Tag Archives: Book Review

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, 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.)

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

First published in 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was the debut novel by the American writer and reporter Sloan Wilson. The novel performed very well on its release and was promptly adapted for the screen with Gregory Peck as the central character, Tom Rath. Even though the book may have fallen out of fashion since then, its title – The Man in the Gray Suit – remains symbolic of certain kind of middle-class conformity in 1950s America, namely the need for a man to submit to the rat race in pursuit of the American Dream. Fans of the series Mad Men and the work of Richard Yates will find much to appreciate in Gray Flannel – and yet Wilson’s protagonist is more humane than Don Draper, more likeable and fairer in his dealings with others.

The novel revolves around Tom Rath, a thirtysomething former paratrooper, who finds himself trapped in a life which seems to hold little meaning for him. With a wife, Betsy, and three children to support, Tom feels the weight of society’s expectations very deeply. The family live in the midst of suburban Connecticut, where they divide their responsibilities along very traditional lines – Betsy remains at home to manage the household, while Tom commutes to his mindless office job in the city.

Betsy in particular dreams of bigger and better things for the family; more money, a larger house and a life of opportunities and rewards. Like many of the residents of Greentree Avenue, she views the family’s current position as temporary, a mere stepping-stone on the way to a more comfortable lifestyle in the future.

Almost all the houses were occupied by couples with young children, and few people considered Greentree Avenue a permanent stop—the place was just a crossroads where families waited until they could afford to move on to something better. The finances of almost every household were an open book. Budgets were frankly discussed, and the public celebration of increases in salary was common. The biggest parties of all were moving-out parties, given by those who finally were able to buy a bigger house. Of course there were a few men in the area who had given up hope of rising in the world, and a few who had moved from worse surroundings and considered Greentree Avenue a desirable end of the road, but they and their families suffered a kind of social ostracism. On Greentree Avenue, contentment was an object of contempt. (p. 109)

Tom, on the other hand, is more troubled, burdened as he is by difficulties from the past as well as those in the present. In essence, Tom remains marked by his experiences in WW2 where he was responsible for the deaths of seventeen men, including that of his closest buddy in the forces, Hank Mahoney – the latter as a result of a terrible accident with a hand grenade. Then there is the memory of the weeks spent with Maria, the sensitive Italian girl Tom encountered while stationed in Rome in 1944. The pair lived together in an innocent dream world of their own, hoping to make the most of their time together before Tom’s departure for the Pacific War – a thread somewhat reminiscent of Alfred Hayes’ striking novella, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

As far as Tom’s current problems are concerned, there’s the constant pressure to be moving ahead, driven by the aspirations of middle-class suburban life. While Tom is cautious and conservative, Betsy is more optimistic, willing to take risks to keep up with the Joneses. Add to this the difficulties posed by an elderly grandmother and the complexities of her estate, no wonder Tom is finding it challenging to reconcile the various aspects of his life.

There were really four completely unrelated worlds in which he lived, Tom reflected as he drove the old Ford back to Westport. There was the crazy, ghost-ridden world of his grandmother and his dead parents. There was the isolated, best-not-remembered world in which he had been a paratrooper. There was the matter-of-fact, opaque-glass-brick-partitioned world of places like the United Broadcasting Company and the Schanenhauser Foundation. And there was the entirely separate world populated by Betsy and Janey and Barbara and Pete, the only one of the four worlds worth a damn. There must be some way in which the four worlds were related, he thought, but it was easier to think of them as entirely divorced from one another. (p. 22)

Things start looking up for Tom when he is offered a new job, assisting the head of the United Broadcasting Company with a new committee on the importance of mental health. While Tom dithers over the pros and cons of risky job move, Betsy views the role as a major opportunity, encouraging her husband to make the leap. For a start, it will mean additional money in their pockets, and the project itself may lead to other more lucrative things.

Once in the role, Tom finds the internal politics of UBC rather wearying to deal with. The scenes in which Tom is driven mad by the conflicting views of his two bosses – the firm’s President, Mr Hopkins, and his right-hand man, Mr Ogden – are wonderfully amusing. While Hopkins praises draft and draft of a speech Tom has penned for him, Ogden tears each one to pieces, much to Tom’s frustration. The whole episode ends with Ogden drafting his own version of the speech, a laborious and repetitive missive containing nothing but statements of motherhood.

The first half of the novel is undoubtedly the strongest, peppered as it is with flashbacks to Tom’s time as a member of the US forces in WW2 – the scenes of military action are tense and vivid, almost certainly inspired by Wilson’s own experiences of the war. The tenderness and fragility of the relationship between Tom and Maria are also beautifully conveyed – feelings heightened by Tom’s belief that he might die at the hands of the Japanese during the next phase of the campaign. With Betsy far and away in Connecticut, Tom’s home life seems very remote, a mere memory from the dim and distant past – so he seizes the opportunity of the weeks with Maria, a little warmth and affection amidst ravages of war.

