Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have written before about my love of Barbara Pym’s novels, populated as they are by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, amiable clergymen, fusty academics and one or two more spiky characters – usually female. It’s a world that seems at once both rather absurd and strangely believable, full of the sharply-observed details of a genteel English community in the 1950s. Jane and Prudence is another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life.

In this novel, first published in 1953, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, the forty-one-year-old wife of Nicholas Cleveland, an Anglican minister, and her close friend Prudence Bates, a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who lives on her own in London. (The two women first met one another at Oxford Uni where Prudence was a pupil in Jane’s English Literature class.)

Towards the beginning of the novel, Jane, Nicholas and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora, are in the process of moving to a new parish in the country, clearly hoping that they will be greeted by a gaggle of eager parishioners. While Jane is amiable and well-intentioned, she is less than ideally suited to the role of a clergyman’s wife, liable as she is to mild indiscretions and a touch too much honesty. Her frumpy, ill-matched clothes give her the appearance of a farmer’s wife all set to feed the chickens, and her down-to-earth style means she lacks some of the social graces of her predecessor, the wife of the much-revered Canon Pritchard. Nevertheless, Jane and Nicholas love one another dearly, and they seem happy enough in their new home. If only they didn’t have to get embroiled in those petty disagreements amongst the more opinionated members of the parish council, then everything would be fine.

Jane’s real area of interest is in finding a desirable match for her friend, the bright, elegant and relatively independent Prudence. Much to Jane’s dismay, Prudence seems to have slipped into a sequence of unsatisfactory, shallow love affairs – mostly with unsuitable men.

As the novel opens, the primary object of Prudence’s attention is her boss, the rather remote academic/publisher, Arthur Grampian. For some months now, Prudence has been worshipping Dr Grampian from afar in spite of the fact that he is married and entirely unsuitable for her. (In reality, she is far too good for him.) Jane, however, has other ideas for Prudence, especially once she meets Fabian Driver, a handsome if somewhat vain young widower who lives in the village. In this scene, Jane tries to casually mention the existence of Fabian to Pru without appearing to have an agenda for doing so. Prudence, however, intuits quite clearly what Jane is hoping to seed by the comment…

Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.

‘Yes – you said something about him eating the hearts of his victims,’ said Prudence, equally casual. She realised that Jane might have some absurd idea in her mind about ‘bringing them together’, but determined not to let her see that she suspected or that she entertained any hopes herself. So they were both satisfied and neither was really deceived for a moment. (pp.74-75)

In time, Prudence pays a visit to the Clevelands, the village whist drive being touted as the main social attraction of the weekend. Here she meets Fabian, and the pair slip away for a quiet drink together at the local pub. With her natural distrust of good-looking men, Prudence is a little wary of Fabian at first, but after a few dinners and trips to the theatre back in London, their relationship soon starts to develop.

Fabian himself is a very interesting character, perhaps more complex than he appears at first sight. I love this quote about his late wife, Constance, a passage that says as much about Fabian as it does about his former partner.

She had been a gentle, faded-looking woman, some years older than Fabian. She had been pretty when he had married her and had brought him a comfortable amount of money as well as a great deal of love. He had been unprepared for her death and outraged by it, for it had happened suddenly, without a long illness to prepare him, when he had been deeply involved in one of the little romantic affairs which he seemed to need, either to bolster up his self-respect or for some more obvious reason. The shock of it all had upset him considerably, and although there had been several women eager to console him, he had abandoned all his former loves, fancying himself more in the role of an inconsolable widower than as a lover. (p. 56)

As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love with the most unlikely of potential partners.

Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. There is an opportunity to revisit the formidable Miss Doggett and her sharp-witted companion, Jessie Morrow, a wonderful pair of characters who were first created by Pym for her delightful social comedy, Crampton Hodnet. (The novel was originally written in the late 1930s but published posthumously in 1985.) There is also the gossipy Mrs Glaze, a sort of daily woman/help who seems to enjoy busying herself around the Clevelands’ house. Her observations on the comings and goings in the village are a real delight. Finally, there are Prudence’s work colleagues, the rather parochial Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, both of whom appear to be more interested in trying to take the moral high ground over their time of arrival at the office than in the duties they are to carry out once they get there.

Pym’s trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. In this passage, she manages to convey Miss Doggett’s self-assumed superiority over the other ladies who help out at the church while also describing their headwear.

It seemed that there was a particular kind of hat worn by ladies attending Parochial Church Council meetings – a large beret of neutral-coloured felt pulled well down to one side. Both Mrs Crampton and Mrs Mayhew wore hats of this type, as did Miss Doggett, though hers was of a superior material, a kind of plush decorated with a large jewelled pin. Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard. (p. 143)

While there is no curate here for the ladies of the village to fuss over and cherish, Pym does offer us a kind of curate substitute, the rather charming Edward Lyall, the local MP. Lyall proves to be an admirable replacement for the young innocent when he captures the villagers’ attention at the whist drive.

