Saturday, 29 January 2011

Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin is a lover of words, literature and film, a champion of alternative culture, a creature capable of great love and courage.  He's also a rat.  Sam Savage's book lets Firmin tell his own story, of how his early days nesting in the shredded pages of Finnegans Wake led to his literal consumption of books (Jane Eyre tastes of lettuce, apparently) and eventually to a voracious reading habit that set him apart from other rats.  Firmin lives in Pembroke Books, a secondhand bookshop run by Norman Shine in a shabby part of Boston, its neighbours a tattoo parlour and a fleapit cinema; he will witness the gradual erosion of this area by the forces of gentrification, and the loss of a bohemian way of life.  Firmin nourishes his unratlike qualities, appalled by his true nature and appearance, and yearns for a closer connection with the humans he sees coming in and out of the bookshop.  Firmin's fantasy self is like Fred Astaire, a natty, elegant, witty person. Ironically, he will become closest to Jerry Magoon, an ageing beatnik author, only because of his real self: Jerry once wrote a science fiction novel in which rats inherit the earth.

I don't think Firmin was written with young adults in mind but it strikes me that Firmin's accounts of his self-loathing, his self-delusion and his isolation would suit this audience very well.  You could also use the book as a reading list;  Firmin's literary enthusiasms will take you through the classics of modernism.  But the book stands on its own merits: funny, surprising and sad, it also includes a perfect description of the delights of browsing in a secondhand bookshop:

 Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere.  After I understood people better, I realised that this incredible disorder was one of the things people loved about Pembroke Books.  They did not come there just to buy a book, plunk down some cash and scram.  They hung around.  They called it browsing, but it was more like excavation or mining.  I was surprised they didn't come in with shovels.  They dug for treasures with bare hands, up to their armpits sometimes, and when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross, they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it.  In that way shopping at Pembroke was like reading: you never knew what you might encounter on the next page - the next shelf, stack or box - and that was part of the pleasure of it.

Indeed it is.  There is an interview with Sam Savage here, for those who'd like to know more about this first-time novelist.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

I'm a big fan of Susan Hill.  I've been reading her fiction for years, listening to her on the radio, and was a devotee of her blog before she gave it up.  I once frightened myself silly by reading The Woman in Black while babysitting in a draughty, creaky rectory.  Usually, her books delight.  But Howards End is on the Landing delighted and irritated in equal measure.

I can entirely see the point of her initial project - for a year, to only read books she already owend.  I also have a lot of books, and I enjoy re-reading them.  Some of my favourites have been read until they fell to pieces.  It is usually enlightening, as well as pleasant, to take down a book and re-read it; as Hill points out, you'll see something you couldn't before, and mood and environment can alter your perception of any text. But about half-way through the book, her project develops: she will select a list of forty books that would be a sustaining library for the rest of her days, if she could read nothing else.  My irritation is not with the final forty themselves (although TWO Trollopes?  really?) but with the peculiar game of Sophie's Choice that Hill plays in the later chapters of the book.  I found it difficult to work out why getting to a final forty was so important.  At one point, she asks the reader to pick between To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway.  Why would you want to do that?

On reflection, I think Hill is struggling against the excessive choice of reading material that we now have.  I am a generation younger than Susan Hill, but I also remember having to re-read my library books because I'd used up my allowance for a week.  She is often nostalgic for these limitations on the scope of reading; her fairly frequently expressed objections to e-readers might be less to do with her enthusiasm for the texture of books, considerable though it is, than with her reluctance to enter the world of limitless choice that the Kindle and its like offer.  Ironically, of course, it is probably only possible to make educated choices about your ultimate list of favourite books after a lifetime of extensive reading, such as Susan Hill has enjoyed.

There is a lot to value in this book, however, and Hill's celebrations of writers who have been, or are becoming, forgotten, as well as of those that remain celebrated and widely read, are excellent; she even makes Anita Brookner sound enticing.   I enjoyed Susan Hill's refreshing attitude to taste in reading - her enthusiasms are not limited by a commitment to the highbrow - as well as the sometimes provocative tone, which certainly made me think more about what I read, and why.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Etiquette for Women by Irene Davison

This facsimile edition of a 1928 guide to modern manners was a joke Christmas present, but it has proved surprisingly enlightening, particularly on the use of visiting cards.  I've read about visiting cards in many novels, but have never really understood their function properly.  Irene Davison's lucid exposition explains this in great detail.  Visiting cards can be used to broker a social connection: cards were left with newcomers to a district, and that newcomer would be obliged to return card.  This does not, however, necessarily lead to a closer acquaintance; it may be the end of the matter.  If you called on a friend or neighbour and she was out, you would leave cards, and an obligation with her to return the call.  Cards were also left after an entertainment of some sort by the guests, presumably in lieu of the thank-you note that might be sent today; they could be left to enquire after an ill person, and to announce that the card-owner was moving away.  The book also sets out the complicated rules around leaving your husband's card as well as your own:

"Strictly speaking, your husband, not his card, should go calling with you.  As he doubtless has more urgent duties claiming him in the City, you take his visiting card along with you to represent him, and at the end of your call, leave it for your hostess.  If your hostess be married, you leave another of your husband's card for her husband.  Thus, you see, the two cards you leave for your husband are instead  of the calls he should have paid your hostess and her husband." (26)

There are several paragraphs more on what to do if you, or your hostess, is unmarried or widowed, or lives with a male relative.  I can't help suspecting that these rules were put about by stationers, to ensure repeat trade: hall tables must have been awash with visiting cards representing husbands too busy in the City for social life.   Presumably most of them ended up as kindling, although there seem to be a few collectors out there of the cards of the famous.  When did visiting cards die out, I wonder?  I expect the Second World War put an end to the practice, and Davison suggests that "in many places cards are dispensed with altogether" (35), although they must still have been significant enough, as they merit a chapter of their own.  The dance of the cards reminds me, irresistibly, of the etiquette of Facebook and Twitter, although presumably it's not necessary to ensure your husband is friends with all of your Facebook contacts.

