Too Close for Comfort: Three Quick Reviews

All three of these recently read books were a little too close to home for me: on a personal, social or political level. Absolutely compelling reading, although each one required some coffee and cake or deep breathing breaks.

Rodrigo de Souza Leao: All Dogs are Blue (transl. Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler)

This was part of my Brazilians in August personal challenge, the only man who sneaked onto my list of Brazilian authors in translation. Much like Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, it gives you an insight into what it must feel like to be deeply depressed, paranoid and schizophrenic. Regardless of diagnostic, the morbidly obese narrator finds himself in an asylum in Rio. He believes he has swallowed a chip that makes him behave out of character and do things he doesn’t want to do. His descriptions of life both inside and outside the asylum, in all its madcap noise and grossness, are hilarious. Knowing that the author himself suffered from mental health problems and died at a young age, soon after the publication of this book, gives a bitter edge to the comedy. It is the black humour of despair, and it’s not surprising that his chosen fantasy chums are Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

To read this book is to abandon yourself to its rhythm and let its waves overpower you. It’s not a pleasant experience, it tosses you about and can feel like drowning at times.

I swallowed a chip. I swallowed a cricket. What else is left to devour in this world? Carnival only wears the colours of short-lived happiness. Dealing with lunatics or with normal people: what’s the difference? What is reality? How many pieces of wood do you need to make that canoe? How many mortars do you need to sink that boat?

But Souza Leao is very clever and also has a poet’s felicity of expression: he tosses a throwaway line into the mix that you simply have to stop and wonder over.

I left the hotel and went to the bus station. I was possessed by a fertile spirit of modern madness, one that had helped twentieth-century poetry many times and had put contemporary literature in its rightful place. My persecution complex had reached the pinnacle of its glory.

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living

At the age of fifty, Levy leaves her marriage and makes a new life for herself and her children. This slim volume is the story of her reinvention, a sort of ‘swimming home’, finding herself and her purpose, while also dealing with the irritating, intractable, unforgiving day to day. As a woman, mother and writer who is struggling with many of the same things, it has simply meant so much to me. It’s a book I’ve filled up with post-its and shall be returning to again and again. It is also very insightful into gender relations and often feels like she has been inhabiting my head and heart. Here are just a few favourite quotes:

At first I wasn’t sure I’d make it back to the boat and then I realized I didn’t want to make it back to the boat. Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want. If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be phantom.

To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.

Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then mock her for having no dreams? As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us… he tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is near by.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

A late entry to my Americans in June challenge. Moving from the personal and gendered to the more purely political, this book is just as painful as the other two. It was written in 1935 as a satire and a warning against the rise of populists and tyrants like Hitler and Stalin in what must have seemed very frightening end of world times. (Hence the rise of dystopian fiction during that period, so similar to our own.)

A narcissistic, rude, almost illiterate, anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue Buzz Windrip promises to make America proud and prosperous once more and wins the presidential election. The results are predictable but even more dire than the peace-loving newspaper editor Doremus Jessup had feared. His original ‘wait and see’ policy, the complacency of the ‘it can’t happen here’ type of those around him soon leads to the regime slipping ever more deeply into disturbing authoritarianism.

At first, Doremus and his family seem comfortable and protected, nobody seems to share his discomfort at the election of Buzz as president, and he has a bit of tantrum-ridden stomping off ‘fine then, don’t listen to me’ attitude that I can understand all too well.

All right. Hell with this country, if it’s like that. All these years I’ve worked – and I never did want to be on all these committees and boards and charity drives! – and don’t they look silly now! What I always wanted to do was to sneak off to an ivory tower – or anyway, celluloid, imitation ivory – and read everything I’ve been too busy to read.

But soon things go beyond a joke and beyond mere discomfort. There is no more sitting on the fence or ignoring the way the country is heading. It’s no longer about compromise and self-censorship, very soon it turns into attempting to escape, being tortured and even killed.

Interestingly enough, Buzz is a Democrat and originally runs on a socialist platform, showing that any ideology can be taken to extremes and abused. An absolutely chilling novel, sadly possibly more topical now than at any other time since the Second World War.