All in all, Jane and Prudence is another marvellous novel from Barbara Pym. Once again, she gives us an insight into the lives of her characters, women in particular, and their desire to feel valued.

In many respects, several of Pym’s central protagonists are women living on the fringes, their lives feeling somewhat unsatisfactory and unfulfilled – almost as if they have become accustomed to waiting in the wings, observing others from a distance. Nevertheless, by the end of her novels, one usually gets the sense that these individuals are somewhat better off, more content with the world and their place within in it. I certainly feel that’s the case here with Prudence – and with Mildred in Excellent Women, too.

Jane and Prudence is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year I read and loved Shirley Jackson’s gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I picked up another of her classic novels, The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959 and famously adapted for the screen as The Haunting some four years later. It’s a brilliantly unsettling book, a gothic/psychological chiller that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence.

Central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. Dr Montague has rented Hill House for the summer to observe and collect any evidence of supernatural activity or ghostly goings-on, not least of which may be connected to the dwelling’s complex and ill-fated history. Also joining Dr Montague and Eleanor at the house are Theodora, a bright, flamboyant young woman who brings a touch of sophistication to the proceedings and Luke Sanderson, the congenial heir to the estate.

Eleanor is the first of the group to arrive at the property, and her initial impressions are not promising. Hill House itself is a strong force within the book, its imposing presence making itself felt at an early stage in the story.

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (p. 35)

The house has been built in a curious design with the various rooms forming two concentric circles surrounding a central inner room. All the angles and doorways are slightly off-kilter, giving each room a somewhat unbalanced perspective, a feeling which only adds to the creepiness of the place – the internal doors seem to close of their own free will.

The housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, is a very strange creature indeed, unwilling to waver from her strict timetable of breakfast at nine and the laying out of dinner at six sharp, leaving everything in readiness for the guests so that she can head off to her own home before it gets dark. Mrs D is a wonderful Jackson creation (albeit in miniature), delivering her lines in a deadpan style – all of which adds a touch of dark humour to the novel.

In many ways, Eleanor acts as a focal point for the story. She has come to Hill House as a means of escape, to break free from her unhappy home life, an existence indelibly marked by the lonely years she previously spent nursing her sick mother (now deceased). There is an increasing sense, especially as novel progresses, that Eleanor sees Hill House as her destiny, drawn as she is to certain aspects of the house in spite of its chilling appearance and unsettling aura.

As she closed the door of the blue room behind her Eleanor thought wearily that it might be the darkness and oppression of Hill House that tired her so, and then it no longer mattered. The blue bed was unbelievably soft. Odd, she thought sleepily, that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable—the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs. Dudley. The company too, she thought, and then thought, Now I can think about them; I am all alone. Why is Luke here? But why am I here? Journeys end in lovers meeting. They all saw that I was afraid. (p. 91)

At first, all seems relatively uneventful at the estate, and the members of the group sleep soundly through the night. However, it’s not long before the house begins to exert its mysterious forces on the group. A sequence of frightening noises, the appearance of strange writing on walls and other inexplicable events come together to unnerve the inhabitants, Eleanor in particular. In this scene, she cries out to Montague and Luke for assistance.

Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought. (p. 154)

As the novel moves forward, there is a sense that Hill House is taking control of Eleanor, possessing her in some way, with things coming to a head following the arrival of Dr Montague’s disagreeable and controlling wife and her rather blunt assistant, Arthur. Mrs Montague also has a keen interest in the supernatural, bringing with her a planchette – a sort of Ouija board that produces words – in the hope of being able to communicate with the spirits.

The various relationships between women form an interesting thread which runs through the book, almost all of them characterised by hostility, envy or jealousy. First we have Eleanor and her sister – a woman we never meet in person, although we know that Eleanor dislikes her. Then there are the two Crain sisters, the daughters of the ill-fated man who commissioned the construction of Hill House in the first place – after inheriting the estate following their father’s death, the two sisters then spent a lifetime arguing over the division of the property and the family heirlooms. Finally, we have Eleanor and Theodora who initially form a close bond in unison against the potential terrors of the house. There is a sense that Eleanor views Theodora as the soulmate she has longed for, or even the person she would love to be herself – a glamorous, self-assured woman with an interesting life. But then the relationship between these two women begins to sour when Eleanor feels provoked by Theodora, a situation that only serves to distance Eleanor from the rest of the group.

The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. Does the terrifying aura of Hill House have the greatest impact on Eleanor’s state of mind, or is she inherently emotionally unhinged anyway irrespective of her surroundings? There is a degree of ambiguity here for the reader to ponder.