By contrast, the second half feels looser as Betsy’s and Hopkins’ backstories are explored in some detail. Hopkins himself has his own troubles, a failing marriage and a wayward daughter, almost certainly exacerbated by his workaholic nature. While interesting to a certain extent, these diversions prove to be somewhat distracting, diluting the central focus on Tom and his angst-ridden existence.

As the novel reaches its denouement, Tom’s past finally threatens to catch up with him. In a conclusion that could easily have gone in one of two ways, Tom and Betsy manage to bridge the gulf in their lives, successfully addressing the inherent difficulties of the past few years. At long last, Betsy gains an insight into the pain and suffering Tom experienced during the war, things he has never spoken about before. Tom, for his part, seems more at ease with himself – a man content to be true to his own values, no longer a slave to the whims of others. While some readers might find the ending a little too sentimental or neatly resolved, it does give a sense of closure in a way that feels heartening and uplifting. A little Hollywood in style, perhaps, but I’m not going to quibble over that.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Tom, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this hugely enjoyable book, which still feels pretty relevant to the pressures of today.

“…I was my own disappointment, I really don’t know what I was looking for when I got back from the war, but it seemed as though all I could see was a lot of bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere. They seemed to me to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness—they were pursuing a routine…” (p. 272)

This is my first contribution to Stu’s Penguin Classics month, which started yesterday – I’m hoping this Modern Classic will qualify!

Symposium by Muriel Spark

I’ve been working my way through a little VMC set of Spark’s novels, slowly but surely over the past few years, trying to read them in order of publication – you can find my other posts here.

Symposium is the last of the bunch, and I’m a little sad to have finished it as there are no more left on the shelves for me to read. Maybe I’ll go back and revisit The Comforters at some point, a novel I didn’t quite connect with on the first reading, hence the lack of a review. Anyway, returning to the main subject of this post, Symposium, this is a clever and provocative novel, shot through with a devilish streak of dark humour – I enjoyed it very much indeed.

The novel revolves around a dinner party hosted by a sophisticated, well-connected couple, Hurley Reed and his partner, Chris Donovan, at their home in Islington. Hurley, an American painter in his early fifties, and Chris, a rich Australian widow in her late forties, have been together for seventeen years. They are not married, and happily so, never having felt the need to cement their relationship by formal ties. Very quickly, we are introduced to the other four couples attending the party which takes place during the course of the novel.

Based mainly in Brussels, Ernst Untzinger represents the EU on an international commission for finance, while his wife, Ella – a geographer and cartologist by training – has just landed a role teaching at a London University. The Untzingers are in the early forties, and their marriage seems quite relaxed, possibly open, as there are hints of other relationships in the mix.

The Suzys are an interesting couple, fairly recently married. While Lord Brian Suzy is approaching fifty, his current wife, Helen, is just twenty-two, possibly viewing her partner as a kind of surrogate father figure. Seizing the opportunity of a captive audience, Lord Suzy is intent on telling everyone about the recent burglary at his home which happened while the Suzys were asleep – an incident that only came to light when a passing policeman discovered the front door wide open in the middle of the night. Lord Suzy considers the whole episode to be a violation of his privacy, especially as the thieves peed all over the internal walls of the house.

Also in attendance are two cousins, Roland Sykes and Annabel Treece, both in their late twenties/early thirties. Roland is a genealogist who specialises in tracing ancestry, while Annabel works as a TV producer – her interests lie in psychology and philosophy. While Roland and Annabel are not a couple as such, they are very close, almost akin to a brother and sister.

Finally, we have William and Margaret Damien, a young couple who have just returned from their honeymoon in Italy. William’s mother, the very wealthy Hilda Damien, is a close friend of Chris Donovan’s, hence the connection between the Damiens and their hosts. Margaret, with her striking dark red hair and pre-Raphaelite looks, is the source of much speculation throughout the novel. In this scene – a flashback to a time well before the party – Hurley is telling Chris about his early impressions of Margaret.

He told her what he thought she really wanted to know. ‘Quite nice looking, but terrible teeth, they quite spoil her. I think she’s shy or something. There’s something funny. Her get-up wasn’t natural for a young girl at six-thirty on a normal evening. She had green velvet, a wonderful green, and a massive background of red and gold leaves all arranged in pots.’

‘Maybe, knowing you’re an artist, she thought you might want to paint her?’

