Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.
Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out
Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker
Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws
Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars
Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal
Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage
Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed
Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy
Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time
Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda
Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive
Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos
June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.
I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.
The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.
So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).
In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.
Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distanceset in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.
So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).
I am succumbing to the charm of the rediscovered women writers of Persephone Books publisher and bookshop. Last month I read Elisabeth De Waal’s The Exiles Return and this month I couldn’t resist reading another one so I could take part in the #PersephoneReadathon that I saw Jessie from the Dwell in Possibility blog is organising this year (for the third time, if I’m not mistaken).
I’d heard such good things about Dorothy Whipple, but I was warned that Someone at a Distance might be a hard read for me, given the breakdown of my own marriage. And it really was painful, because I couldn’t help comparing things with my own situation. I appreciated the observational skills and strong characterisations this author is capable of, but at the same time I was a little too judgemental of the characters.
This is the story of a happy family in the period following the Second World War. Rationing is still on, but easing a little, servants are hard to find, but the Norths, who live just outside London in a beautiful house and garden with stables for their daughter’s horse, seem to lead a charmed existence. Avery works in publishing and life has been easy for him. His father was rich and paved his way to a not entirely merited career path in publishing (his only skill being networking), his mother dotes on him, he has two charming and healthy children and his wife Ellen smoothes his everyday life and makes him the centre of her life and of the family. He does not seem to be a bad man, he really does love his wife and children, but his privilege makes him selfish and thoughtless. His wife, meanwhile, is aware of her privilege and considers herself lucky to have everyone back safe at home after the war.
She is so busy building the perfect home and family, she is so loving and trusting, that she fails to see the serpent sneaking into the garden of Eden, although she has the odd twinge or two of suspicion or dislike. The serpent comes in the shape of neat, well-dressed and coiffed Louise Lanier, daughter of a solid but unimaginative couple, bookshop owners (and pen repairers) in a small provincial town in France. Louise seeks to escape from the stifling boredom of her life and her failed romance with the local squire and takes up a position as ‘French conversation companion’ to the widowed Mrs North, Avery’s mother who constantly complains of neglect. Although she only stays there a short while (and does not impress the rest of the family), she is so good at winning the old lady’s affection that when the latter dies a short while later, she bequeathes a certain sum to Louise in her will. Louise decides to stay with the Norths, whose ‘mediocre’ happiness makes her slightly nauseous as well as envious, until she gets her hand on the money… but ends up getting her hand on much more than that.
Her sly seduction of Avery is both funny and excruciating to read. Even her characteristic perfume is designed to provoke and ruin, reminiscent of the Nicotiana, the tobacco plant, ready to choke everyone with her poisonous fumes. She is an excellent (if cynical) judge of character and she instantly spots the chinks in her opponents’ armours.
Surely Ellen was a little too good to be true? A little too kind, trusting and happy? An example of the well-known English hypocrisy, she supposed. Either that, or Ellen was what she was because she had never had reason to be otherwise. She had everything: a handsome husband, money, children, a charming house… But… she managed her husband badly. Ellen was unselfish, so in consequence, he was not. Ellen took responsibility for everything in the house and evidently for the children too; so he did not. He took Ellen for granted and that was, Louise considered, Ellen’s own fault. She was altogether too open and simple.
Ouch! I certainly felt that dart! And sure enough, Avery finds himself attracted to the French girl, even as he laughs at some of her ridiculous posturing. But he is quick to blame his wife for it, for after all ‘she shouldn’t take it for granted that he was as safe as all that.’ He is full of self-justification, because he believes he is so in control of things. And although this is a story written in the 1950s, it is a timeless tale indeed:
It was a long time since he had felt so vividly alive. He didn’t mean to go far. He was giving way to an attraction, letting himselve be caught in a lazy, amused way. Although he felt mean to Ellen, he was allowing himself a bit of latitude. Surely after twenty years of fidelity a man… Well, anyway, what did it matter?