Eleanor is undoubtedly a daydreamer and fantasist, her vivid, childlike imagination running riot at various points in the story. When she spots a tiny cottage hidden away in a garden during the journey to Hill House, Eleanor imagines herself living there alone with only her fantasies and a white cat for company. Several of the motifs and images she creates at this point resurface later in the book, echoing and reverberating with great effect. These recurring symbols reminded quite strongly of Merricat’s lucky charms and rituals in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

All in all, this is an excellent novel – a very striking exploration of a character’s psyche. It’s extremely well-written, too – at times the prose has an almost musical quality. Fans of Castle will almost certainly enjoy Hill House, a book that turned out to be a very satisfying and intriguing read for me. It was one of Max’s summary posts that prompted me to bump it up the pile – you can find a more detailed review here. Ali has also written about this book here.

The Haunting of Hill House is published by Penguin; personal copy.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1947, A View of the Harbour was Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, a beautifully-crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a small, close-knit community. The setting is Newby, a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town on the English coast a year or so after the end of WW2. In some ways, Newby reminds me of Hardborough, the fictional town in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop, as it’s the sort of place where everyone – with one or two notable exceptions – knows everyone else’s business.

The town’s inhabitants are an interesting bunch. As ever with Elizabeth Taylor, each character is drawn with great care and attention to detail irrespective of whether they are likeable or not.

There is Beth Cabazon, the rather self-absorbed but amiable novelist, her husband, Robert, the local doctor, and the couple’s two children, twenty-year-old Prudence and five-year-old Stevie. Living next door to the Cazabons is Beth’s closest friend, Tory Foyle, a sophisticated and glamorous divorcee who finds life in Newby a little dull without her husband, Teddy. Then there is old Mrs Bracey, the longstanding proprietor of the town’s second-hand clothes shop, and her two daughters, Iris and Maisie. And finally (at least for now) there is Lily Wilson, the desperately lonely widow who lives above the local Waxworks Museum which she also runs for a living. This early picture of Lily goes a long way towards capturing the emptiness of her life, the feeling of fear and desolation as she contemplates yet another solitary night ahead.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge. (p. 13)

Into this mix comes Bertram Hemingway, a retired Naval Officer who intends to spend his time capturing the local scenery in a painting – ideally a magnificent view of the harbour which he hopes to leave behind as a memento of his visit. Bertram is lodging at The Anchor, the local pub where Iris Bracey works as a barmaid. Lily Wilson can be found there too, as she has started going to the pub just to avoid being home alone every evening – the eerie atmosphere created by the waxworks only adds to her anxiety.

Slowly but surely, Bertram comes into contact with virtually all of the town’s inhabitants, affecting their lives in subtle and not so subtle ways. At first, Lily Wilson wonders whether Bertram could be the answer to her loneliness, especially when he buys her drinks and offers to escort her home from the pub at closing time. However, while he may appear gallant on the outside, Bertram is most certainly not quite as caring on the inside. He has a selfish or self-centred streak – something Taylor carefully reveals to us as catches Bertram in a private moment.

He walked back to the pub, feeling very pleased with himself. Very tactfully he had done a great kindness. When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure. (p. 54)

Bertram, for his part, is more taken with Tory, whom he views as a bright and attractive woman – and, in time, as a possible future partner. With a view to settling down to a life of mutual understanding and companionship, Bertram proposes marriage to Tory, albeit in a fairly light-hearted but presumptuous way. Little does he know, at least at the beginning, that Tory is involved with Robert Cazabon, a furtive little affair that has been developing for some time – mostly in moments snatched here and there, supposedly away from the prying eyes of the town’s inhabitants. For the rather brisk and unappreciative Robert, Tory represents an escape from the crushing dullness and monotony of his life, the daily routine of patients, mealtimes and family responsibilities.

Luckily for Robert and Tory, Beth Cazabon is too wrapped up in the process of writing her novel to notice what is going on under her nose – the trials and tribulations of her fictional characters are of greater interest to Beth than those of her own husband and children. Prudence, however, is another matter. Considered slow or a little ‘touched’ by some of the locals, Prudence is actually much more perceptive than most people realise. She has seen Robert and Tory arriving home together, overheard snatches of conversation here and there – and naturally it doesn’t take long for her to put two and two together. Quite correctly as it turns out.

Also watching and absorbing the various goings-on in Newby is Mrs Bracey, a bawdy, gossipy woman who remains confined to her bed by a combination of disabilities and illnesses. With the arrival of spring, Mrs B asks to be moved to the upstairs bedroom where she can view the town from a suitable vantage point, supplementing the titbits of news she extracts from Iris on her return from the pub. Mrs Bracey is also wise to the true nature of Tory’s relationship with Robert, observing the situation with all its inherent deceit and secrecy.