‘Do you think so?’ Hurley pondered this seriously for a while. People do have crazy ideas about artists. But surely not… (p.25)

As the novel unfolds, alternating between the party itself and a series of carefully constructed flashbacks, we learn more about these couples, particularly the Damiens who had met in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s just four months before their marriage took place. Hilda – William Damien’s mother – is particularly suspicious about Margaret’s motives, sensing something sinister afoot. What in heavens name was William doing in the fruit section of M&S, and how did Margaret just happen to encounter him? Something about the whole episode really doesn’t feel right.

She [Hilda] had met Margaret in London. She didn’t think the marriage would last. That goody-goody type of girl, how could she be real?

Hilda had sat good-humouredly in their too-small flat and chatted as she noticed.

‘Marks & Spencer‘s fruit section. What on earth were you doing there, William?’

‘Buying fruit,’ he said ‘I always went there, it was convenient.’

‘And you,’ she said to Margaret in her best Sandringham-type manner, ‘was that your favourite fruit shop?’

‘No, I was just there by chance.’ She gave a little smile, put her head on one side. ‘Lucky chance,’ she said.

William sat there goggling at his bride-to-be as if she were a Miss Universe who had taken a double first at Cambridge, or some such marvel. (pp. 39-40)

Hilda’s suspicions are further aroused when she meets Margaret’s family, the Murchies, in advance of the wedding. During a visit to the Murchie residence – a strange, turreted edifice near St Andrews – Hilda is convinced that something is decidedly off. In some respects, everything appears normal on the surface, almost too normal, so much so that she struggles to put her finger on what feels wrong. In spite of these doubts, the marriage goes ahead as planned, and Hilda gives the young couple a Hampstead flat to mark the occasion. As an extra surprise, she has also purchased a Monet for their home, a piece she plans to install while the newlyweds are out at the dinner party.

In addition to Hilda, some of the other characters have also been speculating about Margaret’s past – most notably Chris and Roland. The name ‘Murchie’ rings a bell with these two, both of whom have vague recollections of there being a scandal in the family’s history. Rumours of various suspicious deaths, contested claims on an inheritance, and the taint of madness in the blood all surround Margaret and the Murchies, elements that are gradually revealed and slotted into place as the story unfolds.

As ever, Spark manages to pack so much into such a slim novel, and in this instance, it never feels crowded or cramped. During the course of the narrative, there are burglaries, murders, family feuds, and all manner of other underhand behaviours. We meet suspicious servants, mad uncles, and a convent of eclectic nuns, one of whom is very sweary. Everything is handled with an assurance characteristic of a writer in full control of her material.

This is a typically sharp and spiky novel from Muriel Spark, one that highlights how people may not be quite as innocent as they appear at first sight. A delicious, multilayered delight.

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Set in a fictional district of Yorkshire in the early 1930s, South Riding is an epic, life-affirming novel which explores issues of poverty, social mobility and the value of education. On one level, it is an ensemble piece structured around the workings of local government, their impact on the district of South Riding and the people who live there. It is also a feminist book, one concerned with the destinies of women from different points along the social spectrum, both young and old. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved this thoroughly absorbing novel, a definite five-star read for me.

Central to Holtby’s story is Sarah Burton, a forty-year-old unmarried woman, newly appointed to the role of headmistress at the local girls’ school. With her flaming red hair and forthright nature, Sarah is far from the archetypal mousy spinster; instead she is bright, optimistic and fiercely committed to the development of young women. Having seen something of the world and life in London, Sarah is returning to Yorkshire, the county of her birth, intent on preparing her girls for life and the challenges it will present to them.

Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, and to inoculate their spirit with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. She knew how to teach; she knew how to awaken interest. (p. 49)

While Sarah’s appointment to the school receives significant support, one governor votes against the motion which passes nonetheless. The opponent is Robert Carne, a rather conservative farmer who remains wedded to the values and traditions of the past. In truth, Carne bears a bit of a grudge against Sarah following a run-in with her drunken father many years earlier – an incident from the past which he recalls on learning of Sarah’s former ties to the area.

There is something of the Jane Eyre-Mr Rochester dynamic about Sarah’s relationship with Carne, especially as the novel unfolds. While Carne appears formal and proud, there is a softer, more humane side to his personality too – one that Sarah discovers as she gets to know him better. In truth, Crane is a tortured soul, a man damaged by a difficult marriage. As his farm continues to struggle, Carne must find a way of paying for the care of his troubled wife in a private mental institution, a commitment that represents a major drain on his resources. Plus, there is the Carnes’ fourteen-year-old daughter Midge, a somewhat wayward child who is need of a steadying influence in her life, ideally a feminine one.

