Monthly Archives: April 2021

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that surprises me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from the highly respected writer, editor and critic Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life.

Central to the novel is the relationship between two men – Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The book is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age.

At eighteen, Jimmy is being encouraged by his English teacher – the sharp-eyed Mrs O’Connor – to continue his education, mainly as a route out of his working-class Ayrshire background. Tully, however, is going down a different path in life, working as a machinist but living mainly for the evenings and weekends. There is more than a touch of Albert Finney about Tully – not just in appearance but in personality too.

Irvine New Town, east of eternity. Tully was twenty years old and a lathe turner. He impersonated Arthur Seaton from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by taunting his boss all week and drinking pints of Black and Tan all weekend. He looked like Albert Finney, all slicked-up hair, but in Tully’s case spiked with soap. At that time, he had the kind of looks that appeal to all the sexes and all ages, and his natural effrontery opened people up. (p. 4)

Tully and Jimmy hang out with a gang of lads – Tibbs, Limbo, Hogg and Dr Clogs – whose defining characteristics range from the techy one to the political one. Their lives are defined by music, football, and various cultural references, their conversations peppered with lists of ‘top threes’: the three best goals scored by a Scottish player or the top three films starring Robert de Niro. I’m sure you get the drift.  

Where the first half of the novel really excels is in capturing the sheer adrenaline rush of being young, a time when your whole life is ahead of you, and the possibilities appear endless. The highlight of the summer is a weekend in Manchester, a trip centred on an indie music festival at the city’s G-Mex centre. The boys are high on the anticipation of the event, affording it the feel of a momentous occasion – a kind of coming-of-age or last flush of youth, something that O’Hagan neatly portrays in Jimmy’s response to this seemingly magical city.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things. (p. 53)

I just paused for a second, standing there, and realised I was ‘in it’, part of the city right then, and part of the history we were here to celebrate. (p. 58)

It’s a formative experience for Tully too, one that sets him on a different life path due to Jimmy’s carefully directed input. While Tully might be a lathe turner at the moment, higher education remains a viable option for the future, potentially opening up an escape from his humble beginnings. (As an aside, both boys have somewhat distant relationships with their fathers, a factor that seems crucial in shaping their personalities.)

The concert, when it comes, is like a drug – a high epitomised by The Smiths and lead singer Morrisey’s magnetic presence and swagger. 

The singer wafted into view and sold his drowsy reticence like a drug. The band was at its height, romantic and wronged and fierce and sublime, with haircuts like agendas. Morrissey came brandishing a license, a whole manner of permission, as if a new kind of belonging could be made from feeling left out, like nobody knew you as he did. (p. 120)

There is a hint of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in the mood and feel of this first section, particularly given the laddish banter amongst the group. And yet, that’s far from being the complete picture here; there is a softer side to the novel’s opening too, a real tenderness in the portrayal of these boys, who come across as hugely likeable and endearing. Despite all the surface bravado and brio on display, especially from Tully, O’Hagan never lets us forget how vulnerable these young men might be, both now and in the future.

In part two, we fast-forward thirty years to the autumn of 2017 and a whole different phase of life for the two central protagonists who remain closely connected – still firm friends, still throwing ‘top threes’ at one another – in spite of their physical distance. At forty-nine, Jimmy is an established writer, living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre. Having taken Jimmy’s advice and worked his way through night school, Tully is now a teacher, Head of English no less, in a school in Glasgow’s East End.

One day, Jimmy receives a call from Tully, the sort of phone call we all dread. There’s a crisis on the horizon for Tully, the kind of crunch point which is not going to disappear. He needs Jimmy’s help, both emotionally and practically, a request that only the closest of friends can ever make. Naturally, given their history, Jimmy agrees, ultimately finding himself caught between two conflicting forces – on the one hand, his loyalty to lifelong buddy, Tully; and on the other, his concern for Tully’s partner, Anna, who has her own somewhat different vision of the future.

The tonal register of this second half is very different to the first – more sobering and reflective in mood, qualities that tend to develop naturally as we age. Nevertheless, Tully remains fiercely comedic in the face of intense adversity, interspersing the serious stuff of life with hilarious anecdotes and banter.

