Tag Archives: Backlisted

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield

As you may well know by now, Simon and Karen are running another of their ‘Clubs’ this week, this one focusing on literature first published in 1930. (You can find out more about it here.) For my contribution to the event, I’ve decided to write about E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, the first of four books included in the Penguin collected edition of the series. (The first book appeared in 1930, with further instalments following in 1932, 1934 and 1940.)

So, what can I say about this classic of 1930s British literature that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot – other than to reiterate what a joy it is to read, full of witty asides about the day-to-day minutiae of English country life.

The Provincial Lady in question lives in Devon with her pithy husband, Robert, and their two children, Robin and Vicky. While Robin is away at boarding-school for much of the year, Vicky is being educated at home by a rather sensitive French governess, Mademoiselle, a woman who requires delicate handling by the Lady of the house. Also adding to our protagonist’s challenges are the temperamental Cook and the dutiful parlour-maid, Ethel, reliable domestic staff being so difficult to find and maintain, particularly in the country.

The book is presented as a series of diary entries, capturing the Provincial Lady’s unfiltered thoughts and observations as she goes about her business – mostly domestic or community-based in nature as she attempts to oversee the running of the house. In spite of our protagonist’s best efforts, nothing seems to run quite as smoothly as she would like it to, painting a picture of a somewhat frazzled woman trying to hold everything together but frequently falling a little short of the mark.

Life for the aspirational Provincial Lady can be challenging, even at the best of times. Irrespective of the family’s middle-class status, there never seems to be quite enough money at hand to pay the never-ending stream of household bills, often leading to a reliance on credit and the goodwill of traders. Moreover, our protagonist frequently has to resort to bluffing her way through conversations with various acquaintances in an effort to save face, never having read quite the right books, seen the latest plays, or attended the de rigueur exhibitions of the day.

Keeping up-to-date with the latest fashions, particularly in millinery, represents another major headache for the Provincial Lady. Like many British women through the ages, our protagonist will head off to the shops in search of something new when her spirits are low. However, finding the right hat to flatter the face isn’t quite as easy as it may sound, especially if one’s hair is as wild and unruly as the Provincial Lady’s proves to be…

January 22nd. – Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold – which he has hitherto ignored – is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

[…]

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the position.

Hairdresser’s assistant says, It’s a pity my hair is losing all its colour, and have I ever thought of having it touched up? After long discussion, I do have it touched up, and emerge with mahogany-coloured head. Hairdresser’s assistant says this will wear off ‘in a few days’. I am very angry, but all to no purpose. Return home in old hat, showing as little hair as possible, and keeping it on till dressing time – but cannot hope to conceal my shame at dinner. (pp.31-32) 

Meanwhile, husband Robert is unphased by most things, remaining remarkably silent and unmoved by all manner of minor upsets and household crises.

Other diary entries focus on the Provincial Lady’s social interactions with friends and other members of the local community, often covering a wide range of random topics including literature, current affairs, mutual acquaintances and domestic challenges. The rural world and its inhabitants are beautifully captured – the central character in particular, complete with all her flippant thoughts, social anxieties and unfavourable comparisons with others. Our protagonist’s ‘mems.’ or notes to self are another joy, revealing more of her inner musings and wry observations on life.

May 15th. […]

Tea is brought in – superior temporary’s afternoon out, and Cook has, as usual, carried out favourite labour-saving device of three sponge-cakes and one bun jostling one another on the same plate – and we talk about Barbara and Crosbie Carruthers, bee-keeping, modern youth, and difficulty of removing oil stains from carpets. Have I, asks Our Vicar’s Wife, read A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land? No, I have not. Then, she says, don’t, on any account. There are so many sad and shocking things in life as it is, that writers should confine themselves to the bright, the happy, and the beautiful. This the author of A Brass Hat has entirely failed to do. It subsequently turns out that Our Vicar’s Wife has not read the book herself, but that Our Vicar has skimmed it, and declared it to be very painful and unnecessary. (Mem.: Put Brass Hat down for Times Book Club list, if not already there.) (p. 68)

Interestingly, the Provincial Lady has some literary ambitions of her own, a point that is brought out here and then developed further in the subsequent books in the PL series.

This is a charming, humorous and at times poignant novel of a largely domestic life in a bygone age. In spite of its firm footing in the late 1920s/early ‘30s, Delafield’s book still holds some relevance to the modern world, especially in terms of the emotions and dilemmas portrayed. In some respects, it may well have paved the way for later diaries capturing the lives of more contemporary women and characters, books like Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (2013).

So, in summary, a fitting read for the #1930Club, best consumed in small doses to avoid any risk of fatigue. It’s the sort of book you can dip in and out of every now and again when the mood takes you without having to worry about the intricacies of narrative plot.

If you’re interested in my thoughts on other books from 1930, you can find the relevant posts via the following links:

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys – Initial read and re-read

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Miss Mole by E. H. Young

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 10-12

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve reached the end of my little project to read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a wonderful twelve-part series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. It’s been a hugely enjoyable and satisfying experience, easily one of my bookish highlights in recent years. Having ‘lived’ with these characters for the best part of six months, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that the cycle is complete. The idea of revisiting it at some point in the future is very tempting indeed.

As with my previous Powell posts, I’m going to touch on some of the highlights from the final volumes in the series – hopefully relatively spoiler-free, although there may be the occasional mention of a key development here or there.

