Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday, 1966.
I don’t think the name ‘Oz Feb’ is going to catch on for my exploration of Australian literature this month, but a short name for a short month seems about right. My travel to a different country every month is also a way to finally read the books on my shelves instead of acquiring any new ones, so apologies to my Australian blogger friends who made some excellent suggestions that I ignored (and others who said I really should include New Zealand and Oceania too). I will investigate those suggestions in the future, for this is undoubtedly not the last time I venture into that part of the world with my reading. But please allow me and my teensy-weensy, whispy faint traces of willpower some time to recover from book-buying for the time being…
I’ve embarked on a rather massive volume (Christina Stead’s The Man Who LovedChildren), which will probably take me a week or two to finish, so I am reading shorter books in parallel. The first of these is a return to an old favourite, Shirley Hazzard, who was a truly cosmopolitan and peripatetic author, to the extent that we might question her Aussie credentials.
The Evening of the Holiday was her debut novel, and is set, like a few of her other novels, in Italy. It is a really simple story, following the love affair between Tancredi, a self-absorbed Italian man recently separated from his wife, and Sophie, whom he believes at first to be the quintessential English rose, but who turns out to be half-Italian. Although both of them are initially is unimpressed with the other, although they tell themselves they see things all too clearly, they appear to fall genuinely in love, but then each go their separate way, a Brief Encounter with more kisses and sex. Of course, the summer in Italy, the holiday atmosphere, the words in both English and Italian poetry, the song of the nightingale, the scent of the flowers all have a part to play in this magic. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the spells being cast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as its own sensible but unsatisfactory resolution.
Lily King called this her perfect novel, that she returns to time and time again, and mentions that the book’s central male character reminds her of the ennui and riff on memory and desire of T.S. Eliot. I didn’t fall quite as much under the spell of the book as she did, even though it is full of the three sentiments I love above all else in literature: Weltschmerz, wistfulness, and the Romanian dor. The two main characters left me somewhat bewildered, although I do not need relatable characters to like a book. But what I do love about Shirley Hazzard is her elegant style, her sentences glittering like jewels, a sense of ironic detachment, a smile in the corner of her mouth, and all of this emerges perfectly formed already in her first novel:
I am perfectly able to deal with this man, who does not even attract me… except in so far as he has the qualities that are attractive about Italy itself – grace and the lack of earnestness. He was probably older than he looked. And then there was the language. If I saw him alone, she thought, I would have to wonder all the time about the subjunctive. I don’t think I can be bothered.
Hazzard can be quite scathing about the ways we are dishonest with ourselves:
Having made up one’s mind to suffer a great hurt, it was somehow disheartening, a disappointment, to be told it need not be borne and that some other way could be found, less lonely but harder, more imperfect but bearable.
I particularly like the way she punctures self-important rhetoric and over-romanticising things:
He had had, like everyone else, an exceptionally unhappy childhood, but his later memories, of adolescence, were predominantly pleasant ones. These memories were frequently represented in single scenes, like paintings – paintings in clear colours, well preserved, perhaps a little over-cleaned. Sometimes he would see himself, a tall young man, walking on the unpaved country roads in the morning. (In these memories, he was always taller, it was always morning, and the roads were still unspoiled by asphalt.)
I didn’t think I acquired lots of books this month, but surprise, surprise, it’s still quite a chunky pile!
Bella Ellis: The Vanished Bride and The Diabolical Bones. Bella Ellis is the pen name for Rowan Coleman – a series of murdery mysteries featuring the Bronte sisters – I had never heard of this series before, but it was a must after visiting the Parsonage. – discovered in the charming Wave of Nostalgia shop on Haworth Main Street, with its theme of ‘strong women’. The third volume has just come out: Rowan Coleman was at the shop recently to sign the book, but I thought I should start at the beginning. I’ve already devoured the first one and could of course imagine every room in the house and the surrounding landscape.
E.C.R. Lorac: These Names Make Clues – a present from the lovely Janet Emson, when we met at Sculpture Park, already done and dusted, short review to follow.
Margaret Kennedy: The FeastThis one was actually inspired by a review from Jacqui, but it fits in well with an idea I had for a crime novel featuring disparate guests arriving for various reasons at a Buddhist retreat centre in Yorkshire (which might bear some coincidental similarities to the Christian retreat centre I stayed at).
Inspired by other readers
Shirley Hazzard: The Evening of the Holiday American author Lily King said in a recent article on LitHub that ‘one of the greatest loves of my life has been the short novel The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard. I have kept a copy of it on the desk where I write for more than twenty-five years. I reach for it when I am stuck, scared, or bored, when I am at loose ends or bound up tight. I raise it like a sacred text, let it fall open where it will.’ It doesn’t take much to persuade me to pick up a Shirley Hazzard book, since I identify strongly with her wandering lifestyle and cross-cultural observations, but this ringing endorsement activated my trigger-happy finger instantly (I found a second-hand copy of it).