Alongside these perceptive insights into Tully’s psyche, O’Hagan is particularly strong on the emotional impact of the dilemma on Jimmy. There is an overriding sense of loyalty here, a testament to the strength of a lifelong friendship that feels rock solid to the core – and yet Jimmy is also acutely alert to the bigger picture and its attendant moral considerations while Tully chooses to remain blinkered. 

Yet it became obvious, as the weeks passed, that his [Tully’s] decisions were having an impact way beyond himself. As an adult, he had a kind of complacency when it came to the opinions of others; he didn’t quite believe the world beyond himself could halt his ideas. (p. 154)

As a consequence, Jimmy attempts to mediate between Tully and his immediate family, throwing himself into activities in the hope of catalysing some form of resolution. The ending, when it comes, feels both heartbreaking and strangely triumphant, a hugely affecting combination that O’Hagan manages to pull off with skill and grace. Without wishing to reveal too many spoilers, there are some big moral and ethical considerations here, and yet the narrative never feels weighed down or mired in burdensome detail. The lightness of touch is one of the most impressive things about this novel, which manages to be emotionally truthful without ever succumbing to the merest hint of sentimentality – another testament to the author’s artistry and sensitivity. Moreover, the book as a whole feels perfectly balanced in spite of the shift hallway through; we need the vitality of that first half for the poignancy of part two to hit home.

In writing Mayflies, O’Hagan has given us a novel of rare beauty and humanity, an exhilarating portrayal of youth and a touching ode to male friendship. I loved it to bits – very highly recommended indeed for lovers of well-crafted character-driven fiction.

Mayflies is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of Paula Byrne’s marvellous new biography of Barbara Pym. If you missed it, you can catch up with it here as this post carries straight on from the first.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this biography – and there are many things to treasure here – are the connections Byrne makes between Pym’s personal life and the threads in her fiction. Over the course of her career, Pym drew extensively on her own personal experiences, creating an environment populated with excellent, unassuming woman, pompous, unobservant husbands, fusty, isolated academics and precious young curates. Spinsterhood was a recurring theme, from ‘contended spinsters’ such as Belinda Bede from Some Tame Gazelle to exploited spinsters such as Mildred Lathbury from Excellent Women.

It is a world that seems at once both farcical and recognisable, such was Pym’s insight into the foibles of human nature. In effect, the novels became outlets for Pym’s deepest feelings, particularly those of loss, hurt and unrequited love.

In Some Tame Gazelle – which features two sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, closely modelled on how Barbara and her younger sibling Hilary might be living when they reach their fifties – Pym channelled former lover Henry Harvey for her portrayal of Archdeacon Hoccleve, a pompous, self-centred man whom Belinda worships from afar.

In Some Tame Gazelle, the Archdeacon loves nothing better than the sound of his own voice, bores his parishioners with his overlong, wordy sermons, and is jealous of his curates. Many of Henry’s traits and peccadilloes are depicted in this handsome, selfish, petulant, lazy, conceited and not terribly bright man of the cloth: his dislike of olives, his delicate constitution, his habit of lying in bed in the morning, his constant complaints. His Viennese red wool socks that Belinda must forever darn. (p. 133)

Hoccleve is a brilliant creation, all the more so when we realise how closely he resembles Henry in both character and behaviour. (You can read more about Pym’s romantic entanglements with Henry Harvey in part 1 of my review.)

Byrne highlights several other examples too. There is more than a hint of Julian Amery – a sophisticated young man who had a fling with Barbara, only to drop her quite casually – in Simon Beddoes, the ambitious young politician who featured in Pym’s marvellous ‘Oxford novel’ Crampton Hodnet.

Another of Pym’s lovers, Gordon Glover, provided the inspiration for Fabian Driver, the handsome yet vain widower from Jane and Prudence. Pym fell hard for Gordon, the estranged husband of her close friend Honor Glover; and while Honor knew about Pym’s relationship with Gordon, the situation was complicated by the fact that the two women were sharing a house (along with Barbara’s sister, Hilary) at the time.

In short, Barbara was mesmerised by Gordon, but their affair ended after just two months when he dumped her rather abruptly shortly after the Christmas break. While Gordon seemed to be treating their relationship as a fling, Barbara was hoping for something more lasting. As a consequence, Pym poured all of her hurt over the rejection by Gordon Glover – and his cowardice in not being straight with her – into another novel, the pitch-perfect Excellent Women. Here we see Pym writing with a whole new level of insight into affairs of the heart, particularly the intense bruising that can come from being sidelined.