Books Do Furnish a Room (book 10 in the sequence), sees Jenkins in a contemplative, melancholic mood as he returns to his old University to gather material for a forthcoming book on Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a tone reflected in the bleak and wistful atmosphere of post-war British life, replete with its deficiencies and uncertainties.

This is a very ‘literary’ instalment in the series, one that revolves around books, writers, critics and publishers – in particular, those connected to the newly-established publishing house Quiggin & Craggs. Jenkins is engaged by Q&C to commission and manage literary reviews, a role which brings him into contact with the author X Trapnel, an idiosyncratic character who enjoys perpetuating his own somewhat legendary urban myth. (For the interested, it is well-documented that Powell drew on the figure of the talented but troubled writer Julian Maclaran-Ross, author of the excellent novel Of Love and Hunger, as inspiration for this character.)

X Trapnel – or ‘Trappy’ as he is affectionately known – is a marvellous creation, undoubtedly one of Powell’s finest across the series. In spite of his hand-to-mouth existence and frequent shuttling from one down-at-heel Bloomsbury hotel to another, Trappy gives the impression of being something of a dandy with his tropical suit, grey suede brothel-creepers and flamboyant, skull-topped walking stick.

The walking stick struck a completely different note. Its wood unremarkable, but the knob, ivory, more likely bone, crudely carved in the shape of a skull, was rather like old Skerrett’s head at Erridge’s funeral. This stick clearly bulked large in Trapnel equipment. It set the tone far more than the RAF greatcoat or tropical suit. For the rest he was hatless, wore a dark blue sports shirt frayed at the collar, an emerald green tie patterned with naked women, was shod in grey suede brothel-creepers. These last, then relatively new, were destined to survive a long time, indeed until their rubber soles, worn to the thinness of paper, had become all but attached from fibreless uppers, sounding a kind of dismal applause as they flapped rhythmically against the weary pavement trodden beneath. (p. 106, book 10)

Naturally, Trappy’s preferred mode of transport is the taxi – not only to avoid descending to the undesirable level of the bus or tube but to provide some protection from loitering bailiffs hoping to serve writs for outstanding debts. Irrespective of his precarious financial position, Trappy never hesitates in spending his last few shillings on a taxi, a touch that adds to the air of panache he chooses to adopt when facing the outside world. As a character, he is continually playing a role, always performing to the gallery in one form or another.

Once again, Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) astute powers of observation come to the fore in capturing this individual’s trademark characteristics, complete with all their various tensions and contradictions.

Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, and opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age. Each of these ambitions had something to recommend it from one angle or another, with the possible exception of being poor – the only aim Trapnel now achieved with an unqualified mastery. (pp. 144-145, book 10)

As with previous volumes, humour plays a vital role in these books, balancing the poignant developments with some lighter moments here and there. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent of sadness running through the twilight of the series, a sense of loneliness and disenchantment in an uncertain, shifting world. Allusions to classical Greek myths also play their part, particularly in books 11 and 12, Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies respectively.

Several familiar faces make welcome reappearances here, most notably Quiggin, Sillery, Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton. There are some classic ‘Pamela’ moments in these books, powered by this character’s unpredictable, fiery nature – a veritable tour-de-force of hostility and disdain. In this scene, Widmerpool (now a member of the House of Lords) tries to capture Pamela’s attention following his arrival in Venice, albeit rather unsuccessfully.

Pamela threw him a glance. Her manners suggested that a man – a very unprepossessing man at that – was trying to pick her up in a public place; some uncouth sightseer, not even a member of the Conference, having gained access to the Palazzo because the door was open, was now going round accosting ladies encountered there. Widmerpool persisted. (p. 105, book 11)

The spectral Mrs Erdleigh – first glimpsed in book 3, The Acceptance World – also pops up again, just when you least expect it.

Age – goodness knows how old she was – had exalted Mrs Erdleigh’s unsubstantiality. She looked very old indeed, yet old in an intangible, rather than corporeal sense. Lighter than air, disembodied from a material world, the swirl of capes, hoods, stoles, scarves, veils, as usual encompassed her from head to foot, all seeming of so light a texture that, far from bringing an impression of accretion, their blurring of hard outlines produced a positively spectrum effect, a Whistlerian nocturne in portraiture, sage greens, sombre blues, almost frivolous grays, sprinkled with gold. (pp. 241-242)

Alongside these regulars, Powell adds some new characters to the mix – most notably two Americans, the biographer Gwinnett and the film producer Glober, both of whom share an interest in X Trapnel’s work. Oddly enough, these two men also become entangled with the infamous Pamela, albeit in their rather different ways.

Another memorable character making his mark is Scorpio Murtlock, the enigmatic leader of a strange cult with a penchant for night-time rituals and various risqué practices. The battles for power, which have always formed an important thematic strand within the series, are in evidence once again, this time with Murtlock’s cult playing a crucial role.

With the final two volumes in particular, there is a sense of the series drawing to a close, of the old guard moving on in mind, body and spirit. The twin spectres of ageing and impending mortality haunt these books with funeral services offering the main opportunities to catch up with old acquaintances and to reminisce about the past.