Abir Mukherjee: A Necessary Evil I read the first in this wonderful series set in Raj-era India for the Virtual Crime Book Club and then found another (out of order) at the library). Then other books came along and jostled for priority, but a recent review of Mukherjee’s latest by Mary Picken made me want to go back to it and attempt a bit of a chronological order (which is more important in historical fiction than in other crime series), so I borrowed this second one in the series from the library. Short review to follow soon, but highly recommended.
Annamarie Jagose: In Translation You can blame Lisa Hill from ANZ Lit Lovers blog once again for this hard-to-find book. A translator of Japanese literature, a love triangle and a potential fraud: could this book be any more me than that?? It is out of print (dates from 1994), but I managed to find it second-hand.
Inspired by Twitter
Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy An obvious reference to Orwell’s account of precarious work in Paris and London, I became aware of this book thanks to tweets by Tanya Shadrick and the Working Class Festival. The gig economy is so prevalent nowadays, so a very timely read.
Cristina A. Bejan: Intellectuals and Fascism in Interwar Romania. I’ve been following Cristina for a while on Twitter, she is a poet and an academic of Romanian origin, now living in the US. When I saw that her research into the interwar period in Romania (which some see as the ‘golden age of intellectuals and literature’) had been published, I instantly asked her to send me a copy, which she kindly signed for me. It features the world of Mihail Sebastian and his ‘friends’ – need I say more?
Joanna Cannon: A Tidy Ending. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was possibly one of the first books I downloaded from Netgalley back in 2015/16, but I didn’t get to read it until this year (and quite enjoyed it). I also like following the exploits of Joanna and her lovely, goofy German Shepherd Lewis on Twitter, so when I heard she has a new book out and read the blurb, I wanted to read it. I hope it’s not going to be mediocre psychological thriller territory – there have been far too many of those in recent years, they’ve all blended into mush in my mind.
Polly Atkin: Recovering Dorothy I met Polly on a poetry writing retreat in Wales a few years ago and have been following her work ever since. She has been very busy despite lockdown and other issues, and she has recently published not only a new collection of poetry but also a book examining Dorothy Wordsworth’s legacy (despite struggling with poor health and looking after her brother).
Inspired byliterary festivals
Claudia Rankine: Just Us
Natasha Brown: Assembly
Although I felt pretty run-down and ill over the weekend (thank you, older son, for coming all the way from Durham to give me and your brother your tonsillitis and other flu bugs), I attended some of the sessions of the Cambridge Literary Festival (Winter Edition) – luckily, they are all recorded and available to watch until the 28th of November, so I still have time to catch up. I was particularly struck by the mutual admiration and thoughtfulness of the session featuring Natasha Brown and Claudia Rankine, so I ordered their books at once (I have several other Rankine books, but not her latest, and have heard excellent things about Brown’s debut novel).
Fatima Manji: Hidden Heritage
I expected to like the panel above, but what is lovely with these all-access festivals is that you stumble across unexpected delights, such as Fatima Manji describing how she researched the origin of various objects in British museums or forgotten papers in archives, to show the long history of Britain’s fascination with the ‘Orient’. I found out that Queen Victoria spoke and wrote Urdu, that Elizabeth I was corresponding with the women in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem in Topkapi Palace, that coffee houses were bemoaned as dens of iniquity by the ale-houses (for being Turkish temptresses) and so much more.
Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob, transl. Jennifer Croft I’ve wanted this book ever since I heard the author and translator mention it at the Hay Festival in 2018, just after they won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights. In the meantime, many of the bloggers I love have been looking forward to it, and I hope we will exchange views on it even if we don’t do a readalong. I couldn’t quite afford the limited edition of it though, but the Fitzcarraldo newsletter mentioned that they had copies signed by the author at Foyles, so… it was a no-brainer.
Josep Maria Esquirol: The Intimate Resistance, transl, Douglas Suttle Thank you, Fum d’Estampa Press, for keeping me on their mailing list, although I still haven’t reviewed any of the three books they have sent me. I am very interested in this one, however, because it is a work of philosophy, which has now become an area of vivacious debate between my older son and me. He will no doubt have a very long reading list over the holidays, but maybe he will read this one too, and we can compare notes.
Willem Frederick Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles, Beyond Sleep and An Untouched House, transl. David Colmer. I receive the Pushkin Press newsletter; when they mentioned that they are publishing a new book by Hermans, and would therefore be reducing prices on his three previous books in virtual format, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss to read work by one of the most respected Dutch writers of the 20th century. Maybe I should have stuck to just one, to see if I liked his style, but as you can see, I don’t do things by halves!