Also pivotal to the novel’s themes are the impoverished Holly family who live a cluster of old railway carriages known as ‘the shacks’. Fourteen-year-old Lydia Holly is the eldest girl in a family of seven children, a fiercely intelligent individual burdened by the weight of an ailing mother and a useless but good-natured father. Sarah knows that Lydia Holly is by far the best prospect the school has to offer – pupils like Lydia only come along once in a lifetime – but she is also aware that family responsibilities may scupper the girl’s future. When circumstances conspire to force Lydia to leave school, Sarah must find a way of enabling her to come back. A good education is the best route out of poverty for Lydia, just as it proved to be the making of Sarah herself.

[Mrs Beddows] ‘My dear, you know there are other things in life besides book-learning. What if she does give up her scholarship and doesn’t go to college? There’ll be one school teacher less, and perhaps one fine woman and wife the more. Is that such a tragedy?’

[Sarah Burton] ‘Yes, yes. All waste is tragedy. To waste deliberately a rare, a unique capacity, that’s downright wicked. It’s treason to the human stock. We need trained intelligence.’

‘What about trained character?’

‘Oh, that too, yes. I believe in discipline – but not frustration.’

‘You believe very much in having your own way, don’t you?’

Sarah looked up in surprise. The room was twilit. The alderman’s face was turned away from the window.

‘I believe,’ said Sarah gravely, ‘in being used to the furthest limit of one’s capacity.’ (pp. 196-197)

Alongside the domestic concerns of the likes of Hollys, Holtby is also keen to delve into the workings of local government – both as a catalyst for social improvement and a vehicle for abuse and corruption. The proposal to build a new road through an area of land in South Riding acts as a focal point here, a thread that runs through the narrative like a spine. While the project offers opportunities for development – improvements to transport, new housing, more jobs – the scheme is also open to abuse, particularly by the likes of Alderman Snaith, a slippery man who preys on the vulnerabilities of others. There are examples of misinformation, manipulation and personal gain, all of which serve to illustrate that local government decisions may not always be made for purely altruistic reasons.

We also meet Alderman Emma Beddows, a seventy-year-old woman almost certainly inspired in part by the author’s own mother, Alice Holtby. A supporter of Sarah’s, Emma Beddows appears to hold something of a candle for Robert Crane, viewing him as a potential partner in spite of their differences in age. In time, however, Mrs Beddows recognises her feeling towards Carne are more akin to that of a mother for her son-in-law, particularly once she assumes the role of surrogate grandmother to Midge.

Also worthy of a mention is Miss Sigglesthwaite, the hopelessly ineffective science teacher, a rather tragic creature who finds herself the object of ridicule at the hands of Midge Carne and her fellow classmates. In truth, Sarah Burton would like to replace Miss Sigglesthwaite with a better role model for her pupils; her only hope is that the Sig will resign, freeing up the position for a more dynamic teacher to join the staff.

While Holtby’s canvas is broad and ambitious, the characters themselves feel deeply personal and convincing. We gain such insights into their lives – their hopes and fears, their dreams and preoccupations. While the book is ultimately inspiring and life-affirming, it is also underscored by a sense of mortality. At The Nag’s Head, Lily Sawdon knows she is dying of cancer, too frightened to confide in her husband for fear of his reaction; at the Carnes’ farm, foreman Castle is very poorly, unlikely to see another season in the fields of the estate; in the council, Jo Astell, Sarah’s altruistic socialist ally, is battling with tuberculosis. Meanwhile, the spectre of war seems to be everywhere – not only the fallout following WW1 but the threat of another conflict just hovering on the horizon.

In writing the novel, Holtby – an ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist – drew on the experiences of her mother, Alice Holtby, the first woman to be appointed to the position of alderman on East Riding County Council. While Alice Holtby initially opposed the book, Vera Brittain – Winifred’s great friend and literary executor – ensured it was published posthumously following Winifred’s untimely death in 1935 (she was just 37 at the time).

There is an unmistakable sense of authenticity here, an author writing about a place she knows intimately and the heartbreak of the people who inhabit it. It’s a brilliant achievement – a novel rich with progressive values and a strong emotional heart. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it in this piece. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in social change.

South Riding is published by Virago; personal copy.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

Beautiful, haunting and evocative, The World My Wilderness is something of a rediscovered gem, set as it is in the challenging years following the end of WW2. As a novel, it explores the fallout from fractured family relationships – particularly in terms of their impact on children, needlessly caught up in the damaging effects of war.

As the novel opens, seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston and her mother, Helen Michel, are in the South of France where they have been living during the war. Helen – a rather enigmatic yet lazy creature with artistic leanings – no longer lives with Barbary’s father, Sir Gulliver Deniston, following the couple’s divorce some years earlier. Two other children also reside at Villa Fraises (the Michels’ home in Collioure): Barbary’s step-brother, Raoul (the son of Helen’s second husband, Maurice Michel), and baby Roly (born to Helen and Maurice). To complicate matters further, Maurice is no longer alive, having drowned in suspicious circumstances following rumours of a collaboration with the Occupiers.