Another rejection provided inspiration for the novel The Sweet Dove Died, written around 1970 but only published followed Pym’s renaissance later that decade. At close to fifty, Pym fell in love with another somewhat unsuitable chap, Richard Roberts, aka Skipper. A rugged, ‘virile-looking’ man, Skipper was eighteen years Pym’s junior and a homosexual; and while Pym appeared to be aware of Skipper’s sexual leanings from an early stage, it didn’t stop her from falling hard for him. Skipper had a certain degree of charisma, but there was also a dark side to his personality, an irascible, depressive streak that made him difficult to like. Once again Pym was ‘off-loaded’, an experience that she channelled into her art, penning Dove as a kind of riposte. It is considered one of Pym’s most melancholy novels, a reflection no doubt of her feelings at the time.

To compound matters, Skipper’s rejection coincided with Pym’s well-documented ‘Wilderness Years’, which commenced when Jonathan Cape declined to published her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment. The year was 1963 – which Byrne terms as Pym’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ – when significant social changes were sweeping through Britain. As such, Pym’s rather genteel image seemed oddly out-of-step with modern trends and considerations.

Beatlemania had begun, and with it a cult of youth and working-class rebellion in which Pym’s world suddenly looked unfashionably middle aged and middle class – though she herself liked their records. (p. 486)

It didn’t help that the novel portrayed a cross-class relationship as being ‘unsuitable’, just at a time when class barriers were being demolished.

Pym was deeply hurt by Cape’s actions, particularly the manner of their brush-off, which was communicated to her in a cold letter, without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or phone call to soften the blow. Several other publishers subsequently declined An Unsuitable Attachment, and its successor The Sweet Dove Died; however, the respected writer Philip Larkin proved himself Pym’s saviour…

Larkin and Pym had been friends for many years, writing to one another over the course of a couple of decades. The poet was a huge fan of Pym’s novels, diligently re-reading them all every few years. As such, he was a great source of comfort to Barbara during her Wilderness Years, writing to Faber’s editor, Charles Monteith, on her behalf in the hope of securing future publications of her work.

‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail, which is a joy and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it.’ (Letter from Larkin to Charles Monteith, p. 522)

Pym’s renaissance was finally secured in 1977 when the TLS ran an article asking various writers to name their most underrated authors. Pym was the only writer to receive two nominations, one from Philip Larkin, the other from Lord David Cecil. As a consequence, Pym’s fortunes changed virtually overnight. Various broadsheets wanted to interview her, Roy Plomley secured her for Desert Island Discs, and best of all, Macmillan offered to published her latest novels, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Even Jonathan Cape wanted to be friends with Pym again, once they’d got over the shock of her new-found popularity. The satisfaction of being able to tell them that she’d since signed with Macmillan must have been delightful for Pym! A happy ending for our heroine, very much in keeping with the tone of her early books.

I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you a flavour of this absorbing biography over the past few weeks. (It really is a very comprehensive book.) There were many sides to Pym’s personality, some of them public, others more private. Ultimately, what emerges is an image of a woman who had many fascinating experiences during her lifetime, including several affairs of the heart – a rather surprising number for an English gentlewoman and spinster from the mid-20th-century! (Other than Pym’s relationship with Henry Harvey, I had very little knowledge of this aspect of her life before reading Byrne’s biography.)

While Pym’s canvases were small, the emotions she depicted were significant and universal, highlighting her sensitivity to the foibles of human behaviour. There is a sharpness in her fiction that comes from lived experience, a compassion and sense of humanity, particularly for those who have loved and lost. How I envy those of you who’ve yet to read her for the first time – you have so many treats to forward to!

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my sincere thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 1

Last week I posted a little excerpt from Paula Byrne’s comprehensive new biography of Barbara Pym, one of my favourite underappreciated writers from the mid-20th century. Hopefully it will have whetted your appetite for this truly immersive book, which I plan to cover in more detail over the course of the week. (It really is a most fascinating read!)

Byrne digs deep into the detail here, following Pym from her childhood in Shropshire to her twilight years in Oxfordshire, illuminating with great clarity and affection each distinct phase of the author’s life. The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is written in the style of a picaresque narrative, which gives the book a jaunty tone, very much in line with its subject’s world. As such, it is presented as an engaging sequence of vignettes with titles such as ‘Miss Pym’s Summer of Love’, ‘Miss Pym passes her Interview’ and ‘Hullo Skipper’.