The book is also good on introductions, which so often seem to fox the Provincial Lady and her peers, and explains the rules of seniority which governed middle-class life during this period but which have mostly died out now and can be incomprehensible to the modern reader.  In some respects, however, we have reverted to a greater formality.  Davison notes that "the formal breakfast and its accompanying formal speeches are now seldom part of a wedding entertainment", and describes a wedding party that would be very low-key by today's standards.  Some of the rules about social contact epitomise the stereotype of English reserve: when you move to a new area, you must wait to be called upon; if a stranger picks up a dropped glove, you must thank them, but not enter into conversation; if a passing male friend of the friend you are with greets you or raises his hat, you should make no acknowledgement, not even a wordless bow.  I suspect that some of these rules were old-fashioned by 1928, as guidance on these matters tends to be behind the trend; I hope to some extent that they were fading away, as they give a picture of a cold world, lacking in spontaneity and designed to discourage social connections.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Bad Housekeeping and More Bad Housekeeping by Sue Limb

Or, the Provincial Lady goes much, much further.  Like her illustrious predecessor Sue Limb wrote this comic fictional diariy as columns for the Guardian Saturday magazine, where I first read them; she subsequently published four volumes of the diary in book form.  Dulcie Domum, our heroine, has much in common with the Provincial Lady: a writer living in rural Rusbridge, which might be in Wiltshire or Gloucestershire from the other geographical references; mother of two young children; and married to a distant and uninterested husband, an academic specialising in the history of the seventeenth century, always known as Spouse. 

The first two volumes deal with Dulcie's efforts to write a novel with lots of sex in it - she christens this book the Bonkbuster - and her relationship with the much younger Tom from the Anarchist/Buddhist Plumbing Collective.  The first third of the first book is taken up with a great deal of will-they-won't-they - I can remember someone writing to the Guardian to complain that Dulcie was a tease - but eventually they embark on an affair.  The progress of this affair is interspersed with extracts from the Bonkbuster, which has been inspired by Dulcie's lust for Mikhail Gorbachev, and her struggles with family life.  Unlike the Provincial Lady's children, who are only moderately naughty and in any case away at boarding school for much of her narrative, Henry and Harriet are ever-present grotesques, requiring advanced childwrangling skills.  They are also the source of most of the best humour.

The diaries have dated a little - we haven't heard much about the Greenhouse Effect for a while, or about Gorbachev for that matter - and the first volume, at least, suffers from a tendency to provide a summary of the last episode at the start of each entry.  This was perhaps necessary for a weekly appearence in a newspaper, but palls quickly in book form.  By the second volume the text has been tightened up considerably, and there are some excellent jokes.  My main problem is with Dulcie herself - her passivity, at times, made my slapping hand itch - and also with Tom, who, as Dulcie comes to realise, is altogether too perfect.

I found most interest in the commonality of themes between the Provincial Lady's world and that of 1990s Rusbridge, particularly the intolerability of life in the country, the apparent hopelessness of companionate marriage, and the difficulty of producing literary work acceptable to publishers.  Dulcie also shares the Provincial Lady's love of clothes and tendency to extravagant purchases when her spirits are at a low ebb, as well as her tendency to Capitalise for Emphasis. 

Secondhand copies of the books are still widely available if, like me, you're pursuing to the death an interest in the diaries of fictional feminists, but I'd recommend reading Jill Tweedie's Letters from a Fainthearted Feminist first, mainly for the better jokes.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Susan Hill's new ghost story is a beautiful little book with an ornate cover that hints at the sinister events inside.  The narrator, Adam Snow, is driving through the Sussex downs on a summer evening when he gets lost, and finds himself at the deserted and decayed White House.  An ancient sign proclaiming that the garden is closed indicates that the place was once visited, even renowned, but the place is now overgrown with brambles and ivy, the house clearly abandoned.  Intrigued and fascinated, Adam explores as far as he can, and as darkness falls he takes one last look at the place.  In the still moonlight, Adam first feels the small, cold hand of a child creep into his own.  But there is no child to be seen. 

Adam, made of sterner stuff than I would have been, is more interested than terrified and pursues his interest in the mysterious White House, until the Small Hand becomes decidedly disturbing to him.  His efforts to escape it will take him to a monastery high in the French mountains, and this journey will bring him to the extremes of terror and a sense of deep peace.  The monastery and its landscape are beautifully evoked by Hill; her prose is so lucid that you feel you are breathing the clear mountain air. Her descriptions of the White House itself, and the other locations of the narrative, are equally effective; in a short novel, not a word is wasted.

Adam's character is a little flat, but this is probably necessary for the workings of the narrative: if he was more excitable, he would have been terrified rather than intrigued by his first encounter with the Small Hand.  There are points where Hill seems to avoid generating more tension, for example in Adam's choice not to make a second trip to the monastery, possibly through a commitment to realism that might be incompatible with the ghost story genre, but this is a very minor quibble.

The end of the story seemed to me satisfyingly ambiguous, even though the origins of the Small Hand are explained.  What is the motivation of Lady Merriman, wife of one of Adam's richest clients, who feeds him snippets of information about the White House, but not the most obvious part of the story?  Was Adam's encounter with the former owner of the White House a dream, a hallucination, a step through a rip in time? Most of all, how will Adam continue to live with the knowledge he holds at the end of the book?  These ambiguities help this short novel to resonate, much in the manner of a M R James story; like a M R James story, this is a good book to read by the fire on a winter evening.