Life for Barbary has been primitive and unconventional, a free-spirited existence in the natural world. Left mostly to their own devices, both Barbary and Raoul have fallen in with the local Maquis, a French resistance movement that defies the authorities. In essence, Helen has allowed the children to run wild, her own interests lying elsewhere – either tending to Roly or playing cards and chess, painting less and less in favour of lounging around.

At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Barbary and Raoul are to be sent to live in London as the city is no longer under the threat of attack. While Raoul will stay with his uncle (Maurice’s brother), Barbary is to go to her father, Gulliver, who lives in London with his new wife, Pamela, and their baby, David. It is hoped that Barbary will study art at the Slade, and learn to become a lady under the guidance of her guardians.

Unlike the lax and casual Helen, Sir Gulliver – an eminent lawyer by trade – is rather stern and impatient. Above all, he values honesty, respectability and discipline – qualities that seem alien to Barbary after the freedom of her life in France. As a consequence, Barbary feels utterly restricted by her new environment, and she longs to return to the wilds of Collioure.

…there were too many things between them; he [Gulliver] was clever and knew about everything, she was stupid and knew about nothing; he had taken Pamela instead of her mother, she was for ever her mother’s; he stood for law and order and the police, she for the Resistance and the maquis, he for honesty and reputability, she for low life, the black market, deserters on the run, broken ruins, loot hidden in caves. All the wild, desperate squalor, of the enfants du maquis years – would he even believe it if she told him? His clever, cultured, law-bound civilisation was too remote. (p. 77, Virago)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barbary also takes a dislike to Gulliver wife, Pamela, a rather dull, straight-laced woman in her early thirties, a pale shadow compared to Barbary’s bohemian mother, Helen. Barbary resents Pamela for the place she has taken in Gulliver’s affections, believing her to have usurped Helen, even though the marriage was over long before Pamela’s arrival on the scene. In turn, Pamela despairs at Barbary with her shabby appearance and disregard for the conventions of society, viewing the child as a constant source of exasperation and worry, particularly for Gulliver.

Unhappy with their new lives in London, Barbary and Raoul spend their afternoons combing the streets of Cheapside and the surrounding areas. It is here that Barbary finds solace, amidst the bombed-out ruins of offices, apartments and churches – a wilderness dotted with wildflowers and weeds, a special place for her to explore with Raoul.

 They climbed out through the window, and made their way about the ruined, jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of overhanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce, and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruins of defeated businessmen. (p. 49)

While here, the pair encounter other occupants of the ruins, mostly petty thieves and deserters who also fly in the face of the authorities with their restrictive regulations. In effect, this environment becomes another kind of Maquis for Barbary, an opportunity for her to recapture something of the life she has left behind in France. Consequently, Barbary spends as little time as possible with Gulliver and Pamela, preferring instead to hang out in the abandoned flat she and Raoul have found in Somerset Chambers. The pair make a little money for themselves by selling Barbary’s paintings of a local church, postcard-sized mementos that prove popular with tourists. Shoplifting provides another source of income, especially once Barbary is schooled in the art of thieving by Mavis, a fellow fugitive and occupant of the ruins.

Naturally, this kind of existence cannot last forever, much as Barbary would like it too. There is a brush with the authorities – a dramatic incident which brings the situation to a head, culminating in the arrival of Helen at the Denistons’ London home, a situation that puts Pamela’s nose firmly out of joint.

The World My Wilderness is a very evocative novel, nuanced and poignant in its portrayal of Barbary’s circumstances. Both parents have failed Barbary in their own individual ways: Helen for letting her run wild with the Marquis; Gulliver for trying to mould her into something she doesn’t want to be.

As the story unfolds, we learn of traumatic experiences in Barbary’s past, most notably the suggestion of a sexual assault by a member of the Gestapo. In essence, Barbary has been suppressing this incident and other distressing experiences for some years, trying to control her feelings as they threaten to bubble up. The one person who senses her inner anxiety is Gulliver’s brother-in-law, Angus, who specialises in nervous conditions and disorders of the mind. But when Angus reaches out to Barbary, she baulks at the idea of opening up, preferring instead to return to her own world, the new-found wilderness in the midst of the city.

Macaulay’s portrayal of post-war London is absolutely stunning, so atmospheric and evocative in its depiction of an area ravaged by war. The empty shells of bombed-out churches; the thriving businesses wiped away; the sense of history destroyed – it’s all captured to great effect.

Equally atmospheric are the descriptions of France, which illustrate the deep sense of savagery that lurks below the surface, an ever-present hangover from the days of war.

