Thursday, 31 December 2009

Annual Reading Meme 2009

Thanks to Catherine for this annual round-up meme.

How many books read in 2009?
About 65, I think - there are 56 books reviewed here, I've re-read a couple, and there have been a number of critical works read for my DPhil that I've not blogged about.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
I've reviewed 18 non-fiction works and probably read 25 this year, so still getting on for 2:1 in favour of fiction.  I'm never sure where to count poetry on that particular divide.

Male/Female authors?
16 male authors and 33 female authors.

Favourite book read?
Probably the most enjoyable was Waterlog, but honourable mentions to The War-Workers, Miss Buncle's Book and The Rest is Noise

Least favourite?
I was probably most disappointed by The Whole Day Through and the very silly Nightingale Wood.

Oldest book read?
New Grub Street was the only pre-twentieth-century book I read last year.

I've read a few 2009 publications this year but The Little Stranger was probably read nearest its date of issue.

Longest book title?
The excellently named Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows, assuming subtitles are to be ignored.

Shortest title?
I think it must be Waterlog.

How many re-reads?
Not so many this year, although certainly Diary of a Provincial Lady, Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle. I've made frequent reference to Andi Clevely's The Allotment Book and Denis Cotter's Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me.

Most books read by one author this year?
E M Delafield is unsurprisingly this year's winner - I've read seven of her novels plus assorted short pieces of writing.

Any in translation?
Tove Jansson's A Winter Book.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?
About five of the titles I've blogged about, and probably about 10 unreviewed books. I'm now a member of four libraries, and I have no more room on my bookshelves, so that figure ought to go up next year.

A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

A delightful little volume from the Hesperus Press, this book contains three of Leonard Woolf's short stories, all set in colonial Ceylon, and two extracts from his autobiography which describe his voyage out to Columbo and his experiences at the Pearl Fishery in Ceylon, experiences which find their way into "Pearls and Swine", the second story here.  First published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, the stories are a frank appraisal of colonial life, its limitations and its opportunities.  The title story deals with a young colonial administrator in thrall to a Sinhalese prostitute; the second, which has strong echoes of Heart of Darkness, describes what happens when the narrator is sent to manage the Pearl Fishery with a young, ambitious civil servant, Robson, and an old alcoholic, White; it exposes the costs of imperialism, both to the coloniser and the colonised.  The final story, "The Two Brahmans", explores the effects of stepping outside the behaviour prescribed for one's caste, an ironic parable applicable to any class system. 

The first two stories use a framing device for the narrative: a first-person narrator opens each story, but the actual tale will be told by another character, in both cases something of an outsider.  These outsiders narrate their tales of the unfamiliar in a very English setting: in the English countryside at night with nightingales singing, for "A Tale Told by Moonlight", and in a Torquay hotel for "Pearls and Swine".  Victoria Glendinning's Foreword notes the affinity with framing techniques used by Conrad, a writer Woolf admired; the admiration seems to have been mutual, since "Pearls and Swine" may well have informed a later Conrad work, Allmeyer's Folly.  As with The Wise Virgins, the prose throughout this little book is crystalline, precise and elegant, equally at home with beauty, violence and degradation, and densely packed with meaning. 

This is a beautifully produced book, but, annoyingly, there seems to be a particularly egregious typographical error on page 3; "recruiting" is used instead of "recuperating" twice in the same paragraph.  At ten pence a page, correct typesetting doesn't seem too much to ask for.  Perhaps it was a Hogarth Press original error, and Virginia was having an off day?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

William, an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

Another Persephone reprint, William is the story of the sudden impact of war on two people who thought it could never possibly come.  William is a suburban clerk, suddenly precipitated into freedom by the death of his overbearing mother, who leaves not only their home, but a significant some of money.  William uses his freedom to devote himself to political life as a left-wing Internationalist in the years before World War I.  Through his political work he meets Griselda, who shares William's causes and has long been an active and commited suffragette, even to the extent of a spell in Holloway.  The opening chapters, with their descriptions of William and Griselda's limited intellects and understanding of the ideals they espouse, could come out of H G Wells:  we are in familiar territory, mocking the suburban clerk, his undeveloped body and mind.  But the rest of the novel will take us far away indeed from the Diary of a Nobody landscape.