Following her birth in Oswestry in 1913, Pym lived through a remarkable period of history, a time that encompassed two World Wars, a royal abdication and sweeping social change; and while it would be impossible for me to cover all aspects of her life in these reviews, I hope to convey something of the flavour of the book.

Pym’s childhood was a happy and loving one. Born into a respectable, middle-class family in 1913, Barbara was well suited to Oswestry’s comfortable routines. Her father, Frederic, was a good-natured solicitor, and her mother, Irena, the epitome of the ‘excellent women’ Pym would go on to portray with great affection in her novels.

Irena – an avid reader and lover of music – had clear ambitions for Barbara and her younger daughter, Hilary, supporting their education in the hope they would progress to Oxford. In 1931, Barbara gladly fulfilled her mother’s wishes, winning a place at St Hilda’s College to read English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these new surrounding proved stimulating and exhilarating to the young Pym, and she embraced University life with great enthusiasm and relish.

Pym found Oxford ‘intoxicating’. In no small part this was because she suddenly found herself the centre of male attention and, like many girls from single-sex schools, she was ready to enjoy being in the company of young men. As with her heroine, Miss Bates, in her third published novel Jane and Prudence, the male undergraduates beat a path to Pym’s door. It was not only the preponderance of men (the ratio was one woman to ten men) that enhanced her desirability, but also the fact that she was so funny and interesting. She was in particular a magnet for homosexual men, who were drawn to her wit and playfulness. (pp. 26–27)

As a witty, highly original young woman, Pym was not short of male admirers, and Byrne devotes several chapters to the romantic adventures in our heroine’s life, many of which proved hurtful and damaging. Pym tended to rush headlong into love affairs, confessing all her most intimate feelings in the pages of her diaries. Naturally, Byrne draws heavily on these texts in this biography, particularly as they offer such a rich seam of material.

Pym’s first real love was a Classics student named Rupert Gleadow, and while their letters to one another were both affectionate and passionate, Barbara was clearly coming under pressure to take things a step further. When Barbara finally agreed to sleep with Rupert, the incident caused a rupture in their relationship – the relevant pages from Barbara’s diary are missing, presumably ripped out from intense embarrassment and distress. The specifics of what happened that night remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it is clear from the state of Barbara’s diary and her subsequent withdrawal from Rupert that she felt pressurised, ultimately losing her virginity in a most unpleasant way. It must have been an incredibly traumatic thing for any young woman to process at the time, especially someone of Barbara’s sensitivity. The very least she could do was to purge the incident from her diary if not from her memories and mindset.

Other lovers duly followed, perhaps most significantly, Henry Harvey, a handsome student whom Pym ‘stalked’ at the Bodleian Library – his ‘herringbone tweed grey overcoat and brown leather gloves, lined with lambswool’ were duly noted. Unfortunately for Barbara, Henry led her a bit of a merry dance, playing things cool and flirting with other admirers, even though their relationship had become sexual.

In truth, the deeply sensitive Pym was too open with her affections, falling fast and hard for this dashing intellectual with a tendency for cruelty. Henry abused Pym’s affections, but he was also capable of great compassion alongside the callousness, and Pym remained attracted to him for several years. Sadly, Pym’s early experiences with Henry set something of a pattern for her future relationships with men – as Byrne quite correctly notes in the biography, ‘the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt’.

Alongside Pym’s romantic entanglements, Byrne shines a light on many other aspects of Pym’s life, not least her war work in the Wrens and subsequent role in the African Institute, where she became involved in the field of anthropology. It is perhaps no coincidence that Pym would gravitate to such an area, concerned as it is with the subject of human behaviour.

Also covered within the biography is Pym’s fascination with Germany – its culture, its landscapes and ultimately its men (her rather naïve flirtation with an SS Officer, Friedbert Glück, is explored in some detail). Interestingly, the initial mid-1930s drafts of her early novel, Some Tame Gazelle, contained several references to Germany; however, Pym finally removed them on the advice of her friend, Jock Liddell – a trusted Oxford contemporary who helped Barbara with her early manuscripts.

