House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.

My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one. (p. 3)

The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.

Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.

In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.

Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.

Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.

Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.

Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.

In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.

[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)

By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.

When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.

Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)

Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.

Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)

Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.

Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)

Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.

By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.

In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.  

House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

The #1956Club – some recommendations of books to read

As some of you will know, Karen and Simon will be hosting another of their ‘club’ weeks at the beginning of October (5th – 11th October to be precise). The idea behind these clubs is to encourage us to read and share our thoughts on books first published in a particular year as a way of building up a literary overview of the period in question. This time the focus will be 1956, which falls squarely within my sights as a lover of mid-20th-century fiction.

I have a new 1956 review coming up during the week itself; but in the meantime, I thought it would be nice to do a round-up of some of my previous reviews of novels published in 1956. Who knows, it might even tempt you to read something from the list…

 

The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy

This was Brigid Brophy’s second novel, a semi-autobiographical work narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl named Susan, whom the author once described as a ‘cut-down version’ of herself. Witty, engaging and deceptively light on its feet, the novel captures the freshness of youth, a sense of going with the flow to see where life takes you. The initial setting — London in the mid-1950s — is beautifully evoked, capturing the mood of Susan’s bohemian lifestyle. It’s a lovely book, shot through with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more engaging to read. Every relationship is coloured by a delightful sense of ambiguity as nothing is quite how it appears at first sight.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. We first meet Laura – a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still hangs over the family’s home. To have any hope of moving forward, Laura must delve back into her past, forcing a confrontation with long-buried emotions. Lovers of Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Brooker or Brian Moore will find much to appreciate here. 

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

A compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels. More specifically, twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; themes encompassing desire, murder and betrayal – all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA. Here we find Archer on the trail of a missing wife, a quest that soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail and cover-ups. Highly recommended for lovers of hardboiled fiction, this novel can be read as a standalone.

A Certain Smile by François Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

The bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth, complete with all their intensity and confusion. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicting forces at play; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. Another ideal summer read from the author of Bonjour Tristesse.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

When Frenchman Daniel Mermet hits a beautiful young woman while driving one night, the incident marks a turning point in his life, setting the scene for this intriguing noir. Part mystery, part love story, this novella is beautifully written, shot through with an undeniable sense of loss – a quality that adds a touch of poignancy to the noirish tone. I’ve kept this description relatively short to avoid any potential spoilers; but If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll likely enjoy this. 

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

An insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seems destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has an interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then rewinding to 1942, 1937 and 1927 (to their honeymoon). In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently. While it’s not my favourite EJH – the tone can seem quite bitter and claustrophobic at times – the structure makes it an interesting choice. 

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of two very different families connected by marriage. As long-standing members of Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie, the Jewish Merzes are very wealthy and very traditional. By contrast, the aristocratic von Feldens hail from Baden, part of Germany’s Catholic south; they are comfortably off but not rich. Set against a backdrop of a newly-unified Germany, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various points in the late 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War. One of the most impressive things about A Legacy is the insight it offers into this vanished world, the glimpses into the rather insular lives of the highly privileged Merzes in Berlin, coupled with the eccentricities of the von Felden family in the south. Bedford’s prose can be quite allusive and indirect at times; however, for readers with an interest in this milieu, there is much to appreciate here – the descriptions are amazing. 

Will you be joining the #1956Club? If so, what are you thinking of reading? Do let me know…

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim is perhaps best known for The Enchanted April (1922), a delightful novel in which four very different English women come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera. It’s a book I love for its wonderful sense of escapism, where lives are reassessed and transformed. There is a hint of transformation too in The Caravaners (1909), but more of that later…

First and foremost, The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass; a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness.

The focus here is a summer holiday, ostensibly to mark Otto’s silver wedding anniversary. (The fact that Otto has only been married to his current wife, Edelgard, for five years is somewhat irrelevant. He’s already ‘banked’ nearly twenty years of marriage to wife number one, giving him twenty-five years in total, hence the celebration.) At first, there is talk of a trip to Switzerland or Italy; but when one of the von Ottringels’ friends, the genial widow Frau von Eckthum, extols the benefits of the horse-drawn caravan, Otto and Edelgard are enticed. While Edelgard is drawn to rose-tinted visions of a bohemian experience, Otto sees the caravan holiday more in monetary terms – a relatively cheap option compared to staying in a hotel.

So, the vacation is agreed: Otto and Edelgard will accompany Frau von Eckthum on a four-week caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent. Also joining the group are Frau von Eckthum’s sister, the perceptive Mrs Menzies-Legh, and her husband, Mr M-L; two young women whom Otto dismissively refers to as ‘fledgelings’ and ‘nondescripts’; and two Englishmen – Jellaby, a socialist MP, and Browne, who plans to go into the Church.

Right from the start, Otto is shown to be egotistical, misogynistic and conceited. He believes that a wife’s first duty is to be submissive. She must be there to tend to her husband’s every need, to be seen and not heard, to be grateful and dutiful. Opinions are permissible now and again, but only if they are likely to be met with approval.

After a time I agreed. Not immediately, of course, for a reasonable man will take care to consider the suggestions made by his wife from every point of view before consenting to follow them or allowing her to follow them. Women do not reason: they have instincts; and instincts would land them in strange places sometimes if it were not that their husbands are there to illuminate the path for them and behave, if one may so express it, as a kind of guiding and very clever glow-worm. (p. 3)

The trip itself is highly comical, especially when related through Otto’s eyes. While other members of the group take delight in the novelty of the caravans, Otto finds the conditions cramped and uncomfortable – to the point where he longs for the more civilised environment of the hotel where one can be waited on hand and foot. Mucking in with menial jobs is beneath him, leading to a plethora of amusing scenes where simple tasks such as lighting fires or washing dishes prove either baffling or bothersome.   

