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…

42 thoughts on “The #1956Club – some recommendations of books to read

  1. Liz

    Like you, and many others reading this no doubt, I have tons of other reading I should be doing. But I can’t resist Club weeks! I love the sound of the Dard and it’s always a pleasure to read Elizabeth Jane Howard. Thanks so much for the tips, Jacqui. 😀

    Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a lovely selection of books for 1956 Jacqui, and I haven’t actually read any of these. I think this really is going to be a bumper year, and I’m hoping to get to the Brophy. In fact, I really should be getting started with my 1956 reading!! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a bumper year! In fact, I was quite surprised to see how many books I’d already read and reviewed – hence the post. The Brophy is marvellous and somewhat ahead of its time, I suspect, as the bohemian ‘feel’ seems reminiscent of the 1960s. It’s going to be a fascinating week…

      Reply
  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    What a great list! I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a “club year” (which I haven’t done before), but have delayed in my choice, as per usual. Everything on your list sounds very tempting. I’ve actually read “A Legacy” (I love Sybille Bedford) and have the E.J. Howard on my own TBR list. So many choices . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Even though I have a few reservations about the Howard, it’s still very much worth reading – not least because of the structure, which somehow makes it more intriguing to uncover the underlying source of the decay. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think of it should you decide to pick it up!

      Reply
  4. Anokatony

    Of those you mention, I have only read ‘A Legacy’ by Sybille Bedford which is an absolutely superb novel.
    I do have another suggestion for a 1956 novel, ‘Zama’ by Antonio de Benedetto. It is the story of a skirt-chasing bureaucrat in Paraguay in the 1790s.

    Reply
  5. Claire (The Captive Reader)

    I hadn’t realised A Legacy was from 1956 – definitely one for me to try to track down. From my own shelves, I’ve pulled out Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson, We Made a Garden by Margery Fish, Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, and, from my father’s childhood bookshelf, The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline. Looking forward to seeing what everyone else reads!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a great selection! I’m not familiar with any of those, so I shall look out for your reviews with interest. Spam Tomorrow sounds particularly good – both funny and poignant, if the description is anything to go by…

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Great recommendations, of those I have read The King of the Rainy Country, Tea at Four o’clock and Legacy. The Sagan especially appeals though. I already more books for 1956 than I can read though.

    Reply
  7. Reese Warner

    A fun list. I thought both Barbarous Coast and A Legacy were great–I haven’t read any of the others. I need to start thinking about my choice(s?) soon!

    Reply
  8. buriedinprint

    What a grand idea, to build interest in advance. I’m planning to participate but haven’t made any decisions yet. (I’d best get busy, hadn’t I?!) There’s a copy of that Sybille Bedford on one of my shelves, perhaps that will do the trick.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’ll be interested to see your take on the Bedford should you decide to read it. I wasn’t entirely sold on her prose style but maybe I’m out on a limb on that front? It’s always interesting to hear anther view!

      Reply
  9. tracybham

    I am glad you wrote this post. I nearly forgot about the dates for the 1956 club. It doesn’t seem like we should be nearing the end of September already. I will be reading and reviewing The Keys of My Prison by Frances Shelley Wees, an American-Canadian author who spent most of her life in Canada.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It’s hard to work out where the time is going at the moment, especially with the ongoing pandemic. I hope you enjoy The Keys of My Prison – not a book (or author) I’m familiar with, so I shall have to take a look.

      Reply
  10. clodge2013

    My choice is (yet) another Rose Macaulay: The Towers of Trebizond. Racy wild strange book. I will check out any others from my blog – Bookword. Thanks for your recommendations.
    Caroline

    Reply
  11. 1streading

    Some great suggestions – the only one I’ve read is the Dard. 1956 does seem to be an embarrassment of riches – in fact, I already own too many to read in a week!

    Reply
  12. Liz Dexter

    I am not sure I’ve got any books from this year in my TBR and I’m only allowing myself to do challenges this year when I can do them from the TBR. Oh dear! I will have a poke around it just to see, though – there are some Persephones and Dean St Press books on the shelf so I might be lucky!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fingers crossed! I’m very much trying to read from my shelves too. Luckily, the 1950s are relatively well represented in my TBR, so I was able to find something suitable amongst the mix!

      Reply
        1. Radz Pandit

          Wonderful list Jacqui! I have the Dard, Brophy, Sagan and Bedford. And I realised that Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners were published in 1956 too. Really spoiled for choice.

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            You are spoilt for choice! I hope you enjoy whatever you decide to go for in the end. The Dard strikes me as being a particularly good match for your tastes. Ditto the Brophy.

            Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool. I’ll be interested to see what you think of the Baldwin, especially as everything I’ve read by him has been very good. Nice to hear that Romain Gary has something for 1956 too. Hopefully someone will read it in time for next week. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re great fun, although I only tend to participate if I have something suitable on the shelves. Luckily, 1956 falls well within my favourite era, so I’m all set for next week!

      Reply

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