The peace that shrouded land and sea was a mask, lying thinly over terror, over hate, over cruel deeds done. Barbarism prowled and padded, lurking in the hot sunshine, in the warm scents of the maquis, in the deep shadows of the forest. Visigoths, Franks, Catalans, Spanish, French, Germans, Anglo-American armies, savageries without number, the Gestapo torturing captured French patriots, rounding up fleeing Jews, the Resistance murdering, derailing trains full of people, lurking in the shadows to kill, collaborators betraying Jews and escaped prisoners, working together with the victors, being in their turn killed and mauled, hunted down by mobs hot with rage; everywhere cruelty; everywhere vengeance; everywhere the barbarian on the march. (p. 140)

There is a sense of redemption in this novel, of coming to terms with past failings – not only for Barbary’s parents but for Barbary too. For the most part, these failings are treated with insight and clemency – every character comes with their own virtues and values, their own faults and transgressions.

While certain elements of the denouement feel somewhat contrived, this is a relatively minor drawback in the scheme of things, particularly given the novel’s other strengths. Overall, this is a very moving and striking novel with a vivid sense of place. An excellent introduction to Macaulay’s work.

The World My Wilderness is published by Virago; personal copy.

A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been working my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s stories, slowly but surely over the last couple of years. Originally published in 1965, A Dedicated Man was her third collection of short fiction, and I think it’s my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. (You can read my posts about the first two here: Hester Lilly and The Blush.). As ever, Taylor demonstrates her skill in capturing people in their most private of moments. In short, we see individuals facing up to dashed dreams, social embarrassment and the realities of their marginalised lives.

As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The collection opens with Girl Reading, a poignant story of inadequacies and social embarrassment. Etta Salkeld, a young girl from a relatively poor background, enjoys staying with her well-to-do schoolfriend, Sarah Lippmann, during the holidays. The Lippmanns are a sociable, sophisticated bunch, their home full of activity with guests dropping in and out at various times of the day. Etta feels at home there, particularly as she longs to be part of a lively, comfortable family – one where she can observe other individuals at first hand, not just in books. Mrs Salkeld would like her daughter to invite Sarah to their house to return the Lippmans’ hospitality, but Etta is embarrassed by the shabbiness of the place and fears her friend would be bored – points that hit home to Mrs Salkeld when she finally gets to meet Mrs Lippmann in her rather grand surroundings. The contrast between the two women is very striking.

Etta, who had never seen her mother drinking sherry before, watched nervously, as if she might not know how to do it. Mrs Salkeld—remembering the flavour from Christmas mornings many years ago and—more faintly—from her mother’s party trifle—sipped cautiously. In an obscure way she was doing this for Etta’s sake. “It may speed her on her way,” thought Mrs Lippmann, playing idly with her charm bracelet, having run out of conversation. (p. 29)

The Thames Spread Out features Rose, a middle-aged woman who lives on her own in a house by the river. Every Friday, Rose receives a visit from her married lover, Gilbert, who stops off to see her on his way home to his wife. For the rest of the week, Rose must survive largely on the money that Gilbert leaves when he departs on Saturday mornings, treating herself to a few peppermint creams and other little indulgences when she can.

This Friday everything is different; the river has flooded, and the roads are impassable, leaving Rose trapped in the upstairs of her house, somewhat at the mercy of a couple of unfamiliar men who are staying next door. It is only once the water starts to recede that Rose realises the true emptiness of her life, especially when she compares it to that of her sister.

When it was dark she pinned the curtains together again and sat down at the table, simply staring in front of her; at the back of her mind, listening. In the warm living-room of her sister’s house, the children in dressing-gowns would be eating their supper by the fire; Roy, home from a football match, would be lying back in his chair. Their faces would be turned intently to the blue-white shifting screen of a television. (p. 61)

This is a quietly devasting story, the type of piece that Elizabeth Taylor does so well – and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end as Rose finally takes control of her life.

In A Dedicated Man, a pompous waiter, Silcox, and his dull but dependable colleague, Edith, have taken the opportunity to move positions from a shabby seaside B&B to a more refined hotel in the Home Counties. The need to masquerade as husband and wife seems a small sacrifice to make, particularly for the improvement in the pair’s standing. After a somewhat awkward period of adjustment to sharing a twin-bedded room, Silcox and Edith begin to settle into a rhythm, buoyed by their ambitions and desires to succeed. However, when Silcox invents a son to give the couple a more rounded family background, the tissue of lies begins to unravel, ultimately exposing him to ridicule and scandal. This is a powerful piece, a fitting lead story for the collection as a whole.