No shelter; no refuge; no rest. These three negatives, I take it, sum up fairly accurately a holiday in a caravan. (p. 123)

Moreover, the weather is not what Otto was expecting from an idyllic English summer, leading to battles with lashing rain, swirling winds and damp fields. Manoeuvring the caravans into camps for the night also proves something of a challenge, especially when there are narrow gates and molehills to be negotiated…

So the Elsa [the von Ottringels’ caravan] in her turn heaved away, guided anxiously by me over the mole heaps, every mole heap being greeted by our pantry as we passed over it with a thunderous clapping together of its contents, as though the very cups, being English, were clapping their hands, or rather handles, in an ecstasy of spiteful pleasure at getting broken and on to my bill. (p. 88)

There are other annoyances for Otto too, from the scarcity of proper food – cold potatoes and cabbage make all too frequent appearances on the camp menu – to the behaviour of other members of the group. Von Arnim has a lot of fun with the cultural differences between the Germans and the English here, particularly around Otto’s attitudes to Browne and Jellaby. As an officer in the Prussian army, Otto considers himself superior to most of his companions. At first, he is exceptionally curt with Browne, dismissing the aspiring pastor as a complete non-entity – a view he swiftly revises once it becomes apparent that the Englishman is in fact a Lord. As for Jellaby, he is to be roundly ostracised, especially given the radical nature of his politics.

What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely through the baron’s eyes. (The narrative does include some snatches of dialogue, but these are all presented within Otto’s recollections of the trip.) Mr Menzies-Legh, for instance, finds Otto insufferable, to the point where he makes himself scarce as soon as the baron appears on the horizon. Naturally, Otto is completely oblivious to any of this…

Menzies-Legh got up and went away. It was characteristic of him that he seemed always to be doing that. I hardly ever joined him but he was reminded by my approach of something he ought to be doing and went away to do it. I mentioned this to Edelgard during the calm that divided one difference of opinion from another, and she said he never did that when she joined him. (p. 151)

As for the transformation I referred to earlier, it is Edelgard who experiences something of an awakening. Encouraged by the influence of Frau von Eckthum and Mrs Menzies-Legh, Edelgard begins to adopt a more liberated approach to life, a development that Otto notes with clear displeasure.

Besides, I was rooted to the bench by amazement at her extraordinary appearance. No wonder she was not to be seen when duty ought to have kept her at my side helping me with the horse. She had not walked one of those five hot miles. She had been sitting in the caravan, busily cutting her skirt short, altering her hair, and transforming herself into as close a copy as she could manage of Mrs Menzies-Legh and her sister. (p. 76)

Mrs Menzies-Legh is particularly perceptive when it comes to Otto’s lack of appreciation for Edelgard. While conversing with the baron, she subtly draws attention to Edelgard’s many qualities – her unselfishness, astuteness and cheerful temperament – all aspects that Otto has failed to recognise or value in his wife.

‘Look how cheerful she [Edelgard] is.’

I bowed again.

‘And how clever, dear Baron.’

Clever? That indeed was a new way of looking at poor Edelgard. I could not at this repress a smile of amusement. ‘I am gratified that you should have so good an opinion of my wife,’ I said; and wished much to add, ‘But what is my wife to you that you should take it upon yourself to praise her? Is she not solely and exclusively my property?’ (p. 177)

During the trip, there are instances when Edelgard asserts herself in front of Otto, displaying elements of Bartleby-esque behaviour in the face of petty requests. It’s a cheering sight to see, but one wonders how long this transformation can be maintained, especially once the von Ottringels return to the suffocating atmosphere of their home in Germany.

In short, The Caravaners is a brilliantly-written novel, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century. Plus, of course, the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather. I absolutely loved it. 

The Caravaners is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975), in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s 1972 novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. It really is a terrifically funny book, a throwback to the golden age of British comedy in the 1970s.

In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Headmaster. (It turns out that the previous Head, Mr Chadband, has been granted a leave of absence, supposedly for the pursuit of professional studies. However, from one or two hints revealed during the book, the exact nature of these ‘studies’ appears to be somewhat dubious.)

The story unfolds through a combination of sources, including excerpts from Harpole’s journal; entries in the official school log-book; memos between Harpole and Mr Tusker, the Assistant Education Officer at the Local Authority; letters from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith Wardle; and various other documents. Interspersed with these vignettes are observations from an unnamed individual who has been commissioned to compile an independent report on Harpole’s tenure as Acting Head. It’s a very engaging technique, one that enables a surprisingly vivid picture to be pieced together from a variety of different perspectives, especially with the benefit of reading between the lines.  

As one might imagine, there are many trials and tribulations to be faced when running a school. During term-time, the well-intentioned Harpole must deal with a plethora of problems from disgruntled parents to sensitive members of staff and pupils, all set within an environment hampered by petty bureaucracy and constrained resources.

Some of the novella’s most amusing scenes are conveyed through the administrative memos from Harpole to Tusker and vice versa. In this passage, Tusker is responding to a complaint by Mr Theaker, the school caretaker, who has taken umbrage at being asked to hoist the Union Jack flag on a daily basis. The resultant memo from Tusker to Harpole is typical of this official’s communications, characterised by their antagonistic, narrow-minded style.

TUSKER TO HARPOLE

I was called upon to-day by the industrial disputes officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, complaining that you have instructed your caretaker, Mr E. E. Theaker, to hoist a flag each morning.

I would point out that the Local Educational Committee has laid down the principal duties of its caretakers are to maintain (a) Heat (b) Cleanliness (c) Security, and that Other Duties should only be undertaken when and if time permits. In view of this, no doubt you would like to re-consider the ill-considered position you have taken up, and I shall expect to hear what course of action in this vexatious matter you propose to take.

I note that you have not yet informed me why you require a second flag. (p. 7)

Theaker – a man who is something of a law unto himself – proves to be the cause of another incident when one of the teachers, Mr Pintle, discovers that his precious teaching aids for History lessons have disappeared from the school’s storeroom…

[HARPOLE’S] JOURNAL

…Just as I was going home, Pintle, almost incoherent, rage intermingled with grief, burst accusingly in. This being the season of the year when he does the Normans, he had been to the Surplus Apparatus and Staff Illustration Store to put back his Viking longship (made of 3,500 matchsticks) and to take out his cardboard Norman Keep. Apparently the Store was empty and the Keep (which he had made in his first year out of college) had gone. I hurried back with him and the little room was certainly empty of educational apparatus and now housed brushes, mops, cleaning paraphernalia, a child’s desk and an old armchair.

