Tag Archives: Backlisted

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to try Shirley Jackson’s widely-acclaimed Gothic classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a book that has been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. Fortunately, it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite magical. I think I can see why this book has earned its place in the 20th-century canon.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her gentle older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a village in New England. (The location is thought to be loosely based on North Bennington, Vermont, the place where Jackson lived for much of her adult life.)

The vast majority of the local townsfolk will have nothing to do with the Blackwoods as a result of an infamous incident that took place at the house some six years earlier. The girls’ parents, aunt and younger brother all died of arsenic poisoning after the deadly substance had been mixed with the sugar they consumed with their blackberries at dinner. Merricat was not present at the time as she had been sent to bed before the meal commenced. To this day the local villagers remain convinced that Constance – then aged twenty-two – administered the poison, even though she was found not guilty of the charge due to a lack of evidence. Constance did not take sugar on her berries that day, a point which counted against her at the time of the trial.

As a consequence, the Blackwood girls now live a highly secluded life with their Uncle Julian, the only other survivor of the poisoning. In failing health both mentally and physically, Julian continues to be preoccupied with the murders; as such, he spends much of his time obsessing over his notes on the case in the hope of completing a book on the subject.

In order to remain out of public view, Constance prefers to stay within the confines of the Blackwood estate, thereby leaving Merricat in the unenviable position of being the main link between the family and the outside community. Twice a week Merricat ventures into the nearby village to buy groceries and collect books from the library. Here she must run the gauntlet, steeling herself against the taunts, prejudices and slights from the villagers who consider the Blackwood sisters to be nothing less than evil demons.

“The Blackwoods always did set a fine table.” That was Mrs. Donell, speaking clearly from somewhere behind me, and someone giggled and someone else said “Shh.” I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there in back of me without looking into their flat grey faces with the hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead. (p. 8)

As a character and narrator, Merricat Blackwood is someone you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. There is a childlike quality to her highly distinctive voice; for Merricat, it is as if time has stood still since the poisonings as she speaks and behaves like a young girl, one intent on maintaining the security and stability of her make-believe world. A deeply superstitious individual at heart, Merricat believes she can protect her beloved sister and Uncle Julian from external dangers and evils by relying on magic words, strange rituals and imaginary games. She loves her sister dearly and would like nothing more than to transport Constance and Uncle Julian to the moon – a fantasy world of winged horses, magical plants and eternal sunshine, a place where they could be safe and happy.

“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.” (p. 75)

Constance for her part indulges her younger sister, playing along with her escapist fantasies and dreams to her heart’s content. Nevertheless, Merricat can sense something disturbing in the air – a change is coming and not for the better. The arrival of the girls’ estranged cousin, Charles, seems set to disrupt the comfortable atmosphere in the household, a dynamic that Merricat is determined to preserve. Now that Charles’ father is dead, a man who cut off all relations with the Blackwoods at the time of the trial, Charles is free to reconnect with his relatives. However, he seems more intent on getting his hands on the Blackwoods’ money – the majority of which is locked away in a safe in the house – than demonstrating any genuine interest in the girls’ welfare.

Naturally, Merricat sees through the formidable Charles in an instant. In particular, she is dismayed by two things: firstly, Charles’ outright intolerance of Julian whom he considers a burden; and secondly, his developing friendship with Constance who, on account of her sweet nature, can only see her cousin in a positive light. Merricat makes no secret of her hostility towards Charles, a point he intuits immediately. If only Charles would go away, then everything would be alright again and the family would be safe.

Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. (p. 69)

While this is a slim book, it has much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. From what I can glean about Jackson and her fiction, it would appear that this theme of being the outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a feature in much of her work.

The plot works very well within the framework established by the set-up. For example, we do learn the truth about the fateful poisonings, but that’s not the main point here. What really sets this novel apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of Merricat’s voice. Childlike chants and rhymes are repeated at various points in the story, an effect that adds a strange lyrical quality to the text, albeit a rather unsettling one.

While I was expecting this to be a somewhat unnerving or chilling read (there are times when Merricat is quite disturbing), I wasn’t prepared for the dark humour, a tone that Jackson uses to great effect in certain scenes. Most of these comic moments revolve around Uncle Julian, whose ramblings about the past provide much amusement for the reader. At an early stage in the story, he puts on a great show for Mrs Wright, a rather timid but nosy woman who is fascinated by the mystery of the Blackwood poisonings. Mrs Wright has come to the Blackwoods’ house to accompany her friend, Helen Clarke, one of the few locals who will have anything to do with the Blackwood sisters. In calling on the Blackwoods on a weekly basis, Helen hopes to encourage Constance to reconnect with society, to begin to live her life again.

Much to Helen’s disapproval, Mrs Wright gets swept up by Uncle Julian as he proceeds to show her the dining room where the infamous poisonings occurred. It’s a marvellous scene, too long to quote here. Instead, I’ll finish with a short passage on the ladies’ arrival at the house, one that hints at Jackson’s eye for a humorous incident.

Constance was perfectly composed. She rose and smiled and said she was glad to see them. Because Helen Clarke was ungraceful by nature, she managed to make the simple act of moving into a room and sitting down a complex ballet for three people; before Constance had quite finished speaking Helen Clarke jostled Mrs. Wright and sent Mrs. Wright sideways like a careening croquet ball off into the far corner of the room where she sat abruptly and clearly without intention upon a small and uncomfortable chair. Helen Clarke made for the sofa where Constance sat, nearly upsetting the tea table, and although there were enough chairs in the room and another sofa, she sat uncomfortably close to Constance, who detested having anyone near her but me. “Now,” Helen Clarke said, spreading, “it’s good to see you again.” (pp. 25-6)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Something slightly different from me today, a little look at one of Raymond Chandler’s novels, The High Window (1942), his third featuring the legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe. As I’ve written about Chandler before – there are links to my previous posts here: Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-bye – I’ll try to keep this review fairly brief, certainly as far as the plot is concerned.

The novel opens in traditional hard-boiled fashion with Marlowe visiting a new client at her home, an elaborate but soulless mansion in Pasadena, Los Angeles County. The woman in question is Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a wealthy, cantankerous old widow whose main pleasures in life appear to involve the consumption of large quantities of port and the systematic bullying of her repressed secretary, a rather neurotic young lady by the name of Merle Davis.

Mrs Murdock is in need of ‘a nice clean private detective,’ someone to investigate the theft of a rare gold coin, the Brasher Doubloon, the pride of her late husband’s private collection, normally kept under lock and key in a secure room in the house. As far as Mrs Murdock is concerned, the coin has been taken by her wayward daughter-in-law, the former nightclub singer, Linda Murdock (nee Conquest), a woman she has never liked – both the coin and the girl disappeared at the same time, hence the suspicion surrounding her involvement in the case.

I love this first passage – it’s taken from a scene where Marlowe is sizing up Linda Conquest, just from a photograph given to him by Mrs Murdock. It’s textbook Chandler.

