Saturday, 31 January 2009

E.M. Delafield by Maurice L McCullen

This appears to be the only critical work ever published about E.M. Delafield, and has been out of print for some time. My copy came (via Amazon) from the withdrawn stock of the South Dakota State Library; it doesn't look like anyone in South Dakota ever borrowed it.

McCullen's work begins with a short biography, then goes on to review EMD's books and some of her journalism. His analysis is strongly biographical in tone; this is reasonable, up to a point, given the autobiographical nature of much of EMD's work, and he does consider the difference between the narrative voice of the Provincial Lady, and her creator. He also offers a psychological interpretation of some of the major works, and considers EMD's approaches to form. EMD's output was large, and he argues persuasively that the standard of her achievement might have been generally higher if she had restricted this; however, he also appears convinced that her best books are very good indeed.

This is a fairly short work, which works well as an overview of EMD's work and a critical introduction to her methods and themes. McCullen notes the need for a feminist evaluation of her work, to support his claim that she deserves "a place, however small, in the Great Tradition".

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

I have a feeling everyone else in the world has read this, so I'll limit my comments to asserting that this is a clever and funny little fable about the redemptive power of reading, and to wondering why Alan Bennett writes so much about the Queen.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Still Here by Linda Grant

Still Here is a densely textured novel, weaving love stories into major historical events and big ideas about memory, evil and redemption. The action of the novel is compressed into a relatively short timeframe, contrasting effectively with its historical range and moral scope. The events follow the death of Lotte Rebick, mother of Alix who narrates part of the text, and her brother Sam, a successful Liverpool defence lawyer. Sam brings Alix into contact with Joseph, an American architect in Liverpool to build a hotel. Alix, single and frustrated, comes to desire Joseph soon after they meet, but Grant delays their union in a story full of twists and diversions.

The historical background in this book encompasses the development and decline of Liverpool, the Holocaust, the bombing of Dresden, the division of Germany and the Yom Kippur war. Grant manages this breadth expertly and convincingly. Joseph, the outsider, is often told the stories and retells them to us in his narrative; when he finally tells his own history, having kept it secret for years, this reversal intensifies the power of his revelation, and gives greater point to the sudden realisation of his attraction to Alix, the woman who can hear his story and bear it unflinchingly. The protagonists' frustrated desires echo those of Lotte's for her gem├╝tlich Dresden childhood and for a new life in America, never to be achieved. Achieving your desire is also dangerous, as Joseph discovers when his estranged wife returns to him, so changed by cosmetic surgery and dieting that his desire for her evaporates almost instantly. One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that Alix, the strong, powerful, argumentative woman, the feminist, is fulfilled rather than thwarted, as is so often the case for similar characters.

I'm a reader and admirer of Linda Grant's writing on fashion and beauty, and another great pleasure in this book is the importance of clothes and beauty to the narrative - and to the plot. A rewarding and satisfying read.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Barbara Hepworth: a life of forms by Sally Festing

Shortly after reading Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition, in which Barbara Hepworth has a cameo role, I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop and was inspired to find out more about the real woman. I’m not entirely sure that I did discover the real Barbara Hepworth, but there was certainly a great deal of more. Festing’s biography is thorough, tracing Hepworth’s development as an artist throughout her life and emphasising how her relationship with the landscape – in Yorkshire during her childhood, in Italy as a young woman, and most enduringly in west Cornwall – fed her creative drive and the evolution of her aesthetic. In parts the book is more of a monograph, describing key Hepworth works in detail; more photographs to support these descriptions would have greatly enhanced this aspect of the book. Hepworth displayed an extraordinary singularity of purpose which enabled her to be celebrated as the first truly great female sculptor. However, she was not a monomaniac; she also pursued a personal life. Festing attributes the failure of both of Hepworth’s marriages partly to Barbara’s resolute prioritisation of her work and partly to her choices of fellow artists as husbands; more blame is perhaps attached to the failure of her relationship with her younger son. Gale’s Hepworth character is something of a monster, a capricious grande dame whose influence over the artists working around her in St Ives can be profound and malign. Festing’s Hepworth certainly plays the grande dame when it benefits her, but is also vulnerable and insecure about her work, its aesthetic and monetary value, and her status as its creator. This insecurity must underpin her reluctance to acknowledge the work of her assistants in interviews, her squabbles with critics, galleries and agents, and Festing suggests it was fostered by the endless and negative comparison she endured with her friend and contemporary, Henry Moore. There is relatively little here about her relationship with the St Ives artistic community; passing references to her involvement on the committee of the Penwith art society suggest that, like most of her relationships, it was a difficult one. Certainly the book is peppered with quarrels with other artists in St Ives and beyond.