As I gazed unbelievingly at this, Theaker came round the corner. He was taken aback but rallied, declaring defiantly before I had time to speak, ‘Well, it was only full of junk.’ (p. 36)

This journal entry captures something of the book’s character, a humorous, idiosyncratic style that runs through much of Carr’s work.

By conveying Harpole’s approach and leadership of the school, Carr is able to touch on various social issues of the day, weaving them into the narrative in a wonderfully satirical way. The damaging impact of corporal punishment; the negative effects of streaming; and the unfairness of social discrimination, especially against girls, all feature at one point or another in the book.

Poverty, malnutrition and lack of support at home are also topics that Harpole must turn his mind to, especially when the Widmerpools (surely a nod to the odious Kenneth Widmerpool from A Dance to the Music of Time) move into the catchment area. The junior Widemerpools are a notoriously unruly bunch, with reading ages well below the expected levels. A programme of intensive reading produces some excellent results, if only this encouraging run of progress could be maintained…

In addition to these knotty sociopolitical issues, there are more light-hearted activities for Harpole to contend with, including Sports Day, school outings, and an amorous governor to name but a few.

Alongside Harpole himself – who emerges as a principled, well-intentioned man, battling against an archaic, bureaucratic system – the pen-portraits of the other teachers are beautifully sketched. There is young Miss Foxberrow, an energetic Cambridge graduate with progressive ideas; Mr Croser, a rather smug young teacher with strong moral standards; Mrs Grindle-Jones, a traditionalist rapidly approaching retirement; and Miss Tollemarche, whose note-taking on the attendance register is hopelessly inaccurate. Each one presents a particular challenge for Harpole in their own individual way.

Also of note are the letters from Miss Foxberrow to her sister, Felicity, commenting on Harpole and the various developments at the school. These too are wonderfully humorous, revealing something of Miss Foxberrow as a character and her growing admiration for the Temporary Head. Finally, on the personal front, there are the notes from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith, in which he relates the potential theft of a missing spanner and the subsequent lack of interest in the case from the police – another source of amusement in this sharply satirical tale.

In summary, this is a marvellously funny book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A period piece imbued with nostalgia.

My copy of The Harpole Report was published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Death in White Pyjamas and Death Knows No Calendar by John Bude

Two highly entertaining Golden Age mysteries for the price of one here, lovingly reissued the British Library in one combined volume as part of their Crime Classics series. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

Death in White Pyjamas (1944) is one of those lovely country house mysteries where everyone is a potential suspect, and the crime itself involves several unexpected twists. There is a wonderful theatrical quality to the narrative, partly because all the leading players are connected to the Beaumont, a modest repertory theatre off London’s West End. 

The theatre is largely financed by Sam Richardson, a generous, amiable businessman with an interest in the cultural arts. Having made his fortune in biscuits, Sam is using his money to prop up the Beaumont, endeavouring to broaden the audience and strengthen its reputation. Leading the creative side of the venture is theatrical director, Basil Barnes, a somewhat slippery character at heart. Nevertheless, despite his rather superior manner, Basil is very good at his job, frequently coaxing excellent performances from his diverse and temperamental cast.

Sam was pleasant to everybody. Basil was condescending. He always looked on actors and actresses, as he had explained to Mr. Richardson, as so much raw material, only some of it was rawer than the rest. (p. 19)

The action takes place in the summer as the members of the company gather together for initial rehearsals at Old Knolle, Sam’s country retreat. Rather conveniently, Basil has just purchased a cottage nearby, which he is in the process of refurbishing with the help of Deidre Lehaye, the talented stage designer who also works at the Beaumont. Deirdre too is quite the character. Cynical, provocative and barbed, she likes nothing more than to make mischief for other people, finding and exploiting their weaknesses for her own personal gain.

Deirdre smiled lazily. She loved discovering the chinks in other people’s armour and shooting her pretty feathered darts through the cracks. But Angela was easy, so very easy. It was much more fun drawing a bead on Basil because his armour, forged of a colossal self-conceit, was of a far tighter fit. In fact she often wondered if he appreciated her attempts to wound him. (p. 28)

Also present at the house are Angela, the innocent young ingenue from the provinces – one of Basil’s ‘discoveries’; Clara, the rather demanding established actress; Willy, the seasoned actor with a gambling habit; and Rudolph, the aspiring playwright who also happens to be Clara’s nephew.

Interestingly, the crime itself doesn’t take place until we’re about halfway through the novel, giving readers a chance to spend plenty of time with all the characters before one of them is dispatched. During a particularly eventful night, a body in white pyjamas is discovered by the lake at Old Knolle, prompting an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death.

Bude has a lot of fun playing with some familiar character types here, and there are several potential motives for murder swirling around in the mix from blackmail to revenge to various jealousies. Once the identity of the victim becomes clear, it isn’t too difficult to work out who might have committed the deadly act. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is the unravelling of events leading up to the death. In other words, how the murder was carried out and the underlying reasons behind it.

In summary then, Death in White Pyjamas is a most enjoyable mystery with a theatrical twist – a story of late-night assignations, midnight wanderings and secrets under wraps.

Death Knows No Calendar (1942), is another hugely entertaining novel – a locked-room mystery with a devilishly clever twist. As with Death in White Pyjamas, the whodunit element of the crime is pretty easy to figure out, but the howdunit proves much trickier for the investigators to unravel. 

The setting for this one is Beckwood, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s movements. Central to the narrative are John and Lydia Arundel, a married couple who live at the Oasts – a property incorporating an artist’s studio where Lydia paints portraits. John, by contrast, seems content to live on Lydia’s money, his former career on the stage having stalled some years earlier. Nevertheless, he retains the superficial charm of an actor, something that is noted by at least one other resident of Beckwood.