Books That Puzzled Me

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I’ve finished a few books lately which left me intrigued but unsure of my own feelings about them. While I cannot say I disliked them, I’m not quite sure I would say that I liked them either. And if I were to reread them, it would be not so much out of love for the book, but because I want to see if I can understand what the author is trying to achieve the second time around.

In conclusion, these are books that I admire for what they are attempting to do, but I’m not quite sure they have succeeded in doing it for this particular reader. In some cases, I have to admit that I haven’t got a clue if I am interpreting them correctly at all. Not that it matters.

Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square

The book starts out conventionally enough, almost like a thriller. Jean Mason is a bookshop owner in downtown Toronto, happily married (although there are indications that there is sourness beneath the bliss), mother of two kids. When customers start telling her that she seems to have a doppelgänger who is wandering around the Kensington Market area, she has to try and find out more. She starts a stakeout in Bellevue Square, and although she never catches a glimpse of her alter ego, who is supposedly called Ingrid, she soon befriends all of the eccentric characters, scam artists, homeless people, druggies and so on that populate the area.

Bellevue Square before its demolition.

Jean befriends Katerina, a waitress at a churros shop, who seems to have a close, but not always friendly relationship with the elusive Ingrid. Then Katerina is found dead and Jean begins to wonder if Ingrid killed her. Up to this point, you could visualise this as a Hitchcock film, following Jean’s desperate attempt to prove that she is not the murderer even when all fingers are pointing accusingly at her.

But the book veers into unpredictable territory here. We discover that Jean has a troubled background and mental health issues, and we start to wonder just what is real and what is fantasy. Of course, the theme of the ‘doppelg√§nger’ as an evil twin or the darker side of the same person is very well established in literature (A Tale of Two Cities, Dostoevsky’s¬†The Double, Jekyll and Hyde,¬†and of course¬†Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James have eerie ghost stories about doubles). But it gets even more complicated and meta, with past tragedies resurfacing and pseudonyms appearing for Ingrid which indicate that she might be an alter ego for the author.¬†

The refurbished Bellevue Square has a distinctly more family-friendly vibe

So I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this, but quite enjoyed the journey (and the description of a certain part of Toronto). Redhill is planning a triptych of novels entitled¬†Modern Ghosts, of which this is the first, and the term ‘ghosts’ fits in very well with what Poe and James were doing.


Rachel Cusk: Kudos

I’ve been fascinated by Cusk’s trilogy, which started with a Greek Odyssey in¬†Outline,¬†turned into a London obsession with property prices in¬†Transit, and now concludes with a conference or literary festival being held someplace that could be Sicily or Portugal. As usual, her protagonist Faye is such a good listener that she almost disappears from the narrative. This culminates in a very funny moment when she is being interviewed by a series of journalists, who all end up talking more about themselves than trying to find out anything about her or her work.

This final volume is more combative and political in tone. There are much sharper observations about parenting, which were almost curiously absent from the first two books. There is a particularly touching scene, which the author handles almost in passing, where Faye admits that her son often wished he could belong to another family when he was younger. Above all, however, it’s quite a battle of the sexes which emerges here, all the more ferocious because it is not explicitly endorsed by the narrator, merely expressed by other women she encounters.

I quickly came to see… that in fact there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife… is close to the drama and poetry of life than he is, because as Louise Bourgeois shows us she is capable at least of holding more than one perspective. And it was true.. that a number of girls were achieving academic success and cultivating professional ambitions, to the extent that people had begun to feel sorry for these average boys and to worry that their feelings were being hurt. Yet, if you looked only a little way ahead, … you could see that the girls’ ambitions led nowhere, like the roads you often find yourself on in this country, that start off new and wide and smooth and then simply stop in the middle of nowhere, because the government ran out of money to finish building them

Rachel Cusk: Kudos, p. 192.