William and Griselda marry in July 1914 and choose an isolated location for their honeymoon: the Ardennes forest in Belgium.  For a while, all is appropriately blissful.  Then one day they visit the farmer's wife who is cooking their meals, and find it deserted.  Faintly alarmed by this, and rather hungry, they eventually decide to walk back to the nearest town, and find that it is occupied by the German army.  From an English-speaking officer, they learn of the war, and that they are now prisoners.  This is only the beginning of a nightmare which will see William renounce his previous ideals of pacifism and internationalism.

This was Cicely Hamilton's only novel - she is better known as a playwright and non-fiction writer and journalist, as well as a prominent suffragette - but shows a skilful handling of her narrative and plot.  You would expect a playwright to rely more on dialogue, but Hamilton's descriptive passages are lucid and powerful.  I found the meaning of the book, which you might expect to be clearly political given Hamilton's suffragette background, rather ambiguous.  Willam and Griselda's political campaigning and militancy are mildly mocked, and their self-satisfied radicalism swiftly punctured; William has no experience to back up his political convictions, and it is suggested that Griselda's attraction to suffragism is more to do with the opportunities it brings for attention and notoriety, rather than because of a deep commitment to a feminist cause.  William's political transformation into patriotic Englishman after the atrocities he experiences is reactive and emotional and therefore unsustainable; faced with the reality of war service behind the lines in a clerical role, the passion that inspired him melts away.  Their social positioning within the novel could allow an ironic reading of their suffering, but the narrative tone is straightforwardly sympathetic and the descriptions of their plight harrowing.  William seems to me to attempt to come to terms with the experience shared by thousands of Englishmen in the immediate and raw aftermath of the Great War, hinting at the critique of that war as futile which would be articulated more explicitly by later writers.

Monday, 28 December 2009

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

I've been meaning for a while to buy this book as a midwinter treat and read it by the fire, and having finally done so, I'm very glad I did. A Winter Book is a collection of Tove Jansson's stories and memoirs, telling of her early childhood with her artist parents, later life as a successful writer and as an old woman. Her childhood stories are luminous and bright, sometimes dealing with matters of great significance to the narrator, at other times quotidian in focus. This division is picked up again elsewhere in the collection: the story "Messages" comprises scraps of notes presumably addressed to the author, sometimes loving, sometimes ordinary, sometimes mad and threatening; the narrator of "Travelling Light" seeks adventure and escape but reaps only domestic confidences from a fellow traveller.

Jansson's adult and child narrators share the quality of clear-sightedness and are swift in their judgements, although even in the world of childhood ambiguity creeps in, as when attitudes to the sacred world of art are challenged in "The Spinster who had an Idea". The longest story here, and for me the most enjoyable, is "The Squirrel", in which an old woman is joined on her island home by a squirrel in November and finds that her visitor is occupying all her time and thoughts and knocking her off balance. This story is not only densely packed with ideas about solitude, the relationship between the wild and the domestic, and writing and art, but will also delight readers of Beatrix Potter by confirming that squirrels really do cross water on little rafts, unless Jansson could possibly be pulling our legs. The book is illustrated with photographs of Jansson, her family and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä; it is bound in the usual beautiful way by Sort Of Books, who have published another Jansson novel, The True Deceiver, which will probably be my next little treat to myself.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Boy at the Hogarth Press and A Parcel of Time by Richard Kennedy

This is an utterly charming little book, published by Slightly Foxed, who, alongside their Quarterly, offer a small range of little hardbacks in numbered limited editions. The first half of the book contains Richard Kennedy's recollections of joining the Hogarth Press as a school-leaver whose education had left him with no discernable talents or abilities. Based on diaries and letters as well as memoir, the book tells of Kennedy's successes and failures at the Press in naive and humorous tones, and includes highly entertaining depictions of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as well as any number of minor Bloomsbury characters.

