Friday, 31 July 2009

Nothing is Safe by E M Delafield

Nothing is Safe, published in 1937, recounts the effects of divorce and remarriage on a family from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl. The third-person narrative is always from precocious Julia’s point of view, always clear that, even if the reader has grasped what is going on, Julia has not. Julia’s parents separate at the start of the novel, and she and her brother Terry, older, vague and clumsy, return to their boarding schools not knowing where or how they will spend the next holidays. Julia is fiercely protective of Terry, who comes in for a good deal of adult criticism, and attempts to manipulate situations so that he is not exposed to difficulty or fear. Unfortunately her ability to do this is entirely compromised when both parents make new marriages: her father Alick to the much younger, bohemian Petah, and her mother Daphne to Captain Prettyman. The vigorously masculine Captain is unimpressed with Terry, and the novel follows the children about as they are shuffled between parents, grandparents and impromptu babysitters. Terry experiences a series of nervous crises which culminate in his treatment by a child psychologist, and the end of the novel sees Julia finally realising that she is to be separated from her brother.

The narrative voice of the novel is well-sustained, making effective use of internal monologue – thankfully for the reader, Julia is a bright child with a good vocabulary – and cleverly managing to convey meaning that Julia cannot grasp from her perspective. Delafield deploys a very careful, delicate tone here, ensuring that Julia does not tell us things that she could not possibly know or understand, and making effective use of dialogue that the reader can interpret without Julia’s intervention. The tone also allows the use of light irony which relieves some of the emotional tension of the book. I’m not sure if the paragraph which implies that the Captain is making excessive sexual demands on Daphne is intentional, but there are similar, if less controversial, effects elsewhere in the novel. Julia’s concern about the regularity and quality of her meals, the simplicity of her interpretations of events, and her ability to live in the moment, help to reinforce her childishness and prevent her being unbelievably precocious. Her narrative role also makes the novel rather timeless, since she is not much interested in current affairs.

This is the only Delafield novel I’ve read so far that is much interested in masculinity. Terry’s vagueness and sensitivity, his perceived childishness, his clumsiness and lack of interest in machines or sport, as well as his dependence on Julia, all contribute to a view among the novel’s adults that he is insufficiently masculine and that this must be corrected. The difference in the generational view of girls and boys is also brought out through Daphne’s relationship with her parents, who have stricter ideas of gender roles and appropriate behaviour. However, it is Captain Prettyman who causes most of the crises in this respect, criticising Terry’s lack of dexterity and his unwillingness to take physical risks. All the adults fear that Terry will not be tolerated by men when he grows up, and will be unable to endure public school, an inevitable rite of passage for him; Julia’s influence is seen as feminising him, making him unacceptable to other men. This is ironic, given her position in the family as a bossy, articulate tomboy, more comfortable in shorts than the dresses her grandmother prefers. The siblings represent a challenge to established gender norms. While the challenge is played out mainly in intergenerational terms, affronting the senior family members but not their parents, this is acceptable. But Terry’s problems, and his expression of them (high-pitched screaming, vomiting and fainting) are eventually portrayed as illness rather than rebellion. Once his parents are convinced of his problems, an imposition of greater gender norms is made: Terry will be treated at a small school for sensitive boys; Julia will go to a much stricter boarding school which will inculcate feminine behaviour.

This analysis of the development of masculinity, expressed through the thoughts and words of a small girl, could be read as an ironic critique. The novel is certainly critical of a model of masculinity that cannot accommodate Terry’s talents and demerits; Captain Prettyman, its adult manifestation, is a fairly ridiculous character, with a surname that carries overtones of effeminacy and a head that is too small for his body. Feminist voices in the novel, which might challenge models of masculinity, are limited to Peggy, a friend of Daphne’s who is willing to challenge the Captain’s view of Terry and theories of childrearing, and possibly to the capable Julia herself; she can be read as challenge incarnate to gendered behaviour, combining tomboyish robustness with a strong urge to nurture. But the end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain whether the critique of conservative gender roles is sustained. Julia’s “management” of Terry is sometimes over-bearing. Terry’s voice is heard little in the novel, because he seldom speaks; however, in the final pages, it becomes clear that he has been told earlier of the plan to separate them, and has not confided in her. This hints at a desire for independence from Julia, which is achieved, but the plot cannot reasonably conclude with a sustained challenge by the children to the roles they are required to take up – they do not have the power or agency to undertake this.