Holidays feature in several pieces in this collection, perhaps most notably In a Different Light. In this story, Barbara is visiting Jane, her recently widowed sister at her home in Greece. While there, Barbara forms an unlikely friendship with Roland, a young man holidaying on his own, his wife preferring to stay with her sister in Buxton. The relationship is all very chaste as Barbara and Roland settle into a rhythm of walks in the countryside and siestas in the afternoon. Before leaving the island, the pair exchange addresses, never thinking that they will actually meet up again; but in her restlessness back home, Barbara decides to invite Roland and his wife, Iris, for Sunday lunch, just to recapture something of the visit. When Iris arrives, she reveals herself to be loud and pushy, so much so that Barbara’s young children take an instant dislike to her. Roland, for his part, is a different person altogether, more formal and serious than he seemed in Greece. As Barbara reflects on the situation, she realises the true nature of Roland’s life with Iris, the stripping away of his verve and vitality.

These weeks, since his return from the island, must have been worse than hers, she realised—as the rest of his life would be worse, His experience must have been deeper, his brief escape desperately planned and wearily paid for. It was something for her—for Iris—to deride along with the other things. Once he had liked music, he had told Jane in answer to one of her off-hand enquiries; later the sisters had laughed about it, but Barbara could not have laughed now. She could see too clearly the history of discarded interests. (pp. 89-90)

In The Voices, Laura, a young woman recovering from an illness, is holidaying at a hotel in Athens; but instead of going on excursions to see the sights herself, Laura spends much of her time listening to the two women in the adjacent room as they discuss their own trips to various places of interest. In effect, Laura is living her holiday through the activities of these women, imagining how they look as they go about their days. This is another beautifully observed story with a glimmer of brightness at the end.

In the Sun also features individuals abroad, this time three English couples holidaying at the same characterless hotel in Morocco. This a story of petty snobberies and prejudices as the couples observe and gossip about one another – especially the Wallaces, the last of the three pairs to arrive. It’s also the most amusing piece in the collection, laced as it is with Taylor’s fabulously sharp wit.

No need to explain who Janice was. The Troughtons knew all about Janice, who was training to be a nurse. They knew about the hospital too—the matron, sisters, patients. Mrs Troughton thought she could find her way blindfold about it. […] She would also be quite at home in the other Crouch girl’s, Carol’s, office, and in their house in Guilford, with its frilled nylon curtains at seven-and-elevenpence a yard; its sun-lounge and bar—quilted plastic décor done by Mr Crouch…Leslie…Daddy…himself. (p. 192)

As the story draws to a close, there is a surprise revelation, one that leads the others to view the Wallaces in a somewhat different light, in spite of the fault lines in their unlikely marriage.

All in all, this is a superb collection of stories from Elizabeth Taylor. She portrays her characters in a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns, their petty foibles and failings.

A Dedicated Man is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Old Boys by William Trevor

Last year I read and loved The Boarding-House by William Trevor, a wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, first published in 1965. Ten months on, I’m returning to this writer for another of his early novels, The Old Boys, which came out the previous year in 1964. Like its successor, The Old Boys is a sharply observed ensemble piece featuring a cast of rather idiosyncratic characters – this time, the members of an Old Boys Association for an English public school. In short, the novel explores the longstanding beliefs and rivalries that resurface amongst the men (all in their seventies) when the committee comes to elect a new President. It is a marvellous novel, shot through with a particularly savage streak of humour and some poignancy too. Needless to say, I enjoyed it hugely.

The novel centres on Mr Jaraby, who is eager for the role of President of the Association. On the whole, life for Jaraby has been shaped by his days in the public school system, an environment where bullying and intimidation of the younger, weaker individuals were part and parcel of life. Inspired by Mr Dowse, his mentor and Housemaster, Jaraby spent much of his time at school persecuting his fag, a somewhat awkward young boy named Nox – an experience that Nox, another Old Boy, still remembers to this day.

In Nox’s new life Jaraby was everywhere. It was not the mere fact of receiving a gamma for a piece of English prose that distressed Nox; it was what Jaraby would say to him when Jaraby got to know about it. For somehow Jaraby always did seem to get to know. He knew everything that went on in the House and everything that concerned the boys who belonged to it. What Nox did, on the games field or in class, was inevitably ‘not good enough’. (p. 15)

In spite of the passing of time, Nox remains deeply resentful of his treatment by Jaraby, a point that fuels his determination to block Jaraby’s succession to the presidency, even if this results in the election of a less competent man. In short, Nox wishes to discredit Jaraby (there is some suggestion that the latter frequents brothels), so he hires a private detective, the appropriately names Swingler, to gather evidence of an incriminating nature.