So she watched them curtly greeting one another as they did this evening – Robert driving up in the car just as Tory rounded the corner – watched them exchange a few words, and Robert running his eye over Tory’s London clothes as if in disapproval; and she knew, as surely as if she could hear their words, how briefly, how cunningly, they laid their plans, their lives whittled down to those few moments when they could be together, a few words passing swiftly between them or their finger-tips contriving to brush together as if by accident, a glance, a touch, an innuendo in the presence of others – the rest darkness. (pp. 218-219)

As the story plays out, we wonder how far Tory will go in risking her friendship with Beth. Will her love (if it really is love) for Robert win out? Or will she make a clean break of it, choosing instead to save the feelings of her closest friend? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

As I mentioned earlier, the characterisation is uniformly excellent here – not only the main players but several of the minor characters too. Prudence is spot on, mooning around all day with her two Siamese cats, equally disapproving of her father and Tory alike. Stevie, the Cazabons’ youngest daughter, is in a world of her own, forever speaking her mind or engaging in mild tantrums, much to Robert’s annoyance.

I also enjoyed the banter between the Braceys, especially the two daughters, Iris and Maisie, who have to share not only a room but a bed too. Iris, the daydreamer, longs for someone famous to come to Newby to liven up the place – Laurence Olivier, for example – while the more down-to-earth Maisie just wishes her mother would fade away and die. The need to care for old Mrs Bracey is stopping Maisie from having any kind of life of her own – she can’t even nip out to the cinema with one of the local lads for fear of her mother having a turn.

While the novel’s tone is quite dark at times, there are several moments of lightness too. Stevie’s outbursts are a delight, gloriously refreshing and unfiltered. Then there are the letters Tory receives from her young son, Edward, who is away at boarding school – little comic gems in their own right. Not to mention Mrs Bracey’s tendency towards indiscretion, especially when passing judgement on one of her neighbours.

I’ll finish with an example of one of the many things I loved about this novel – Taylor’s ability to rove around the town, capturing little sketches of various scenes as she goes. Here’s one of my favourites.

Lily ate fish and chips at the Mimosa Cafê, her book propped against a bottle of sauce. The fleet had come in and up at the market the floor was deep with fish, blue and black-barred, a mass of dinted silver, crimson-eyed. At the Anchor Iris was busy for once, with not a minute to wipe down the wet counter or to collect glasses. All over the harbour waters was a frenzied screaming of gulls. Mrs Bracey waited with impatience for her dinner and for her daughter to return at closing-time. Smells of stew crept round the kitchen. She trembled with exasperation, imagining the greyish meat slipping off the bone, the rings of onions, the pearl-barley, the golden sequins of fat glinting on the surface. And she thought too of the jug of draught stout Iris would bring back and her hands plucked peevishly at the bed covers. (p.43)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. You can find links to some of them in this post about Simon and Karen’s 1947 Club.

A View of the Harbour is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

This compelling memoir by Béla Zombory-Moldován, a Hungarian artist and illustrator, is at once both historically insightful and deeply personal. It spans the eight months from the outbreak of WW1 at the end of July 1914 to the spring of the following year, a period that resulted in sustained losses to the Austro-Hungarian forces, the nature of which left an indelible mark on Hungary in the years and decades that followed. It’s a remarkable piece of work, very moving in its depiction of the experiences of the war through the reflections of one man. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone with an interest in the Great War or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in general.

As the memoir opens, Béla, a member of the Hungarian privileged classes, is holidaying with friends at the Adriatic resort of Novi Vinodolski. He is twenty-nine years old at this point, enjoying life and everything it has to offer.

All too soon Béla’s carefree existence is dramatically interrupted when word reaches the group that war has broken out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (with Russia swiftly following in support). While some of Béla’s immediate friends are of the belief that the war will be swift and not too serious, Béla himself remains somewhat unconvinced. Rather presciently, our protagonist senses a broader threat to society, a feeling that socialism has been creating significant unrest and anxiety for a number of years. As a consequence, Béla fears a long and complex period of conflict ahead.

After a brief visit home to say goodbye to his parents, Béla reports for duty at Veszprém where he is assigned the rank of Ensign in the Royal Hungarian Army – he is also given the role of platoon leader. To Béla, the prospect of war is terrifying – a totally unknown quantity he must face with little in the way of experience or understanding.

I had no experience to fall back on. Anything I had heard of war had fallen on deaf ears; an anachronism, it had held no meaning for me. No one in my family since my grandfather had been in a war. They knew even less about it than I did, and had no experience on which I might draw. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was a reality. If it was any consolation, the enemy must be having the same problem. Except that they had learned to handle firearms up there in the mountains of Serbia. We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here. (p. 13)

This is a challenging work to summarise as it really needs to be experienced in person rather than second-hand through a review. There is a cumulative effect here – the sense that Béla’s reflections build in power with each chapter, thereby giving the memoir a greater sense of weight and importance.