The second half is Kennedy's childhood memoir, tracing his early years until he is sent to Marlborough School. Kennedy's father was killed in the First World War, and his widowed mother and paternal grandmother struggled over Kennedy 's upbringing as they did over money and various possessions that his grandmother sought to repatriate to the family home. The memoir is funny and poignant, and the descriptions of his epiphanies in drawing and finally learning to read from a book called When the Somme Ran Red are particularly touching. Richard Kennedy made his career as an illustrator, and the book is full of his own drawings. My favourite is on page 31, in which Virginia Woolf peers through a small window at the Press employees packing parcels.

Like Persephone, Slightly Foxed seem to have the knack of producing books that are delightful to read and to look at, and I am sorely tempted by others on their list.

Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson

Ordinary Families is a rather odd book. It is narrated by Lalage, usually known as Lallie, aged eleven at the start of the story, and part of the entirely unordinary Rush family, which comprises four children: Ronald, Drusilla, Lalage and finally beautiful Margaret, whose family position and physical attractiveness mean she is indulged with more of everything, but especially love and attention, than her siblings. Their father is a sailor, scratching a living out of trading in yachts, and with a back-story that packs in more adventures than might seem possible for someone of his years. Their mother has married out of her class; she is mainly, at least in Lalage's eyes, interested in ensuring that her children keep no secrets from her and are fed to bursting at all times. Their neighbours in the Suffolk seaside village are the Cottrells, a left-leaning intellectual family with a hint of Bloomsbury, and the Quests, rich and rather frightening to the young Lallie.

The story focuses, essentially, on Lallie's efforts to preserve the things that are important to her from her family's attention and teasing, which invariably spoils them for her, and it is usually Margaret who reads Lallie's mind and betrays her secrets. As a child, it is Lallie's love of birds that is revealed by Margaret, to Lallie's shame and dismay; as a young woman, she will compete with Margaret for the attention of Gordon, the man she loves, while struggling to prevent her family recognising her attachment and teasing her out of it.

The structure of the novel is episodic, often with large gaps of years between chapters - the First World War takes place in one of these - but Lallie's narrative voice is always adult and poetic. The narrative is strongly retrospective, evoking an adult's distant memory of childhood and adolescent experiences, and the first page makes it clear that the narrative may be unreliable, influenced by details added afterwards, distorted by re-tellings to third parties. This retrospective voice comes to a juddering end in the final paragraphs, in which Lallie, Gordon and Margaret are trapped in a moment in time, waiting for time to begin to move again.

Polly Devlin's introduction tells us that E. Arnot Robertson was no feminist, and Lallie's attitudes to the women around her bear this out: she despises her mother's domestic concerns, a neighbour who goes to Oxford is wasting her time, Stella Quest is disliked because she treats men as if they were big babies. At the same time, Lallie values the men in her life; her father is her early hero and she transfers this worship to Gordon, which makes her father seem a little ridiculous. She relies, for help, advice and generous hotel lunches, on the misogynous Mr Quest. The doubtful figures in Lallie's binary model of gender values are Gordon's former lover Esther, and Margaret herself, who have a power Lallie recognises as greater than her own.

The irony of Lallie, seeking something other than her mother's life for herself, but throwing away the opportunity of interesting work to pursue Gordon, who is likely to lead her straight back into the world of unfulfilled domesticity, is not explored by the novel. We could read from that an endorsement of the wifely role, were it not for the great sadness with which the last chapters are imbued; this is a very unhappy happy ending.

