Tag Archives: Classics Club

Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell

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

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I suppose you were tight.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How very apt…

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

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

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.

My reading list for the Classics Club – an update

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re having a good break.

Back in December 2015, I joined the Classics Club, a group of bloggers and readers who wish to share their views on the “classic” books they read. (If you’re not familiar with the Club, you can find out all about it here.)

In essence, new members of the Classics Club are invited to put together a list of at least 50 classics they intend to read and write about at some point in the future. The structure allows for some flexibility – each member can set their own end date provided it’s within five years. Also, the definition of what constitutes a “classic” is fairly relaxed – as long as the member feels the book meets the guidelines for their list, he or she is free to include it. All the books need to be old, i.e. first published at least twenty-years ago – apart from that, the definition is pretty flexible.

At the time of joining, I put together my selection of 50 books (playing rather fast and loose with the definition of a “classic”) with the aim of reading and writing about them by December 2018. Since then, I’ve been working my way through that list on a relatively steady basis, running the books alongside my other reading.

So, now we’ve reached the year-end, how have I been getting on? Well, I’ve read and written about 46 of the 50 books on my list – pretty good going, really, considering I took a break from blogging for the first three or four months of last year.

This was always going to be a three-year project for me, so I’ve decided to draw a line under it now as December 2018 feels like the natural end-point. While I could carry on, I don’t actually have physical copies of three of the four remaining books on my original list – and given that my current focus is to read the books in my existing TBR, I probably won’t get around to buying them any time soon. The three books in question are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Nella Larson’s Passing and Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy – all of which I may get at some point, just not in the foreseeable future.

The final book is The Leopard, which I own and tried to read a little while ago but couldn’t get into at the time. One for another day, perhaps, but not in the immediate future.

You can see my original list below, together with suitable replacements for the four books I didn’t read. In each case, I’ve substituted something relatively close to my original choice (also read in the last three years), e.g. Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy; James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk for Nella Larson’s Passing; and Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Okay, I know I’m cheating a little by doing this, but hopefully you’ll cut me some slack here. Virtually every book I read these days could be considered a “classic” of some description, so a little swapping here and there doesn’t seem unreasonable.

  1. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
  2. They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy + an additional post on the politics and history
  3. A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
  4. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  5. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (replaced with Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze)
  6. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  7. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  8. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
  9. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
  10. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  11. An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov
  12. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  13. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
  14. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
  15. Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey
  16. Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
  17. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
  18. The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
  19. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  20. Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
  21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  22. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy
  23. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (replaced with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani)
  24. Passing by Nella Larsen (replaced with If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin)
  25. The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
  26. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  27. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  28. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
  29. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  30. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  31. Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
  32. Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth (replaced with Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum)
  33. A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
  34. Improper Stories by Saki
  35. The Widow by Georges Simenon
  36. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  37. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  38. The Gate by Natsume Soseki
  39. Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb
  40. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
  41. A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
  42. Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas
  43. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  44. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  45. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  46. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  47. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
  48. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
  49. The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován
  50. Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

As for what I’ve learned or gained by participating in the Club…well, I’ve met some new bookish friends who share an interest in older books, always a good thing. I’ve discovered some terrific *new* writers, some of whom have gone on to become firm favourites: Barbara Pym, Dorothy B. Hughes, Olivia Manning and Françoise Sagan to name but a few. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to delve into the backlist of some established favourites: writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, Patrick Hamilton, Edith Wharton and Patricia Highsmith, all chosen for this very reason.

On the downside, my experience of the books in translation has been somewhat mixed leading to some winners and a few losers. Looking back at my list, I don’t think I made the best choices in this area as my tastes have shifted somewhat in recent years — towards books by British, Irish and American writers, mostly from the mid-20th century.

Books in translation I really enjoyed or appreciated include Béla Zombory-Moldován’s remarkable WW1 memoir, The Burning of the World Miklós Bánffy’s epic Transylvanian Trilogy which began with They Were Counted, Natsume Soseki’s novel of urban angst, The Gate, and Françoise Sagan’s effortlessly cool A Certain Smile – all of these come highly recommended.

