Saturday, 16 April 2011

Little Gods by Anna Richards

Anna Richard's first novel is the story of Jean, an oversized baby born in 1920 who grows to giant adulthood by the start of World War II - a war which will bring her new opportunities for pleasure and pain.  Tormented by her ghastly mother, Wisteria, the child Jean is underfed and overworked in an effort to contain her growth.  Her size makes her schoolfellows afraid of her ("I broke someone's arm once when I fell on her") but beautiful Gloria is not scared of Jean.  Gloria gives Jean some sense of normal life, with her affectionate parents and determination to make Jean socialise.  The outbreak of war - which also thankfully dispatches Wisteria - gives Jean an answer to her perpetual question: what am I for?  Engaged as part of a demolition team, given clothes - a set of overalls - that finally fit her, Jean develops a sense of self and purpose.  The war also brings her love, in the form of a rather small and ratlike GI whose sexual ideal is a giantess; Danny will eventually take her to California where she will explore other, often extraordinary, ways of being useful.

I was drawn to this book because of a personal affinity with the theme; I've been 5 feet 10 inches tall since I was thirteen, and well remember the feeling of being oversized in a primary school designed for tiny infants.  But there is much to offer readers of all heights.  Everyone will have felt at some point that they do not fit the world around them; Jean's story magnifies that experience and shows how it can be dealt with to magnificent effect.  Jean herself is a marvellous character, aware of her strength and the capacity for mayhem, and therefore determined to be gentle and restrained; her slow-burning pleasure in the discovery of all the things her marvellous body can do is beautifully realised.  Indulged Gloria, daughter of sweet-shop owners, could be an irritating do-gooder but she is drawn with depth and sincerity.  Even the monstrous Wisteria is allowed sufficient humanity to stop her being a caricature. 

The quality of the writing is also excellent.  I could quote almost any paragraph, but here is a paragraph about Jean's war: "Death came often to the seaside.  Jean grew strong shifting tons of rubble left over from lives taken, and the survivors added their own lifesongs to the din around them.  The air crackled with the static of people.  It could go in any direction, the static, numbing life or making it a fierce itch that can never be quelled.  Jean let hers sing through her arms and legs as she worked; she didn't want to stop at the end of each day because then she would be deafened by the excess of life within iner and reminded that what she was, was not enough.  Not yet."  The novel exploits the remarkable images available in wartime, and at all times to giant young women, to great metaphorical effect.  Richards also has a keen eye for the ridiculous and Jean's size means that there is a great deal of humour in the book, not all of it farcical or at her expense.

If I have one quibble it is with the section of the book in America in which Jean becomes involved with an evangelical movement.  This seemed to me to be a rather broad caricature of American society and to be essentially plot-driven, rather than telling us much more about Jean.  But there is much to admire and enjoy, and Jean's story is thoroughly absorbing and enriching.  I hope Anna Richards is working on an equally inventive second novel.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Development by Bryher

My last post was about an unpublished novel by H.D., Bryher's lifelong partner; Bryher's own novel was published in 1920, during the early years of their relationship.   Bryher was the chosen name of Winifred Ellerman (1894-1983), the daughter of an immensely wealthy shipowner; she was part of the Anglophone literary circle in Paris in the 1920s; living in Switzerland in the 1930s, her house was a staging post for Jewish refugees escaping Nazism; she saw out the war in London, editing a magazine, and until her death she continued to write historical fiction, non-fiction and memoirs.

Development is – as you might expect from the title – a Bildungsroman.  The protagonist Nancy, aged four at the opening of the novel, moves from indulged child to schoolgirl to young woman struggling to find her place in the world.  The child Nancy longs for adventure, preferably at sea: we first meet her sitting in a box, a make-believe boat, while The Swiss Family Robinson is read to her.  This nursery scene is disrupted by a real sea-story: Nancy is taken to see a ship wrecked by a storm and the daring rescue of the crew.  She will be lucky enough to have many more adventures; her family take her to Italy, Spain and North Africa, where she rides across the desert on a donkey, and Switzerland, where she tastes the freedom she longs for by running far ahead on a mountain walk.  Her imagination is stocked by tales from ancient history – she is not much of a reader of fiction – and she casts herself always in the part of an adventurous boy, regretting her sex and the constraints it imposes.  School, where she is sent at fourteen, is an appalling shock: the uniform mediocrity, the strangeness of a crowd of girls, the pointless activities all confound Nancy and her sense of self.  She survives through preserving an aloof attitude that reinforces her sense of separateness, although she does make a couple of friends: boyish Doreen, from Cornwall and fond of sailing, and kindhearted Eleanor.  More travel, being finished in Paris, even publishing her own book of verses cannot satisfy Nancy’s need for recognition and friendship; a week in the Scillies, sailing at night with the fishing fleet, only sharpens her resentment of her gender:

“Why was she born with a boy’s heart when she might not go to sea?”

One of the most interesting things about Nancy is her synasthaesia.   Words, letters and musical notes all have an ascribed colour, to the extent that music is difficult for her to listen to, being an overly complex muddle of colours.  She tries her youthful hand at art, but without the immediate success she craves; she then bends her sense of colour towards writing, exploring the literary world with a view of colour shaping her response to books.

Nancy embodies the solipsism of the child and adolescent.  As a child, disembodied voices read to her, speak to her; adults are barely named, there are occasional references to “the family”, but not to her parents as individuals.  Most of the girls at her school are a uniform mass; the teachers have names, but are just as uniform.  Out in society as a young woman, she is disappointed by the shallowness and conventionality.   Her inwardness is profound: every experience, every line read and place seen, is viewed through the prism of her own self.  This occasionally makes her irritating, although the writing of this inwardness is cleverly sustained and grows with Nancy, adjusting its focus according to her age.  The characterisation of Nancy – and she really is the only character – is consistent, with colour and depth.  However, to really enjoy this book you have to like Nancy, and I’m not really sure that I did: discontented and privileged, with no idea of her own privilege but every idea of the obstacles in her way, she is a convincing adolescent but not an attractive one. 

Development is often cited as an early lesbian work, but you have to look quite closely to detect any sense of this.  It helps to know that Bryher was influenced by Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion, and uses Ellis's definition of lesbian characteristics to inform her portrait of Nancy, such as her rejection of feminine norms, her sense of separateness, her highly developed intelligence and sensitivity to art and nature.   Development and its sequel Two Selves are available in a single-volume version, as is some of Bryher's later historical fiction.  Her memoirs - which given her long life, complicated relationships and network of friends ought to be decidedly juicy - seem unfortunately to be out of print.