Christine Mangan: Palace of the Drowned. Such serendipity, aka random pick, typically occurs in a library. While picking up my reservations, I saw this recently-published novel by Christine Mangan on display. Although I hadn’t read her previous one, Tangerine, I had hear good things about it, and the blurb for this one: ageing novelist, Venice setting in the 1960s, an over-eager young admirer… yes, it might sound a bit like Death in Venice or The Talented Mr Ripley, but it’s just the sort of thing I cannot resist.
What do all these different sources prove (other than that I am very easily led astray when it comes to books?)
Publisher newsletters or special offers still work a treat
Recommendations from other readers and bloggers are my default option
If I know and like people on Twitter, I will follow their work with interest
I nearly always buy books by friends
Festivals sell books
I love reading books set in a specific location, especially if I know it personally or want to visit that location
I saw this on FictionFan’s blog, but it’s a meme started by Jo at The Book Jotter. It’s a pause for reflection at the half year mark: you select select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. A great way to procrastinate from either reading, reviewing, writing, translating or working!
Six books I have read but not reviewed
Although I loved each of the books below, I somehow didn’t get round to reviewing them – either because I was planning to write something longer and more elaborate, or else because I just lost my reviewing super-power during lockdown.
Francesca Wade: Square Haunting
Debbie Harry: Face It
Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours
Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder
John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull
Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of
Graeme Macrae Burnet – after reading The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I want to read more of his books, whether set in France or in Scotland.
Ron Rash – although I had mixed feelings about Serena, I certainly want to read more by him and have bought another two of his books
Machado de Assis – a rediscovery
Maggie O’Farrell – I really enjoyed Hamnet but have been told there is much more and better from where that came from
Elizabeth von Arnim – I’ve read her two most famous books a while back, but this year I discovered The Caravaners (which could easily fit into at least two other categories) and I think there’s a lot more there to explore
Six books that I had one or two problems with but am still glad I tried
Carlos Ruis Zafon: Shadow of the Wind – I got about halfway through and didn’t finish it, which makes me feel guilty, since I was reading this as a tribute to him following the news of his death. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it in my teens, and I seem to remember quite liking Marina, the only other book of his that I’d read. But at least I know now that I haven’t missed anything by not reading more by this author.
Harriet Tyce: Blood Orange – I’d probably not have read it if it hadn’t been the May book for the Virtual Crime Book Club, as the subject matter was quite troubling and the descriptions a little too grotty for my taste. However, it was undeniably a powerful story and led to some good discussions at the book club.
Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I do like books about writers and about entitled male egos, so it was both fun and quite revealing, but just not quite as good as I wanted it to be
Nino Haratischwili: The Eighth Life– I struggled because of the sheer length of it and because family sagas are not really my thing, but it is undeniably ambitious, fascinating and entertaining
Kate Briggs: This Little Art– the only reservation I had about this is that it requires great concentration to read, you need to stop and reflect after every few pages, but I was completely captivated. Masterful!
Yokomizu Seishi: The Inugami Curse– very bizarre and somewhat crazy murders in this country manor mystery set in Japan – but lovely to see And Then There Were None transposed to a Japanese setting. Certainly enjoyed it much more than Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House
Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys
Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – India (Calcutta) – and the start of a series I really want to explore
Once I read Shirley Hazzard’s mischievous portrayal of the United Nations in People in Glass Houses, I knew she would be the kind of writer that I’d like. I quickly ordered two more of her books (which are not easy to find, she seems to be somewhat out of print) but have only just read one of them now, five years later. I can relate so well to this ‘citizen of everywhere and nowhere’.
Born in Australia, she nevertheless felt somewhat ambiguous about it, a backwater that she was all too eager to escape from. Although she made America her home for many years, she did not feel she fitted into the sassy, young, casual style of writing there. She felt closer to the more formal English style and has been compared to her contemporaries Anita Brookner, Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. In fact, she reminds me more of earlier writers such as Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green or Barbara Pym – an excellent ear for dialogue, especially for what remains unspoken, much more tightly controlled and tight-lipped – but without their obsession with class.
The Bay of Noon is one of her early novels, published in 1970. Already, the author demonstrates her ability to write satire, cast her withering cold stare on absurd people and behaviours, yet still show some vulnerability. Her remarkably clear and precise, yet poetic prose style is already fully formed in this book. It is perhaps a style that has become unfashionable in recent years – maybe even in her own lifetime (which might explain a long gap in her writing.) This is not about sparkling linguistic gems and fireworks; instead, it rewards the patient and attentive reader (above all, the rereader) – because nothing is wasted, everything is packed in tightly. Blink and you might miss an important point.