I loved the way the book incites me to think and the very vivid vignettes of encounters – as I said before, I find it great anthropological material, but I have my doubts about how it all hangs together and cannot help wondering if it’s just lazy editing by the author herself. (I felt there was more of a pattern to Tokarczuk’s¬†Flights, in case you were wondering). As for the ending – that was so viscerally unpleasant, it very nearly spoilt the whole trilogy for me (although it fits in well with the Battle of the Sexes idea).


Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett: Naked Men

Well, if you want a full-on battle between the sexes and a bit of a reversal of roles, then this book is for you! It’s about middle-aged women who are wealthy enough to pay for male escorts and about men who in the austerity economy of Spain are taking on jobs as strippers and escorts.¬†

Irene is an odd, cold fish, a Daddy’s girl who has obediently taken over the helm at her father’s company after his death, and married for comfort and business sense rather than for passion. When her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she doesn’t really go off the rails. Or at least not at first. Because she never felt much passion, she doesn’t feel much despair, more of a wounded ego and not wanting to give her so-called the satisfaction of gossiping about her. Meanwhile, Javier is a bit of a loser, an unemployed supply teacher with ideals that fit better into his vast collection of books rather than real life. This mismatched pair will eventually get together, but it takes far too long to get to that point, and the ending is far too abrupt and rushed.¬†

Although the book had some interesting things to say about social class and gender differences, and although it was quite funny in parts (that passage about moving all of Javier’s books!), it felt like 90% build-up, 10% story and then only 0.0001% denouement. And, despite the extensive build-up, the psychological motivation for what happens at the end still seemed wrong. There was also the odd head-hopping that occurs throughout the book – which keeps you on your toes, as you have to figure out who is thinking that next paragraph in a scene of dialogue. I also have to admit that I was far more interested in the secondary characters, Javier’s down-to-earth friend Ivan and Irene’s more uninhibited friend Genoveva.¬†

Poetry Link-Up: Content Inside

She’s forgotten the hot shiver
of a new hand
stroking her hair

Her skin stretched and soft
like blotting paper
no longer absorbs
the ink bruise of lovebites.

Crooning a broken record of a lovesong
she tangles her hair
for the few seconds
her body convulses

And feels the power she once had given
to the nook of broad shoulders on men.

Image courtesy of favim.com
Image courtesy of favim.com

I’ve been submitting quite a few poems to literary magazines lately, so I’ve been using this blog only to post very rough first drafts or discarded poems or poems which require substantial reworking. Apologies for that! I’m still cheekily linking this up to dVerse Poets Open Link Night, which starts later on today, because I always enjoy going there for a visit. Join me if you can!

Crime Fiction Reviews: Gendered Crime?

I don’t believe in gender stereotypes, but it did occur to me that the last few crime/thriller novels had a bit of a gender bias in terms of subject matter. Written by women = psychological thriller; family, parenting and social issues. Written by men: violence, attacks, conspiracies, shadowy enemy (or everyone is an enemy), political agendas. I enjoy both types of subject matter, don’t consider one ‘better’ or ‘worthier’ than the other, and that’s why I alternate authors, genders and genres. I’m greedy, I want everything!

1974David Peace: 1974

I loved it and I hated it. It is very thought-provoking, a real fresco of the time and place (although just seen through the eyes of one character, which the author will remedy in the rest of the quartet). It is undeniably powerful and grim, perhaps too much so; ¬†unrelentingly dark, so noir that not even a glimmer of hope or light comes through. And I say this as a huge fan of noir! I also found the staccato prose and swearing starts to grate after a while, although initially it is just perfect and captures the inflexions and nuances of Yorkshire speech patterns. But it’s worth remembering that this was Peace’s first novel, and that he keeps getting better and better.

Eddie Dunford, the main protagonist, is trying to make his mark as a crime correspondent. A right little prick he is too – using women, ready to cheat and lie and do anything to get ahead. But he is a bit out of his league with all the corruption and craziness going on around him. The story is (deliberately, I think) convoluted and often hard to understand, yet I can see how David Peace can become addictive.