He’d never made a name for himself and he’d certainly made no money. His marriage with Lydia had hauled him at a single pull out of obscurity and poverty and set him up in Beckwood as a person of some consequence. Not that Arundel was a bad mixer or in any way a snob. On the contrary, he went out of his way to be pleasant to everybody in the parish. But that was just the point—this affability was not natural, it was assumed, cultivated, a part of the actor’s stock-in-trade. (pp. 231–232)

As the novel opens, the Arundels are hosting a party to christen their new bar, a traditional Edwardian-style saloon recently installed in the couple’s home. All the movers and shakers of Beckwood are there. The local rector, Peter Swale-Reid, clearly has some history with Lydia – a flamboyant woman who has attracted multiple admirers over the years. Stanley Hawkinge is another of the host’s casualties – a man who secretly carries a torch for Lydia in a kind of silent devotion. Also present are the party are Lady Dingle and her beautiful niece, Honoraria; and Major Boddy, a retired military man and lover of detective fiction. 

Late one afternoon, Lydia is found dead in her studio which had been locked from the inside – a practice she always observed when working. At first, the presence of a gun suggests suicide; however, as more details emerge, the possibility of foul play cannot be ruled out – at least for Major Boddy, who, with his enthusiasm for crime fiction, is something of an amateur sleuth. When the Coroner brings in a verdict of suicide, Boddy remains somewhat doubtful. So, ably assisted by former batman, Syd Gammon, the Major sets out to investigate the circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death to solve the puzzle himself.

Unsurprisingly, several suspects emerge, all with potential reasons for wanting Lydia silenced or out of the way. However, the real joy of this mystery lies not in the unravelling of the crime but in the manner of Major Boddy’s investigations. There’s plenty of amusing military-style banter here, particularly between the Major and his batman, Syd.

The morning after the inquest Major Boddy came to a decision. Breakfast over, he crossed into the lounge and rang for Syd Gammon.

“Look here, Gammon,” he said abruptly. “Going to take you into my confidence. Need your help.”

“Very good, sir.”

“What was your opinion of the Coroner’s verdict, eh? Don’t be tactful. I want the truth. Understand?” “Yes, sir. Quite, sir. Well, sir, it’s my fixed opinion that Mrs. Arundel was done in by second party.” “Ha! Exactly, Gammon! Now the question is, will you fall into line with me in an attempt to expose this second party, eh? Investigate on the Q.T., what? Keep our suspicions under our hat.”

“Very good, sir.” (p. 303)

Major Boddy makes a most engaging and perceptive sleuth as he goes about gathering evidence before sharing the results of his enquiries with the police. He’s a decent chap – kindly, tactful and level-headed, especially as various secrets begin to emerge.

All in all, this is another splendid mystery from Jon Bude – a tale of secret meetings, shifting identities and a smattering of romance. Ideal comfort reading in these strange, unsettling times.

The Children by Edith Wharton

First published in 1928, The Children is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published when the author was in her mid-sixties. Like much of Wharton’s fiction, it explores the moral complexities of socially unacceptable relationship – in this instance, one between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Wharton herself cited the novel as one of her favourites, as Marilyn French notes in her introduction to the Virago edition – my copy is a beautiful ‘green spine’ from the mid-1980s.

As the novel opens, Martin Boyne, an unmarried consultant engineer in his mid-forties, is travelling by ship from Algiers to Venice. From there, Martin will journey to Cortina in the Dolomites to join Rose Sellars, the recently widowed woman whom he hopes to marry, even though they haven’t seen one another for five years. The best-laid plans, however, rarely come to pass…

During the passage, Martin encounters fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, the surrogate mother to her six siblings, three of whom are ‘steps’ or half-siblings. The children – who range in age from two or three to fifteen – are a lively, outspoken bunch, largely kept in line by the delightful Judith and her former governess, Miss Scope. Judith’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, are living it up in Venice, caring little for the welfare of their children and assorted ‘steps’, preferring instead to give themselves over to the demands of the ongoing social whirl. Over the past two or three years, Judith has successfully protected the children from the fallout of various Wheater marriages, divorces, liaisons and remarriages, fighting hard to keep the brood together despite her parents’ whims and desires.

Martin is captivated by the children’s happiness and spontaneity, so much so that he agrees to remain in Venice for a few days to assist Judith in discussions with the Wheaters, whose latest attempt at remarriage is in danger of floundering. Judith is fearful that another rift between Cliffe and Joyce will result in children being split up – with the steps going back to their own equally self-absorbed parents, and the toddler, Chip, being separated from Judith and the twins, Terry and Blanca.

In particular, Martin is drawn to Judith with her blend of childlike innocence and impressive maturity. At fifteen, she is on the cusp of adulthood and everything that represents. All too soon, Martin’s feelings for Judith begin to tip over into a kind of infatuation – a fascination he finds hard to fully admit, even to himself.

“Woman—but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business. Obscurely irritated with himself and her, he stood up, turning his back impatiently on the golden abyss of the apse. “Come along; it’s chilly here after our sun-bath. Gardens are best, after all.”

[…]

But outside in the sunlight, with the children leaping about her, and guiding her with joyful cries toward the outspread tea-things, she was instantly woman again—gay, competent, composed, and wholly mistress of the situation… (pp. 35-36)

As Martin becomes further entangled with the Wheaters, his relationship with Rose Sellars begins to be impacted. With her quiet, orderly approach, Rose is a beacon of stability and respectability, very much in line with the Old New York society Wharton knew so well.  

Yes; if Mrs Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation. She led up to things—the simplest things—with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. (p. 38)

Martin becomes so wedded to Judith’s desire for the children to remain together that he agrees to act their trial guardian, at least for the duration of the summer. By now, the children have joined him in the Dolomites, installing themselves in a local guest house to be close at hand. However, it is this commitment to the children that proves to be the sticking point between Martin and Rose. While Rose likes the young Wheaters and can sympathise with their predicament, she is also keen to formalise her new life with Martin, potentially moving to Paris with the aim of settling there. In effect, Martin must choose between two conflicting desires: Rose, the woman he has loved from afar for many years, and Judith, whose spontaneity and freedom from conventional norms have opened his eyes to new possibilities.  