It is also interesting that the novel is not particularly critical of divorce itself – the children appear to acclimatise fairly quickly to this – but the effects of remarriage and the lack of a settled home are presented as much more serious, as is the failure of either parent, caught up in new relationships, to prioritise the needs of their children. There are no good mothers in Nothing is Safe: Daphne cannot manage her children and her new husband, and chooses him; her own mother disagrees with her violently about her approach to parenting, and is strict and disapproving; the brief appearance by Petah’s mother, pressed into giving Julia a bed, and quite incapable of dealing with her painful earache, completes the trinity of ineffectual mothers. Petah herself treats the children as tiny adults, feeding them cocktail snacks and ignoring conventions such as bedtime. These are types of mothers typical of their class and generation, controlling (a favourite EMD type), loving but ineffectual, distant or uninterested. There are two caring mother figures: Peggy, who only has to do this from time to time, and Annie, the housemaid who comforts Julia when she is ill. Their openness and warmth with the children can be read as a moderate critique of conventions of motherhood, both good and bad.

This is a rather complex novel, the simplicity of its narrative deceptive, and its judgements and values ambiguous. The development of Delafield’s technique is easily discerned, and the subtleties of her tone are probably only equalled in the Diary of a Provincial Lady. Recommended, if you can track down a copy or if Persephone resurrect it.

Wildwood by Roger Deakin

Wildwood, a sort of sequel to Waterlog, is a similar combination of memoir, history, and travel writing that explores our relationship with trees and wood. Deakin separates the book into four sections. Roots considers the significance of wood in our daily lives, the experience of living with wooden furniture and in wooden structures, and Deakin’s joy in working with wood. Sapwood focuses on British woods and the way they are used and enjoyed by the people who live in and near them. Driftwood explores woods abroad, particularly in Australia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Heartwood returns to Suffolk, to Deakin’s life with the trees and hedges around his home, the wood that built his house, became his furniture and provided scope for work and recreation.

Like Waterlog, this is full of fascinating information, of botany, folklore and social history, although I found it lacked the lyrical quality of the previous book. However, as Roger Deakin died very shortly after submitting the manuscript, it seems unfair to cavil at minor shortcomings, and my view may be due to a greater personal relationship with water than with wood. It’s a book with a vast breadth of knowledge often focused precisely on details, giving a sense of expansive wisdom and specific expertise, and opening up new worlds to the reader – who else has visited the walnut harvest in Kyrgyzstan, or written about it so enthrallingly? One of the episodes in the book concerns Deakin’s school trips to the New Forest with his biology teacher, during which they would map the animal and plant life of a small area; the scientific habit clearly stayed with him, as his affectionate scrutiny compasses not only the tree, but the insects, animals, plants, people and economies surrounding it and depending on it. To see all this is a rare talent in itself; to write well about it seems exceptional to me.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

This is the third of Atkinson's novels to feature detective Jackson Brodie, and we also get another appearance from Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe. Set mainly in Edinburgh, the plot centres on Dr Joanna Hunter, who at six survived the random and brutal killing of her mother, older sister and baby brother. Their killer has now served his thirty-year sentence, and is shortly to be released. Dr Hunter and her one-year-old baby son Gabriel disappear; at first this is not seen as suspicious, given the circumstances and her husband Neil's confirmation that she is staying with an aunt, but her babysitter Reggie (short for Regina) is convinced something more sinister has happened. Jackson is almost literally thrown into Reggie's life; he has, by mistake, boarded a train to Edinburgh, which crashes very close to a house in which Reggie is dog-sitting. Dr Hunter has taught Reggie first aid, and she - in her own estimation - saves Jackson's life at the scene of the crash. Enlisted in the search for Dr Hunter, Jackson encounters Louise again, and each is caused to re-evaluate the wisdom of a recent marriage. Surrounding the main plot are Neil Hunter's dodgy business activities, Reggie's brother Billy's descent into criminality; and lots and lots of literary references, quotations and wordplay.

Like the two previous books, the plot is emotionally rich and satisfying, with appropriate opportunities for redemption and punishment; even the perpetually martyred Jackson is allowed some chinks of light to brighten his personal darkness. However, I wondered whether Atkinson is now working to something of a formula with these books, which might render them a little cynical. One short paragraph stands out in particular. Joanna Hunter's father was a novelist of the angry young man generation. When Joanna goes missing, Louise begins to read his novels, and notes that Howard Mason never wrote about the murder of his wife and children, the survival of Joanna. That, Louise thinks, would have been a bestseller. Kate Atkinson, of course, has written that bestseller; the reader of the paragraph is holding it in her hands. No doubt this is just a little self-referential joke, but it works against the tone of the novel, which is generally redemptive and humane. The novel remains an enjoyable work, however, and taps into issues of deep and enduring interest, such as how to live in the face of atrocities, both for the victims and those who attempt to help them.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Not I by Samuel Beckett

I feel very privileged to have seen a stage performance of this play, since they don’t come along all that often. Lisa Dwan undertakes the incredibly demanding role of Mouth and delivers an astonishing and compelling performance. The ten minutes or so of the play flash by in the darkened theatre, one spotlight on Mouth and nothing other than the actress’s teeth and lips visible. I’ve seen the film of Not I, with Billie Whitelaw and directed by Beckett, a few times (you can see it here); I was surprised, although it is only to be expected, how very small Mouth is on stage, and so far away, requiring a greater effort to focus. This effort produces strange optical illusions: I thought I could see Mouth move across to the left, about a foot from her starting point, and wondered briefly how on earth this had been achieved and lit, before dismissing it. A question from the audience later revealed that this is a common experience for those watching this play. The other differences between the film and the play are the bright colour of Mouth, and the less visceral, more graphic quality of the image. This, I found, emphasised the visceral quality of the text and the sound.

