The Tortoise and the Hare

A quick break from Brazilians in August. Several of my bookish friends had recommended the delightful Backlisted Podcast episode on The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, with special guest Carmen Callil of Virago fame. I listened, was instantly smitten and spent some time searching for the book online, although I had no intention of reading it soon. The subject matter, I thought, might be a bit too painful.

However, when I saw it arrive in the post, I told myself that I had recently read Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, after all, which tells a very similar story. So I plunged in and just couldn’t stop reading.

Elizabeth Jenkins has that wonderful and all too rare quality of being able to write the perfect sentence or turn of phrase. That economical yet very densely packed style, that you need to read several times in order to fully appreciate. Her wry observational skills remind me of Jane Austen: this is what Jane Austen might have been writing if she had lived in the 1950s. (It’s not surprising to find out that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote a biography of Austen.)

It is an all too familiar story of the unravelling of a seemingly content marriage as the husband is attracted to someone else. For most of the book we might think of the conventionally pretty, extremely feminine people-pleaser Imogen as the hare, while the older, eccentric-looking, badly dressed and rather masculine Blanche is the tortoise who wins the race (i.e. the man) in the end. However, given that the man is the appallingly self-centred, self-satisfied and endlessly self-justificatory Evelyn Gresham, you may decide that Imogen is well rid of him and that Blanche is no winner after all.

Evelyn is that class of Englishman that you can still encounter at Oxbridge, active in politics or law or medicine, convinced that they are always right and that the world should be their oyster. Imogen at first glance may appear annoying in her passivity. I thought I would not get along with her at all, she is so very different to me: brought up to rely on her looks and social skills, no preoccupations other than being a wife and mother, so very keen to be of service to others, a bit dreamy, a bit too romantic. Yet somehow, the author manages to make you care desperately about her, although avoiding melodrama. Imogen has quite good psychological insights into other people, can sense when they are hurting or indifferent, but seems blind to the dangers in her own marriage. I could relate though to her avoidance of conflict, of being thought a nag, in her relationship with both her husband and her son.

The inevitable descent into divorce is so gradual and so unflinchingly described, it makes for some very painful reading. But what really broke me was Imogen’s realisation that her son Gavin is a mini-version of his father and that she has completely lost him a long while ago. Yet even there, the author gives us a hint that Gavin will not remain unmarked by his parents’ marriage breakdown.

Such a subtle, emotionally wrenching novel! It has given me an appetite to read more of the English classics of the 1930s-1950s. I might do a month of that when I do my geographical tours. After all, ‘the past is a different country’, isn’t it?

Literary Festival on Lake Geneva

Le Livre sur les quais is a relatively unknown literary festival taking place on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the small Swiss town of Morges (near Lausanne). It started in 2010 with just 180 mainly Swiss local writers (a friend of mine who lives in Morges referred to that first year somewhat unkindly as ‘all cook books, tourist guides and crafts manuals’). However, in its 5th year, it has expanded to 362 authors, including many international authors (particularly English-speaking, to satisfy the large expat community in the area). Each year there is an honorary president –  a well-known French-speaking author (last year it was Tatiana de Rosnay, this year it was Daniel Pennac – and a different geographical region is invited to be the ‘guest of honour’. In 2011 it was Quebec, Belgian Walloon region in 2012, last year it was Rhone-Alpes and this year it was Tessin – the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

lelivresurlesquais
infolio.ch

This is a book festival for both fiction and non-fiction fans, for all genres, for all ages, and for quite a few languages. There is a huge book tent on the lakeside, where you can buy your books (at exorbitant Swiss ‘exchange rates, where 15 euros becomes 31.50 francs) and get them signed by the authors when they are not at a conference. There are said conferences, either individual or panel discussions, workshops, films, wine and food tasting, art exhibitions, concerts and, above all, the boat trips with readings. What better way to spend a sunny September weekend than cruising on Lake Geneva listening to Daniel Pennac read from his many novels, Luc Ferry ponder philosophical and ethical issues and Philipp Meyer debating the New Great American Novel with Donald Ray Pollock? Oh, and did I say that all of the events (except for the cruises) are free and that most of them don’t even require pre-registration?

morges.ch
morges.ch

Swiss and French-speaking authors are of course predominant, but there were many authors that were interesting to me as an English speaker. These authors would have been mobbed at a literary festival in the UK – Nathan Filer, Naomi Wood, Louise Doughty, Douglas Kennedy, Andy McNab, Val McDermid, Jo Baker, Caroline Lawrence and Peter Robinson – but here they were mostly subjected to relentless button-holing by us expats, who kept telling them how much we’d enjoyed their books.

It is also a great opportunity to become acquainted with the up-and-coming authors, or those writing in other languages who have not been translated yet into English. This was a common complaint: many authors told me they had been translated into German, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian etc. etc., but not into English. This made me wonder just how ‘big’ or ‘wealthy’ the publishing business is in those small countries and languages, that they can ‘afford’ to translate so much. And not just from well-known American or English authors.

lacote.ch
lacote.ch

While French readers were queuing for autographs in front of Katherine Pancol,  an author who writes what I would describe ‘soap opera with designer gear’ (I could not finish her book), I got to meet and have proper conversations with far more quirky and interesting authors whose books I bought (as I mentioned yesterday) or Pedro Lenz, who writes in Swiss German dialect, and Matthias Zschokke, born and raised in Switzerland but now living in Berlin, or the very candid and delightful debut novelist Lottie Moggach, whose book on online identity sounds both chilling and fascinating. (And yes, she was asked about the benefits but also the disadvantages of having a famous writer as a mother.)

rts.ch
rts.ch

Beautiful weather (to make up for the miserable summer we’ve been having in this area) and good coffee and cakes contributed to this perfect day, as well as bumping into many friends and fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group. In fact, many of them were running their own workshops on characterization, life writing, translations. I think it’s a given that I’ll be attending next year too!

Finally, here are a few choice quotes from the sessions I attended:

I don’t think you make a conscious choice of writing a ‘classic’ or writing a book that sells. Those authors who have written classics were not aware that they were writing classics at the time. After all, if you only sell five copies, no matter how good your book is, does it have a chance to become a classic? (Louise Doughty)

It was torture writing my book, but nice to have it written. (Nathan Filer)

I stuck to a proportion of about 90% fact and 10% fiction in my depiction of Hemingway’s life and loves, and I was afraid I would be scourged by Hemingway experts, but in the end if you are writing fiction, you need to give yourself the licence to get away from the facts. (Naomi Wood)

I don’t find it easy to write, nor do I feel a compulsion to write every day, so for a long time I thought that meant that I wasn’t a real writer. (Lottie Moggach)

I originally wrote this book in English and contacted a publisher in the US. They were initially very enthusiastic, until they discovered my age. All of my previous novels counted for nothing. They all want young and healthy writers, who can reliably produce a book a year for a long stint. (Mary Anna Barbey)

24heures.ch
24heures.ch