In a world grown clockless and conscienceless, Boyne was still punctual and conscientious; and in this case he had schooled himself to think that what he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within him he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had since given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more; his reluctance to leave Venice and his newly-acquired friends showed that his inclinations were divided. But he belonged to a generation which could not bear to admit that naught may abide but mutability. He wanted the moral support of believing that the woman who had once seemed to fill his needs could do so still. She belonged to a world so much nearer to his than the Wheaters and their flock that he could not imagine how he could waver between the two. (pp. 81–82)

What Wharton does so well here is to illustrate the position in which Martin finds himself, caught as he is between two worlds, neither of which feels entirely comfortable. As a consequence of his experiences with Judith, Martin is reluctant to return to the moral world into which he was born, that of Old New York with its conventional principles and codes. And yet he cannot fully enter the children’s world either, characterised as it is by a lack of such constraints.

The degree to which Wharton enables the reader to sympathise with Martin is also very impressive. He feels a genuine sense of concern for the children’s welfare and emotional well-being, much more than their biological parents ever seem to demonstrate. The scenes where Martin is trying to negotiate with the Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are brilliantly observed, the couple proving to be virtually impossible to pin down for any length of time before the next social engagement beckons. The children too are beautifully portrayed in a way that is both entertaining and touching – at times their directness can be very comical.

In summary, this is a fascinating novel. Not quite as morally complex or intricate as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but absolutely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wharton’s work – there are elements here that will resonate, for sure.

Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Some brief thoughts on two excellent books I’ve been reading, both of which were published earlier this year.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)

Chosen by my friend, N, for our book group in early September, this is such a terrific novel – a sharp, pacy, whip-smart satire of white privilege, racial dynamics and wokeness set in modern-day Philadelphia. It’s very different from the usual types of book I read, both in terms of context and style; nevertheless, I raced through it in my eagerness to get to the end.

The novel opens with an incident, something that Reid cleverly uses as a catalyst, kick-starting a chain of events through which to explore these issues. Late one night, Emira Tucker – a twenty-five-year-old college graduate and part-time babysitter – is asked to take care of her employers’ toddler at short notice while the parents deal with an incident at their home. Emira, who is black, takes three-year-old Briar, who is white, to a nearby grocery store, just to keep the young girl occupied.

At the store, a nosy woman gets suspicious at the sight of a black girl playing around with white child so late at night. A tense exchange between Emira and the store’s security guard swiftly follows, all of which is filmed by a white bystander who is clearly trying to support Emira.

“You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.”

“Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny…” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question.

“Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?”

“Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” (p. 11–12)

Eventually, the situation is resolved, but only once Emira phones Briar’s father to come and verify her position. Emira is not trying to kidnap Briar; rather, she is the toddler’s regular babysitter.

From here, the novel spins off into very interesting territory covering topics such as racism amongst the white liberal elite, the fetishisation of black people and the shallow world of social media influencers.

Alix, Briar’s mum, longs to back in New York where she’d been carving out a successful career for herself as a brand influencer before motherhood intervened. In the wake of the grocery store incident, Alix tries her hardest to buddy up with Emira, showing an interest in the sitter’s life that feels way beyond the bounds of acceptability. Emira, however, is more concerned for Briar, with whom she has developed a very caring relationship, particularly as Alix has somewhat sidelined the toddler in favour of her new baby, Catherine.

There is so much that’s impressive here from the depth of characterisation – particularly the women – to the insightful observations of human behaviour and the razor-sharp intelligence and wit. Reid’s use of detail is excellent, especially in the construction of the novel’s plot. Key points are frequently seeded at various points in the narrative, only for their true significance to become fully apparent at a later stage. (There are some terrific set-pieces and showdowns along the way.) The dialogue is brilliant, too – from the naturalistic exchanges between Emira and her BFFs to the excruciating discussions between Alix and her upwardly-mobile friends.

Some readers might baulk at the fact that a key part of the plot hinges on a significant coincidence, something that reaches into Alix’s past; but I was more than happy to go with it given the quality and complexity of what Reid is doing here. All in all, this is a very clever debut, as thought-provoking as it is compelling – a hugely enjoyable read.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (2020)

Earlier this year, I wrote about Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease could be viewed as something of a companion piece to the Benjamin. It’s just as beautifully written, a book that brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another.

In the midst of the night, Harvey trawls through the remnants of her past, searching for clues on the cause of her insomnia, the trigger that has turned her from a sleeper to a non-sleeper over the past year.

When I don’t sleep I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life. I circle the arena of my mind, it’s shrinking perimeter, like a polar bear in its grubby blue–white plastic enclosure with fake ice caps and water that turns out to have no depth. I circle and circle. It’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It’s always 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I circle back. (p. 32)

So much of what Harvey says in this book resonates with me – from the differences between fear and anxiety, to her reflections on death and our own sense of mortality, to the humiliation we sometimes encounter when discussing a condition with a doctor or counsellor. I too have experienced that sense of dread and desperation when seeking a cause or label for a series of symptoms, the need to negotiate for further tests or investigations to be carried out. Moreover, the frustration of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice and lifestyle interventions, most of which have already been explored.

‘Also no lying in bed awake for more than twenty minutes – bed is just for sleep and intimacy. It isn’t for lying awake. Don’t eat too late in the evening, no alcohol, no caffeine after midday, cut out sugar, no hard exercise after 7 p.m., a nice warm bath before bed but not too hot and not too soon before bed, keep your room cool and ventilated.’

‘I do these things, they don’t help.’

‘Over time, they will.’

‘Over time, they haven’t. I feel unhelpable.’

‘Nobody is unhelpable.’

‘I am.’

‘Nobody is.(p. 139)

Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. There’s even a short story threaded through the book, a compelling piece about a gang who hack into cash machines, emptying them of their plentiful stash.

