The #1954Club – some reading recommendations for next week

On Monday 18th April, Karen and Simon will be kicking off the #1954Club, a week-long celebration of books first published in 1954. Their ‘Club’ weeks are always great fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the various tweets, reviews and recommendations flying around the web during the event.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my fondness for fiction from the 1940s and ‘50s, I’ve reviewed various 1954 books over the past few years. So if you’re thinking of taking part in the Club, here are some of my faves.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays here, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

This very compelling noir sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. In this instance, Highsmith is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. The novel revolves around Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both believable and fascinating to observe. Even though Walter knows his actions are truly reckless, he goes ahead with them anyway, irrespective of the tragic consequences. It’s an intriguing novel, ideal for lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

This charming novel revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the men in turn.) While de Vilmorin’s story is set in the 1920s, there is a timeless quality to it, so much so that it would be easy to imagine it playing out in the late 19th century, complete with the relevant social mores of the day. In short, Les Belles Amours is a beautifully constructed story of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – by turns elegant, artful and poignant. I suspect it’s currently out of print, but secondhand copies of the Capuchin Classics edition are still available.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s debut novel is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s. Our narrator is Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. When Jack must find a new place to live – ably accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – the quest sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape Jack’s outlook on life in subtly different ways. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. On one level, it’s all tremendous fun, but there’s a sense of depth to the story too. A witty, engaging story and a thoroughly enjoyable read – my first Murdoch, but hopefully not my last.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

First published in France in 1954, Vertigo (originally titled D’entre les morts, meaning Among the Dead) is the source novel for Hitchcock’s 1958 film of the same name. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s darker than Hitchcock’s adaptation – in particular, the characterisation feels stronger and more nuanced here. Lawyer and former police officer Roger Flavières is haunted by a traumatic incident from his past linked to a fear of heights. As the narrative unfolds, echoes of former experiences reverberate in the protagonist’s mind, trapping him in a kind of nightmare and feverish obsession. This highly compelling novella would suit readers who enjoy psychological mysteries, particularly those that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary.  

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

Taylor’s first collection of short fiction includes seventeen stories of varying length – ranging from brief sketches of two of three pages to the novella-sized titular tale that opens the collection. There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best vignettes from Taylor’s longer works. The opening piece in particular encapsulates many of this author’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals despite their inherent flaws. Where this collection really excels is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; and the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour. An excellent collection of stories from one of my very favourite authors.

Do let me know your thoughts on these books if you’ve read any of them. Or maybe you have plans of your own for the week – if so, I’d be interested to hear.

Hopefully I’ll be posting a new ‘1954’ review for the Club to tie in with the event, other commitments permitting!

38 thoughts on “The #1954Club – some reading recommendations for next week

  1. madamebibilophile

    All such tempting suggestions Jacqui! I’m planning to post on Comyns for the Club, and I’ve read Sagan, but the others all await me. The Murdoch sounds fun – I’ve only read The Sea, The Sea and you’ve reminded me I do want to explore her further.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, lovely! You’ve got a treat in store with the Comyns. I actually think it’s my favourite of hers, although who knows, that may well change in the future when I get around to The Juniper Tree…

      Reply
  2. Liz

    Such a great list, Jacqui. I agree with you about Under the Net. And I like the idea of reading Vertigo and The Blunderer as a pair of dark novels so I may well try to fit those in (albeit that like everyone I am ridiculously over-committed on my reading plans at the moment but how can one resist a Club week! 😂 )

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Liz. Those two would make an interesting pairing for sure. But if you’ve only got time for one, then I’d probably say The Blunderer. It’ll probably have you screaming at the book!

      Reply
  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    These all sound wonderful (imagine me busily jotting down titles!). The French novels are totally unknown to me; they both sound really worth reading.
    Comyns has been on my “must try her” list for a couple of years now (I’ll get to her, but almost certainly not this month). Is there a particular novel that’s good to start with, preferably one with no animal cruelty issues?
    I’ve read some Murdoch (The Bell sticks in my mind), but it’s been a very long time. I’ve actually been considering Under the Net, but again, probably not this month.
    Like you, I love Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction. I’ve read the novella Hester Lilly about a year ago, although not the other stories in the collection. I was amazed at how my sympathy keep shifting between the characters and at the depth of Taylor’s insights. I really must get back to some of her shorter fiction.
    I’m hoping to participate in the #1954 week although the timing is bad for me. Anyway, we’ll see!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I’m glad to have introduced you to a couple of new things. de Vilmorin is a very interesting writer – she lived quite the life, indulging in all sorts of affairs with famous people including Orson Welles and Antoine de Saint-Exupery! Her other novella, Madame de____ (published by Pushkin Press) is terrific, but not a 1954 book, sadly. As for Comyns, I would suggest starting with Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. It’s dark, but I don’t think it contains any of the cruelty towards animals that some of her other books do. It’s where I started with Comyns, and from that point on I was hooked. Mr Fox is another good one, now back in print with Turnpike Books, although I’m not sure if that’s readily available stateside. Either way, I hope you enjoy her!

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Thanks for the suggestions about Comyns (I’m generally fine with dark, but I’ve avoided Comyns because of the animal thing). I actually do have a copy of Spoons, as well as The Juniper Tree, the latter thanks to one of those marvellous NYRB Classics flash sales. Mr. Fox looks extremely interesting but, alas, it IS a little difficult to get a copy here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! I’ll be fascinated to see how you get on whenever you get a chance to try her. From memory, I think the darknesses in Spoons stems mostly from the horrors of marriage and motherhood rather than gratuitous cruelty to animals – so hopefully you’ll be fine with that, relatively speaking.