So the inevitable happens. Avery and Louise get caught in a compromising position on the living room sofa, by his wife and (even worse) his horrified daughter Anne. He flounces off like a spoilt toddler and announces he wants a divorce, although he manages to tell himself the story that he is forced to do so because his wife doesn’t want him back, he is humiliated in front of his children and he has to protect Louise’s honour. In other words, he manages to blame everybody but himself for his predicament and takes to drink.
However, for Ellen, the shock, though devastating, has a liberating effect as well. The scales have fallen from her eyes:
Men liked youth in women. They felt entitled to it… Unless you behave like the favourite of the harem, your husband goes off with a woman who does… Let him!.. Even if it had occurred to me to work at fascinating him, I couldn’t have done it. I treated him like a partner, someone as responsible as I am for our marriage, but he walks out half-way through as if it were no more than a film show he was tired of.
The conflicting emotions of an abandoned woman are so well described: the pride, the self-pity, the anger, the sadness, the concern for her children’s emotions, the feeling that her once beloved house is now dying, and, on occasion, passive resignation.
She wondered if she would ever be able to take pleasure in things for themselves. For twenty years she had evidently taken pleasure in things so that she could use them for her husband and children, pass them on to them in the way of beauty or food or comfort… Flowers, trees, the house, the garden, other people, everything had delighted her while she could look at them from the standpoint of personal happiness. Now they didn’t mean anything.
Nevertheless, she persists, she finds a solution, she encounters much gentleness and understanding from the people around her, while her ex-husband descends into a personal hell of his own making. If there was anything I disliked about this book, it was the rather unsatisfactory, almost fairytale resolution, with the baddies get their come-uppance. Louise’s complicated plan of revenge in her home town doesn’t quite work out, Avery is not happy with Louise and shows genuine remorse for what he has done, the children are entirely on their mother’s side and blame their father for everything, and yet Ellen might find it in her heart to forgive him at some point in the future…
I wanted to tell Ellen: ‘You’re better off without him!’ Perhaps it’s because my own experience has shown things to be far more complicated than that, and that the bad often does go unpunished and unrepentant. Yet I was sad to hear that this, Dorothy Whipple’s last novel, never received any reviews. It had become unfashionable for its time, I suppose.
My first but certainly not my last Dorothy Whipple. This has the potential to become one of my favourite Persephones, but yes, I will read more, more, more Persephone Books!
It’s not as bad as it looks, because some of these books are from the library (the thickest ones). I am clearly hoping for a quiet Christmas holiday period, with lots of reading. But I have to admit that I’ve also been tempted to spend more than usual on books this month, because in January my self-imposed book ban kicks in.
Christmas presents for the boys:
They love manga and graphic novels, but I’m trying to get them to broaden their tastes, so I bought The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and one volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s monumnetal History of Showa Japan (the Second World War). That’s because my older son is quite keen on history. Keeping the Japanese theme going (given my own background and the fact that we are planning a trip to Japan in 2021), a beautifully illustrated volume entitled How to Live Japanese by Yutaka Yazawa. Another passion that unites us all is the love for our cat, Zoe, and the little book Test Your Cat should provide hours of entertainment. Two further books – the first ones I bought for them before I became a little too indulgent – are Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe for the future engineer, and Inventing Ourselves. The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain by Sarah=Jayne Blakemore for the argumentative future lawyer. Last but not least – although not strictly speaking a book – I also bought some sheet music for my older son, who’s recently started playing the keyboard: The Very Best of John Williams (a compromise between the classical music I like and the stuff that would be too complicated for him to play).
Christmas presents for myself:
I’ve renewed my subscription for another year with the Asymptote Book Club, as I get so much out of it, even when I sometimes struggle to keep up with the reading (it shouldn’t be the case, it’s only one book a month, right?). So the Christmas delivery is finally a book from Africa (come on, publishers, do translate more from that continent!). The Barefoot Womanby Scholastique Mukasonga is going to be an emotional read, I can foresee, based on the author’s mother’s story of trying to save children during the genocide in Rwanda.
On my last day at work I also finally made a trip to the nearby Persephone Bookshop, that so many of you have praised to the skies (or warned me about, depending on your level of concern for my financial health). I came away with 4 books that I wrapped up and gave to myself as Christmas presents. No one ever gives me books as a present because: a) I allegedly have too many already; b) I’ve read everything already; c) they don’t know what I like. To which my answers are: a) I can always squeeze in a few more and regularly give away to charity; b) no; c) pretty much omnivorous.