Widmerpool continues to loom large in the proceedings, although his standing and reputation in society are now very much in decline. The final chapters of the sequence bring a strong sense of closure to his story, culminating in a remarkable denouement that feels at once both shocking and strangely fitting, particularly given this character’s rather idiosyncratic personality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is an element of the narrative coming full circle, harking back to our very first image of Widmerpool emerging out of the mist during an afternoon run at school. A truly memorable end to this richly rewarding series.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

What can I say about this classic novella that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than it to reiterate just how wonderful it is. A masterpiece in miniature – I loved it.

Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. A Southerner by nature, Birkin has come to Oxgodby to restore a Medieval wall painting in the local church – much to the annoyance of the vicar, Reverend Keach, who resents the restorer’s presence in his domain. In reality, there is another purpose to Birkin’s visit: to find an escape or haven of sorts, an immersive distraction from the emotional scars of the past.

Naturally, the project brings Birkin into contact with other residents in the village, many of whom are intrigued by his work. There is Moon, an archaeologist and fellow veteran of the war, a point that gives him some understanding of Birkin’s mental condition; Alice Keach, the vicar’s beautiful young wife who seems somewhat out of place beside her husband at the vicarage; and the Ellerbecks, a kindly local family who befriend Birkin, providing him with homemade food to supplement his meagre supplies.

I don’t want to reveal much more about what happens in the novel, other than to give a flavour of some of the keynotes. There’s a touch of romance in the air, an element of mystery in the story behind the painting, and a gradual renewal of sorts for Birkin – a sense of restoration, both creatively and emotionally.

Standing up there on the platform before a great work of art, feeling kinship with its creator, cozily knowing that I was a sort of impresario conjuring and teasing back his work after four hundred years of darkness. But that wasn’t all of it. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers. And to south and north of the Vale, low hills, frontiers of a mysterious country. (p.83)

Above all, this is a beautifully written novel imbued with a strong sense of longing, a nostalgia for an idyllic world. (Birkin is narrating his story from a point of distance, looking back nearly 60 years to the summer in question.) It also perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of time – the idea that our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments, the most fleeting of chances to be grasped before they are lost forever.

People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies. (p.104)

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art – one I would wholeheartedly recommend if you haven’t read it already. (For more detailed insights, do take a look at these excellent posts by Max and Caroline. The wonderful Backlisted team also covered the book on one of their podcasts, which you can find here.)

My copy of A Month in the Country is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 5-9

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’ve been working my way through Anthony Powell’s marvellous twelve-part sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, reading the individual novels between other books in my TBR. So far, I’ve posted a detailed piece on book one, A Question of Upbringing, and a summary of some of highlights from books 2-4 – more specifically Powell’s skills with character, attention to detail and meditations on the nature of life.

Continuing in the latter vein, here are a few more things I’ve been enjoying in this series, particularly in books 5-9.

It’s been interesting to revisit some of the main characters in the story at various points, just to see how they’ve changed and developed over time. While the clumsy, pretentious Widmerpool pops up relatively frequently (much to my delight), other acquaintances from Jenkins’ schooldays – friends such as Charles Stringham and Peter Templer – make more occasional appearances.

In this scene from book 6, The Kindly Ones, Jenkins meets Templer again after a gap of some years. From a distance, Templer appears to have changed very little; however, on closer inspection, the difference in his appearance is more marked, not only in build but in demeanour too. (As ever, these reflections are relayed by Jenkins, the narrator throughout.)

It was a warm autumnal evening, so that we were all in the garden when Templer’s car drew up at the gate. The vehicle was of just the kind I had predicted. Templer, too, as he jumped out, seemed scarcely to have changed at all. The car was shaped like a torpedo; Templer’s clothes gave the familiar impression – as Stringham used to say – that he was ‘about to dance backwards and forwards in front of a chorus of naked ladies’. That outward appearance was the old Templer, just as he had looked at Dicky Umfraville’s nightclub four or five years before. Now, as he strode up the path with the same swagger, I saw there was a change in him. This was more than the fact that he was distinctly fatter. A coarseness of texture had always coloured his elegance. Now, that coarseness had become more than ever marked. He looked hard, even rather savage, as if he had made up his mind to endure life rather than, as formerly, to enjoy it. From the first impression that he changed hardly at all, I reversed judgement, deciding he had changed a great deal. (p. 101, book 6)

I love the way Powell blends humour with more thoughtful tones in this passage – the comic image of Templer dancing followed by the wistful observation on the endurance of life, highlighting a sense of sufferance over enjoyment. It’s Powell’s undoubted ability to transition from one emotion to another, seamlessly moving from humour to contemplation, that makes the passage so effective.

As with the previous volumes, Jenkins’ reflections on the nature of life are dotted through the novels, adding a few meditative touches to the narrative here and there – always interesting and nicely judged. The following quote comes from book 5, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – a passage that captures the mix of emotions triggered by thoughts of love, especially amongst friends and acquaintances.

That old feeling of excitement began to stir within me always provoked by news of other people’s adventures in love; accompanied as ever by a sense of sadness, of regret, almost jealousy, inward emotions that express, like nothing else in life, life’s irrational dissatisfactions. (p. 155, book 5)

There are some gloriously comic scenes throughout the series, perhaps none more so than the incident in which Barbara Goring – a one-time love interest of Jenkins’ – pours a dispenser of sugar over Widmerpool’s head during a party (an episode from book 2, if I recall correctly).

Humour also plays a key role in book 7, The Valley of Bones, when Jenkins is called up for service in the Second World War. (This is the first book in the sequence to focus on the War – a shift from the earlier volumes where the ‘meat’ of the narrative is concerned with Jenkins’ education, various relationships and the ongoing whirl of social activities.)