A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus. (p. 18)

As the Doubloon’s disappearance is a private family matter, the police are not to be involved. Instead, Mrs Murdock wants the coin back in her possession, along with an uncontested divorce for her rather ineffectual son, Leslie, of whom she is very fond – this in spite of his foolish marriage to Linda. Marlowe, for his part, smells a rat from the start; and when he tries to probe Mrs Murdock for further information about Leslie, the shutters come down. Along with the police, Leslie must also be kept firmly out of the investigation…

“Young man, do you want this job or don’t you?”

“I want it if I’m told the facts and allowed to handle the case as I see fit. I don’t want it if you’re going to make a lot of rules and regulations for me to trip over.”

She laughed harshly. “This is a delicate family matter, Mr Marlowe. And it must be handled with delicacy.”

“If you hire me, you’ll get all the delicacy I have. If I don’t have enough delicacy, maybe you’d better not hire me. For instance, I take it you don’t want your daughter-in-law framed. I’m not delicate enough for that.”

She turned the colour of a cold boiled beet and opened her mouth to yell. Then she thought better of it, lifted her port glass and tucked away some more of her medicine.

“You’ll do,” she said dryly. (pp. 16-17)

Somewhat reluctantly, Marlowe takes the case – after all, there are bills to be paid and bottles of liquor to be purchased. So, he sets off to find Linda’s former flatmate from before her marriage, a nightclub entertainer named Lois Magic.

As is often the case in these stories, the opening premise is simply the first thread in a complex web of deep-rooted corruption, an entanglement of messy crimes and grubby misdemeanours. The underlying situation is much more involved and intricate than it appears at first sight. Turns out that Leslie Murdock is in hock to Alex Morny – the nightclub manager and husband of Lois Magic – to the tune of $12,000. And that’s merely the start of it; there are many more twists and developments to come.

Marlowe’s quest for the coin takes him into seedy offices and apartments, glamorous nightclubs and bars, a veritable myriad of sleazy locations in the city. Along the way, he discovers evidence of murder, infidelity, blackmail, counterfeiting and sexual harassment, some of which have been kept under wraps for several years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there comes a time when Marlowe finds himself caught between the police and his client in the quest for some kind of moral justice. While never losing sight of the need to stay on the right side of the law to maintain his status as a private eye, he is also aware that there is the confidentiality of his client to protect. Either way, our protagonist is trapped between a rock and a hard place, grappling with a situation he can barely begin to understand.

Twelve hours to tie up a situation I didn’t even begin to understand. Either that or turn up a client and let the cops go to work on her and her whole family. Hire Marlowe and get your house full of law. Why worry? Why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cockeyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator, Philip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come. (p. 129)

Once again, I am struck by just how many of these hard-boiled stories coalesce around dysfunctional families, often headed up by a poisonous matriarch as is the case here. Mrs Murdock is a prime example, a cold, bitter, unscrupulous woman who will stop at nothing to protect her own position. She really is quite a character.

While The High Window isn’t quite up there with the best of Chandler’s novels (for me, that would be The Big Sleep or The Long Good-bye), it still makes for a terrific read. Once again, I find myself admiring this author more for his writing than his plotlines. It’s all about the exhilarating prose style, peppered as it is with sharp dialogue and quotable one-liners. Here’s one of my favourites from the book, a wonderful description of the Idle Valley Club, the joint where Linda and Lois used to work.

The lobby looked like a high-budget musical. A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality and drive of a split fingernail. (p. 135)

Then there’s the irresistible combination of atmosphere, mood and indisputable sense of place. No one writes about Los Angeles quite like Chandler, from the plush estates of Bel Air to the rundown areas like Bunker Hill. I’ll wrap things up with a final quote, one that captures something of the dark underbelly of the city.

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles. (pp. 70-71)

The High Window is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

First published in 1980, Human Voices was Penelope Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, a story set largely within the confines of the BBC during the London Blitz. Like both its predecessors (The Bookshop and Offshore), Human Voices was inspired by experiences from Fitzgerald’s own life as she worked for the Corporation while WWII was underway.

fitz

Over the course of this novel, Fitzgerald paints a vivid picture of life at the BBC, complete with all its foibles and idiosyncrasies. She is particularly adept at capturing the atmosphere within the walls of Broadcasting House, highlighting the dynamics between various employees and departments along the way. In its infinite wisdom, The BBC has decided that ‘truth is more important than consolation’, especially in the long run; and so its role, as far as possible, must be to inform the nation about important developments in the world, irrespective of the views of other authorities. By the spring of 1940, the organisation is beginning to feel the effects of the war, the mood turning to one of urgency and mild anxiety. There is a fair amount of making do and getting on with the job as best one can.

Since March the lifts below the third floor had been halted as an economy measure, so that the first three staircases became yet another meeting place. Few nowadays were ever to be found in their offices. An instinct, or perhaps a rapidly acquired characteristic, told the employees how to find each other. On the other hand, in this constant circulation much was lost. The corridors were full of talks producers without speakers, speakers without scripts, scripts which by a clerical error contained the wrong words or no words at all. The air seemed alive with urgency and worry. (pp. 6-7)

Human Voices contains very little in the way of conventional plot. Instead, Fitzgerald focuses on her characters, capturing their hopes and anxieties as they go about their day-to-day activities in the production of radio programmes for the BBC. The two central characters are Sam Brooks, the Director of Recorded Programmes, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. Both are referred to by their job title initials, RPD and DPP respectively.

RPD (Sam) is a rather needy, self-indulgent chap, keen to surround himself with attentive young girls as far as humanly possible – a trait that has given rise to an alternative name for his department as ‘the Seraglio’. In spite of his vast technical knowledge of sound recordings and apparent competence in his role, RPD frequently feels the need to confide his personal troubles in one of the female RPAs (Recorded Programmes Assistants) from his division – someone like Vi (the most experienced of the group) or the new girl, Lise. RPD’s wife has effectively left him, possibly because he never seems to spend much time at home, hence his requirement for a little moral support at work. By contrast, PPD (Jeff) is more level-headed and relatively self-sufficient in his role, so much so that he is often called on to help RPD whenever some minor crisis comes to light. Here’s a brief extract from a telephone conversation between the two Directors.

RPD was put through.

‘Jeff, I want you to hear my case.’

DPP had been hearing it for more than ten years. But, to do his friend justice, it was never the same twice running. The world seemed new created every day for Sam Brooks, who felt no resentment and, indeed, very little recollection of what he had suffered the day before.

‘Jeff, Establishment have hinted that I’m putting in for too many girls.’

‘How can that be?’

‘They know I like to have them around, they know I need that. I’ve drafted a reply, saying nothing, mind you, about the five thousand discs a week, or the fact that we provide a service to every other department of the Corporation. See what you think of the way I’ve put it – (p. 15)

What follows is an extended dialogue which highlights the internal politics at play within the organisation as RPD is frequently sidelined or excluded from discussions concerning his own department due to his tendency to take things too personally.

Much of the novel’s action (if one can call it that) revolves around the activities involved in producing the radio programmes: recording sounds, finding and sequencing recordings, managing the schedules, and overseeing the broadcasts themselves – sometimes pulling the plug if things get too hairy.