Less successful for me were The Invention of Morel (Bioy Casares), Spring Night (Tarjei Vesaas) and The Adventures of Sindbad (Gulya Krúdy). While the Krúdy worked well in small doses, the book as a whole just felt too samey and repetitive. A pity, really, as the writing was wonderfully evocative at times.

So, that’s pretty much it, a very rewarding experience all told. I’ve read some terrific books over the last three years, and I think it’s given me a better feel for the types of “classic” writers and books that are most likely to work for me in the future.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on any of these books in the comments below. I’m also interested to hear about your experiences of the Club if you’ve been involved with it. How has it been going for you? What have you gained from participating? I’d like to know. (Naturally, comments on my own experiences are also very welcome!)

My books of the year, 2018 – favourites from a year of reading

Regular readers of this blog will probably experience a strong sense of déjà vu when they scan through my list of favourites from 2018, such is the familiar nature of the selection. Several of the authors listed here have already appeared in some of my other best-of-the-year posts, writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and Dorothy B. Hughes – it’s getting to the point where they’re virtually guaranteed their own dedicated slots! In other words when it comes to reading, I know what I like, and I like what I know.

Still, there are a few *new* names in this year’s line-up, writers like William Trevor, Dorothy Whipple and Brian Moore, all of whom I’d like to revisit in the future.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2018 in order of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

What better way to kick off the year than with this early novel by Elizabeth Taylor, a beautifully crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town a year or so after the end of WW2. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, packed full of flawed and damaged characters who live in the kind of watchful environment where virtually everyone knows everyone else’s business. Probably my favourite book of the year – fans of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop will likely enjoy this.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. Another excellent ensemble piece, this one focusing on the lives and concerns of a disparate group of lost souls, each with their own individual characteristics and personality traits. A wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, this claims the spot for my boarding-house novel of the year. (That said, I must mention Patrick Hamilton’s Craven House in this context – not a perfect novel by any means but a hugely enjoyable one nonetheless.)

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

A young doctor picks up a dishevelled teenage girl on a deserted highway while driving to a family wedding. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything as it turns out in Hughes’ seriously gripping novel set in 1960s America. There’s a crucial ‘reveal’ at certain point in the story, something that may well cause you to question some of your assumptions and maybe expose a few subconscious prejudices too. A truly excellent book, beautifully written, this proved a big hit with my book group.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year Shirley Jackson made my ‘best-of’ list with her gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Now she’s back again, this time with The Haunting of Hill House a brilliantly unsettling book that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence. Hill House itself, with its curious, labyrinthine design and off-kilter angles, is an imposing presence in the novel, a place marked by its complex and ill-fated history. Also central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. An unnerving exploration of a character’s psyche.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A wonderful collection of stories featuring ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front during WW2. We see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources. Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity. Probably my favourite collection of short stories this year, although Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection comes a very close second.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

A book powered by Highsmith’s trademark interest in decency and morality, The Cry of the Owl appears to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. The story centres on Robert, a deeply lonely man who finds some comfort from naively observing a girl through her kitchen window as she goes about her domestic routine. What really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off. We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the supposedly upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes. Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the plot may appear somewhat confusing at first, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing their perseverance will be rewarded in the end. The tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed, perfectly capturing the political distrust and uncertainty that prevailed during the Cold War of the early ‘60s. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

My first experience of Whipple’s work but hopefully not my last. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage, brought about by a venomous serpent in the Garden of Eden. Whipple captures everything with such skill and attention to detail that it feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. In writing Someone at a Distance, she has created a really excellent novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. Possibly one for fans of Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

After Midnight by Imrgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, After Midnight is in fact a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. A little like The Artificial Silk Girl (also by Keun), the novel is narrated by a seemingly naïve and engaging young woman, Sanna, who turns out to be somewhat sharper than she appears at first sight. A fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. My favourite read in translation this year, although The Burning of The World, a remarkable WW1 memoir by the Hungarian writer Béla Zombory-Moldován, also deserves a mention.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