As a second lieutenant in the Welsh regiment, Jenkins finds himself surrounded by a plethora of flawed and ineffectual characters, particularly where essential duties are concerned. There is Gwatkin, the rather foolish and inept commanding officer whose head is turned by a friendly barmaid; Deafy Morgan, a well-intentioned infantryman whose impaired hearing proves a liability in vulnerable situations; not to mention the infamous Sayce,  a near-criminal and ‘Company bad character’ who manages to make a complete hash of everything he touches.

In one of the funniest scenes from this novel, the regiment receives a visit from the Divisional Commander, General Liddament, who is horrified to discover that the men have not been given porridge for breakfast – possibly the fault of Gwatkin as far as Liddament is concerned. The suggestion that some members of the human race may not even like porridge appears to be anathema to the General.

[General Liddament] ‘No porridge?’

[Gwatkin] ‘No porridge, sir.’

General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgement.

‘There ought to be porridge,’ he said.

He glared round at the platoon, hard at work with their polishing, oiling, pulling-through, whatever they were doing. Suddenly he pointed his stick at Williams, W. H., the platoon runner.

‘Would you have liked porridge?’

Williams, W. H., came to attention. As I have said, Williams, W. H., was good on his feet and sang well. Otherwise, he was not particularly bright.

‘No, sir,’ he said instantly, as if that might be the right answer.

The General was taken aback. It would not be too much to say he was absolutely staggered.

‘Why not?’

General Liddament spoke sharply, but seriously, as if some excuse like religious scruple about eating porridge would certainly be accepted as valid.

‘Don’t like it, sir.’

‘You don’t like porridge?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then you’re a foolish fellow – a very foolish fellow.’ (pp. 95-96, book 7)

Alongside the dry humour, this book is tinged with notes of tragedy, the challenges of living through the war juxtaposed with the absurdity and horror of the situation – a theme that is continued into book 8, The Soldier’s Art.

The fire-engines had driven away. The street was empty. I thought how good Eleanor was in a situation like this. Molly had been good too, when it came to disaster. I wondered what would happen to Ted. The extraordinary thing about the outside of the house was that everything looked absolutely normal. Some sort of a notice about bomb damage had been stuck on the front-door by the wardens; otherwise there was nothing to indicate the place had been subjected to an attack from the air, which had killed several persons. (p. 165, book 8)

And then, just when you least expect it, Widmerpool appears again at the end of book 7, much to Jenkins’ (and the reader’s) surprise. There are some classic Widmerpool moments, particularly in book 8, where he is confirmed as an unfeeling, self-centred individual of the highest order.

By book 9, Jenkins – now a Major – has secured a role in the War Office, acting a point of liaison with those in charge of various Allied forces. This volume also sees the proper introduction of the infamous Pamela Flitton, briefly glimpsed at Stringham’s wedding in an earlier novel. With her trademark air of rage and despair, Miss Flitton proceeds to create merry hell in all manner of romantic entanglements, a characteristic typified by the following passage.

‘Giving men hell is what Miss Flitton likes,’ he said. ‘I know the sort. Met plenty of them.’

There was something to be said for accepting that diagnosis, because two discernible features seemed to emerge from a large, often widely diversified, canon of evidence chronicling Pamela Flitton’s goings-on: the first, her indifference to the age and status of the men she decided to fascinate: the second, the unvarying technique of silence, followed by violence, with which she persecuted her lovers, or those who hoped to be numbered in that category. She appeared, for example, scarcely at all interested in looks or money, rank or youth, as such; just as happy deranging the modest home life of a middle-aged air-raid warden, as compromising the commission of a rich and handsome Guards ensign recently left school. In fact, she seemed to prefer ‘older men’ on the whole, possibly because of their potentiality for deeper suffering. (p. 74, book 9)

By the end of book 9, even Widmerpool – now a Colonel and hungry for power – has fallen under Pamela Flitton’s spell. I am very much looking forward to seeing how this situation develops in the post-war instalments, books 10-12. What a remarkable series this is turning out to be.

Two excellent novels by Brigid Brophy – The Snow Ball and Flesh

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy (1964)

I’ve been keen to return to Brigid Brophy for quite a while, ever since I read her thoroughly engaging coming-of-age novel, The King of a Rainy Country, a book imbued with the freshness of youth. Luckily the Bloomsbury Oxfam turned up trumps a few months ago with a lovely secondhand copy of The Snow Ball, Brophy’s fifth novel, initially published in the mid-1960s.

It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and Donna Anna, the young woman he tries to seduce. (As the opera opens, the attempted seduction has just taken place, but its success or otherwise remains unclear.)

The setting for Brophy’s novel is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. (Although the exact period is never specified, the story appears to take place in the early 1960s.) Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni.

When Don Giovanni kisses Donna Anna on the stroke of midnight, naturally the pair are attracted to one another, irresistibly drawn together in the woozy atmosphere of the ball. As the remainder of the night unfolds, we follow this couple in a provocative dance of sensuality and seduction, a liaison brought to life through Brophy’s exquisitely crafted prose. The use of dialogue is particularly impressive, highlighting the sophisticated nature of the author and her lead characters.