Like many pioneering women of her generation, Barbara’s relationship with feminism seems to be ambivalent; she strives for independence and recognition, but relies heavily on male opinion, and makes few female friends. Contemporary art critics certainly seem to have treated her unfairly because of her gender, particularly in comparison to the way in which they reviewed the work of Moore. While this biography was interesting and stimulating, it was not an enjoyable read. Festing is a poet as well as a biographer and there are frequent episodes of imaginative insights into Barbara’s state of mind expressed in poetic language; my preference is for biography more rooted in evidence. Sometimes Festing’s poetic style deserts her, resulting in such inelegant phrasing such as: “In Japan and Australia, moreover, both, as it happens, male-dominated societies, her work is most highly acclaimed of all” (293). What is that “moreover” doing in there? Why all the commas? Do Japan and Australia acclaim her work more than other countries do, or more than the work of other sculptors? Despite infelicities of prose, the book has made me want to seek out more of Hepworth’s work, and know it better. For three years, I saw a Hepworth almost every day, outside the library at the University of Nottingham; I remember it even more fondly now that I understand some of the ideas and the effort that went into its creation.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Rest is Noise: listening to the 20th century by Alex Ross

There are many, many reasons to praise this book. Geoff Dyer's quote on the cover calls it "a work of immense scope and ambition ... a great achievement"; inside the cover the praise is justified over and over again. Ross has linked together the stories of most of the significant composers of the last century, their lives, their work, and the interlinked nature of their work. He is particularly fascinating on Shostakovich and the ways in Soviet Russia, and Stalin, affected his work and life; on the pervasive influence of Schoenberg and twelve-tone music; and on both European and American musical responses to American modernity. There are fascinating nuggets of information: Dvorak was convinced that the first great American composer would be black; the only vaguely nasty thing anyone could be induced to say about Messiaen was that he and his wife had once eaten a whole tart without sharing it with their guest. Messiaen seems to be an exception to quite a roster of ego-driven, rather monstrous characters amongst the other composers described here, and Ross links this to Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, in which the composor Adrian Leverk├╝hn makes the ultimate bargain in return for aesthetic and worldly success. Both Ross and Mann suggest that the creation of great music is difficult to reconcile with great humanity; ironic in view of the humanising effect of music on audience and performer.

Ross is extremely good at describing musical works so that readers without great musical knowledge (including this reader) can understand the techniques used, and their relation to other works, but also at making you want to hear the music, even at the challenging or downright noisy end of the spectrum. I hope his list of recommended recordings is much used; I know I will be making many trips to the library to broaden my own experience of this work, which is shamefully limited.