Other male writers recently read: Matt Johnson РThe Wicked Game. That too seemed filled with testosterone, hatred, machismo (nothing wrong with that).

tasteslikefearSarah Hilary: Tastes Like Fear

Sarah Hilary is fast becoming one of the most promising of new crime fiction writers (alongside other recent favourites like Mari Hannah, Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez). This is her third and perhaps most accomplished book to date. Everything just seems to come together in this one: perfectly-pitched plotting with alternating storylines (a device which has recently become so commonplace that it almost jars, but in this case it worked perfectly), atmospheric descriptions of a corner of London full of social contrasts, great observational skills and social commentary, occasional glimpses into the personal life of Marnie and Noah, the two main investigators, plus well-rounded characters, none of whom conforms to stereotype. I love the way Sarah Hilary takes topical subjects and makes you question every assumption or preconception you might have had.

This time the topic is about runaway teenagers and homelessness, vulnerability and visibility, anger and the need to feel loved/protected. Plus, what a great backdrop Battersea Power Station makes! (Oh, and Noah’s migraine suffering? Spot on, thanks for trying to explain to the rest of the world just how debilitating such an attack can be!)

whenshewasbadTammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

Many years ago, Anne Cater, American child psychologist, had to assess the impact of neglect and abuse on two small children in a horrific and notorious case which proved the making of the career of two of her (male) colleagues. Anne refused to go along with the consensus view and it seems she is now proved right, as one of the children went on to commit a horrifying deed in the UK in the present day. Just what it is and who it is – well, Tammy Cohen is teases us with the two strands of the story until the very end. This is one of those cases when the alternating between the two stories felt a little manipulative and intrusive (although they are both cracking stories in themselves).

The second strand is set in a workplace that will sound familiar to many. Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!). I have always wondered why there aren’t more novels set in the workplace, where we spend most of our lives, after all. But then I realised that it felt almost too familiar, it made me cringe with recognition – so perhaps there is not enough of an escapist element there. One small criticism would be that I felt the team members were selected especially to cover all bases (which is not the case in many workplaces, where there is a bit of clone effect in hiring): the gay man, the young ambitious guy, the stressed mother, the middle-aged woman cruising to retirement etc.

The other female writer was C.L. Taylor: The Missing, which I will review on CFL. The subject is very clearly domestic: the impact of a teenager’s disappearance on his family.

Now, when I talk about gender differences, I am not saying that the last two writers are ‘just’ women or treat ‘smaller’ subjects, but they do seem to have a more personal, immediate approach. Or perhaps I respond differently to them because I am a woman myself. Marnie and Anne are crusaders for truth just as much as Eddie in 1974, but there is less self-serving career advancement in their quest for justice, much more genuine concern for other people.

The Meaning of the Colour Purple

Purple stands for royalty, nobility, ambition, luxury and power.

purple
Ambition pure in purple rays
squirted by sea creatures in precious gusts.
Noblemen captured it in togas and cloaks,
now paled to inoffensive and little girls.
The rinse of predilection for ladies just over the hill or
tip to toe for Barbie’s dream.
I no longer believe in what the spirit moves.
You smell of her and yet you mock
my small-minded flinching
and bruises.
We’re all just bodies,
veins and sinews,
muscle ache and porous bones,
with long seasons on repeat.
Never the dagger thrust into compliance and flesh.

I am linking this to my beloved dVerse Poets Pub. Although I am no longer behind the bar, I do enjoy popping in every now and then for a visit. Come and join me for some fun poetry and discussions! It will be Open Link Night tonight.

#DiverseDecember: When Writers Are Silenced…

This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).

SilencesFirst published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people¬†from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.

‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However,¬†few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:

Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.

Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more¬†jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.

When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk
Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk

As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:

The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over¬†or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’

 Angharad Pearce Jones installation of 'The Pram in the Hall', from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.
Angharad Pearce Jones installation of ‘The Pram in the Hall’, from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.

Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that¬†vision should know¬†no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.

… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.

From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.

How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.

Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.
Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.

Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.

Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.
Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.

And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:

It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.

Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women¬†sacrificed not only¬†their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.

How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and¬†how comfortable the¬†whole family is¬†with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?)¬†started¬†writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.

 

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.