him at a couple of literary festivals. The newest book, La Soustraction des Possibles, sounds very promising: a heist novel set at the end of the 1980s in Geneva, a tale of dodgy rich bankers, ladies who lunch, and two outsiders hungry for a piece of the action.
I read a review of A Forest on Many Stems, a collection of essays on the poet’s novel, in Full Stop Magazine, sounded extremely compelling, although I am none the clearer what a poet’s novel actually is. Clarifying that is not the intention of the editor Laynie Browne, the reviewer admits: ‘Instead of drawing straight lines and arranging everything in boxes, this collection traces the many-varied shapes of the works at hand, creating a map around the larger notion of what a “poet’s novel” can be.’
The last two books on my pile I got from Senate House Library. I happened to be at work in London on the day the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced. As you already know by now, it caught almost everyone by complete surprise, and unlike with Louise Glück last year or Patrick Modiano a few years back, I could not boast prior knowledge either. So I behaved as if I were booking tickets for a superstar concert, immediately checked if there were any books available at the library, and then ran upstairs to grab them before they were all gone. Needless to say, the stacks were not overflowing with queues of people eager to read him! I sometimes forget in quite what a bookish mental bubble I live. I borrowed only one book by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Admiring Silence, but they have 2-3 more so I will go back if I like his work. Right next to him, I also found Bessie Head, a South African writer whom I had heard of in the past (she had to go into exile for her militant attitude), so I borrowed The Cardinals, a collection of her early short stories, the only ones set in her country of birth, published posthumously.
Now, all that’s left to do is find enough time to read, read, read…
I have recently acquired a new mattress – after my back started telling me in no uncertain terms that the old one was knackered. I am somewhat sceptical still about the benefits of the much-lauded (and expensive) ‘mattress in a box’ Emma, but just think how much more expensive it might be to have one of the bedrooms below!
I can downsize quite easily if I live all by myself – but I will need a special room just for my books, somewhere to read, write, and just admire all the imacculately arranged shelves. The ideal would be the Whatley family’s specially-commissioned library in Texas (first picture below), but some of the others might also do…
I never watched more than a few episodes of Downton Abbey, although my mother was very fond of Upstairs Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga TV series when I was a child. Family sagas were not for me, I decided, especially when they show uncritically all those ridiculous English class differences.
The Cazalet Chronicles, however, are a bit of an exception, because although they depict the 1930s-1950s, a time of great social changes, and a period that Elizabeth Jane Howard (born in 1923) knew quite well, they were in fact written in the mid 1990s (the last one appeared even later, in 2013, shortly before the author’s death). Issues such as sexual desire (or lack thereof), contraception and abortions, incest and homosexuality are addressed with a frankness which mark them out as modern. Yet the style feels old-fashioned at times – or rather, it feels as though these books might easily fit into the type of books published by Persephone, Dean Street Press or the British Library Women Writers collection. Above all, the characters are very much a product of their time and education – there are no attempts to modernize their outlook on life, which I think a 1950s reader would have completely understood, but which can prove frustrating at times to the present-day reader. Yet, of course, it also provides an insight into a very different set of beliefs and behaviours, and ultimately that world dies out and the older generation is left behind, vulnerable and shaken. The books are often critical (sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly, of the habits, lifestyles and beliefs of the upper middle classes, yet there are also fascinating blind spots, because the author was of course a product of this very social class.
The lynchpin of the action is Home Place, the family home of the Cazalet patriarch and matriarch, affectionately known as the Brig and the Duchy. Their unmarried daughter Rachel lives with them, unable to quite admit to herself that she has a lesbian attraction to her good friend Sid. Their three sons are all married and have children, the older two fought in the First World War, and the eldest, Hugh, suffered some serious injuries. Hugh is happily married to the domesticated Sybil, while Edward gallivants about like a bachelor, although he is married to Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer and is not quite fulfilled with domestic life. The youngest son Rupert dreams of becoming an artist, but was left a widower with two young children and is remarried to the beautiful, much younger and petulant Zoe, so he has to work to support his family. We follow the fate of this generation – watch them mature (or not), fall out of love (or not), have babies, fall ill, die or be left mourning, over the course of World War Two and the immediate post-war years. The story never quite loses sight of them, but shifts more towards the younger generation: beautiful Louise, who wants to become an actress, over-sensitive Polly, Clary who wants to be a writer, plus a lively assortment of brothers and cousins.
Chapters or sections of chapters move seamlessly from one point of view to another, and it’s astonishing how vivid and clearly differentiated each point of view is. The grown-ups often behave badly, are confused or feeble, observed with merciless acuity in their vacillations, while the children get all the best lines. Howard really seems to understand children’s psychology exceptionally well and has a great ear for dialogue and children bickering.
‘People don’t have black walls, Polly, I should have thought you’d have known that.’
‘Why don’t they? People wear black clothes and there are black tulips.’
‘La tulipe noire was actually very dark red. I know. I’ve read the book. It’s by a man called Dumas. It’s actually a French book.’
‘You can’t read French.’
‘It’s so famous you can get it in English. I can read French, but not so that I can understand it properly. Of course I can read it.’