It is especially strong on the sheer foolishness of some of the decisions that were made by those in command – in particular, the drive to conform to certain principles of honour or ceremony at the expense of soldiers’ lives. For example, Béla’s regiment is ordered to march the seventy-five kilometres from Veszprém to the point of deployment near the front. However, by the time they reach their destination, half the troops in the group are unfit for battle due to damage incurred to their feet and general exhaustion. The lack of any clear sense of foresight is completely galling. Then, in the thick of the action at Rava Ruska, it is rumoured that the Colonel in command plans to outlaw any digging of foxholes for protection as it would be considered cowardly and ill-disciplined on the part of the troops. Luckily for Béla, this veto doesn’t quite come to pass and the instinct to survive soon kicks in.

As one might expect, the memoir is also fairly explicit on the horrors of war, the physical and emotional effects of being trapped at the front with death and destruction everywhere. The scenes Béla describes are urgent, chaotic and utterly terrifying.

The continuous deafening explosions, the howling of the flying shell fragments have practically stupefied me. Beside me, between salvos, Miklósik frantically digs himself deeper into his hole. I don’t think he’d respond to any order now. Then a blast quite close to me; something has hit my knapsack and I’m almost suffocated under falling sand. My sole thought now, like an animal, is to save myself. Utterly helpless, I give myself up to my fate and, with no emotion, wait for the end to come. (pp. 53-54)

Having sustained a head wound in one of these early battles, Béla is dispatched back to Budapest for further treatment and a period of recovery. There is an anxious scene in which Béla only just manages to make it out of the battle zone on one of the last railway wagons to leave the territory before the Russian Army moves in – a fortuitous break for our protagonist, particularly given the nature of his injuries. As Béla travels back to the capital, he is incensed by newspaper reports of the conflict, clearly penned by fêted writers cocooned in the relative safety of the city’s coffeehouses, far away from the harsh realities of life at the front.

Report from the battlefield! Glorious weather! Battle-readiness of our troops unbreakable! They await the Russian attack from new positions, etcetera. It had evidently been composed by the armchair generals of the Pest coffeehouses. I leafed through the paper, looking mostly at the headlines. How alien it was! How far removed these people were from the agonies, the mortal fear as shells exploding around you, the marches that exhaust to the limits of consciousness, the mangled dead, their open eyes staring into oblivion. Yes, far away, and with no conception of the reality of war. (p. 72)

Back at home, Béla tries hard to reconnect with his former life, his family, his friends and, of course, his love of painting. However, the trauma he has experienced on the battlefield makes this very difficult to achieve. It is as if something inside him has ruptured, possibly forever.

It was impossible. All that I had thought, imagined, or conceived felt alien, incapable of development. […] Something had been broken inside me; or perhaps in the whole order of the world. Or in everything. For now, there was no way out. (p. 114)

Béla is declared unfit for military service for a period of three months, after which time he will be assessed again. Unsurprisingly, given what he has been through at the front, he is experiencing what is now commonly recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD).

As the memoir draws to a close, Béla finally finds some solace in the form of a trip to the coastal town of Lovrana where he stays with the Mausers, a generous and caring family who support his recuperation. It is here, in the spring of 1915, that Béla reconnects with nature and the enduring beauty of the world. His love of painting returns as he strives to capture the energy and subtleties of the waves in glorious watercolours. This is the most touching section of the memoir, a period of relative peace and calm which ends with Béla travelling back to Budapest to see what the future might hold for him.

This striking book comes with an excellent introduction from Béla’s grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldován, who also translated the manuscript. It offers an invaluable insight into the political context of the time and the extent of the losses endured by Austria-Hungary during this devastating war.

While it is never easy to read about these experiences, it is almost always rewarding in some way, and that’s certainly the case here. This is an absorbing memoir, written in a natural, unaffected style, shot through with moments of beauty amidst the traumas of war. I’ll finish with a passage that illustrates Béla’s painterly talents, his eye for a beautiful scene. At this point, he is on his way to Rava Ruska, marching to the front and the decimation which lies ahead.

We were passing through a wood. The beauty of nature in August reigned everywhere. The boughs were a deep green, but the sprigs of barberry, the wild rose hips and the leaves of the sumac were already glowing in flaming colors of carmine, cinnabar, minium, and orange. Beauty before death, for autumn and decay were coming. In the meadows and fields, nothing but stubble and fine ploughed soil, the stalks of maize left tied into bundles. Subjects for landscapes: the colors from burnt sienna and ochre to gray umber. Marvelous colors in the shadows. (p. 29)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Burning of the World is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I have written before about my love of the great British boarding house as a setting for fiction – more specifically, novels like The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, and The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. There is something about this type of environment that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the seediness of these places or the strange mix of people we often encounter there – whatever it is, I never seem to tire of reading about these establishments. All of which brings me to the very aptly named The Boarding-House, an absolute gem of an early novel by the Irish writer, William Trevor – a very worthy addition to my list.