Like many Britons in the 1930s, Pym was drawn to the allure of developments in Germany, only to subsequently realise the true horror of Hitler’s regime as the war drew closer. Pym remained blinkered to the reality of the situation for some time, refusing to believe that her darling Friedbert could be capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, his closeness to Hitler made this a distinct possibility. It’s a salutary experience that highlights just how challenging it can be for us to separate the personal from the political, especially when our deepest emotions are involved.

Luckily Pym ultimately saw the light, and by the time of its publication in 1950, Some Tame Gazelle had been stripped of all references to Germany and its countrymen. In hindsight, it is rather lucky that Pym’s initial submission of Gazelle was rejected by Chatto & Windus in the mid ‘30s, otherwise her legacy might have looked somewhat different…

That’s it for today. More in part 2 of this review when I’ll be looking at how Pym mined her own personal experiences as source material for her fiction. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this insightful biography, particularly as it sets Pym’s fiction in a more personal context.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson

I’ve become rather fascinated with Shirley Jackson in recent years – a writer whose work taps into the dark side of American suburban life. The Road Through the Wall was Jackson’s debut novel, a slim yet effective story focusing on the inhabitants of a seemingly ordinary street, the sort of setting that seems fairly innocuous on the surface despite the elements of cruelty lurking beneath. While it’s not my favourite of Jackson’s works, The Road is still very much worth reading, especially as a precursor to the masterpieces that followed – an interesting debut that feels very much of a piece with this author’s subsequent work.

First published in 1948 (shortly before the appearance of The Lottery), the novel is set in Pepper Street, a suburban avenue in the fictional town of Cabrillo, some thirty miles from San Francisco. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, especially the women in the neighbourhood.

The Desmonds are Pepper Street ‘aristocracy’, a respectable, upwardly mobile family who seem destined to move a more desirable area in the future.

Beyond the hedge the Desmonds lived in a rambling modern-style house, richly jeweled with glass brick. They were the aristocracy of the neighbourhood, and their house was the largest; their adopted son Johnny, who was fifteen years old, associated with boys whose families did not live on Pepper Street, but in neighborhoods where the Desmonds expected to live someday. (p. 2)

Various other families are introduced in the novel’s prologue – some on their way up in life, others on their way down.

The year is 1936, and it’s the start of the summer holidays, a time when the children can roam the streets – playing games and forming cliques as youngsters are apt to do. What Jackson does so well in this novel is to show how the prejudices and petty jealousies of the adults filter down to the mindsets and behaviours of their children, ultimately creating friction between the various families in the street. In short, the children’s actions are shaped almost entirely by their parents’ snobberies and preconceptions.

The Perlmans are shunned by the other residents of Pepper Street, largely because of their Jewish heritage which marks them out as being ‘different’ from the norm. When Harriet Merriam’s mother realises that her daughter is friendly with Marilyn Perlman, she forces young Harriet to stop seeing the girl. Clearly, there are ‘standards’ to be maintained, however interesting our new friends may seem to be…

“We must expect to set a standard. Actually, however much we may want to find new friends whom we may value, people who are exciting to us because of new ideas, or because they are different, we have to do what is expected of us.”

“What is expected of me?” Harriet said suddenly, without intention.

“To do what you’re told,” her mother said sharply.

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“You may,” her mother said, “in fact I insist,” she added with relish, “that you see her once more, in order to tell her exactly why you are not to be friends any longer. After all,” Mrs Merriam went on dreamily, “she ought to know why she can’t hope to be your friend any longer.” (pp. 148–149)

Mrs Merriam also punishes her daughter for writing harmless love letters and keeping secret journals, things than many children do as natural ways of expressing themselves, especially during adolescence. Mrs Merriam, however, is disgusted by her daughter’s behaviour, viewing her writing as shameful and repugnant. (There is a sense that Jackson may be drawing on some of her own childhood experiences here, particularly as Geraldine Jackson – Shirley’s mother – was driven by a strong desire for conformity.)

Also excluded from various social gathering are the Martins, a simpleminded family who remain rather passive in relation to their neighbours. Mrs Merriam would prefer it if fourteen-year-old Harriet could distance herself from the two Martin children, George (also 14) and Hallie (9). However, the fact that the two families live next door to one another makes any segregation virtually impossible, especially as the children tend to play communally.

In this novel, Jackson shows herself to be adept at exposing the flaws in the veneer of normality. Behind the seemingly respectable facades, there are instances of emotional bullying, longstanding resentments and thinly-veiled prejudices. Snobbishness and casual racism are widespread, particularly amongst the women. Those who consider themselves above the fray are especially guilty of hypocrisy – seizing the moral high ground with one breath while sneering and spreading malicious gossip with the next.