In summary, this is a beautiful, intelligent, poetic book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives – an elegant meditation on what it means to exist when deprived of sleep in an elastic continuum of time. I loved this one. 

Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury, The Shapeless Unease by Jonathan Cape; personal copies.

Foreign language films directed by women – a list of recommendations for #WITMonth

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen the thread I’ve been running during August. It’s a list of foreign language films directed by women, with a new recommendation going up every day – a bit like a version of #WITMonth for home streaming or the cinema.

Just to make it easier to see the full list, I’ve collated it here, with the final entry to be added tomorrow.

It’s been a fun thing to do, particularly as I’ve tried to include as many different directors as possible without doubling up. So, if you enjoy world cinema, maybe you’ll discover some new suggestions here. (All the films listed are available to view on home-streaming platforms or DVD, certainly in the UK.)

As ever, do feel free to mention any of your own favourites in the comments. Who knows, if I’m still here next year, I may well run it again with a different selection of films!

Day 1: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Celine Sciamma). Everything Sciamma has made is excellent, but this ravishing love story set in 18th-century Brittany is my personal favourite. An exquisitely-paced exploration of passion and desire.

Day 2: FILL THE VOID (Rama Burshtein). Set within the Orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, this sensitive, understated gem is well worth seeking out. In the wake of a tragedy, a young woman must try to reconcile family obligations with her own personal wishes.

Day 3: LOURDES (Jessica Hausner). Sylvie Testud is terrific in this subtle, unsettling film about faith, delusions and the desire to believe in miracles. A slow burner shot through with flashes of poignancy and dry humour.

Day 4: THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher). This director has been getting rave reviews for her latest, HAPPY AS LAZZARO, but her earlier film about family, aspirations and beekeeping is probably my fave. The children in this are wonderfully naturalistic.

Day 5: PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi). Based on Satrapi’s comic book series of the same name, this striking animated film is powerful depiction of a young girl growing up in 1970s/’80s Iran. I am definitely due another watch of this.

Day 6: HEAL THE LIVING (Katell Quillévéré). This beautiful, moving film, which follows the journey of a human heart from donor to recipient, captures something of the lyricism of Maylis de Kerangal’s source novel. (No longer on All 4 but available elsewhere.)

Day 7: I AM NOT A WITCH (Rungano Nyoni). A young Zambian girl is accused of being a witch in this striking satirical fable — the imagery is stunning. A BAFTA winner for Outstanding Debut, there is a real sense of poignancy here.

Day 8: SUMMERTIME (Catherine Corsini). Set in 1970s France, this sensitive film about sexual freedom, family commitments and the quest for women’s rights is ideal viewing for the heady days of summer. The central relationship between two young women is beautifully judged.

Day 9: THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Løve). Pretty much everything this director has made is brilliant, but this exploration of a woman’s life is a personal favourite. Isabelle Huppert is superb as a philosophy professor whose world begins to collapse around her.

Day 10: THE GOOD GIRLS (Alejandra Márquez Abella). A recent discovery for me. Set in 1980s Mexico as the economic collapse begins to bite, this smart satire about ladies who lunch is a barbed delight. The petty jealousies between the characters are brilliantly observed.

Day 11: WAJIB (Annemarie Jacir). A father and son drive around Nazareth delivering wedding invitations in this sensitive, bittersweet film of family tensions and the balance between tradition and modernity. Fans of Abbas Kiarostami will likely enjoy this.

Day 12: 35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis). Plenty of choice with this director, but I’m going with this gem from 2008. A rich, emotionally elegant portrayal of a father-daughter relationship. The central performances are very subtle.

Day 13: TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade). What to say about this film other than it is completely unique and unpredictable. A portrayal of an awkward father-daughter relationship unlike any other. By turns, uproariously funny, wonderfully surreal and oddly poignant. A triumph.

Day 14: MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven). With its focus on five Turkish sisters, this brilliant film is a vibrant yet painful insight into life as a young girl in an oppressive society where arranged marriages are the order of day. Absolutely worth seeking out.

Day 15: CAPERNAUM (Nadine Labaki). Setting aside the somewhat contrived framing device, this wonderfully naturalistic film about a street kid on the run makes for compelling viewing. The shots of Beirut are evocative and affecting.

Day 16: ON BODY AND SOUL (Ildikó Enyedi). There is a curious fairytale-like quality to this story of two co-workers, a hesitant romance playing out as they share the same dream. I loved this one – just don’t let the first 20 minutes put you off!

Day 17: THE APPLE (Samira Makhmalbaf). After being locked up by their parents for 11 years, two young Iranian girls are finally released, free to experience a new life in Tehran.  It’s a long time since I watched this, but I recall it being very moving.

Day 18: SUMMER 1993 (Carla Simón). Something of a critics’ favourite, this subtle, naturalistic film about loss and the complexities of family dynamics is well worth seeking out. As with Alice Rohrawcher’s THE WONDERS (no 4), the children are really terrific here.

Day 19: IN BETWEEN (Maysaloun Hamoud). Three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv, each fighting against the constraints of conformity, repression and familial expectations. This excellent film follows their quest for independence.

Day 20: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (Lucretia Martel). I love this mysterious, dreamlike film about a woman who is involved in a car accident. A compelling exploration of guilt, denial, concealment and inaction – Maria Onetto is brilliant in the lead role.

Day 21: JEUNE FEMME (Léonor Serraille). Laetitia Dosch is terrific in this painfully funny depiction of a young woman shuttling around the apartments and shopping malls of Paris in search of a job and some kind of identity. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 22: THE CHAMBERMAID (Lila Avilés). A brilliant debut feature that explores the life of a young chambermaid in a wealthy Mexico City hotel. This very affecting film is an understated gem, full of small humiliations and reinforcements of the social hierarchy at play.

Day 23: THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang). A charming, humane, bittersweet film of clashing cultures and family values. Like many of the best stories, it blends humour with poignancy in fairly equal measure. Probably one of the best crowd-pleasers of 2019.

Day 24: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour). A lonely young woman, dressed in a hijab, wanders around the streets of Bad City at night in this stylish film that tips its hat to Jim Jarmusch. Beautifully shot in cool black and white.