Set in a South London suburb in 1964, the novel is an ensemble piece, focusing on the lives and concerns of the residents of Mr Bird’s boarding house, the sort of traditional establishment that is fast going out of fashion due to the rise in bedsits and flat-shares. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each person possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, mostly flawed or inadequate in some way, at risk of being seen as misfits or outcasts from the realms of ‘normal’ society.

There is Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Obd, a lonely Nigerian man who longs to deepen his relationship with an English girl he first met some twelve years earlier (sadly, she will have nothing to do with him any more); Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Mr Venables, a nervous office worker who has been the subject of petty bullying for most of his life. Then there are the female residents, Miss Clerricot, a somewhat plain secretary who is puzzled by the fact that her married boss seems to be taking a particular interest in her, and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. There are a couple of other notable residents too, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy – more about those two a little later on.

All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity, and in such a way that clearly elicits the reader’s sympathy. The pen portraits of Miss Clerricot and Rose Cave are particularly touching. There is a sense of tragedy surrounding the lives of both of these women, a feeling of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as time passes them by.

At first, Miss Clerricot is buoyed by the attention of her boss, Mr Sellwood, who takes her to lunch and then on a business trip to Leeds. However, her illusions are shattered when she realises that her companion is merely looking for someone who will listen to him, a captive audience for his interminably dull discourses on the banking and insurance industries. Not that Miss Clerricot wants to have an affair with Mr Sellwood, but it would be nice to feel wanted and desired in some way, at least for once in her life.

Rose Cave’s backstory is sadder still. Having been born out of wedlock, she never knew anything of her father apart from the fact that he had been hired by her grandparents to hang some wallpaper in their house. There was a closeness between Rose and her mother in those early years; the scandal over the affair and the snobbery it created in the family drew them together, cementing their reliance on one another until death intervened.

Rose Cave lived a selfless life until her forty-first year, until the day her mother died. And then, when she moved closer in to London, closer to the work she did, she found it hard to feel that she was not alone. She joined clubs and societies to give herself something to do, but one night when she glanced around it seemed to her that she was just a little older than the other people present, and it seemed that the fact was noticeable. (p.48)

Also residing at the boarding house are the kitchen staff, the pragmatic Mrs Slape and her young helper Gallelty – the latter a very recent addition to the household, having been scooped up by Mr Bird in the most unlikely of circumstances.

It’s not long before we get the sense that Mr Bird has deliberately ‘collected’ these various unfortunates over the years, seeking them out for his own pleasure – not as acts of kindness but for some sort of perverse mischief, the nature of which becomes a little clearer as the story moves forward.

He in his time had sought these people out, selecting them and rejecting others. He sought them, he said, that they in each other might catch some telling reflection of themselves, and that he might see that happen and make what he wished of it. (p. 16)

Even though Mr Bird dies right at the beginning of the novel, his presence is felt throughout by way of extracts from his ‘Notes on Residents’ and accompanying flashbacks from the past. Plus, there is the sense that his spirit remains in the house following his death, exerting its influence over the various events which subsequently play out.

In a move seemingly designed to put the cat among the pigeons following his death, Mr Bird has bequeathed the boarding house to the two most diametrically opposed residents – namely, the rather brusque and interfering Nurse Clock and the feckless petty criminal and blackmailer, Mr Studdy.

Constantly on the lookout for any moneymaking opportunities, Studdy – a rather amiable chancer – uses the residents’ collection for Mr Bird’s funeral to acquire a couple of cut-price wreaths, pocketing the spare cash in the process. A nice little earner when added to the eight pounds eight he hopes to save in unpaid rent – money previously owed to Mr Bird that he now plans to keep for himself (well, as long as Nurse Clock doesn’t get wind of it).

Nurse Clock and he did not hit it off. He wondered if she knew about the eight pounds eight. It was not impossible, he imagined, that Mr Bird had released that information on his death-bed. She had looked at him oddly when he had displayed the wreaths, when he said that he had added an extra sixpence of his own. She had pitched up her head, snorting like a horse, blowing through her nostrils. You could not trust, thought Studdy, a woman who looked like that and who spoke so sharply. Whenever he saw her in her big blue skirt he wanted to stick a pin in her. He fingered the point of his lapel and felt the pin there, the pin her carried for that purpose: to stick, one day, into one or other of Nurse Clock’s knees. (pp. 14-15)

The other residents and kitchen staff fear Mr Bird’s death will signal the end of the boarding house. However, the conditions included in Bird’s will and testament provide them with a certain degree of reassurance. Nurse Clock and Studdy are to inherit the establishment provided it remains in its current form with no changes to the residents or staff – well, until someone dies or leaves the boarding house of their own accord. There is much fun to be had in observing the dynamics between the domineering Nurse Clock and the rather sly Mr Studdy as they vie for position in the house, their conversations with one another are a real treat.