There is much dry humour running through this book, with some choice exchanges between employees at different levels within the organisation. RPD’s first meeting with the new girl, Lise, gives rise to a very humorous conversation between the Director and the staff canteen about the nature of the cheese in their sandwiches. There are also some priceless scenes involving Dr Vogel, a rather eccentric expert who seems hell bent on capturing the most obscure sounds through field recordings – several hours’ worth of material featuring church doors squeaking and creaking are presented as just one example of his work. Conversations between RPD’s secretary, Mrs Milne, and her chief crony, a fellow secretary from Establishment, also result in some wonderfully comic moments, especially when the former decides on a new strategy for finding a replacement RPA for Lise when the girl leaves rather suddenly. The plan is to focus on sensible middle-aged women as they are ‘less prone to tears and hysteria’ than their younger counterparts. (Mrs Milne and her colleague are both ‘Old Servants’, long-standing members of the Corporation – part of the BBC old school, so to speak.)

Alongside the dry humour, there are melancholy moments too. I love this passage about one of the male RPAs, Teddy, at the end of a conversation he has been having with fellow RPA, Vi – she is expecting her fella to arrive home on leave fairly soon.

‘I hope he keeps strong for you,’ said Teddy gloomily, a spectator of experience, always on the wrong side of the windowpane. Sometimes he went down to the BH typing pool to see if any of the girls would like to come out, say to the pictures, or for a cup of tea at Lyons. Their heads, dark and fair, rose expectantly as he came in, then, although he was quite nice-looking, sank down again over their work. Nor was Teddy very popular with the Old Servant who supervised the pool. (p. 81)

The novel also touches on the personal lives of several of the main characters: RPD and his myriad of troubles; Lise and her search for boyfriend Frédé, a soldier in the French army; Vi and her efforts to support Lise in various ways; and, perhaps most notably of all, Annie (the second new girl) and her developing feelings for RPD. We even gain an insight into DPP’s inner life. There is a sense that some of these people – certainly RPD, Vi, Annie and Teddy – find a form of solace in their activities at the BBC as a means of distraction from the various stresses and strains of war. Fitzgerald is particularly good at capturing the mood in London during the Blitz: people seeking shelter in the underground at night; snapshots of streets following the bombing raids. It’s all here.

After the first week in September London became every morning a somewhat stranger place. The early morning sound was always of glass being scraped off the pavement. The brush hissed and scraped, the glass chattered, tinkled, and fell. Lyons handed out cold baked potatoes through one hole in their windows and took in the money through another. (p. 143)

Human Voices is another excellent novel from Penelope Fitzgerald, strong on characterisation, attention to detail and the conveyance of mood. It is perhaps closer in style to Offshore than to The Bookshop, but there are some similarities with both. By focusing on the personal experiences and feelings of her characters, Fitzgerald finds a means of putting the broader developments of the war into a more human context. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gets to the heart of the matter at the BBC.

The subject of the meeting was the familiar one of how to carry on. Engineering had skilfully ensured that the BBC, switching from one transmitter to another, need never go off the air. Maintenance was probably at work already on the broken pipes. Catering brewed away remorselessly in the basement, but the problem remained: what should the voices say? (p. 188)

Human Voices is published by Flamingo/HarperCollins; personal copy.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been itching to get back to reading Elizabeth Taylor for a while now, an author whose work I adore. First published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness was one of Taylor’s later novels, and I think it shows. There is a sense of precision in both the writing and the characterisation that suggests it is the work of an accomplished writer, one in full control of her material. Much as I loved the last Taylor I read – her first, At Mrs Lippincote’sThe Soul of Kindness seems a more rounded novel, possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my favourite so far.

taylor

The storyline in The Soul of Kindness revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. She is married to Richard, her loving husband and hard-working businessman, manager of the family-owned factory passed down from his father, Percy. In addition to Richard, Flora has a close circle of friends upon whom she lavishes her own unique brand of kindness: there is the long-suffering Meg, her closest friend from school; Patrick, the writer who looks forward to Flora’s company as a respite from his work; and Kit, Meg’s younger brother, who quite literally worships Flora, looking up to her as a sort of benefactor or mentor.

While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her good intentions often causing more harm than good. Kit, an aspiring actor, has very little real talent, but Flora encourages him terribly, building up his hopes and dreams with the best of intentions even though everyone else can see how futile and potentially damaging this is proving to be. Flora, however, always thinks she knows what’s best for her friends, even if they can’t see this for themselves. Here’s a typical example of Flora in action – in this scene, she is talking to Ba, Percy’s level-headed lady friend and prospective partner in life.

‘Why don’t you have a cat?’ Flora asked.

‘I don’t want a cat.’

‘But it would be lovely for you. Percy likes cats.’

‘Well, Percy’s got a cat,’

Flora, in fact, had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable at all. Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine. (p. 18)

Right from the start, Flora’s mother, the well-intentioned Mrs Secretan, encouraged her daughter (an only child) to adopt only the rosiest view of human nature; and none of Flora’s experiences since then have succeeded in altering this mindset. To a certain extent, Flora has been shielded from the harsh realities of life by those around her. First by her mother in those early years, then by Meg who recognised that the protective environment nurtured by Mrs Secretan could not be broken down without consequences. Now the bulk of the responsibility for preserving Flora’s happiness has passed to Richard, a task he clearly acknowledges as presenting difficulties from time to time. In this scene, Richard is wondering why he has not told Flora about a chance encounter with one of his neighbours, the rather lonely Elinor Pringle, a woman with whom he has developed a close friendship. While Elinor is not in love with Richard, she values his companionship, someone to talk to and have a drink with every now and again while her busy politician husband is caught up in his own world.

To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled. (p. 71-72)

Slowly but surely over the course of the novel, Elizabeth Taylor reveals the true extent of Flora’s lack of self-awareness and her rather blinkered view of the lives of those around her. Flora has very little understanding of the real impact of her acts of ‘kindness’ on her closest friends and family, a point that hits home to Mrs Secretan when she finds this letter from her daughter at the end of the wedding.

Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me. (p. 13)

[…]

She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes. (p. 15)

Mrs Secretan is a typical Elizabeth Taylor character. There is a sense of despondency about her, knowing as she does that a life of loneliness almost certainly lies ahead now that Flora has flown the nest. There are some priceless scenes between Mrs Secretan and her slightly dotty housekeeper, Miss Folley, a woman whose pride is wounded when she discovers she is the source of some amusement and frustration in the Secretan household.

Flora’s friend, Meg, is another lonely woman; in love with the wrong person – Patrick, the writer, who happens to be gay – she feels the burden of responsibility for supporting Kit, both financially and emotionally, while Flora fills his head with dreams of an acting career. In the face of diminishing funds, Meg is forced to look for a new place to live, somewhere outside of London. Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, suggests Towersey, a little town by the Thames, and he and Meg spend a dispiriting Saturday afternoon looking at one dismal dwelling after another. Eventually, Meg settles on the least-worst option, the best of a bad lot. Once again, Taylor conveys the quiet tragedy of Meg’s life through her wonderful observations, perfectly capturing the sadness and isolation of her circumstances. Moreover, the melancholy mood is reflected in the descriptions of the atmosphere and late afternoon light in dreary Towersey.