After the performance, filmed interviews with Billie Whitelaw and Fiona Shaw, who has also performed the role, were shown. There was then an entertaining discussion between Lisa Dwan, Edward Petherbridge (famous for performing Krapp’s Last Tape) and Jude Kelly (director of Beckett and who had performed Not I as a student). Lisa Dwan described the torturous arrangements she submits to for each performance. Her face, including the insides of her nostrils, and her neck and shoulders are painted black. She is blindfolded and a pair of black tights stretched over her head and shoulders. Then she is led up some steps to a wooden frame, puts her head and arms through holes in the frame (it sounds like a monochrome version of one of these) and her head is strapped in place, to ensure she cannot move her mouth out of the spotlight. These arrangements (similar ones have been used by all the actresses who have played Mouth) and the feat of memory required to learn it go some way to explaining why it is so rarely performed. Billie Whitelaw spoke of it as the hardest role an actress can undertake.

This production, for pragmatic reasons, dispensed with the Auditor. Having written about this role during my MA I was slightly disappointed not to see him, but this did not detract from the power and intensity of the play at all. Jude Kelly mentioned during the discussion that all Beckett’s characters show an awareness that they are being watched, which I think points towards the importance of the Auditor as a manifestation of that awareness. However, I hope Lisa Dwan repeats her performance, with or without the Auditor, so that more audiences can have the opportunity of this extraordinary theatrical experience.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Ivy and Stevie by Kay Dick

This little book contains Kay Dick's transcriptions of recorded conversations with Ivy Compton Burnett and Stevie Smith, and her reflections on both writers. Kay Dick was friendly with both; she was introduced to Compton Burnett initially for professional reasons, and had the chutzpah to arrive for tea having read no ICB novels at all; luckily for her, she was liked and became a regular visitor. Kay and Stevie Smith had worked for the same organisation, Newnes, where Stevie was a secretary to the senior managers, and Kay assistant editor at the magazine John O'London's. Both recordings were made during a single visit; no plans were made, the conversations seem to have simply evolved. The recordings were also made late in each writer's career. Ivy had just published what was to be her last novel, and Stevie died within a few months of the recording. The book itself was published in 1971, a couple of years after Ivy's death and very shortly after Stevie's.

Each transcription seems highly characteristic to me of the mythology that has built up around each writer. Ivy is rather snobbish, very confident (she describes herself as "quite perfect morally"), very definite and tending to deal in absolutes. Stevie is expansive, discursive, more ambiguous, with a tendency to drift away from the point and then return to it. Either both writers spoke in a very similar way to their construction of prose, or Kay Dick has, deliberately or not, edited and presented her text to reflect their prose style. Both are extremely funny. Neither engages with issues of lesbian sexuality, but perhaps that would have been a bit much for 1971.

The two short essays that accompany the transcriptions tell the story of Kay's friendship with each. Both are affectionate and clear-sighted, and funny in themselves, especially the final chapter in Ivy's story, in which her bequests to friends are distributed during a post-funeral tea party at her flat, and much lugging of objects down the stairs ensues. In her introduction, Kay regrets that some of the taller tales recounted in the transcripts have been repeated as biographical fact; Ivy Compton Burnett had a tendency to fib about her upbringing, making it more rural and less suburban. This puts the transcriptions into the context of each writer's created work, rather than presenting them as factual accounts - and stimulates the appetite for reading more.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Gay Life by E M Delafield

This 1933 novel is on of EMD's psychological dramas, filled with complexes and neuroses including inferiority feeling, the pain of the ageing beauty, unfulfilled married women, infatuation and a dash of incest. The characters suffering from all these complaints are thrown together in a hotel in the South of France, located inconveniently far from the beach and the town. This semi-isolation ensures that they constantly fall over each other, share taxis and participate in joint entertainments, as well as encountering each other at meals every day. Some of this proximity grates on the participants, while others make the best of this opportunity.