As the novel draws to its dramatic conclusion, Jackson takes it up a notch, accentuating the sense of foreboding that runs through the whole narrative. When a mysterious disappearance occurs during a garden party, the finger of suspicion falls on Tod Donald, rather odd, awkward boy who is considered to be something of a misfit. The fact that he has already crept into the Desmonds’ house and rummaged through Mrs D’s dress closet only adds to reader’s suspicions.

Jackson is careful to leave a degree of ambiguity in the novel’s ending, raising questions about the exact nature of the incidents towards the end. What is clear though is her understanding of humanity, the capacity for cruelty and violence that can lie therein. A taut, unsettling novel from this uncompromising writer – well worth seeking out, especially for Jackson devotees.

The Road Through the Wall is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.  

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their acute observations of the minutiae and minor dramas of day-to-day English life. It will therefore come as no surprise to many of you that I was eager to read The Adventures of Miss Barbra Pym – a brand new biography by the respected biographer and novelist Paula Byrne. It’s a wonderfully immersive book, one that manages to be both illuminating and affectionate in relatively equally measure.

A more detailed review will follow in due course, but as a taster I wanted to share the following vignette from the biography – an incident which is so quintessentially Pym-like in style that it could have come straight out of one of her novels. Byrne makes this very point in her biography, and she is spot on. There is a comic absurdity to it, much like the little slights that Pym portrayed in her early novels, Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

It concerns a certain retailer’s reaction to Pym’s third published novel, Jane and Prudence, in which Jane, a rather frumpy clergyman’s wife, is playing matchmaker for her friend, Prudence, an elegant, independent young woman. While critical reviews of the novel were polite and reserved, Pym’s friends were more encouraging with some even preferring it to much loved Excellent Women. In certain respects, the characters seemed more ‘real’ – Prudence in particular.

A blow was suddenly struck, however, when a letter arrived from the legal department of Marks and Spencer. The store had taken umbrage at Jane Cleveland’s comment about their clothes: ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer as we’ve never been used to anything better.’ (p. 435)

Pym – a fan of M&S and their clothes – had intended the line to be an affectionate remark, capturing the gentle comfort one can gain from something familiar and reliable. (It’s worth remembering that J&P was published in 1953, not long after the end of clothes rationing in 1949.) Marks and Spencer, however, were upset by the suggestion that their clothes were considered substandard, commenting as follows in their rather wounded and pompous riposte:

‘This reference is clearly derogatory of the Company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses worn by this Company are of inferior quality and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s or Debenham’s.’ (p. 435)

As far as M&S were concerned, the fact that Pym had previously been described as the author of books ‘worthy of Jane Austen’ only added insult to injury. Jonathan Cape – Pym’s publishers at the time – responded to confirm that no harm had been intended and ‘Pym wrote dutifully that as a regular customer she had the greatest respect for the store’.

Just like the world Pym created in her novels, this incident is at once both entirely ridiculous and strangely believable – an anecdote that seems entirely in keeping with Pym’s tonal register!  

If this has whetted your appetite for the book, you might want to grab yourself a ticket for the forthcoming livestream event being co-hosted by the Chorleywood Bookshop, Village Books and the Seven Oaks Bookshop. Tickets start at £6 for the event, which is accessible worldwide. There’s a link here if you’re interested. (I should declare a link with the Chiltern Bookshops as I’m currently managing their Personalised Book Subscription services.)

More on this engaging biography a little later, hopefully in the next few weeks…

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Nada by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. by Donald Nicholson-Smith)

I think I have Max (at Pechorin’s Journal) to thank for introducing me to Jean-Patrick Manchette, the French novelist, screenwriter and translator credited with reinvigorating the crime genre in the 1970s and early ‘80s. As an author, Manchette was instrumental in developing the ‘néo-polar’ noir, a strand of crime fiction characterised by an engagement with political and social radicalism. Before starting this blog, I read three of Manchette’s novels, Three to Kill, Fatale and The Prone Gunman, all of which I would thoroughly recommend. (Max and Guy have written about them in detail, so do check out their reviews if you’re interested in discovering more.)