There is an interesting little mention of how the Rush family come by their reading material; most of it is chosen for them by the bus conductor's daughter, who lives next to the Ipswich Boots' library, and brought back by the bus conductor to isolated Pin Mill. Her taste is apparently "jollier" than that of the educated Cottrells. I can't think of any other novels of this period in which the reading of upper-middle-class characters is controlled by a member of the working classes in this way. Q D Leavis would have been horrified.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Faster! Faster! by E M Delafield

Taking its title from Alice's experience through the looking-glass, running ever faster only to stay in the same place, Faster! Faster! looks, like The War-Workers, at women who work outside the home, albeit with a less caustic and more considered approach. The novel centres around Claudia Winsloe, who runs a Universal Aunts type of business, coupled with a literary agency and transcription service, and her family: Copper, her husband, who has been unemployed for some years; Sylvia, her eldest daughter at 19, intended for a job in publishing but secretly longing to stay at home and arrange the flowers; Taffy, 17, who longs to escape to Bryn Mawr; and Maurice, about 12, who admires his mother greatly. [Please note that the next paragraph contains plot spoilers].

Claudia assumes the role of family breadwinner and perfect modern mother, allowing her children to make their own choices in life and being totally frank and open about herself. The novel opens with a long section taking place over a bank holiday weekend in August. While her family and guests enjoy themselves, Claudia remains a martyr to her work; when they begin to assert themselves against her, and her self-conception as Atlas holding up the family world is challenged, she is shaken but resolute in her self-control. In the second section of the novel, set in October of the same year, Copper is offered a job. Claudia is sufficiently disturbed to attempt to thwart his chance of employment, causing her sister Anna to condemn her perpetual martyrdom and lack of self-knowledge: Claudia enjoys the role, the pose, and all her efforts go to support that, not her family. In the final section, after Claudia is killed in a car accident, we see her family getting on, pursuing their own interests and dreams, and surviving very well without her.

The novel is one of EMD's romans psychologiques, and by the time this novel was written she was probably at the height of her powers in this mode. Her ironic tone, which wavers through the similar Gay Life, is firmly in place here, and she plays off characters and generations against each other to generate humour. The characterisation is detailed and less reliant on stereotyping than in earlier novels; Claudia is a much more rounded character than the similarly autocratic, self-sacrificing Char Vivian in The War-Workers, although quite as deluded as to her own motives. Copper is, to a certain extent, a typical Delafield grumpy husband, but he shows depth of character when he catches his eldest daughter pursuing an unsuitable potential lover in her pyjamas, and in his enthusiasm about his new job. I also like the minor characters who form Claudia's office staff; the office girls could easily be middlebrow stereotypes, and at first it seems that they are, with their fascination with slimming and clothes, but they have real wit and a generosity that opens out their characters and makes them memorable. My only complaint is that there is too much of Mrs Peel, Claudia's mother; a peevish woman given to repetition moves quickly through humour and into dullness.

This novel, Mrs Peel's views aside, is much less conventional on the topic of working women than Delafield's earlier fiction. It is taken for granted that girls will need a career, that women need interesting work to support themselves, and that women can work well and efficiently, providing a professional service; only Claudia among her staff is tempted to martyrdom and overwork. Her office manager, Mrs Ingatestone, combines work with caring for a daughter, albeit one at boarding school. Claudia's friend Frances, whose return to England and reacquaintance with Claudia frames the novel, naturally turns to work as a young widow, not only from financial reasons but also to gain the satisfaction of work well done. Claudia's problems are nothing to do with work in itself, but stem only from her inability to understand herself or to relinquish control.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of this with its dust-jacket intact. The spine shows a slim woman, the world balanced on her shoulders, admiring herself in a pool of water. This image of Claudia as Atlas recurs throughout the novel, and was suggested by EMD herself for the spine. It's rather ironic that the spine of the book (which is holding it all together) should use this image of a woman whose attempts to hold it all together will go so disastrously wrong, for her and for her family.