Day 25: DISORDER (Alice Winocour). Great work here from Matthias Schoenaerts, channelling the pain and paranoia of PTSD, in this underrated thriller from Winocour (co-writer of MUSTANG, no. 14). The visuals and soundscape are excellent, adding to the intensity of the film.

Day 26: THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN (Rita Azevedo Gomes). The glacial pace won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this story of a 16th-century noblewoman is beautifully shot. One ravishing image after another, it’s the closest I’ll get to an art gallery during lockdown.

DAY 27: WADJA (Haifaa Al Mansour). Notable for being the first Saudi-Arabian film ever to be directed by a woman, this portrayal of a young girl rubbing up against the restrictions of a strictly conservative society has tremendous spirit and heart.

Day 28: ALMAYER’S FOLLY (Chantal Akerman). Akerman explores themes of colonialism and identity in this compelling adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name – all shot in this director’s characteristically observant style. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 29: CLÉO FROM 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda). Over the course of two hours, a beautiful young woman tries to occupy herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy. A film that perfectly captures the spirit of Parisian life in the 1960s; a true classic of the French New Wave.

Day 30: OPEN HEARTS (Susanne Bier). Mads Mikkelsen stars in this compelling film about two couples whose lives become intertwined following a car accident. An early film by the director whose later English-language work includes TV’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. 

Day 31: ATLANTICS (Mati Diop). There is an element of supernatural mystery about this story of two young Senegalese lovers forced to make life-changing choices. One of the most poetic, visually stunning films released last year. I loved it.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

The food and travel writer M. F. K. Fisher is turning out to be a wonderful new discovery for me – largely due to the sterling efforts of the Backlisted team who recently featured How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s wartime guide to keep appetites sated when good ingredients are in short supply, on their fortnightly podcast. It’s a timely read, particularly given our recent lockdown when planning ahead and making the most of store-cupboard staples swiftly became the order of the day. How prescient then of Daunt Books to have scheduled their lovely reissue of Wolf for the beginning of June, when many of us were still in lockdown. It’s a situation that gives Fisher’s insights into eating with ‘grace and gusto’ a whole new level of resonance, especially as *normal life* still seems somewhat fragile and uncertain in these challenging times. 

Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. The ‘wolf’ of the book’s title is the one at the door – a metaphor for hunger, particularly when money and other supplies are very tight.

In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal.

Amongst others, there are chapters on eggs (How Not to Boil an Egg), meat (How to Carve the Wolf) and fish (How to Greet the Spring), together with sections on more philosophical topics, e.g. How to Distribute Your Virtue – all culinary-related, of course. The book is peppered with various recipes; some straightforward and recognisable (e.g. Napolitana Sauce for Spaghetti), others more bizarre or idiosyncratic (e.g. War Cake, ‘an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children’ despite its absence of eggs). The infamous Tomato Soup Cake also warrants a mention here: ‘a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is’. I’m almost tempted to give it a whirl myself…

Refusing to be phased by the lack of a particular ingredient, Fisher is more than happy to suggest passable alternatives. ‘Substitute’ or ‘whatever’ make frequent appearances in her recipes. Bacon grease can be used as a replacement for shortening in the aforementioned War Cake as the use of cinnamon and other spices will hide the meaty taste; decent oil will do in place of butter in certain dishes, but only if absolutely necessary.

Never being one to waste precious resources, Fisher extols the virtues of slipping a pan of apples below whatever else is being cooked in the oven at the time, whether we fancy baked apples for supper or not. In essence, it’s a way of making the most of the energy needed to heat the oven; plus, the apples could be considered a future meal in themselves, particularly if supplemented by some buttered toast and tea. In a similar vein, vegetables should be cooked quickly in as little water as possible to preserve their vitamins and minerals. Moreover, the cooking liquor must never be thrown away; instead, it should be decanted into an old gin bottle and squirrelled away in the freezer for use in stocks and soups. Only an idiot would tip such riches down the drain.

It is best to keep it in an old gin bottle in the icebox, alongside the other old gin bottle filled with juices left from canned fruit. You can add what’s left of the morning tomato juice. You can squeeze in the last few drops of the lemon you drink in hot water before breakfast, if you still do that. You can put canned vegetable juices in. You can steep parsley stems in hot water and pour their juice into the bottle. In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool. (p. 26)

By now, you might be thinking that this all sounds rather dry and wholesome. However, that’s really not the case at all. Fisher is a prose stylist of the highest order. Her writing is glorious – a marvellous blend of the wise, pithy and perhaps unintentionally witty. I love this introduction to a recipe for An English Curry, a modest dish that lives or dies according to the capabilities of the cook who executes it.

There are always curries, of course, which are not really curries at all, but simply leftover meat served in a gravy flavoured with curry powder. [This is a horrible definition, and only the next sentence saves me from gastronomical guilt.] They can be very good or ghastly, according to the cook. The following recipe is uninspired, but dependable. (p. 137)

The quotes in square brackets are Fisher’s annotations to the original text, incorporated into the updated version of the book published in 1954. Some of these notes offer additional advice or revisions to recipes based on the increased availability of certain items in the 1950s, while others strike a more humorous or ironic note, such as the example in the passage on curries noted above.

Another thing I love about Fisher is her willingness to embrace a mix of high and low culture in her approach to crafting dishes. While Fisher clearly appreciates fine food as much as the best of us, she has no qualms about cherry-picking elements from the best French chefs and blending them with those from more rustic or homely sources – as evidenced here with this introduction to her recipe for Cream of Potato Soup.

Here is a recipe, a combination really of Escoffier’s Soupe à la Bonne Femme and one I found in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is excellent hot, but to make it into a mighty passible Vichyssoise it should have some cream [sour, or very thick] beaten into it and be put into the coldest part of the icebox for at least twenty-four hours. (p. 40)

If it’s not clear already, I adored this book. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. The book ends with a chapter on more extravagant dishes, occasions when something more luxurious is called for as a break from reality. It’s a fitting end to a volume devoted to practical advice for keeping the wolf at bay, thereby giving us licence to dream of such treats as Shrimp Pâté or Bœuf Moreno should the requisite ingredients ever become available.

