Most Obscure from My Shelves – Anglo Favourites

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

On the top of my centre-right bookshelf I have an odd assortment of old editions by favourite authors (many of which I bought second-hand at school jumble sales). Here are three which I have read many times and probably will reread in the future.

Sylvia Plath: Letters Home

This book represents my ‘way into’ Sylvia Plath, who became one of my favourite poets (she still is, by the way, although I am less interested in her biography by now). I found this rather massive book in the English language bookshop in Vienna when I was about 12 and had no idea who Sylvia Plath was. In fact, I thought it was going to be a bit like Daddy-Long-Legs, which was a book I loved at the time (the film too, with Cyd Charisse). Clearly, my parents had no idea who she was either, or they might not have approved the purchase of it for their overly dramatic, moody, poetically inclined pre-teen. But of course, this is the carefully sanitised version of Sylvia that her mother got to see. Nevertheless, impressive enough to make me scoop up everything else she had ever written or that had ever been written about her.

Elizabeth Goudge: The Herb of Grace

This is one of those books I came across at a book sale. Although the cover was pink and yellow (an uneasy combination of colours), I picked it up because I loved the author, having read The Little White Horse aloud to my mother while she was cooking, and also enjoyed The White Witch, The Middle Window and The Heart of the Family (I laboriously ticked all the other books I’d read on the inside cover). Again, I must have been 12-13 at the time and I’m not sure what I got out of this book about post-war trauma, adultery, forgiveness, love and friendship, other than the many references to The Wind in the Willows. Goudge’s style feels old-fashioned and quaint nowadays, has perhaps not aged as well as Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Taylor, but she was my introduction to that kind of writing, which one might call the ‘furrowed English middlebrow with an ironic raise of the eyebrow’. I don’t mean any contempt, by the way, as I love this writing style, although as I grew up I tended to prefer the more mordant wit of Muriel Spark or Nancy Mitford.

Now that I am reading the Cazalet chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, I can say that this trilogy reminds me of that better-known series.

Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur

Having adored Gerald Durrell’s evocation of his family’s life in Corfu, which we had read out to us in class while we were doing arts and crafts (I was always far more interested in the book than in the crafty side of things), I borrowed Lawrence Durrell as soon as I could from the library (ah, the charms of benign neglect by parents and librarians!). The baroque prose and evocative landscapes of the Alexandria Quartet enchanted me. I soon graduated to the Avignon Quintet, of which this is one, perhaps my favourite, with its description of Christmas in a crumbling chateau in Provence (yep, the love of chateau and France have been a constant in my life). What would I think of it twenty-odd years later if I were to reread it? I now prefer the more pared down style of writing, so would it give me indigestion from all the riches?

The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…

From Fodors.com
From Fodors.com

Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

From bookpeople.com
Jill Alexander Essbaum, from bookpeople.com

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatriée (Singapore)