Nada, Manchette’s fourth novel, is the tense and gripping story of a kidnapping that turns sour. Like this author’s other books, there’s a strong political edge to the narrative, highlighting the corruption that remains endemic within the country’s authorities.

The Nada of the book’s title relates to a criminal gang – an ill-assorted bunch of revolutionaries, intellectuals and disaffected alcoholics – who decide to kidnap the US Ambassador to France during his weekly trip to a Parisian brothel. It’s not entirely clear what the Nada collective hopes to achieve from this stunt – revolution, money, notoriety, martyrdom? – maybe it varies for different members within the group. What is evident though is the unmistakable air of self-destruction hanging over the mission, which seems destined to implode, virtually from the very start.

Central to the gang is Andre Épaulard, a fifty-year-old trained killer with links to the Communist Resistance, stemming from the time of Germany’s Occupation of France. At first, Épaulard is somewhat reluctant to join the group but is finally lured in through a connection with one of the other members. A lone wolf at heart, Épaulard is also the one most likely to stay focused when the situation blows up. By contrast, Buenaventura Diaz is something of a hothead, a professional revolutionary from Catalonia in Spain – liable to go rogue at any given moment.

Also of significance is Treuffais, a disaffected philosophy teacher in his mid-twenties who loathes the college establishment, particularly the bourgeoisie with their conventional middle-class attitudes. As the group’s resident intellectual, Treuffais is responsible for drafting the Nada manifesto; and while not an active participant in the Ambassador’s abduction itself, he remains a vital connection to the group as the aftermath unfolds.

Completing the group are D’Arcy, the gang’s alcoholic driver; Meyer, a somewhat aimless waiter whose role in the mission appears somewhat unclear; and Veronique Cash, a gritty young woman whose farm will be used as the gang’s main hideout.

D’Arcy left the building carrying a screwdriver with a set of interchangeable heads. He stopped at the end of the street to toss down a double Ricard in a dive, then walked on to Place de la Concorde and thence towards Place de l’Étoile. He inspected the parked cars. Not far from the Petit Palais, he came upon a Consul station wagon with an open window. He got into the vehicle and spent a good ten minutes hot-wiring it and unlocking the steering wheel. He set the car in motion, merged into the still fairly heavy traffic, made a detour so as to get onto Rue de Rivoli westbound, found a parking space, popped in for another double Ricard and went back up to Épaulard’s. (p. 57)

There is a brutal efficiency to Nada as it hurtles towards its inevitable destination at a lightning-fast speed. The writing is tight, pared-back and relentless, clearly portraying a world caught up in the politics of corruption. And yet, there is a touch of facetiousness in Manchette’s prose, a mordant note of humour which accentuates the absurd.

Meyer wanted to shoot himself or just go to work – it was hard to say which. He looked at his watch. Two fifteen. Just time enough to avoid being late. (p. 16)

“I’m a murderer,” said D’Arcy.

“Settle down,” said Épaulard. “You ran down an American agent and knocked out a cop. That’s all.”

“I killed that cop.”

“With a slingshot?”

“I killed him,” D’Arcy repeated calmly. “I want to drink myself to oblivion.” (p. 67)

When the Ambassador’s abduction comes to light, the police see an opportunity to dictate the narrative, even at the expense of preserving the victim’s life. In essence, the desire to pin the blame on the terrorists seems to trump any other, more humane considerations – thereby highlighting how the story is likely to play out, especially in the media.

What’s interesting about this novel is how it feels at once both modern and a product of its time – particularly in its depiction of the authoritarian corruption that characterises the era. A reflection perhaps on life in the early ‘70s, the period following the civil unrest triggered by the Paris uprising of ’68 when students and unions alike were pushing for significant change. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of fatalism running through the narrative, an acceptance of there being little point in trying to transform political policy, irrespective of means. Each member of the Nada gang has their own individual frustrations with the system, fuelling their sense of desire to gain redress or retribution for their grievances.

In summary, then, Nada is a ruthlessly efficient noir with a strong political edge, the kind of fatalistic narrative destined to end in frenzied self-destruction. Recommended for fans of Simenon and Leonardo Sciascia, both of whom have also been published by NYRB Classics.

Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge

First published in 1964, Across the Common is the third book I’ve read by the British writer Elizabeth Berridge, and it’s probably the richest and most complex of the three. There is quite a lot going on under the surface in this novel of family relationships and suburban life – a subversive element that reveals itself as the narrative progresses.