Yes, it is crazy, to sit savouring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time. (p. 255)

How to Cook a Wolf is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers / independent alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

My first experience of this novel was back in the mid-‘80s, shortly after it had won the Booker Prize. I was in my early twenties at the time – clearly much too young and lacking in life experience to fully appreciate the book’s many nuances and subtleties. At thirty-nine, Edith Hope (the central character) seemed middle-aged, old before her time – something I found difficult to connect with in the foolishness of my youth. Revisiting it now, I see it as a very different book – much more interesting and closely observed than it seemed on my first reading. The level of precision is remarkable, particularly in relation to detail and character. 

As the novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere, traditional hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal.

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name, remained standing at the window, as if an access of good will could pierce the mysterious opacity with which she had been presented, although she had been promised a tonic cheerfulness, a climate devoid of illusions, an utterly commonsensical, not to say pragmatic, set of circumstances – quiet hotel, excellent cuisine, long walks, lack of excitement, early nights – in which she could be counted upon to retrieve her serious and hard-working personality and to forget the unfortunate lapse which had led to this brief exile, in this apparently unpopulated place, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home…(p. 8)

(The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book, so I shall endeavour to avoid any spoilers about this.)

It is late September, out of season, and the hotel is a sparse, soulless place, a bastion of respectability and privacy. The sort of place that doctors know about, where troubled or troublesome relatives can be sent for a period of rest and recuperation. New residents are occasionally accepted, but only on the recommendation of known parties.

At the end of her first evening, Edith is ‘adopted’ by Iris Pusey, a glamorous, well-dressed woman of commanding personality and indeterminate age. In return, Edith soon realises that she is to be an audience for Mrs Pusey’s views – a series of opinions, reminiscences and judgements on various aspects of life. This Edith is happy to do, partly because it allows her to observe an ‘alien species’, the study of human behaviour being a key component of her craft. Moreover, Mrs Pusey is accompanied by her grown-up daughter, Jennifer, a less-polished version of Mrs P, but equally striking in her own, rather girlish way.

The Puseys spend their days shopping for clothes, viewing their annual trip to the Hotel du Lac as a necessity in their social calendar. Luckily for Mrs Pusey, she is extremely wealthy, her late husband having left enough money for mother and daughter to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Edith is rather fascinated by Jennifer whose age also proves difficult to define. (She is in fact thirty-nine, something that comes as quite a surprise given her childlike demeanour.)  At times, Jennifer seems very young, like a little girl still devoted to her mother; at others, a more mature side of her personality emerges, revealing her to be something of an odalisque aware of her sexual attractiveness.

There are other guests at the hotel too, women whose lives have been defined by more dominant members of their families – primarily men. Consequently, these women have little influence or agency of their own. There is Monica, the tall, beautiful lady with a dog, whom Edith encounters shortly after she arrives at the hotel. Lady Monica, whose relationship with food is dictated by an eating disorder, has been sent to the hotel ‘to get herself in working order’ to produce a baby. Monica’s husband is desperate for an heir, and should one not be forthcoming soon, Monica will likely be dismissed, thereby enabling Sir John to make ‘alternative arrangements’.  

Mme de Bonneuil is also of note here. Deposited at the hotel by her unfeeling son and his self-centred wife, this elderly lady will soon be dispatched to her winter quarters in Lausanne where a long, dark season surely beckons. With her sequined veil and walking stick, Mme B cuts a poignant figure, particularly as the move to Lausanne edges ever closer.  

Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. As a writer of romantic novels, Edith is continually exploring the lives of women. ‘What behaviour most becomes a woman?’ What is deemed to be respectable or acceptable?

Edith’s position in relation to these points is brought sharply into focus with the arrival of Philip Neville, a perceptive, sophisticated man who is intrigued by Edith. He swiftly surmises her position, identifying her single status as a disadvantage. While her career as a writer has enabled Edith to live an independent life, she remains somewhat annexed from polite society – pitied by her friends, some of whom have tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to arrange suitable matches. (Little do they know that Edith has a married lover, David, a man she is deeply in love with, despite the fact that he will never leave his wife.) This separateness is something Edith is acutely aware of – even so, the extent to which Mr Neville intuits her situation cuts like a knife.

‘What you need, Edith, is not love. What you need is a social position. What you need is marriage.’

‘I know,’ she said.

‘And once you are married, you can behave as badly as everyone else. Worse, given your unused capacity.’

‘The relief,’ she agreed.

‘And you will be popular with one and all, and have so much more to talk about. And never have to wait by the telephone again.’

Edith stood up. ‘It’s getting cold,’ she said. ‘Shall we go.’

She strode on ahead of him. That last remark was regrettable, she thought. Vulgar. And he knows where to plant the knife. (p. 101)

As the novel reaches its denouement, Mr Neville proposes to Edith. It is not a proposal borne out of love – instead, he is offering her a partnership based on mutual self-esteem. Following the messy breakdown of his previous marriage, Mr Neville is looking a wife, someone he can trust, someone who will not let him down or embarrass him in the future. In return, marriage will give Edith a respectable social position, something that will confer on her an air of confidence and sophistication. Furthermore, she will retain the freedom to write, to continue with her career as desired. Both parties will be free to see other people should they wish, as long as they remain discreet.

In the end, Edith must choose the kind of life she is to lead. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures, its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for the benefit of social acceptability? (There is also the question of whether it will be possible for Edith to go back to her familiar life in England, should she wish to do so. This is not at all certain given her recent history.) Ultimately, an unexpected discovery forces Edith’s hand, revealing unpalatable truths about two of the hotel’s residents, while also signalling what may lay ahead for Edith should she opt for a particular path.

I could have written a very different piece to this, one that explores Edith’s dilemma in light of the events that prefaced her exile; but that would have revealed too many spoilers, I think. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. This time around, I absolutely loved it.

Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.