Patrick too has problems of his own having fallen for the thoroughly unsuitable Frankie, a somewhat petulant and unreliable young man who seems out for what he can get. Flora, for her part, simply cannot work out why Patrick doesn’t ask Meg to marry him, refusing to believe all the talk of him being gay. As far as Flora is concerned, these fanciful ideas are just gossip.

While I may have made this sound like a sad novel, there are some brilliant flashes of humour here too. Percy, Flora’s blustering father-in-law, is a marvellous creation, a traditional man with rather conventional views about life and women. He is forever meddling in Richard’s business affairs, returning to the factory and poking his nose into things even though he has supposedly retired from work. Percy features in several wonderful passages, but I couldn’t resist including this one. Ba – now Percy’s wife – has gone on a trip to France, leaving Percy to fend for himself for a week. As a consequence, he decides to call on Flora in the hope of being invited to dinner – Alice is Flora and Richard’s baby daughter, Mrs Lodge their housekeeper.

Mrs Lodge opened the door to him. Although it was only half-past five a faint but appetising smell of roasting meat came up the stairs. It must be a very large joint to have been put on so early, he decided. There would be plenty for him, but he hoped there wasn’t going to be a dinner party. Of course, they lived well, he thought vaguely, taking off his overcoat and handing it to Mrs Lodge, who almost staggered under its weight.

Patrick Barlow stood up as the drawing-room door was opened. Always here, thought Percy. He wondered why Richard did not put his put his foot down. Flora sat on the sofa. Alice was on her lap, having her napkins changed.

Good God, thought Percy. […]

In the drawing-room, he thought. In company. (p. 139-140)

The Soul of Kindness is another brilliant novel from Elizabeth Taylor, one that features so many little insights into different aspects of human nature it’s hard to convey them all here. This novel is not just about Flora and her lack of understanding; it’s just as much about the other characters and their troubles too. There are instances of wounded pride, unrequited love, the need for a little warmth and affection, loneliness, worthlessness, bitterness and guilt. In the end though, the story comes back to Flora and the fallout from her misguided actions. Perhaps only one character in the novel – the bohemian painter, Liz Corbett, a friend of Patrick’s and Kit’s – can see Flora for what she truly is: a dangerous and deluded creature. Interestingly, Liz never actual meets Flora in person, she only hears about her through the other characters.

Things come to a head towards the end of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover the denouement for yourselves – it’s well worth doing so.

The Soul of Kindness is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Without going into all the details, it’s probably fair to say that my previous encounters with Muriel Spark have been a little mixed. Nevertheless, given how enthusiastic several of my blogging friends are about this author, I’ve been meaning to give her another try for a while. Having just finished Memento Mori, I think I am finally beginning to see what there is to love about Spark, in particular her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. Judging by this book alone, she was quite a writer.

spark

First published in 1959, Memento Mori focuses on the lives of a group of English ladies and gentlemen in their seventies and eighties, all of whom are linked by family ties, social connections and various secrets reaching back over the previous fifty years. As the novel opens, we learn that Dame Lettie Colston (one of the central characters in the book) has been on the receiving end of a sequence of mysterious phone calls from an unknown male caller. Each time the message is the same: ‘Remember you must die.’  The police seem of little help in the matter, and the nuisance calls continue. Another more conventional writer would have used this set-up as the basis for a mystery novel, focusing on the incidents themselves and the search for the perpetrator. However, Spark does something much more interesting with this idea, using it instead as a means of exposing the behaviours of various members of the group, exploring a range of social issues such as class, ageing and our attitudes to mortality.

While Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey shows some concern for his sister’s welfare, he has pressing problems of his own to deal with. His elderly wife, the once-famous author Charmian Piper, is now in need of care as she is exhibiting signs of dementia. Much of the joy of this novel comes from the acerbic exchanges between the various members of this family, the delightful Charmian being especially prone to mixing everything up in her mind. Here’s a brief extract from one of their conversations.

‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.

‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.

‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.

‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’

‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine. (pp. 5-6)

Towards the end of that quote, Spark touches on one of the novel’s recurring themes, namely the different characters’ observations on the process of ageing. Godfrey is proud to be in control of all his faculties, and as such he has a tendency to measure himself against his various friends and peers. Another member of the group, the gerontologist Alec Warner, makes a habit of covertly studying each of his elderly acquaintances by way of an amenable third party (Olive, granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering), recording intimate details about them on a series of coded index cards. He seems strangely obsessed with every aspect of their behaviour as a means assessing their mental and physical health.

While Memento Mori is not a traditional plot-driven novel, several developments happen along the way to keep the reader entertained. At an early stage in the story, Lisa Brooke, a long-standing acquaintance of Godfrey and Charmian, passes away, leaving a significant inheritance to be settled. Her former carer, the poisonous but highly capable Mrs Pettigrew, is staking her claim on the estate, as are the remaining members of Lisa’s family and her estranged husband, Guy Leet. While the details of Lisa’s will are being investigated, Mrs Pettigrew accepts a role as Charmian’s carer, thereby creating all manner of mischief and tension within the Colston household. There are some priceless exchanges between Mrs P and Mrs Anthony, Godfrey and Charmian’s housekeeper – too long to quote here in detail, they are tremendously well-observed. The sly and cunning Mrs Pettigrew isn’t above a spot of blackmail either. She recognises several weaknesses in Godfrey, most notably his strong sense of male pride and his penchant for the occasional dalliance here and there. As such, she sets out to use these flaws in his character to her advantage.

One of the most enjoyable things about this novel is Spark’s portrayal of the relationship between Godfrey and Charmian. There is a very interesting dynamic here. As Charmian starts to rally, her mind improving and sharpening over the winter months, Godfrey finds himself experiencing a corresponding decline. It is almost as though Charmian’s spirits have to wither before Godfrey’s can bloom. As it turns out, Godfrey has always been a little resentful of his wife’s success as a novelist. In some ways he seems to enjoy bullying Charmian, treating her as a helpless child whose memory cannot be trusted. There is a wonderful scene where Charmian makes an afternoon tea all on her own while Godfrey and the others are out. Nevertheless, on their return neither Godfrey nor Mrs Pettigrew is willing to believe Charmian, Mrs P deliberately lying in the process as a means of putting her charge in her place. I love this next passage where Charmian begins to question her sense of duty to Godfrey.

She looked at Godfrey who was wolfing his rice pudding without, she was sure, noticing what he was eating, and she wondered what was on his mind. She wondered what new torment Mrs Pettigrew was practising upon him. She wondered how much of his past life Mrs Pettigrew had discovered, and why he felt it necessary to hush it up at all such costs. She wondered where her own duty to Godfrey lay – where does one’s duty as a wife reach its limits? She longed to be away in the nursing home in Surrey, and was surprised at this longing of hers, since all her life she had suffered from apprehensions of being in the power of strangers, and Godfrey had always seemed better than the devil she did not know. (p. 125)

Interestingly, there is another strand within the novel, one in which the quietly tragic rubs up against the darkly comic. Charmian’s former maid and carer, Jean Taylor, now resides in the geriatric ward of a public hospital. This thread allows Spark to convey a different set of emotions, namely the loss of independence and sense of humiliation one may well experience on entering such a place.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought her an injection. (p. 10)

The other grannies in Jean Taylor’s ward provide some comic moments to balance the poignancy, obsessed as they are with the constant rewriting of their wills and the search through the horoscopes for signs of good news.