The Cazalets are not aristocrats, but they are well-off at the start of the series, with the rare hardwoods and timber business their father has set up. The Brig keeps building new wings to the house or converting cottages on the grounds to house the family when they come for the holidays – and during the war, when they all need to evacuate to the countryside, that seems like great foresight, as does the Duchy’s rather austere approach to food and heating. We don’t get to see much of the story from the servants’ perspectives, with the exception of the rather touching Miss Milliment, the governess, who home schools all the children while they are small and the girls until they grow up. The boys are sent off to boarding school (even though they hate it, just as much as their fathers before them hated it), while the girls are not very well educated at all, as they are expected to just marry. There is a certain soap opera quality to the events and personal entanglements being described, but the author does an amazing job of zooming in onto poignant little vignettes, and then telescoping years into short chapters and paragraphs. By spending time with the same people over such a long number of years, you realise that their personal tragedies subside, their broken hearts mend, life moves on even though they might have the occasional twinge of regret. It’s a mature author’s reckoning with life: everything is about endurance, nothing lasts forever, and small pleasures and contentment might still be around the corner, if we know how to find and appreciate them.
It’s the lovingly described details of the house, the decorations, food, clothing, parties and so on, which make the series for me. It’s a rich social fresco, and we can see how tastes and product availability change over time. The author achieves this wealth of detail through almost exhaustive photographic description and enumeration – which could get boring, but, because it is historical domestic detail, ends up being quite fascinating.
The larder was cool and rather dark with a window covered with fine zinc mesh, in front of which hung two heavily infested fly papers. Food in every stage of its life lay on the long marble slab: the remains of a joint under a cage made of muslin, pieces of rice pudding and blancmange on kitchen plates, junket setting in a cut-glass bowl, old, crazed, discoloured jugs filled with gravy and stock, stewed prunes in a pudding basin, and in the coldest place beneath the window, the huge, silvery salmon, its eye torpid from recent poaching, lay like a grounded zeppelin.
This wealth of food and presents in the first volume give way to the deprivations of the war years, and then the long years of rationing after the war too. In the final volume, Home Place is starting to look terribly threadbare, especially now they no longer have an army of servants to help run it. The author is also very much interested in clothes and make up, and we get almost a blow by blow account of how clothes and mores both change in the 1940s and 50s, ending with some of the younger members of the family wearing jeans.
I believe that Elizabeth Jane Howard intended this to be a four-book series, but was then persuaded to write a fifth volume nearly two decades later to wrap up some of the storylines. Many readers feel that this final volume is weaker than the rest, and the styles is noticeably different -with faster, snappier changes from one point of view to another, or group portraits, including that of very minor characters, as if to cater for a shorter attention span of readers. It’s only when the family all come together again for Christmas at Home Place towards the end of the book that the detailed descriptions of games and conversations, food and clothes reappear, and they provide a moving contrast to the full house at the start of the series.
I know I said that the protagonists are typical of their time, but I did find it disappointing that none of the women, of either the older or the younger generation, seem to find (or even seek) fulfilment outside the domestic realm. Clary is the only one who pursues her writing, but we are not entirely sure how successfully she will be able to combine family life and her art. I feel that Villy is particularly hard done by: beautiful, well organised, loyal and eager to help all others, she seems to have a natural talent at so many things, but has been raised by a prudish mother who told her sex was ‘the horrid side of married life’. Faced with a selfish husband who thinks only of his pleasure and comfort, she clearly suffers from not being able to use any of her skills fully, but both the author and the people around her judge her for being bitter and full of ‘self-pity’, even when she ends up (spoiler alert) being abandoned by both her husband and several of her older children. I would have liked to see Villy throw a proper diva-like tantrum at some point and punish the whole Cazalet family, who (with one exception) ultimately side with Edward, their half-hearted criticism of his behaviour notwithstanding.
There is something irresistible about reading all the volumes in quick succession and thus achieving complete immersion into this kind of world and family. I felt much the same about reading Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy or the (one-volume, but a massive volume) The Eighth Life (for Brilka). Perhaps I like family sagas after all, when they combine successfully with the description of a vanished world that I never knew.
If you don’t have a garden or a big enough one for a shed, then these little chalets, huts, houses might tempt you – most of them are open to paying overnight guests.
Last week I headed back to my workplace for the first time in 18 months and mentioned that, despite the discomfort of commuting and fear of Covid, one of the absolute perks of my job is working an iconic building such as Senate House. I have always been an Art Deco fan, and the architect, Charles Holden, was clearly also influenced by the Bauhaus style when he proposed a grandiose scheme in the early 1930s. Lack of funding and the start of the war meant those plans were abandoned and only a small fraction was actually built. Nevertheless, it is an impressive building both inside and out, and has starred in many a film or TV series. You can find a full list of films, TV productions and advertisements in which the Grand Old Lady has played a part here, but I’d just like to highlight a few personal favourites.
Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.
Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.
They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.
Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.
Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.
Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…
I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.
Farewell to thee! but not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of thee:
Within my heart they still shall dwell;
And they shall cheer and comfort me.Anne Brontë
I am lucky enough to have a room of my own, a study, in my house. Yet I never stop dreaming of a little dream cabin or writing shed hidden somewhere in a (beautifully tended) garden, out of earshot of the house.