      Reply
  5. Julé Cunningham

    What a lovely selection of books you’ve highlighted here! It’s been so long since I’ve read any Iris Murdoch and I’d like to pick up one of her books and explore more of her work. The Boileau-Narcejac looks quite intriguing too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Murdoch was a lovely surprise, partly because I’d always imagined that she wouldn’t be for me – a challenging or difficult writer, too philosophical or ponderous for my tastes etc etc. Maybe it’s more accessible than some of her later novels, especially as it was her debut – but even so, I’m encouraged to try more.

      Reply
  6. Karen K.

    There are recent reprints of Mr. Fox, The House of Dolls and A Touch of Mistletoe! I saw all three on Amazon US for about $12-15, which isn’t too bad. They charge shipping but you can also get them even cheaper from Blackwells.co.uk which has free shipping to the US.

    No sign of Out of the Red, Into the Blue which I couldn’t even find on WorldCat. There is ONE copy of The Skin Chairs for sale on Amazon for $764!!!! I paid less than $10 for my copy including shipping. I’m gobsmacked.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s great to see Mr Fox, The House of Dolls and Mistletoe back in print, although you’re right about the others – they’re devilishly hard to get hold of at reasonable prices!

      Reply
  7. Karen K.

    I already have a small pile of books published in 1954 for this exact purpose, I’ve finished one already and hope to get through two or three more by the end of next week! love Barbara Comyns and I was delighted to find Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in my library system. I’ve loved all her books so far though The Juniper Tree was very unsettling.

    I’m also very intrigued by Under the Net. I’ve never read Iris Murdoch and am sort of intimidated by her books, but this one looks like a good starting point. Thanks for the list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I look forward to seeing what you think of Who Was Changed… and any other 1954 books you manage to read for the Club. (I think it’s my favourite Comyns so far, although I still have a few to go.)

      As for Murdoch, that’s exactly how I felt about her before my experience with Under the Net. It’s actually much more accessible than I expected from her intellectual reputation – very humorous and caper-ish in style, and the entertainment value came as a very pleasant surprise!

      Reply
  8. Liz Dexter

    What a lovely selection and hooray to see Iris Murdoch in there – indeed not as intimidating as people think she is (I have done research that proves this!) and that is a good first one, too. I think you’d like The Flight from the Enchanter …

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I couldn’t help but think of you, Liz, as I was putting Murdoch on the list. Definitely much more approachable that I expected based on her reputation. And thanks for recommending The Flight from the Enchanter. I haven’t come across that one before but will look it up!

      Reply
  9. heavenali

    I love all your suggestions. I have read five of them, and saw the film of Vertigo. Barbara Comyns and Elizabeth Taylor two of my favourite writers. I am currently getting ready for the 1954 club by reading The Gypsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought you’d be familiar with most of these, I must admit! Your Margery Sharp sounds intriguing (great title!). I look forward to hearing all about it next week…

      Reply
  10. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Some great choices, Jacqui – wonderful ideas for 1954, which looks like a really fascinating year! I’ve only read the first two on the list, both of which I think highly of! As for Under The Net, I had two goes before deciding it wasn’t for me. I really should read some Elizabeth Taylor short stories though – the only thing of hers I haven’t read yet!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Doesn’t it just! I know I’m biased due to my love of the ’50s in general, but you really have picked a cracking year. No worries about the Murdoch. We can’t click with everything we read and sometimes you just know when a book isn’t right for you. Taylor’s stories, on the other hand, are definitely worth reading. I might even go back and re-read Hester Lilly myself, just as reminder!

      Reply
  11. gertloveday

    Who was Changed and Who was Dead is my favourite Barbara Comyns too. Isn’t it extraordinary to think of her and Francoise Sagan writing at the same time. Such different worlds.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! That’s one of the most interesting things about these ‘Club’ weeks, just thinking about the variety of styles and themes emerging in the same year. It’s striking to see!

      Reply
  12. gertloveday

    And can you believe Lucky Jim was also published in 1954. I don’t know if I dare to read it again. It made me laugh so much at the time and I suspect it wouldn’t now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks for sharing my post. I don’t know the reason for choosing 1954, but I’m sure either Karen or Simon would be happy to answer that directly. There are quite a few literary Elizabeths, aren’t there? Bowen, Taylor, Howard, Berridge…the list goes on!

      Reply
  13. Jane

    I’m glad you’ve discovered Iris Murdoch, I read her like mad about 20 years ago and was planning to reread starting with Under the Net, in fact that’s the copy I have waiting! The Sea The Sea was my favourite but I can’t remember why! Bonjour Tristesse sounds very fun, it’s on my list, thanks for a super list. Barbara Comyns is another writer I must try!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re all set then with a re-read of Under the Net! The Sagan is brilliant although best read in summer, so you mind want to keep it in mind for the future? And Comyns is a marvel. She has such a unique, off-kilter view of the world, and yet there’s genuine poignancy in her writing too. Definitely a writer to experience, just to see how you get on.

      Reply
  14. literarygitane

    Wonderful suggestions! I am re reading “ Bonjour Tristesse”in anticipation of next week. I have read the book in both English and in French and one thing that struck me is that the translation by Irene Ash is a censored version of the book- She omits some passages with bad words or that were considered shocking at the time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! Yes, that’s right. There’s a page or so missing from Ash’s translation (a scene that was considered too racy by the publishers at the time) together with some other edits. Heather Lloyd’s translation restores these elements, making it much closer to Sagan’s original text, although it reads less vibrantly than the Ash in terms of style. Rachel Cooke wrote a piece about in The Guardian at the time.

      https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/24/subtle-art-of-translating-foreign-fiction-ferrante-knausgaard

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, and I’m glad you like the sound of the Murdoch – it’s an engaging book, much more entertaining than I expected. Nectar is a Sieve is a new one on me, so I’ll head over to yours in a while to take a look at your review.

      Reply

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