He could not admit to Swingler that he cared little himself for the Association, that if a less able man than Jaraby were chosen it would not matter to him as long as Jaraby was shamed in the process. Some devil within him had urged him to get himself on to the committee, so that he might, by some chance that had not then been apparent, cook Jaraby’s goose. Jaraby was an influence in his life, but he could only confess it to himself. Jaraby was a ghost he had grown sick and tired of, which he could lay only by triumphing in some pettiness. (p. 43)

This all gives rise to some very amusing scenes, particularly when Nox decides to force the issue by tempting Jaraby with a little bait. Much to his annoyance, Jaraby finds himself being stalked by a strange, presumptuous woman who insists on joining him for tea and cakes (‘Shall we gorge ourselves on meringues today?’), all played out through Trevor’s pitch-perfect prose.

The punctilious Jaraby is also experiencing difficulties at home, particularly in relation to his wife, the rather forthright Mrs J. The Jarabys bicker and snipe at each other on a constant basis, mostly over their forty-year-old son, Basil, another former pupil at the school, who has turned out to be a great disappointment to his father. Mrs Jaraby, on the other hand, would like Basil, a rather dubious bird fancier, to come and live at their house, a point she continues to press with her husband at every opportunity.

While Basil has already had a few brushes with the law, Mrs J believes the worst is behind him, and she hopes to welcome her son back into the fold. Mr Jaraby, however, is having none of it, believing his wife to be of unsound mind and in need of psychiatric care. Perversely, it is Mr Jaraby, with his petty prejudices and obsessions, who would probably benefit the most from specialist attention, although both of the Jarabys have their flaws and failings.

Another source of tension in the Jaraby household is their cat, Monmouth – a savage creature loved by Mr J and loathed by his wife. If only Monmouth were not there, then Basil could return home complete with his budgerigars…

Alongside the themes of power, revenge and the resentments we hold on to in life, the novel also explores the nature of ageing, mainly through the portraits of other Old Boys on the Committee. There are touches of humour and poignancy here, a sprinkling of dark comedy alongside the tragedy and sadness.

Mr Cridley and Mr Sole spend their days cutting out newspaper coupons for freebies and no-obligation estimates, many of which they have absolutely no use for, living as they do at the Rimini Hotel. With its cheerless atmosphere and permanent smell of boiling meat, the Rimini (a glorified boarding house catering for the elderly) is presided over by Miss Burdock, a formidable, money-grabbing woman with a penchant for grey clothing. When it transpires that Mr Cridley and Mr Sole have arranged for a central heating salesman to assess the premises, Miss Burdock is most definitely not amused…

‘It is scarcely a month,’ complained Miss Burdock, ‘since those frightful women came here with corsets. And now a man with central heating. You can guess what I am going to say to you, both of you: if there is further trouble I shall be obliged to ask you to leave the Rimini.’

‘A genuine misunderstanding, Miss Burdock, a genuine error.’

‘I could easily fill your rooms. There is a waiting list for the Rimini.’ (pp. 50-51)

The poignancy comes through in the portrait of Mr Turtle, a gentle, lonely Old Boy who is finding it difficult to remember things, particularly in the short-term. In some ways, Mr Turtle would prefer to return to the simplicity of his schooldays, complete with its regular routines and rituals – a point that becomes apparent during the annual school visit for Old Boys’ Day.

A woman in a white overall broke in on his thoughts, pressing a plate of wafer biscuits on him. He sighed and smiled and took one. How nice it would be to hear a bell and run to its summons, to join a queue for milk or cocoa, and later to do prep and wait for another bell that meant the rowdy security of the dormitory. How nice it would be to slip, tired and a little homesick, between the cold sheets. He heard his name called. Somebody gave him a fresh cup of tea and asked him a question he did not understand. (p. 101)

As the narrative plays out, there are one or two shocks for the main players, the Jarabys in particular; but I had better not say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.

The Old Boys is another excellent novel by William Trevor, sharing many similarities with The Boarding-House. Much of the book is written in dialogue, which gives the story a sense of immediacy, almost as if you are watching a play unfold before your eyes.

Although only touched on through memories, the realities of the public school environment are very well portrayed, complete with all their cruelties and insensitivities. It is a world where influence and power over others are all important, dictating the nature of life for the younger, less experienced boys. The only glimmer of hope for these individuals is to wait until they too gain senior status and all the authority this confers. It is clear that Nox was never able to acquire this kind of standing within the school, a point that has left him marked by Jaraby’s sadistic behaviour for most of his adult life.

As a novel, The Old Boys highlights the importance of our formative years, how the things we experience during this time continue to shape our lives well into adulthood. It can be hard to forget the injustices of our childhood, especially if they are never adequately redressed at the time. Trevor explores this theme through the novel with its striking blend of sharpness, dark humour and tragedy.

This is my contribution to Cathy and Niall’s Reading Ireland event which started yesterday. You can find out more about it here. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review here.

The Old Boys is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.