Spark also uses this element of the story to pass comment on a range of social issues. Before she entered the hospital, Jean Taylor had longed to move to a private nursing home in Surrey; but Godfrey (her employer at the time) had quibbled about the cost, preferring instead to extol the virtues of the new and progressive free hospitals with their advanced standards of care. This would not do for Godfrey himself of course; instead, this distinguished gentleman imagines himself spending his final years in a nice hotel, possibly somewhere like the establishment in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

By the end of this marvellous novel, virtually all of the main players in the group will have received one of the mysterious telephone calls with the message ‘remember you must die’. Astute readers may have guessed the true identity of the caller by now, but if not, all will be revealed in the closing stages of the story. In Memento Mori, Spark has delivered a sharp yet moving tragi-comedy about the nature of ageing, one that might just provide us with a timely reminder of our own mortality and the need to treat each other with compassion while we’re still here.

Memento Mori is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Best known for his poetry, Philip Larkin wrote two loosely connected novels during his lifetime. The second of these, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind.

First published in 1947, A Girl in Winter represents my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club which is running next week (my post is a little early as I’ll be offline during the event itself). It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

img_3110

Girl is composed of three sections, the first and third of which take place on the same Saturday in winter – the setting is an English town in the midst of WW2. (The second part takes the form of an extended flashback which I’ll return to a little later.)

The novel focuses on Katherine Lind, a twenty-two-year-old girl who is working as a temporary assistant in the town’s library. As the story unfolds, we start to form a picture of this somewhat fragile figure. While she is sensitive and intelligent, Katherine finds herself working in a role which is beneath her capabilities, a position only made worse by the small-minded bullying of her boss, the obnoxious Mr Anstey. It soon becomes clear that Katherine – a European by birth – has come to England having been displaced by the war, and as such she is permanently conscious of her status as an outsider.

She had been appointed temporary assistant, which marked her off from the permanent staff: she was neither a junior a year or so out of school who was learning the profession, nor a senior preparing to take the intermediate or final examination. It meant that she could safely be called upon to do anything, from sorting old dust-laden stock in a storeroom to standing on a table in the Reading Room to fit a new bulb in one of the lights, while old men stared aqueously at her legs. Behind all this she sensed the influence of Mr. Anstey. There was a curious professional furtiveness about him, as if he were a guardian of traditional secrets; he seemed unwilling to let her pick up any more about the work than was unavoidable. Therefore any odd job that was really nobody’s duty fell to her, for Miss Feather, who was a pale ghost of his wishes, had caught the habit from him. It annoyed her, not because she gave two pins for library practice, but because it stressed what was already sufficiently marked: that she was foreign and had no proper status there. (p. 25)

While Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. From an early stage in the novel, it is also clear that she is desperately lonely. Katherine has made no friends since her arrival in England some two years earlier, preferring instead to avoid any social contact with others in favour of a solitary existence. There is a sense that she is living day by day, suppressing every reference to her former life while also disconnecting herself from any possible thoughts of what the future may bring. As Katherine’s story reveals itself, there is a strong suggestion that her family may have suffered at the hand of the Nazis. Once again this is never explicitly confirmed, only implied by the portrait Larkin creates. What we do know is that Katherine has experienced significant trauma in her life.

Returning to the first section of the novel, two things happen which serve to challenge the relative stasis of Katherine’s existence. The first and most significant of these events is the re-establishment of contact between Katherine and the Fennels, an English family whom she visited for a holiday some six years earlier. When Katherine learns of an imminent visit from her former pen pal and teenage crush, Robin Fennel, she is torn between the excitement of seeing him again and the uncertainty of where such a meeting might lead. The second is precipitated by an incident at the library which culminates in Katherine being tasked with the job of escorting home a petulant young colleague (Miss Green) who is suffering from severe toothache. At first sight, this particular development may seem of little significance, but it is during this journey to her colleague’s home that Katherine comes to a realisation. All of a sudden, it dawns on her that she is responsible for Miss Green; Katherine’s emotions have been suppressed for so long that she has almost forgotten what it feels like to care for another human being. In a sudden rush of sympathy, her emotions are reawakened.

Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretentions. Now this faded to unimportance and she grasped for the first time that she really needed care, that she was frail and in a remote way beautiful. It was so long since she had felt this about anyone that it came with unexpected force: its urgency made her own affairs, concerned with what might or might not happen, bloodless and fanciful. This was what she had not had for ages, a person dependent on her: (pp. 34-35)

In the third section of the novel, we continue to follow Katherine on this Saturday in winter to discover whether or not she finally reconnects with Robin Fennel. I don’t want to say anything else about this as it might spoil the story. Instead, I’ll consider part two of the book which goes back to the summer Katherine spent with the Fennels at their home in Oxfordshire some six years earlier, a beautifully-written section full of days spent playing tennis, taking trips to the local villages and the odd spot of punting on the river. Taken in its entirety, it helps to flesh out Katherine’s character while also casting light on her relationship with the country which is now her adopted home.

Winding back to the summer in question, sixteen-year-old Katherine comes to England in two minds. On the one hand, she feels apprehensive at the thought of spending three weeks in a strange land with people she barely knows; on the other, she is somewhat intrigued by the prospect of meeting her pen pal for the first time. Once Katherine arrives at the Fennels, Robin is very attentive and polite, treating his guest like royalty, someone he is trying to impress as opposed to a friend and potential playmate. Rather frustratingly for Katherine, Robin’s older sister, Jane – a rather irritable and moody girl, at least at first – seems intent on accompanying the pair everywhere, almost as though she has been tasked with the role of chaperone for the duration of the trip. Katherine, for her part, is dying to get Robin on her own, when she hopes his real personality will finally start to emerge.

He treated her as he might a boy of his own age whom he wanted to impress. Her assent was asked for everything they did: he never left her alone without making sure she had something nominally to amuse her. And this began to exasperate her. She was used to striking a quick response from people, to jumping from track to track of intimacy until either she tired of it or they reached a stable relationship. With him she simply could not get going. And this annoyed her, because he was attractive. If he had—well, if he had only laughed and paid her openly-insincere compliments, which was the lightest kind of flirtation she knew, that would have satisfied her. It would have shown he was human… (p. 127)

During the course of this section, Larkin shows us the difficulties Katherine experiences in reading and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially given the cultural differences and language barriers at play. At various points during the holiday, Katherine is mystified as to why Robin has invited her to stay. Nevertheless, after much uncertainty, the reason for the invitation finally becomes clear. This second part of the novel ends on a note of confusion for Katherine, something that explains much of her restlessness at the prospect of seeing Robin again after so many years.

I really loved A Girl in Winter. Technically speaking, it’s not perfect; the middle section is arguably too long, and there is a sense of the whole novel falling just slightly short of the sum of all the individual parts. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this nuanced portrait of Katherine, a character study that reminded me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek.