As the novel opens, Louise is in the process of leaving her husband, Max, to return to The Hollies, the house where she was brought up, largely by her aunts. Waiting at the door for Louise on her arrival are Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina, almost as if they were expecting her despite the lack of notice.

Right from the start there is a strange aura surrounding life at The Hollies, situated as it is across from the common in suburban Pagham Green. The house itself was built by Louise’s grandfather, a man whose presence still casts a shadow over the property in spite of (or perhaps because of) his early death. Now the house has become a refuge ‘for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’, as Rosa and Seraphina are soon to be joined by their sister, the wheelchair-bound Cissie.

Berridge excels at creating miniature pen-portraits of the three aunts, capturing their personalities and idiosyncrasies in the most visual of ways.

Aunt Cissie sat in her wheelchair, tiny and malevolent. She could not have weighed more than seven stone, and yet she seemed to vibrate with energy and fill the hall. I had forgotten, or perhaps had never noticed, how handsome she was. She had the Braithwaite nose, high and arched, and a look of a Basque woman about her: indomitable, aristocratic, and yet with a peasant’s energy. Beside her, my two aunts looked faded. (p. 103)

With her fur hat and forthright manner, Cissie has the eccentric air of ‘minor royalty’, commanding attention as she makes her big entrance. By contrast, Aunt Rosa – the eldest and most orderly of the three sisters – seems rather reserved in comparison, a standing typified by her grey flannel dress. Ultimately, it is left to Aunt Seraphina – the green-fingered middle sister – to provide some of the novel’s most humorous moments. As Louise is somewhat surprised to observe, Seraphina is a dab hand at pilfering flower cuttings from the local park, expertly trimming geranium shoots with great speed and efficiency, irrespective of the official regulations.

‘Aunt Seraphina, you can’t! You’ll be had up! Suppose everybody just took –’

‘Hush, child. Everybody is not me. I understand flowers. They were simply begging to be propagated. There is no crime in simply taking a few shoots to propagate in one’s own garden. Think of the next frost: it would be too late. I cannot bear waste, and I told an officious keeper, so, once.’

‘You were caught?’

‘Caught? Come, come. I was observed, yes, and given a sharp warning. But I made him understand my views. I explained that it was my money being spent on this park, so I was entitled to a little interest on it. Men are so illogical.’ (p. 43)

Louise may have more than one reason for returning to her childhood home, for stepping into the past and its memories of those early years. Naturally, there is the question of what she ought to do in the future, having left Max to his work as an art teacher (and potentially the company of one of his students, too). At first, the split seems permanent, but as the novel progresses, the finality of this decision appears somewhat less certain.

Intertwined with these considerations are Louise’s reflections on her family history, particularly the apparent differences between the Braithwaite men and the women.

It was strange how this family had shed its men. They lost them by illness and disaster. And, if I faced it, by desertion. For their brothers, except for Bertie, still, one presumed, in Canada or America, were dead. They outlived their husbands, would-be lovers and sons. Men, one felt, were merely milestones. (p. 97)

In short, these unsettling feelings are heightened by a letter from Louise’s father (now deceased) that has recently come to light. The letter – which was written several years earlier and placed in the hands of a solicitor – reveals previously undisclosed information about the death of Louise’s grandfather and its ramifications for the wider family. It’s a revelation that ultimately forces Louise to confront the possibility of darkness and violence in her family’s history, where secrets were concealed to protect the reputations of the innocent.

There is a sense that Louise has also returned ‘home’ to understand her past more clearly, to gain a kind of freedom or independence from the aunts who raised her. It is only by doing this, by uncovering the guilt and shame inherent in The Hollies, that she can hope to move forward.

While there is a narrative of sorts here, Across the Common is a character-driven novel – an insightful and humane look at the complexities of family relationships. Berridge has a wonderful eye for detail, capturing the aunts’ minor jealousies with humour and authenticity. The way they cling to the past, guarding their individual habits and rituals, is really quite endearing, highlighting our need as human beings for some dignity and stability – particularly in old age. Louise too is very well drawn, with an engaging combination of visible sympathy and private humour.

Overall, then, an enjoyable read with some great characterisation. Well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of this type of fiction. The Gerts have also written about this book, and you can find their thoughts here

My copy of Across the Common was published by Abacus; personal copy.