So my Persephone choices were:
Noel Streatfield: Saplings – simply because I grew up with Ballet Shoes and Curtain Up and White Boots and loved all the brave and talented young girls in her books. I know this is one for adults, but it’s about children suffering as a result of evacuation during the war.
Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Whipple, the last novel she wrote, an author warmly recommended by the likes of Ali Hope , Jacqui and Simon Thomas. Plus, it’s about adultery and the breakdown of a marriage, a subject I feel rather an expert in!
Elisabeth De Waal: The Exiles Return – Edmund De Waal’s mother was born in Vienna and grew up there until they had to flee in the 1930s. She never got a chance to return, but in this novel her protagonists return from exile. Can you ever fit back into a place that pushed you out?
Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – written in the 1920s but still surprisingly relevant today, about the frustration of stay at home mothers, and the challenges (and satisfaction) of role reversals among parents.
Little Bits Inspired by Twitter:
Uwe Johnson: Jahrestage (Anniversaries)
Readers whose opinions I respect were just going on and on about the recently translated 4 volume masterpiece and I’m such a herd animal that I had to check it out for myself. I found a second-hand Suhrkamp box-set edition dating from 1988 on a German bookshop website and ordered it. It may not be pretty, but it was affordable and should keep me busy for the next several years!
Fernando Sdrigotti: Shitstorm
I’ve been following Argentinian writer and editor of online literary journal Minor Literatures for a while now on Twitter. This novelette is about a wealthy nobody who goes viral when he slays a protected lion on the plains of Africa (remind you of any recent story?). Described as a sharp and perceptive chronicle dissecting the murky waters of viral news.
Katya Apekina: The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish
I think this one might have been mentioned on one of those ‘under the radar’ books of 2018. It sounds like a pretty hard-hitting story: two young girls who are sent to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. Besides, I’m always fascinated by people who write in languages other than their mothertongue (same applies for Sdrigotti, above).
I’ve read Hazzard’s satire about the United Nations bureaucracy in People in Glass Houses and her look at Anglo expat life in Italy in The Bay of Noon. She has a great eye for human foibles, but above all such stylish and precise sentences! She was mentioned in The Paris Review’s annual round-up of favourite reads and I realised that I’d quite like to read her book about two Australian sisters coming to live in England.
Ralph Dutli: Soutines letzte Fahrt (Soutine’s Last Journey)
When I wrote about seeing a Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld roughly a year ago, one of my blogger friends Shigekuni (aka Marcel Imhoff) drew my attention to this novel about the last few weeks of Soutine’s life, as he goes back to occupied Paris in 1943 for a potentially life-saving operation. On the way, in a morphine-induced haze, he remembers his childhood and life in exile.
From the Library:
C.J. Sansom: Lamentation
Would you be shocked to hear that I’ve never read any of C.J. Sansom’s historical fiction? I read Dominion, his alternate take on post-war Britain as a satellite state of Nazi Germany (and was not that fond of it). However, so many people whose opinion I respect have raved about his most recent novel Tombland and just generally about the Shardlake series, that I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Elif Batuman: The Idiot
I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw it shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK and for the Pulitzer Prize in the US. But mostly because it’s about a foreigner attending college in the US and trying to adapt to another culture. I cannot resist those ‘intercultural dialogues and misunderstandings’ themes. In the meantime, 180 pages in I realised that most of it was so dull that it didn’t make up for the few flashes of insight. So I abandoned it.
Claire Fuller: Bitter Orange
Simmering resentments and darkness, atmospheric, and the story of friendships knitted in the late 1960s – a good companion piece, perhaps to Sigrid Nunez The Last of Her Kind. I’ll read the two of them together.
I hardly dare to add up the total number of unread books lurking on my shelves, chests of drawers, bedside tables, in artistic piles on the floor etc. Suffice it to say that I think I might have a book to see me through every single day of 2019! So let’s get cracking!