As one might expect, Larkin’s prose is glorious, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of a bucolic English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. Larkin is particularly strong when it comes to capturing life in an English town during wartime, an environment where people find themselves in rather diminished circumstances. In this respect, Girl calls to mind Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, another 1947 novel which I absolutely adored. I’ll finish with a passage which conveys something of this atmosphere.

It was easier to forget about it in the city, however. For one thing it was Saturday afternoon, and by one o’clock most people were free to go home. They could turn their backs on the window, and the slabs of garden, and read the newspaper by the fire till teatime. Or if they had no real home, they could pay to sit in the large cinemas, where it seemed warmer because it was dark. The cafeterias filled up early, and the shoppers lingered over their teas, dropping cigarette-ends into their empty cups, unwilling to face the journey back to where they lived. Everywhere people indoors were loth to move. Men stayed in their clubs, in billiard saloons, in public bars till closing time. Soldiers layer discontentedly in Y.M.C.A. rest rooms, writing letters or turning over magazines several weeks old. (p. 177)

A Girl in Winter is published by Faber and Faber.

 

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is a story of the American Midwest, of the pioneers and European immigrants who settled in the prairies in the late 19th century. The novel is narrated by Jim Burden, a New York-based lawyer who has documented his memories of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl whose family moved to Nebraska when Jim was a young boy. More than any other person Jim could remember from his childhood, Ántonia seemed to represent the prairies, both the tough conditions of the land and the essence of the people who lived there. In other words, she embodied the resilience of the pioneers’ spirit.

IMG_2852

The novel itself is divided into five books, each one dealing with a different period in Jim’s life. As the story opens, the recently orphaned Jim is travelling by train from Virginia to Nebraska to begin a new phase of his life with his grandparents. He is ten years old. Also travelling to Nebraska are Mr and Mrs Shimerda and their four children having just arrived in America from their homeland of Bohemia. During the journey, Jim befriends fourteen-year-old Ántonia (the Shimerdas’ second child) and is intrigued to discover that the Shimerda family are moving to a neighbouring property, the one closest to his grandparents’ farm. Before long the two youngsters are firm friends, spending time together whenever possible. As Ántonia is bright and eager to learn, Jim teaches her to speak English while they explore the countryside, noting the way it changes from one month to the next.

The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal; the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes. Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing into the red grass. (pg 39)

The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. […] The tree tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted, as if they would never have any life in them again. […] The cornfields got back a little of their colour under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crushed in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind. (pg. 40)

Nebraska is a land of blistering summers and biting winters, and the first year takes its toll on the Shimerda family, Ántonia’s father in particular. A quiet and dignified man by nature, Mr Shimerda has no experience of farming or manual work (back in Bohemia he was a musician). As a consequence, he is desperately lonely and homesick for his homeland. Moreover, the Shimerdas’ new home is terribly run down – it is frequently described as a ‘cave’ or ‘hole’ – and in spite of some help from their neighbours, the new arrivals struggle to get by. After paying over the odds for their land, they have little money to spare for food. If the Shimerdas can make it through to the spring, then they can plant a garden and buy some chickens, maybe even a cow. After a truly devastating winter for the family, the responsibility falls on Ántonia and her older brother Ambrosch to work the land as they attempt to make a go of their new life in Nebraska. While Jim looks forward to the prospect of an education at school, Ántonia must work the fields; she is as strong as any young man.

A couple of years later, Jim and his grandparents move to the local town of Black Hawk where Jim can attend school. On her arrival in town, Jim’s grandmother persuades her neighbours, the Harlings, to employ young Ántonia as a housekeeper. Once again, the two youngsters are living next door to one another and able to spend time together in the evenings. This section of the novel is bright and optimistic; for the most part, Ántonia is a conscientious worker, and she fits in well with the Harling family, playing with the young children and keeping them amused as far as possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of this section of the narrative is Cather’s focus on ‘the hired girls’, the Bohemian and Scandinavian teenagers who were sent to the town to work in some form of service. Jim reflects on the curious social system at play, whereby at first these country girls had to find jobs to help their families to pay off their debts or to make it possible for their younger siblings to attend school. In many ways, their experiences – both on the prairies and in service – made these girls more rounded than their younger brothers and sisters.

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new. (pg. 109)

In time, this decision to send their daughters out to work in service helped the foreign farmers to become prosperous more quickly than several of their native-born peers. Many American farmers were just as hard-pressed for money as their immigrant neighbours but were too proud to allow their daughters to go into service. If the girls couldn’t get positions teaching at one of the local schools, they simply sat at home in poverty instead.

In the next book, we follow Jim as he continues his education in Lincoln where he meets up with Lena Lingard, one of the Scandinavian hired girls who was friendly with Ántonia back in the town. Having trained as a dressmaker in Black Hawk, Lena now runs a successful business of her own in Lincoln. Once again, Cather touches on the developments within society at the time as Lena is a portrayed as young, independent, self-made woman with no desire or need for a husband to support her. It’s one of several contrasts in the novel: the experiences of the immigrant settlers vs those of the native-born farmers; life in the country compared to life in the town; opportunities for the educated vs those for the uneducated; a family’s expectations of their daughters vs those of their sons. There are many more.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Cather’s descriptions of the landscape and the natural world are simply stunning; she perfectly captures that blend of beauty and brutality, the blossoming of nature within a fickle environment. My one niggle relates to the somewhat episodic nature of the narrative. For me, the story feels most alive when Ántonia is in the frame (either directly or through another character’s observations). As we follow Jim, there are times when he is apart from Ántonia, and while certain elements of these sections of the novel are interesting (the social observations, for example), I have to admit to missing the luminosity of Ántonia’s presence when she is absent. Nevertheless, this is a fairly small criticism, one that certainly wouldn’t stop me from reading another of Cather’s books. (I’m already thinking about O Pioneers!). Also, there are some fascinating stories-within-stories in My Ántonia, particularly the various backstories and tales from the past. (Along with several other characters in the novel, Ántonia is a great storyteller.)

By the time we reach the final section of the book, a good thirty years have passed since Jim first met Ántonia, and he returns to Nebraska to see her again. Life has been hard on Ántonia, and yet the qualities that shine through are her optimism and determination, her unquenchable spirit and ability to survive. I’ll finish with a quote that captures a glimpse of this.

She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

[…] She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races. (pg. 186)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to reviews by Emma and Ali.

My Ántonia is published by Oxford World’s Classics; personal copy

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

First published in 1967, A Sport and a Pastime is the American writer James Salter’s third novel. Prior to becoming a writer, Salter served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and he drew on this experience for his first novel, The Hunters, an absorbing story of a pilot’s desire to deliver a successful mission. Despite a revival of interest in his work in recent years (his final novel, All That Is, was published in 2013), Salter remains largely unknown to many readers, a situation I still find hard to understand given the quality of his writing.

IMG_2585

Set in France in the 1960s, A Sport and a Pastime is the story of an affair between a young American man, Philip Dean, and an eighteen-year-old French girl named Anne-Marie. The novel is narrated by another man, an unnamed narrator in his mid-thirties, who hooks up with Philip while spending some time in Autun, a small town in the Burgundy region of France. As the book opens, the narrator is travelling by train from Paris to Autun, an extended section that immediately draws the reader into the story as a rush of images fly by.