Having read a lot about modernism and the avant-garde in literature and art in recent years, it was fascinating to see similar arguments, movements, schisms and declines described here. There is much here to compete, in avant-garde terms, with the excesses of Dada. But, with the possible exception of Weimar Berlin, until the late twentieth century music remained embedded in the Academy. Work, however challenging, continued to be performed by orchestras, in concert halls, as part of programmes and festivals. Unlike other modernisms, the modernisms of music cannot separate definitively from the cultural mainstream, until music begins to make use of tape and other recorded sound which can be performed in a greater variety of places. There is no obvious equivalent of Shakespeare and Co, publisher of Ulysses, to enable the performance of avant-garde work. Rather than necessarily compromising the impact of modernist composition, perhaps this enhances the significance of modernist composers' rebellion - against conservative traditions and then against modernist orthodoxy - and accounts for the longevity of innovations and their influence throughout the last century.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson

I really disliked Charlotte Mendelson's first novel, Love in Idleness, but was tempted to try this one by the excellent reviews. On the whole they were well deserved. Mendelson's prose is witty and sharp and she manages her host of characters and the plot well. Leo and Frances, the "bad" siblings who put themselves before family, are well-drawn and sympathetic; Frances's escape from an unhappy marriage, lurching through a series of epiphanies to the beginning of happiness, was moving and powerful, and Claudia, the matriarch who could so easily be a monstrous caricature, is instead attractive and fallible. I found Emily and Simeon, the younger children unable or unwilling to leave the family home, to be ciphers; Emily's return to the family fold to support her mother was unconvincing and seemed merely to serve as a contrast for Frances. One episode of Love in Idleness that I still remember, and that still makes me cringe, is the description of the heroine arranging her most interesting shampoos along the side of the bath, hoping to impress the object of her affections; Frances is made to do the same thing with her paperbacks in this novel, in the heat of her lust for Jay, which made me cringe all over again. Apart from that moment, and the limited expression of the minor characters, the book succeeds in dramatising and exposing the power and frailty of a family.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Sense and Nonsense in the Office by Lucy Kellaway

Inspired by a Lucy Kellaway article explaining why irritating smartypants types don't prosper at work, I bought this collection of her writing. It's all full of sound common sense, and amusing and witty too, but because it's an anthology of very short pieces, a little glib and superficial at times. I'll continue to enjoy her writing, however, which is usually provocative enough to make me ponder how irritating I must be to my managers and colleagues.

New Collected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I've dipped in and out of this over the year; some of the poems I already knew well, but there is a wealth of new material here and it is marvellous to have it all in one accessible volume. Claire Harman's editing is informative, and the presentation of the poems in chronological order of composition is fascinating when mapped against Warner's life. This will be a companion and a comfort for many years, I feel quite sure.

Book Meme 2008

Catherine tagged me to complete this:

How many books read in 2008?

37, not including a few books re-read.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
22 fiction, 13 non-fiction and one volume of poetry. I would have guessed that I read more non-fiction than fiction; perhaps the non-fiction stays with me for longer.

Male/Female authors?
10 male, and 23 female authors.

Favourite book read?
I find it impossible to pick favourites, but highlights this year included Virgina Nicholson's Singled Out, Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants, and Every Eye by Isobel English.

Least favourite?
Definitely The Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, with Arlington Park a close runner-up.

Oldest book read?
The oldest book read for the first time is Maud Pember Reeves's Round About a Pound a Week, originally published in 1913, although I also re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge.

I think that is Ali Smith's Girl meets Boy, first published November 2007, although I can't quite motivate myself to check the bibliographic information for everything I've read.

Longest book title?
The Mitfords: letters between six sisters, provided words after a colon can count.

Shortest title?
A tie (and a rhyme) between Every Eye and Roger Fry.

How many re-reads?
As well as the Hardy noted above, I've re-read most of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, Love from Nancy: the letters of Nancy Mitford, and also the letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. And the Round the Horne scripts. I usually re-read Cold Comfort Farm at least once a year, but my partner doesn't remember me doing so this year. What was I thinking?

Most books read by one author this year?
Three by STW, and three by EMD if you count the Diary, which I re-read every year.

Any in translation?
Four: Fattypuffs and Thinifers, Suite Francaise, Nomad's Hotel and The Master and Margarita

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
Oh dear. None at all. I must get out of the habit of buying odd books because they are a penny second-hand on Amazon, when I could get them from the library. I have a good local library and my employer's library at my disposal, so there's really no excuse.