In time, however, Nurse Clock realises that Mr Studdy might prove to be of some use. With Studdy’s assistance, she plans to turn the house into a home for the elderly – an altogether more agreeable endeavour than a boarding house, and potentially more profitable to boot. Studdy, for his part, sees this development as a positive move, viewing it as an opportunity to extort money and valuables from vulnerable elderly residents in their twilight years of their lives.

The hatred was still there between them, but it no longer raged; it was no longer on the brink of violence, because something stronger, something like self-interest or greed or small ambition, had put it into its proper place. (p. 120)

As the story plays out, it builds to a near-inevitable denouement. One gets the feeling that the spectral Mr Bird is playing God with the lives of the various residents, pitting them against one another in a bid to destabilise the environment he once created.

While the lives of many of these characters are marked by a deep sense of sadness or loneliness – Mr Obd’s situation is particularly heartbreaking – they are partly balanced by touches of dark humour every now and again. Major Eele takes centre stage in some priceless scenes, most notably those involving a certain Mrs le Tor, the unfortunate recipient of one of Mr Studdy’s rather tawdry blackmail letters.

The attempted disposal of Mr Bird’s clothes to a charity for refugees gives rise to more moments of hilarity. In an underhand move on the part of Mr Studdy, the deceased’s suits and shirts get mixed up with items belonging to Mr Scribbin and Mr Venables, much to the embarrassment of the normally uber-efficient Nurse Clock. It is a truly marvellous scene, one that could have come straight out of a classic comedy of manners by Barbara Pym.

All in all, The Boarding-House is a superb novel, a wonderful study of human nature, a tragi-comedy of the finest quality. Highly recommended.

The Boarding-House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

A Good School by Richard Yates

First published in 1978, A Good School is perhaps the most autobiographical of Richard Yates’ novels. The setting is Dorset Academy, a private, all-male prep school in northern Connecticut – a somewhat odd yet well-intentioned institution which, unbeknownst to the parents who send their boys there, turns out to be on the brink of financial collapse. It soon becomes clear that there is something a little funny about Dorset; while the head likes to think of it as ‘a good school’, there is something decidedly off or second-rate here, a notion that is typified by the following quote.

Dorset Academy had a wide reputation for accepting boys who, for any number of reasons, no other school would touch. (p. 5)

Here we meet William Grove, a hesitant, socially awkward teenager whose experiences at the school are conveyed during the novel, forming a sort of spine or focal point for the vignettes presented throughout.

The kid was a mess. His tweed suit hung greasy with lack of cleaning, his necktie was a twisted rag, his long fingernails were blue, and he needed a haircut. He seemed in danger of stumbling over his own legs as he made his way to a chair, and he sat so awkwardly as to suggest it might be impossible for his body to find composure. What an advertisement for Dorset Academy! (p. 16)

We are quickly introduced to a large cast of additional characters, mostly other boarders at the school and the masters that teach there. (As the Dorset campus is somewhat isolated and enclosed, the various teachers and their families also live within its grounds.) There is Pierre Van Loon, a fellow boarder and social outcast who latches onto Grove as a sort of last resort; Terry Flynn, a popular, good-looking boy with ‘face of an angel and the body of a perfect athlete’; and Steve McKenzie, the second-floor dorm inspector who always seems to be spoiling for a fight. Several other boys feature at various points – too many to cover in detail in this review – but each one feels recognisable and authentic even when relatively briefly sketched.

Yates is particularly good at capturing the many anxieties of a teenage boy, the day-to-day experiences that Grove and others like him must navigate if they are to survive in this difficult environment. Namely, the numerous fights and instances of petty bullying that break out, often over nothing; the inevitable comparisons of body parts in the showers, both overt and covert; and the angst of trying to form and maintain friendships, especially once the boys reach an age when they are allowed to room together in pairs. In this scene, Richard Edward Thomas Lear, an English boy with a somewhat supercilious manner, is itching for a fight. Anyone will do – in other words, whoever happens to get in his way at the appointed time.

Sometimes, though, and particularly at this hour of the day, an unaccountable melancholy settled on him. He wanted to punch and wrestle and shout; those were the only activities that could make him feel fit again. With his shower completed and his clothes changed for dinner, he went out into the hall and found Art Jennings intently flicking specks of lint off his black jacket. Jennings was a hulking, amiable nearsighted boy; he was bigger than Lear, but that would only make it more stimulating. (p. 12)

In his early months at the school, Grove finds himself on the receiving end of a number of unpleasant schoolboy rituals – various fights, a wrestling match and a potentially humiliating incident of an overtly sexual nature. Nevertheless, Grove refuses to let the bullies get the better of him (well, if not physically, then at the very least mentally). He tries to stand his ground, refusing to give them the satisfaction of cowing or crying in their presence.