They were again leaning on the parapet, arm parallel with arm, cheek parallel with cheek; but not touching. Anna had let her clasped hands drop, from the wrists, below the level of the parapet, but not out of Don Giovanni’s sight. She was aware of his head turned ten degrees from the straight and of his gaze resting, consumingly, on her hands.

“My husband—” she began, but broke off. She twisted her wedding ring a millimetre further round. “Please let’s remain anonymous.”

“All right. But it restricts the conversation.”

“It needn’t. Tell me what sort of person you are. In general terms.”

“I don’t think in general terms.”

“What things do you think about?”

“Mozart and sex,” he said.

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else in general terms. And you?”

 Mozart, sex and death,” she said.

There was a pause. They both burst into laughter. (p. 66)

Brophy skilfully intercuts this flirtation with tantalising glimpses of other couples at the ball, most notably teenagers Ruth (Cherubino) and Edward (Casanova) who are embroiled in their own romantic entanglement – partially captured through a series of real-time diary entries by Ruth. The two young lovers are beautifully sketched in a manner that highlights their individual airs and affectations to great effect. Interestingly, their relationship acts as a striking contrast to the Donna Anna-Don Giovanni arc: the awkwardness and inexperience of youth vs the sophistication of more seasoned lovers. Also participating in a separate clandestine tryst are the ball’s hosts, fifty-something Anne (a close friend of Anna K’s) and her fourth husband, Tom-Tom.

In spite of my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – definitely worth seeking out.

Flesh by Brigid Brophy (1962)

Having enjoyed The Snow Ball so much, I decided to go on a hunt for more novels by Brophy – a search that eventually uncovered Flesh, a suitable companion piece from 1962. Once again, Brophy demonstrates her natural ability to riff with the creative arts, this time alluding to Rubens’ women as symbols of sexuality.

When we are first introduced to Marcus, he appears as a shy, socially awkward, gangly young man, struggling to find his place in the world. By the end of the narrative, he is transformed – infinitely more comfortable with himself and his relationships with others. The woman who brings about this fundamental change in character is Nancy, a self-assured, sexually experienced young woman whom Marcus meets at a party.

Flesh is the story of Marcus and Nancy’s relationship, a sexual awakening of sorts played out against the bohemian backdrop of 1960s London. In the following scene from an early stage in their relationship, Nancy encourages Marcus to dance, something he has never felt confident to do in public before – happily, the outcome is rather enchanting.

But Marcus was wrapped, enchanted, in his discovery of dancing, which felt to him like floating not in the water but in the air. He did not care who was watching or visualising what. This publicly permitted parody of an experience he had never had, sexual intercourse, at last liberated his physical response to Nancy. He was amazed to find it so unlike – and yet so exactly the realisation of – his erotic daydreams. It was easier; the imagination need not be worked, but responded of its own instant accord to the actuality of the thing – a real person, real legs, moving : yet because of the actuality it was also harder, inasmuch as muscles had actually to grip and let go, and to be displaced. And in the same way it was both less and more exciting. (p. 35)

There’s some interesting character development here, particularly with Marcus who evolves quite significantly under Nancy’s reassuring influence. The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages about sex – always sensual and evocative, never gratuitous or overly explicit. Instead, everything is beautifully judged.

As ever, Brophy is wonderful when it comes to detail, particularly in her depiction of the secondhand furniture shop where Marcus works. Fans of Rainy Country will find much to enjoy in the portrayal of the establishment’s owner, the rather idiosyncratic Mr Polydore, with his scarlet bow tie and lavender suede shoes.

This is another smart, sexy, thoroughly enjoyable novel from Brigid Brophy, an author who seems ripe for rediscovery, particularly in the current era of women’s empowerment.

My copies of The Snow Ball and Flesh were published by Allison & Busby.

Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve been getting through a lot of books lately, more than I’ve had time to write about in detail. So, here are a few thoughts about some of them – a sparkling Evelyn Waugh, and books 2-4 of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

I thoroughly enjoyed this sharply executed satire on the debauched society set of the early 1930s, complete with its blend of acerbic humour, unexpected tragedy and undercurrent of savagery. As a novel, it seems to perfectly capture that ‘live for the moment, hang tomorrow’ attitude that existed during the interwar years.

In essence, A Handful of Dust charts the falling apart of a marriage – that between the bored socialite, Brenda Last, and her somewhat less gregarious husband, Tony. The Lasts live at Hetton Abbey, a faded Gothic mansion in need of refurbishment and repair. Unfortunately, the Lasts are rather short of money, and what little they do appear to have goes on various servants, consumables and Brenda’s regular trips to London to see friends.

The rot sets in when Brenda slips into an affair with John Beaver, a somewhat depthless chap who proves an appealing distraction, at least for a time. While Brenda’s sister and friends know of the situation with Beaver, Tony remains ignorant of the relationship, naively believing Brenda’s ridiculous cover story of her enrolment in a London-based economics course – hence the need for a little flat in the city where Brenda can stay during the week. However, things come to a head in the form of an unexpected tragedy, a terrible accident which cleaves the Last family apart.

Waugh uses dialogue to great effect in this novel, frequently moving the narrative along through a series of conversations – sometimes face-face, other times on the phone. The style is pin-sharp and pithy, qualities illustrated by the passage below. In this scene from an early stage in the novel, Tony has just learned that Beaver is coming to Hetton, a discovery that annoys him greatly.

[Tony] ‘What’s he coming here for? Did you ask him to stay?’