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens. JOIGNY is painted in red. (pg. 4)

The house in Autun is owned by two friends of the narrator’s, Billy and Cristina, a couple currently living in Paris. There is a sense that they are the beautiful people, floating around from one long, languorous evening to another. Having been introduced to the narrator at a party, Philip arrives unexpectedly at the house in Autun shortly after the narrator moves in. Even though the two men do not know each other very well, they end up spending time together, driving around the countryside in Philip’s convertible, a 1952 Delage.

One evening when the narrator is out with Philip, he notices a young girl at a dance – it is Anne-Marie. Shortly afterwards, we cut to a scene in a restaurant; the narrator, Philip and Anne-Marie are having a meal together, and the affair between Philip and the girl is just beginning to get underway. The remainder of the novel presents an account of Philip and Anne-Marie’s relationship, as perceived almost entirely through the imagination of the narrator. The young couple spend their days travelling around France, driving from one town to another, staying at hotels and eating out most evenings. Salter’s prose is full of sensual imagery; the descriptions of Philip and Anne-Marie making love are highly erotic, so much so that I wondered how they were received at the time of the novel’s publication. Here’s a quote from the early stages of their relationship – most of the sex scenes are much more graphic than this, but it should give you a feel for the novel’s tone.

He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath—it is almost a sigh—leaves her. Her white throat appears. (pg. 56)

From an early stage in the novel, it becomes apparent that the narrator is unreliable. At several points in his narration, he fully admits his lack of reliability. In effect, he is presenting us with a description of what he imagines is happening between Philip and Anne-Marie at the time. (Moreover, he is looking back at his stay in Autun from some point in the future, several years down the line I suspect.)

The narrator’s own situation is of some significance here. During his time in Autun he becomes attracted to a divorcee, Claude Picquet, whom he sees about the town; and yet other than exchanging a few pleasantries with her, he seems hesitant to make a more definite move. By contrast, everything seems so easy for Philip. At twenty-four, he is handsome, self-assured and highly intelligent. Despite his brilliance as a student, he had felt restless at Yale, ultimately dropping out to pursue a different type of education: lessons in the school of life. There is a sense that the narrator is envious of Philip, worships him even. In many ways, he represents the man the narrator wishes he himself could be.

If I had been an underclassman he would have become my hero, the rebel who, if I had only had the courage, I might have also become. Instead I did everything properly. I had good marks. I took care of my books. My clothes were right. Now, looking at him, I am convinced of all I missed. I am envious. Somehow his life seems more truthful than mine, stronger, even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star. (pg. 33)

At one stage I began to wonder if Philip Dean ever existed at all, or whether the narrator had created him out of his own shortcomings, his own insecurities and dreams. After all, at one stage he states ‘I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him.’ Either way, I suspect the narrator may have been in love with Anne-Marie himself, as he fantasises about what might have been.

Could she, I have often wondered over the empty plates in restaurants, in cafés where only the waiters remain, by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could she, I dream, have become mine?…I look in the mirror. Thinning hair. A face marked by lines, cuts they are, almost, that define my expressions. Strong arms. I’m making all of this up. The eyes of a clever and lazy man, a passionate man… (pgs. 96-97)

A Sport and a Pastime is a difficult novel to summarise – it’s a book that feels as though it needs to be experienced for itself. Much of its power stems from the world Salter creates, so much so that it’s hard to capture this feeling in a review.

Very little happens in the way of plot. Philip and Anne-Marie travel around France in Philip’s car, they have dinner, make love, sleep and lie around in bed for much of the time. At one point, they visit the girl’s mother and stepfather. From a relatively early stage, there is a sense that the affair cannot last, particularly as the two lovers come from contrasting backgrounds and have very different aspirations in life. A simple girl at heart, Anne-Marie wants little more than to get married and have a family, whereas Philip is wary of getting too tied down. His feelings towards Anne-Marie oscillate throughout the course of their affair; at times he clearly adores her, but there are other occasions when he seems close to ending the relationship.

While there is much to like in this fluid, dreamlike novel, I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I found myself wondering whether it might be a touch self-indulgent, more so than Salter’s later novel Light Years, which I adored when I read it a few years ago. Perhaps my favourite thing about A Sport and a Pastime is Salter’s shimmering prose, a quality that comes into its own in the wonderful descriptions of the French countryside (like those in the quote near the beginning of my review) and the passages on Autun. He writes beautifully about France, the little shops and cafés, the restaurants and meals, the scenery and landscape.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gives a sense of the blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary in this story. Perhaps it will encourage you to read it for yourself.

One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper. I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design. (pg. 48)

For another perspective on this book, do read this excellent review from Max at Pechorin’s Journal.

A Sport and a Pastime is published by Picador. Source: personal copy.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Like Elizabeth Taylor (whose Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek I reviewed fairly recently), Barbara Pym is another of those English novelists I’ve been meaning to try for some time. First published in 1952, Excellent Women was her second novel, and I believe many readers consider it to be one of her best.

IMG_2489

The novel is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, living alone in a flat in a down-at-heel part of London, ‘so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station’. Mildred is very sensible, diplomatic and accommodating; in short, she is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments or worries of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (pg. 1)

As the daughter of a clergyman, Mildred is closely involved with the local Anglo-Catholic church where she helps the pastor, Julian Malory, and his sister, Winifred, with various activities (jumble sales, church bazaars and suchlike). Having never married, Julian and Winifred share a home at the vicarage – they are Mildred’s closest friends.

Into Mildred’s unexciting but fairly settled life come Helena and Rocky Napier, a rather intriguing married couple who have spent the past few years living apart from one another. Helena, an anthropologist by profession, arrives first, moving into the flat below Mildred’s where she seems to spend many an evening entertaining her colleague, the rather standoffish Everard Bone. At first Mildred isn’t sure if she likes Helena, but she does her best to be polite and neighbourly. Rocky appears a few weeks later having just returned to England following an extended stint in the Navy.

It soon becomes apparent that relations between Helena and Rocky are somewhat strained; consequently, Mildred’s skills as an excellent woman come in very handy as she attempts to mediate between the couple. Even though it is hard for her to take sides in this situation, Mildred finds Rocky particularly easy to talk to. He is attractive and charming, and Mildred is clearly brightened by his company.

Matters are further complicated when the attractive widow, Allegra Gray, moves into the room at the top of the Malorys’ rectory. At first, everything is sweetness and light. As the former wife of a clergyman, Mrs Gray ought to be ideally suited to life at the vicarage. That said, it is not long before she upsets the balance at the Malorys’. Julian is clearly smitten with her…and when developments have a knock-on effect on Winifred, Mildred is called on for support.

While Mildred is interested in the emotional lives of those around her, she values her own independence and does not feel the need to throw herself into relationships simply in the hope of finding a suitable husband. There are times when she feels she may have missed out on certain experiences in life, but in many ways she takes comfort from the fact that her current position as a spinster is familiar and uncomplicated. By contrast, other people around her seem intent on trying to do a spot of matchmaking. There are a number of occasions when Mildred’s friends and acquaintances seem to think they know what’s best for her (irrespective of Mildred’s own wishes). Take this example as Helena, Rocky and Mildred are travelling home after a night out with Everard Bone – the Napiers even go so far as to start talking about Mildred as if she were not present at the time.