Gay Life must have been quite challenging in its day, despite its muffled curses and firmly closed bedroom doors. The novel acknowledges frankly the twin desires for money and sex and the effects of these desires on human behaviour; it examines explicitly the willingness of the young, handsome and impoverished to sell sex and of the ageing to buy it, within a context of 'decent' bourgeois behaviour that gives a veneer of respectability to all concerned. The narrative is often contingent and episodic, with the plot essentially revolving around wealthy Coral Romayne, separated from her husband and viewing her forties with dismay; her son Patrick, sixteen, jealous and miserable; and his "holiday tutor" Buck, who also fills in as chauffeur and admirer of Mrs Romayne. Surrounding this group are a large number of characters; the Morgans, a Welsh family on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, bringing a little pleasure to Patrick's life; Hilary and Angie Moon, a young and beautiful married couple who make a living selling this and that and sponging off the rich; Mr Bolham, a businessman and his secretary, Denis Waller; Mr Muller, a wealthy American visitor; and Mr Courteney, entertainments manager for the hotel and living there with his daughter Dulcie. Away from the hotel, we have Chrissie Challoner, a young and successful novelist. Surrounding this group are still more minor characters, often carefully delineated. The characters can be divided into those there for leisure, and those who must work, although the second group includes some who might seem at first sight to be on holiday. This division brings up matters of class, with many of the workers drawn from the lower middle classes, and carefully characterised as such.

Having established these two worlds, EMD makes use of doubles to emphasise their division. Olwen, the Morgans' oldest daughter, is doubled with Dulcie, "thin, shrill and blonde". Hilary and Buck are the two gigolos, one ostensibly working for a salary, the other desperate for money. Patrick Romayne is mirrored by Denis Waller, older but more juvenile, as troubled as Patrick but less brave. Angie Moon is Coral Romayne's counterpart, a painful reminder that Mrs Romayne's youth is behind her, while Coral is a warning to Angie about her future. Coral can also be doubled with Mary Morgan, the dutiful wife, while Mary has another counterpart in the form of Chrissie Challoner. Both are "good women", honest and fair, although their approaches to life differ considerably. Both also owe a little to the personality of their creator. Mary Morgan is very similar to the Provincial Lady, and to other loyal, loving mothers in EMD's fiction, while Chrissie Challoner can be read as an extension of the Provincial Lady's freedom-loving side.

It may be that the separation and mirroring of these two characters is a comment on the perpetual difficulty of reconciling the career of writer with that of wife and mother. Certainly all the women in Gay Life are limited and constrained by their circumstances and the way they approach them. Mary's enjoyment of Mr Muller's admiration is as far as she will go to address the unsatisfactory circumstances of her marriage. Coral's one ambition is to retain her sexual attractiveness to men. Even bohemian Chrissie is limited by her own emotions and need for affection. From a feminist perspective, this could be read as a critique of the limited scope of women's lives. However, there is also considerable evidence of the limitations imposed by class. Feeble Denis Waller, terrified that his secret marriage will be exposed, is a lower-middle-class clerk of the Leonard Bast persuasion, undersized and weak in body and mind. Much space is given to analysis of Denis, his background and his lack of self-awareness, his careful presentation of an acceptable self which undermines his integrity. His failure to connect adequately with the briefly infatuated Chrissie both emphasises his weakness and reassures the middle-class reader that no miscegenation will occur. The most constrained and hopeless character in the book is probably Dulcie, described as "horrid" and "shrieking"; she has thin hair and wears a "cheap, pink cotton kimono", thin hair and cheap clothes often being markers of "commonness" in fiction of this period. Dulcie seems to have no future in the same way as her peripatetic life in hotels, on the fringes of others' lives, provides her with no past. To be female is to be constrained; to be female and lower-class is doubly so. However, the narrative is generally harsh to Dulcie rather than sympathetic; if a feminist point is being made here, it is a very subtle one.

A little gay life edges into Gay Life. As well as the homoerotic overtones of the competition between Buck and Hilary, emphasised by their strongly gendered names, Chrissie asserts that she has fallen in love with women; Buck suspects her "of being a Lesbian, as he did all intelligent women to whom his own masculinity obviously made no immediate appeal". In the very last chapter, when we meet the next intake of hotel guests, they include two women, one of whom only has eyes for the other. EMD makes more overt use of homosexuality in this novel, possibly because of the sexually frank atmosphere that is established throughout the book, hotels and holidays being places and times where the norms of sexual good behaviour can be relaxed.

There are too many characters in Gay Life, and too many protracted scenes of high drama that are only really there to move the plot forward. There is also an over-reliance on discursive character analysis, although I started to find the endless back-stories - everyone has one, down to the hotel concierge who barely features in the book - an interesting feature by the end. The episodic, rather happenstance narrative does evoke the casual nature of holidays, their events and significance very well, however, and the book sustains interest. The characters may start as archetypes, but most develop personalities, and the drama of the book's climax is believable and cleverly handled. I would love to read some contemporary reviews to see how EMD's frankness went down with her readership.