[Brenda] ‘I suppose I did in a vague kind of way. I went to Brat’s one evening and he was the only chap there so we had some drinks and he said something about wanting to see the house…’

‘I suppose you were tight.’

‘Not really, but I never thought he’d hold it against me.’

‘Well, it jolly well serves you right. That’s what comes of going up to London on business and leaving me alone here…Who is he anyway?’

‘Just a young man. His mother keeps that shop.’

‘I used to know her. She’s hell. Come to think of it we owe her some money.’

‘Look here, we must put a call through and say we’re ill.’

‘Too late, he’s in the train now, recklessly mixing starch and protein in the Great Western three and sixpenny lunch…Anyway he can go into Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again – the bed’s agony I believe.’ (pp. 27-28)

Basically, if you like that passage, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this book; if you don’t, then it’s probably not for you!

A Handful of Dust is an entertaining yet bittersweet romp, a story shot through with Waugh’s characteristically caustic wit. And yet there is an undercurrent of despair here too, a sense of hopelessness that becomes apparent, particularly towards the end as Tony ventures off into the Amazonian jungle in search of a secluded city. His adventures with a maverick explorer are artfully portrayed.

Reputedly inspired by the disintegration of Waugh’s own marriage coupled with his experiences in South America, this is a tonally sophisticated novel with more to say than might appear at first sight.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 2-4

I’ve been making good progress with this series, working my way through the books in between other reads. Rather than commenting on the plot, which would be virtually impossible to do without revealing spoilers, I’m going to highlight a few aspects that have struck me so far.

Firstly, Powell’s undoubted ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – in just a few carefully judged sentences. He does this time and time again, enabling the reader to anchor each character firmly in their mind.

There are numerous passages I could have chosen to illustrate this, but here’s one from the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. The individual in question is Mrs Myra Erdleigh, an acquaintance of Uncle Giles’ whom Jenkins meets during a trip to the Ufford, Giles’ favoured haunt for discussions on his money troubles.

He [Giles] had blown his nose once or twice as a preliminary to financial discussion, when the door of the lounge quietly opened and a lady wearing a large hat and purple dress came silently into the room.

She was between forty and fifty, perhaps nearer fifty, though possibly her full bosom and style of dress, at a period when it was fashionable to be thin, made her seem a year or two older than her age. Dark red hair piled on her head in what seemed to me an outmoded style, and good, curiously blurred features from which looked out immense, misty, hazel eyes, made her appearance striking. Her movements, too, where unusual. She seemed to glide rather than walk across the carpet, giving the impression almost of a phantom, a being from another world; this illusion no doubt heightened by the mysterious, sombre ambience of the Ufford, and the fact that I had scarcely ever before seen anybody but Uncle Giles himself, or an occasional member of the hotel’s staff, inhabit its rooms. (pp. 5-6, book 3)

It is Mrs Erdleigh’s movements that make all the difference here, her way of gliding across the carpet like a ghostly apparition or a creature from another world.

Powell’s attention to detail is pretty impressive too, often revealing little insights into an individual’s persona. At an earlier moment in the same scene, Nick offers the following reflection on Uncle Giles, an observation which discloses something of the latter’s fastidious manner in spite of his lack of funds.

On that particular occasion, the three fish-paste sandwiches and slice of seed cake finished, talk about money was about to begin. Uncle Giles himself never ate tea, though he would usually remove the lid of the teapot on arrival and comment: ‘A good sergeant-major’s brew you’ve got there,’ sometimes sending the tea back to the kitchen if something about the surface of the liquid specially displeased him. (p. 5, book 3)

Finally (for now), I’m also enjoying Powell’s meditations on life itself, his somewhat wistful observations on the nature of the game. Here’s how book two, A Buyer’s Market, draws to a close.

Certain stages of experience might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came) on those small green tables, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time–a quarter of an hour, I think–the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the white balls and the red return no longer to the slot to be replayed; and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity. (p. 274, book 2)

How very apt…

You can read my piece on the first book in the series here: A Question of Upbringing.

A Handful of Dust is published by Penguin Books, A Dance to the Music of Time by Arrow Books; personal copies. (For more info on Stu’s Penguin Classics event, click here.)

A Dance to the Music of Time, book 1 – A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

First published in 1951, A Question of Upbringing is the first novel in Anthony Powell’s masterly twelve-part cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid-20th century. It’s been on my radar for quite a while, mostly due to conversations with MaxJonathan and Ali who have written about the books in some detail. The final push came towards the end of last year when the Backlisted team covered book ten in the series, Books Do Furnish a Room, on their Christmas podcast.

Having drawn a line under my three-year Classics Club project, I now have the headspace to read a long sequence of novels – hence my decision to begin the Dance. While I can’t promise to write about every book in the series, I will try to post some thoughts every now and again, just to capture a few observations. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on the first instalment, A Question of Upbringing.

As the novel opens, the narrator – a man named Jenkins – is observing the movements of some workmen in his street when he is reminded of Poussin’s great painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the Seasons move in rhythm to the notes of the lyre.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. (p. 2)

It’s a striking image, one that prompts Jenkins to think back to his youth, a time when so many things, hitherto unfathomable to him, were starting to become a little clearer.