‘You and Everard seemed to be having an interesting conversation,’ said Helena at last. ‘Was he declaring himself or something?’ Her tone was rather light and cruel as if it were the most impossible thing in the world.

‘He was telling me about his new flat,’ I said lamely.

‘Actually he might do very well for Mildred,’ said Rocky. Had we thought of that? Obviously, we must find her a good husband.’

[…]

We were rather far from our own door, and just as we were walking past the parish hall, Teddy Lemon and a group of lads came out, laughing and talking in their rough voices. My heart warmed towards them, so good and simple with uncomplicated lives. If only I had come straight home after the paper. This was Julian’s boys’ club night and I could have been there serving in the canteen – much more in my line than the sort of evening I had just spent. (pgs. 109-110)

There are other men in Mildred’s life too; most notably the rather finickity William Caldicote, the brother of an old school friend, whom Mildred meets once a year for lunch, and Julian Malory, whom many consider her ideal (and possibly rightful) partner.

Marriage is a central theme in this novel. Set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage, the story explores the idea of whether it is possible for a woman like Mildred to live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried. When she considers the stresses and strains of the Napiers’ marriage (not to mention the nature of developments between Julian Malory and Allegra Gray), Mildred is not at all convinced that she should marry. She does, however, value friendship and companionship in her life and hopes for more of these things in the future.

Excellent Women is my first experience of Barbara Pym’s work, and I hope it won’t be my last. I really enjoyed this story – it is beautifully observed, full of small but significant reflections on life in the 1950s. In many ways, the plot is secondary to other aspects of the novel as much of the focus falls on Mildred’s thoughts, feelings and observations. One of the things I liked most is Pym’s tendency to treat her characters with sympathy. She has a way of conveying humour alongside the difficulties that touch the everyday lives of these people, and yet there is a sense of insight and understanding in her writing, too.

The novel includes several humorous scenes with much of the dry wit coming from the interactions between the characters. There is plenty of gossiping and friendly bickering amongst the volunteers as they organise the parish jumble sale and hold meetings to discuss forthcoming events. All in all, I found it a charming and engaging story.

I’ll finish with a quote from one of the early chapters of the novel, partly because I think it illustrates a little of the humour in the story, Pym’s eye for dry comedy in the small tragedies of everyday life. In this scene, Mildred has joined the Malorys for dinner at the vicarage.

I sat down at the table without any very high hopes, for both Julian and Winifred, as is often the way with good, unworldly people, hardly noticed what they ate or drank, so that a meal with them was a doubtful pleasure. Mrs Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape’, also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard.

Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese. (pg. 12)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to posts by KaggsyAliVictoriaJane and Alex.

Excellent Women is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

I can’t quite recall how I first heard of American writer Paula Fox, possibly via a conversation on Twitter or through the blogosphere, but either way she sounded interesting. First published in 1970, Desperate Characters was her second novel. After being out of print for several years, it was reissued in 1999 and is now regarded by some as a potential classic of 20th-century American literature.

IMG_2362

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. The Bentwoods are privileged; they have plenty of money, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and a second home on Long Island. In many ways, they exist in a world cocooned from poverty, social deprivation and disorder.

One Friday evening, as the Bentwoods are dining at home, a familiar stray cat reappears at their back door. Sophie takes pity on the cat, gives it a saucer of milk and strokes its back, an action that prompts the creature to bite her. Here’s how it happens:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. (pg. 6)

That’s a great passage. It contains so many different elements: the hints about Sophie’s character; the danger lurking close to home; the sense of violation.

At first, Sophie does little to attend to the bite. She is reluctant to seek medical treatment, passing the incident off as ‘nothing’, even though deep inside she feels vitally wounded in some way. Having fed the cat on at least one previous occasion, she feels bemused and somewhat betrayed by its attack. As time passes fear begins to set in: her hand swells up; signs of infection start to appear; someone mentions the possibility of rabies. All this only serves to unnerve Sophie; even everyday objects start to appear somewhat unsettling.

The living room looked smudged, flat, Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace. Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions. There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion. Of course, it was the hour, the light, her fatigue. Only living things do harm. […] Who would pity her in her childish terror, her evasion, her pretence that nothing much had happened? Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy, and now, here in all its surface banality and submerged horror was this idiot event – her own doing – this undignified confrontation with mortality. (pg. 47)

One of the most striking things about this novel is the way in which Fox uses the cat bite as a catalyst, a starting point for further exploration. In effect, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence over the course of the weekend. For instance, Sophie answers the telephone to a heavy breather; a stone is thrown through the window of a friend’s house; their holiday home is vandalised. One by one the episodes pile up. In one memorable scene, a visibly distressed black man knocks at the Bentwoods’ door, pleads to use their phone and ends up borrowing money from them. In many respects, it feels like an invasion of their bourgeois world.

Desperate Characters is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. In some ways it reminded me a little of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the WeddingI didn’t love it quite as much as Cassandra, but that said, Baker’s novel sets a very high bar. In the end, I was left wondering what it is that Sophie fears the most. She clearly dreads the prospect of injections, but is she more unsettled by the threat of rabies or by the reality of her life with Otto? As we follow Sophie over the course of the weekend, we learn of her previous affair with a publisher named Francis, a relationship that obviously meant a great deal to her. When the affair ended, and Francis returned to his wife, Sophie was left feeling as though she had suffered ‘an irreversible loss’. In this scene, she reflects on her marriage to Otto, a man in the midst of his own troubles:

If all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that or worse – once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy. (pg. 62)

Fox uses contrasts to good effect throughout the story. There is a striking difference between the order of the Bentwoods’ house and the chaos Otto and Sophie encounter when they call upon Mr Haynes, the somewhat unreliable caretaker of their Long Island retreat. Here’s a brief excerpt from the description of the Haynes’ house, a property that looks as if it has been ‘assembled by a centrifuge’.

Rubber tires leaned against every surface. Cans, tools, pails, lengths of hose, rusted grills, and summer furniture were spread out in front of the house, presenting a scene of monkeylike distraction – as though each object had been snatched up and then dropped, a second’s forgetfulness erasing all memory of original intention. A clothesline was strung across the porch and from it hung a few limp rags. A bicycle with twisted handlebars lay against the steps. And from a small chimney black smoke poured as if, inside the house, the inhabitants were hurriedly burning up still more repellent trash before it drowned them. (pg 131-132)

There is a broader significance to the story, too. It seems to signal a crisis in a certain type of American life, an unravelling of the American Dream in a changing world. I’ll finish with a final quote from Charlie, Otto’s former business partner and fellow lawyer (the dissolution of their partnership adds another element of tension to the narrative). Even though he is alone with Sophie, Charles’ comments refer to both her and her husband:

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even. (pg. 39)

For the interested, here’s a link a profile of Paula Fox published in The Guardian.

Desperate Characters is published by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20, #TBR20 round 2.