In time, Grove finds his niche in the production of the fortnightly school newspaper, the well-respected Dorset Chronicle, joining the editorial team as a prize for his essay on America at War. Although he struggles to cut it in Maths, French, and Chemistry, Grove performs well in English, demonstrating a natural talent for writing, a skill he hones and puts to good use during his time on the paper. Eventually the position of editor-in-chief beckons, a role that boosts Grove’s confidence, giving him a new sense of purpose and self-respect at the school.

Most of the time he moved around the campus with a new sense of freedom – and even, occasionally, with a sense of his own importance. There was only one school newspaper, after all, and he was its editor-in-chief. Little kids shyly asked him questions, and boys of his own age and older seemed never to find him ridiculous. (p. 81)

The Chronicle also presents an opportunity for friendships to be forged and developed. When new boy Bucky Ward shows an interest in the paper, Grove gives him a chance, and the two boys soon become good friends. In time, Grove also wins the respect and comradeship of Hugh Britt, a talented but somewhat distant intellectual and former editor of the Chronicle who still plays a key role in the editorial team. But the pleasures of friendship do not come without their own complications, a point that Grove discovers in due course…

Alongside the boys’ experiences and exploits, we are also privy to the trials and tribulations of the teaching staff and their families. There are the headmaster’s desperate attempts to get the masters to accept a pay cut following strained discussions with the Trustees; the fading stages of an affair between Jean-Paul La Prade, the French master, and Alice Draper, the wife of the polio-stricken Chemistry master, Jack Draper; not to mention the crushing atmosphere in the Drapers’ household once La Prade leaves the school for a commission in the Army. In this scene – one that feels so characteristic of Yates’ signature theme of the sham-like nature of marriage – Jack Draper is reflecting on his situation with Alice. The gulf that hangs between them looms large.

“I have to think,” she had explained. “I have to take stock. I have to work a few things out in my mind.”

Well, okay, but what exactly did all that mean? Think about what? Take stock of what? Work what things out in her mind?

And now it was spring. In the evenings, after dinner and before the children’s bedtime, the four of them would sit around the living room in simulation of what real families might be expected to do. He had to admit he was stiff with drink on most of those occasions: he would usually start drinking in the lab in the afternoon and keep it going with heavy shots of bourbon in the kitchen before dinner, and more afterwards. (p. 95)

There is real poignancy and tragedy is Yates’ depiction of the Drapers, a point that is difficult to discuss in more detail without revealing spoilers.

As the book draws to a close and the boys’ thoughts turn to the future, two somewhat connected themes begin to emerge. Firstly, there is the prospect of relationships with girls, something that Grove eagerly anticipates when he hears that the Seniors will be sitting their final exams at Miss Blair’s, the neighbouring girls’ school.

This was a vaguely thrilling prospect. Apart from Gus Gerhardt, who was wholly familiar with the place but wasn’t talking, nobody knew anything about Miss Blair’s except that Edith Stone had graduated from it last year; but didn’t it stand to reason there’d be other girls like her? They’d have long, clean hair and they’d stroll their campus in light flannel skirts and light cardigan sweaters, with their school-books hugged close to their young breasts, and they’d say wonderfully engaging things like “Hi, my name’s Susan”. (p. 139)

Ironically, the boys’ hopes are dashed when they arrive at Miss Blair’s, only to be taunted by the girls’ disparaging chants – rhymes that serve to highlight the external perception of Dorset Academy as a ‘funny school’.

Secondly, there is the shadow of war and its consequences for Grove and his peers. The book is set during the early 1940s, with World War II featuring strongly in the background, a fact that adds a real sense of poignancy and gravity to the narrative, especially towards the end. Immediately following their graduation, the boys will be heading for the forces, uncertain as to what the future will hold for them. All this adds weight to their day-to-day experiences at the school, giving them a sort of grounding for the weeks and months ahead – they can look no further forward than that.

The novel is bookended by a forward and an afterword, both narrated by the adult Grove – a thinly veiled version of Yates himself – which explain how he had come to find himself at Dorset Academy in the first place and what happened to his classmates once they had graduated. The forward in particular is excellent, a deeply personal piece which touches on the younger Grove’s rather distant relationship with his father and the sadness he now feels for him looking back.

This is a book that touches on many themes: the angst of a boy’s teenage years and the pain of growing up; the gulf and disconnect between fathers and sons; the inevitable loss of innocence that will come with the war. There are many more.

From a technical perspective, A Good School may not be Yates’ most accomplished or dramatic book, but it’s still a terrific read. You can read Max’s excellent review of this novel here.

A Good School is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.