Tag Archives: Brigid Brophy

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

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All right. But it restricts the conversation.”

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

“I don’t think in general terms.”

“What things do you think about?”

“Mozart and sex,” he said.

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else in general terms. And you?”

 Mozart, sex and death,” she said.

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

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

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

Flesh by Brigid Brophy (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred 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 of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, 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. 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. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy

First published in 1956, The King of a Rainy Country was Brigid Brophy’s second novel, a semi-autobiographical work narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl named Susan, whom the author once described as a ‘cut-down version’ of herself. Witty, engaging and deceptively light on its feet, the book itself is divided into three fairly distinct parts, each one focussing on a different phase in the story.

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As the novel opens, Susan is moving in with Neale in his flat in central London. At first it seems natural to assume that Susan and Neale are girlfriend and boyfriend, but in reality their connection is a little more ambiguous. Maybe they’re just friends; maybe they’re still getting to know one another. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, it’s a relatively relaxed one. Although they sleep in the same bed, sex doesn’t seem to feature here.

We lent each other money without keeping account; we spoke of what we could afford; sometimes we discussed a house we would own. Our relationship was verbal: allusive and entangled. Deviating further and further into obliquity we often lost track. “I don’t think I think you know what I mean.” “We’d better say it openly.” “Much better. But I’m not going to be the first to say it.” “Neither am I.”

Between confidence and the luxury of giving up we veered, straddled or fell. Sometimes Neale warned me to expect nothing of him. At other times it was he who accused me of not trying. […]

We were pleased at being coupled as you two, but also afraid lest, in the unspokenness of our understanding, neither of us really understood. (p.9)

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their bohemian lifestyle, Susan and Neale have very little money to spare. Neale spends his nights washing dishes in one of the local restaurants while Susan takes dictation for a bookseller, a rather dodgy individual by the name of Finkelheim who just happens to be based in one of the houses directly opposite the pair’s flat. One of the joys of this novel is Brophy’s wit, a skill that is plainly evident in her creation of Finkelheim, a man who has assumed a Jewish name as he believes it will be better for business. ‘That way nobody will expect any easy terms from you. You won’t get asked any favours.’  Here’s a brief flavour of the dynamic between Susan and her employer.

Confined together, Finkelheim and I were bound to observe one another and to think what we saw important. We kneaded our relationship for a day or two, and then it took shape: small, lumpish, putty-coloured but reassuring because defined; it created the atmosphere the place lacked. The leer he had given me at our first interview grew into a game. He would say:

“You still sharing with a friend?”

“Yes.”

“You let me know when the friend moves out.”

However, I felt perfectly safe. The game could not grow beyond a certain intensity for lack of material. (pp. 20-21)

It soon becomes clear to Susan that Finkelheim makes his money by peddling pornographic material; the other more respectable books are merely a sideline for the sake of appearances.

One day, when Finkelheim is out, Susan notices a familiar face while leafing through one of the racier titles, The Lady Revealed. The nude in question is Cynthia Bewly, an old friend and teenage crush from school. When Susan spots her former classmate, the memories of her schooldays come rushing back. At the time, Susan idolised Cynthia – and it seems those feelings were reciprocated too, at least to a certain extent…

Cynthia shewed me ways of swerving out of my course into hers. I took up art: and this meant that in free lessons Cynthia and I would draw from the life — from a girl in a gym tunic posed on a desk — while Annette worked at fancy lettering in another part of the studio. I discovered for myself that if I slipped into the wrong queue at dinner time I could sit next to Cynthia. I would watch her profile: I felt unable to eat. Presently this became her feeling too. We would each crumble a slice of bread, each worked on by asceticism. (p. 62)

Filled with a sense of curiosity about Cynthia, Susan is eager to reconnect with her old friend and schoolgirl crush. Neale too is intrigued by the mystery surrounding this girl from Susan’s past, so much so that the pair set about trying to trace Cynthia to see how her life has turned out. If nothing else, the very fact that she is featured in The Lady Revealed is all rather fascinating.

After various attempts to find Cynthia by calling every Bewly in the phone book, Susan manages to find a lead on her friend by way of another acquaintance from school. It would appear that Cynthia, now an aspiring actress, is on her way to Venice for a film convention in the hope of securing a role in a future production. In one of several fortuitous coincidences in this novel, Neale and Susan just happen to find jobs as tour guides accompanying a coach party of tourists across Italy, a lucky break considering their lack of funds to finance a trip to Venice on their own. So before they know it, the two youngsters are on their way to the continent with the aim of arriving in the city just as the film festival is taking place.

In the second phase of the novel, we follow Susan and Neale as they travel to Nice to pick up their tour. What follows is a very witty interlude as the pair do their best to cope with the various demands of the visitors, a rather eclectic bunch of American tourists of all shapes and sizes. Neale performs splendidly, making up much his commentary on the local places of interest as he goes along. There are some wonderfully comic scenes here, somewhat reminiscent of a Barbara Pym novel. One lady traveller is fixated on the number 13 to the extent that she will only sit in seat 13 or sleep in room 13 – a subsequent mix-up with one of the hotel bookings for room 31 causes much frenetic activity along the way. Susan for her part attracts the attention of an admirer, an older chap named Gottlieb Wagner. It all makes for tremendous fun.

The tone changes somewhat in the final section of the story when Susan and Neale finally arrive in Venice, a shift which reflects the serene nature of their surroundings. By way of another lucky coincidence, the couple bump into Cynthia at her hotel and arrange to meet up again the next day when they will have more time to chat. At this point they are introduced to Cynthia’s friends, the statuesque opera singer, Helena Buchan, and her amiable companion, Philip. As this section of the novel unfolds, the various allegiances and relationships between different members of the group start to develop in unexpected ways. To say anything more about this element of the story might spoil it, so I’ll leave it there; save to say that the ending is rather poignant, a combination of new beginnings for some while other threads are drawn to a close. It’s all handled with great delicacy and care.

This is a really lovely novel, shot through with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more engaging to read. Every relationship is coloured by a delightful sense of ambiguity; nothing is quite how it appears at first sight. Brophy’s story captures the freshness of youth, a sense of going with the flow to see where life takes you. In many ways, the opening and closing sections reminded me of Olivia Manning’s wonderful book, The Doves of Venus, another semi-autobiographical novel with a similar feel, also published in the mid-1950s.

At the heart of The King of a Rainy Country is the search for the ideal, the one place, one person or one moment so imbued with meaning that it makes everything in life worthwhile. I’ll finish with a short passage that hints at this idea.

“…I want there to be one place, one person, perhaps even one moment. I suppose like most of one’s instincts it will have to go unsatisfied.” Later he asked: “Could there ever be one moment so supreme that everything would be justified for evermore?”

“I believe so.”

“All romantics believe so.” (p. 139)

My thanks to Max and Ali whose excellent reviews altered me to this novel in the first place – please do take a look at their posts.

The King of a Rainy Country is published by The Coelacanth Press.