Immediately we find ourselves back in the 1920s where Jenkins is in his final year of public school, destined to progress to a notable University, almost certainly Oxford. Most of his spare time is spent messing around with two companions, Stringham and Templer, whose temperaments, Jenkins observes, appear to represent two different facets of life in spite of their outward similarities. Stringham is something of a romantic and an eccentric, perhaps destined to play a somewhat different role from the one he truly desires. Templer, on the other hand, is more practical, valuing the tangible things in life, though he is not particularly ambitious.

The boys enjoy a feisty relationship with their punctilious housemaster, Le Bas, a situation which prompts Stringham to devise a devious joke at the tutor’s expense. The incident culminates in Le Bas being mistaken for a petty fraudster who is wanted by the police. Rather amusingly, Le Bas believes Templer to be the orchestrator of the prank, especially once the boy’s tobacco pouch is found near the scene of his arrest. It’s a very funny story, one that soon spreads around the network of boys as the episode becomes public.

While at school, Jenkins also encounters Widmerpool, a rather isolated, awkward boy who cuts a lonely figure marked by an air of greyness. A year or two older than the other boys, Widmerpool is destined to reappear in Jenkins’ orbit in the years to come.

Following these reflections on the boys’ schooldays, the novel then goes on to shadow Jenkins as he pays visits to Stringham’s home in London and the Templers’ residence near the sea. While staying with the Templers, Jenkins comes into contact with Sunny Farebrother, an amicable business associate of Templer senior. Farebrother also finds himself the butt of a joke when Templer’s brother-in-law, the rather objectionable Stripling, attempts to place a chamber pot in Farebrother’s hat box before the businessman’s departure. However, the plot is foiled when Farebrother surprises Stripling in the midst of enacting the trick.

When reading the novel, we view everything through Jenkins’ perspective, observing the movements of the other characters in relation to each another. It soon becomes clear that Jenkins is a little naïve, certainly more so than many of his peers. Nevertheless, there is a sense of him maturing as the novel progresses, a feeling that he is beginning to understand a little more about the business of life.

Clearly some complicated process of sorting-out was in progress among those who surrounded me: though only years later did I become aware how early such voluntary segregations begin to develop; and of how they continue throughout life. (p.69)

It is during his stay at the Templers that Jenkins first becomes aware of the possibilities that love might offer in the course of one’s existence – not just in terms of a physical attraction to someone, but a deeper, more emotional force too. This realisation is sparked by his observation of another of the Templers’ guests, the intoxicating Lady Reith. Although Jenkins is not seriously tempted by the prospect of Lady Reith, he does recognise her magnetism and power over the opposite sex. Instead, Jenkins considers himself to be in love with his schoolfriend’s sister, the somewhat remote Jean Templer.

Before heading off to university, Jenkins spends the summer in France, staying with a wartime friend of his father’s, Commandant Leroy. Also visiting the Leroys that summer is Widmerpool, who in spite of a little window dressing still retains much of the aura of the odd-boy-out from school.

Widmerpool had tidied himself up a little since leaving school, though there was still a kind of exotic drabness about his appearance that seemed to mark him out from the rest of mankind. […] His familiar air of uneasiness remained with him, and he still spoke as if holding a piece of india-rubber against the roof of his mouth. He also retained his accusing manner, which seemed to suggest that he suspected people of trying to worm out of him important information which he was not, on the whole, prepared to divulge at so cheap a price as that offered. (p. 118)

There is something rather secretive and unpleasant about Widmerpool at this stage, a feeling that leaves me interested to see how his character evolves over time. Currently articled to a firm of solicitors, it is clear than Widmerpool believes himself to be destined for greater things – either in the way of business or politics or both.

Once again, there are some beautifully observed scenes in this section of the story, particularly the amusing tennis matches involving two somewhat idiosyncratic Scandinavians – one from Norway, the other from Sweden – who clearly dislike one another.

The final chapter of this novel sees Jenkins in his first year at University, attending Sunday afternoon tea parties hosted by the wily Sillery, an influential don whose primary aim is to uncover and exploit any connections that might be of use to him. Stringham is also studying at the same University, although his arrival is delayed by an accident which puts him out of circulation for several months. Unlike Jenkins, Stringham is unhappy at the college, and it is not long before he convinces his mother and stepfather to allow him to depart. Other young undergraduates float in and out of Jenkins’ orbit during this period, although the significance of these figures remains to be seen.

As the novel draws to a close, Jenkins parts company with Stringham, and there is a sense that a particular chapter in his life is coming to an end.

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period. This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. (p. 229)

It is observations like this that really stand out for me – Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) reflections on the nature of life alongside his wry asides. How relationships develop and then dissipate over time; how complex and powerful the business of love can be; how our personalities are often formed in the years of our youth, thereby setting the pattern for much of our lives. These are just some of the points that strike me on reading this book, but there are many more. Above all, it is not what you know, but who you know that seems most important here: a person’s social class and background; which school and college they went to; their network of influencers. These are the things that appear to matter most.

I’m looking forward to seeing how these individuals develop over time as they move in and out of one another’s lives. No doubt several new characters will be introduced as the Dance takes shape. I do hope we see Jenkins’ Uncle Giles again, a man whose liaisons with various members of the opposite sex are as dodgy and indiscriminate as his business dealings. I’ve run out of space to say any more about Giles in this piece, but maybe another time; he is a marvellous creation.