As in most of her novels and short stories, the story seems to be comfortably domestic at first: about expats trying to make a home for themselves in a different culture and caught up in a sort of love triangle. But there are bigger issues at stake – the effects of war (in this case in Italy, in other novels we have Occupied Japan or post-war England) and personal trauma.
Jenny is an expat working for a section of NATO headquartered in Naples in the 1950s. She befriends the glamorous writer Gioconda and her loud macho boyfriend Gianni, and also has occasional forays into a relationship with taciturn Scotsman Justin. Feeling supplanted in her brother’s affections by his wife, not quite at home in any part of the world, she has had to learn to cauterise her heart and wounds. Yet she finds herself once again cast as the spare wheel in a tangle of relationships where no one is entirely happy or satisfied, and everyone is lying to themselves and to others.
Jenny is ferociously bright and observant, but lonely – you can’t help feeling that Hazzard has put a lot of herself in that character, but there is something in the elegance and more resigned sadness of Gioconda which is perhaps the portrait of the more mature author.
But that’s a way to go on loving – a place or a person. To miss it. In fact, to go away, to put yourself in the state of missing, is sometimes the simplest way to preserve love.
Naples is the main character in this novel – and Hazzard clearly loved the place (she eventually settled in Capri with her husband after a peripetatic career all over the world). But she does not romanticise it or avoid its poverty and social problems:
Ordinariness, the affliction and backbone of other cities, was here non-existent. Phrases I had always thought universal – the common people, the average family, the typical reaction, ordinary life – had no meaning where people were all uncommon and life extraordinary; where untraceable convulsions of human experience had yielded up such extremes of destitution, of civilization.
Spring is in the air and another opportunity to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but once again this month I do not! The book isWolfe Island by Lucy Treloar and the blurb states: For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.
I want to move away from end-of-the-world narratives, as they feel a bit too topical at the moment. So instead I will focus on the fact that Lucy Treloar is an Australian writer. I have to admit I only very seldom get to read writers from Australia, especially women writers. One Australian author I particularly admire (although she travelled so much, she must surely have considered herself a global nomad author) is Shirley Hazzard. One book of hers I always, always recommend is the collection of linked short stories People in Glass Houses, which is a brilliant satire of the United Nations in particular (but really of all international organisations).
There are far too few good novels about office life, especially considering we spend so much of our time there. Perhaps publishers assume we all seek escapism rather than to be reminded of our deadly everyday? Another book about office life which I greatly enjoyed is Jonas Karlsson’s The Room, translated by Neil Smith. A narrator who evades all description and manages to find that secret escape room that I’m sure we’ve all longed for at the office at times. When I read it five years ago, I said: Very sharp, painfully funny but also ouch-harsh observations of office politics and recognisable office characters. Plus the lovely corporate jargon we all love to espouse at times. A short, unusual book which tests our own capacity for tolerance and imagination.
Turns out, there are a lot of novels with ‘room’ in their title, so I will opt for quite a well-known one next, one that I would like to re-read, as I was in my late teens or early 20s when I read it.Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a classic of gay literature, a story evoking all the giddiness of falling in love, but ultimately all the sadness and suffering of a failed love.
The book is set in Paris, so of course I couldn’t resist picking another novel set in Paris for my next link. I saw it recently on the library shelves at university and was very tempted to pick it up for a re-read. Zola’s The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. Another young man seduced but ultimately undone by the bright lights of Paris!
One book about art and artists that I was obsessed with in my childhood, so much so that I took it with me on a family trip to Florence and insisted that we walk through the streets as described in its pages, was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a fictional biography of Michelangelo. I don’t know if it’s well regarded nowadays, or if it’s perceived as somewhat dated, but at the time I loved the descriptions of Florence and Rome, but above all, how the author managed to enter Michelangelo’s mind (via his notebooks, if I am not mistaken) and described the creative process.
My final link is via the word ‘ecstasy’ to a book that was part of my anthropological training. Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was written in the 1950s but remains one of the key texts in the anthropology of religion. Needless to say, I’ve always been fascinated by this strange phenomenon of the Shaman, both healer and threat, revered and feared, the madman and the poet who does not subscribe to society’s rules.
So this month we have travelled from Australia to the United States to Sweden and Paris, to Florence and, in the last book, from Siberia to South America to Tibet and China and pretty much everywhere in-between. I’ve also noticed that I’ve mentioned mainly male authors this month, so will endeavour to change the proportion next month. Where will your six links take you?
This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.
A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.
B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.
C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.
D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.
E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.
F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.
G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.
H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.
I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.
J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.
K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss(The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.
L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.
M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.
N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.
O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.
P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!
Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.
R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.
S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.
T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.
U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.
V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.
W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).
X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.
Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.
Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.
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!
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?
Tessa 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.
Shirley 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.