A Question of Upbringing is published by Arrow Books; personal copy.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – the debut novel of the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner – was an instant success on its publication in 1926. Now regarded as something of an early feminist classic, it tells the story of Laura (Lolly) Willowes, an unmarried woman of semi-independent means who struggles to break free from her conservative family to carve out a life of her own in the lush and seductive countryside of Bucks. While the story starts out in fairly conventional territory, about halfway through it morphs into something more magical, subverting the reader’s expectations with elements of fantasy and wonder. It’s an excellent book, one of the most surprising and unexpected delights of my reading year to date.

From a young age, Laura Willowes has always loved the country, growing up in a quiet, traditional family in the heart of Somerset where she seems at one with nature and everything it has to offer. As an unmarried woman and youngest child in the family, Laura keeps house for her widowed father with consummate ease. She feels contented and at home in this environment with its simple ways and traditions. Moreover, it is clear that Mr Willowes loves his daughter very dearly, to the extent that he secretly hopes she will remain at home to take care of him even though he knows her future happiness may suffer as a result. In reality, marriage holds little appeal for Laura, and she remains relatively satisfied with her position in life.

When Mr Willowes dies of pneumonia in 1902, everything changes for Laura (now aged twenty-eight) as her familiar world is swept away. It is automatically assumed by the remaining members of the family that Laura will leave her home and everything she loves to go and live with her older brother, Henry and his wife, Caroline, in their central London abode. Although Laura has inherited a decent income of her own, there is no question of her choosing to live independently. Her other brother, James, and his wife, Sibyl, are to move into Lady Place (the Somerset home), while Laura herself must be content with the smaller of the two spare rooms in Henry and Caroline’s house.

Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best. (p. 10)

Going along with the family’s decision, Laura tries to make the best of things of London, helping Caroline with her children and other domestic duties. While she proves herself to be a reliable and trustworthy companion, Laura is often left feeling somewhat inadequate and taken for granted. Caroline, for her part, is pleasant enough to Laura, but she is also orderly, dull and unromantic, bowing to Henry’s better judgement on most things – an action which feeds her husband’s high opinion of himself.

In short, Laura feels her loss of identity very deeply. She is no longer Laura, but good old Aunt Lolly, someone who can be relied on to assist with the children – either that or simply ‘Caroline’s sister-in-law’, something of an appendage to the principal members of the household.

At first, Henry and Caroline try to introduce Laura to respectable, unmarried men in the hope that she might find a suitable husband – but Laura is having none of this, and she discourages any further matchmaking efforts with her somewhat eccentric remarks.

One by one, the years pass by, and before she knows it, Laura finds herself in her late forties, still unmarried and living a dull, unfulfilling life in London. By now, we are in the 1920s where it is becoming a little easier for women to branch out and gain some independence for themselves. There are signs that Laura is feeling somewhat restless and frustrated with her life, longing as she does to reconnect with the countryside in some way.

Then, one day while out shopping in the city, Laura experiences a sort of epiphany in the midst of a flower shop. Surrounded by flora and country produce, she imagines herself in an orchard, communing with nature in all its glory.

She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. (p. 80)

As a result of this experience, Laura decides that she is going to move to Great Mop, a tiny village in the midst of Buckinghamshire, where she intends to live modestly on her own. As Laura surveys her family at dinner that evening, it is as if she has awoken from a dream; now she can see how devoid of excitement their regimented lives appear to be.       

During dinner Laura looked at her relations. She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber, to find them almost unrecognizable. She surveyed them, one after the other. Even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. (p. 84)

At first, Laura’s family think her quite mad for wanting to go and live in the country. Henry, in particular, is both astonished and upset by his sister’s outburst, fearing that he and Caroline have failed in their duty to make her feel welcome and part of the household. Nevertheless, Laura is determined to go in spite of the moral and financial pressures Henry tries to bring into play. Not only has Henry taken Laura’s goodwill for granted for so many years, but he has also managed to be careless with her capital, effectively reducing her inheritance by half.

So, reduced circumstances and all, Laura heads off to Great Mop where she must now take rooms in a cottage run by a somewhat idiosyncratic landlady, Mrs Leak. It is here in the unfettered realm of the countryside that Laura is able to rediscover herself, finding freedom and independence in the most unexpected of sources. Without wishing to give too much away, the village holds a secret, one that enables Laura to unleash an element of her psyche that has been lying dormant for years just waiting to be released.

Lolly Willowes is a lovely story of a woman’s need for independence, to carve out a life of her own without the interference of those who think they know better. (Interestingly, it predates Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by three years.) I couldn’t help but root for Laura in her quest for fulfilment and pleasure, all the more so given her resilient personality.

The fantastical elements in the last third of the book are nicely done, encouraging the reader to go with the flow at the appropriate moments – and there are some beautiful passages of descriptive writing too, especially in the author’s portrayal of the natural world.

The slope before her was dotted with close-fitting juniper bushes, and presently she saw a rabbit steal out from one of these, twitch its ears, and scamper off. The cloud which covered the sky was no longer a solid thing. It was rising, and breaking up into swirls of vapor that yielded to the wind. The growing day washed them with silver. (p. 184)

The book is not without its touches of humour here and there, particularly in the scenes between Laura and her family when she makes her intentions clear – an element which adds to the enjoyment of Laura’s transformation.

So, all in all, another very satisfying read for me. Highly recommended if you’re willing to embrace a little magic and mischief.

My edition of Lolly Willowes was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.

Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…

So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)

The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.

It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.

In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)

Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.

That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)

By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.

The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.

You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.

The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.

To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.