This is a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical that it’s hard to do it any kind of justice in a few sentences. The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her family in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. It’s a novel shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of familial love and familial tensions. The forthcoming film adaptation by Barry Jenkins is pretty wonderful too.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

This is an achingly sad novel, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a tawdry boarding house in 1950s Belfast. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live. When Judith’s dreams of a hopeful future start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed, characterised as it is by a shameful secret. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, but to say any more would spoil the story. This is an outstanding novel, easily in my top three for the year. It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to a solitary life without love.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

This jewel-like novel, my third by Hayes, focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in Rome in 1944. Robert is hoping to make a simple arrangement with a local girl, Lisa – namely some warmth and company at night in exchange for a few sought-after provisions. But nothing in wartime is ever easy, and in times of unrest and uncertainty even the most straightforward of arrangements can run into complications. Another brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness.

So there we are, another pretty satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2018.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to another.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any minute.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

After serving in the US army in the Second World War, the British-born writer Alfred Hayes stayed on in Rome at the end of the conflict where he worked with some of the leading lights in the Italian neo-realist film movement, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. This talent for scriptwriting shows in Hayes’ 1949 novel, The Girl on the Via Flaminia, a slim work which zooms in on a microcosm of a society irreparably damaged by the ravages of war. It’s a brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness. Here’s how it opens:

The wind blew through Europe. It was a cold wind, and there were no lights in the city. (p.3)

Set in Rome in 1944, the novel focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in the capital following the liberation of Italy from the Germans.

Having grown tired of boarding at the barracks with the rest of his unit, Robert longs for the company of a woman on a regular basis – not one of the prostitutes who ply their trade by the River Tiber, but someone more modest and above board. So, he makes an arrangement to share a private room with Lisa, a local Italian girl, at a house in the city. The lodgings are owned by Adele, a middle-aged Italian woman who has converted her dining room into a simple bar and eating place for the soldiers stationed in the vicinity. Also living in the house are Ugo, Adele’s mournful husband, and Antonio, their grown-up son, a bitter ex-soldier who resents the presence of the Allied forces in his country.

As far as Robert sees things, this is to be a simple arrangement, one that benefits both parties. Robert will have a little warmth and female company at night, while in return Lisa will receive some much sought-after supplies: coffee, sugar, chocolate, maybe even a little fruitcake on the side. It isn’t a question of just sex; Robert knows he could avail himself of one of the local prostitutes for that (not that he wants to – the prospect really doesn’t appeal). Rather, it’s more a case of desiring something decent and comfortable, albeit with no long-term strings attached.

On their first evening together in the room, Lisa is pretty antagonist towards Robert, whom she views as symbolic of American soldiers in general, a group characterised by their loudness, arrogance and stupidity. Robert, in his naivety, struggles to truly understand the anger and hostility being directed towards him, particularly from Lisa whom he believes he is helping through the provision of goods. Gradually, however, and with the help of a well-timed power cut, Lisa’s mood begins to soften, thereby enabling Robert to get a little closer to her – an experience exquisitely conveyed through Hayes’ beautiful prose.

Touching her, then, that first time, there had been no words at all to express the overwhelming sense of a woman being with him, in a clean place, in a clean bed, just being there, in a room, alone feeling the warmth even though it was not a given and voluntary and loving warmth, only the inevitable warmth of someone’s body. There were no words at all for the enormous charity that having a woman, in a room with a closed door, in a bed that was one’s own, meant. (p. 46)

Sadly, even the simplest of arrangements can run into complications, especially in a time of unrest and uncertainty. In order to rent the room from Adele, Robert has created the impression that he and Lisa are married. So, when their status is called into question, Lisa and Robert find themselves caught in a perilous situation, one that has long-term consequences for those involved.

I absolutely loved this slim yet stunning novel, my third by Hayes. (You can read my thoughts on In Love here, a book I probably need to read again as I couldn’t make up my mind about it at the time.)

Hayes is particularly good at conveying the nuances of human emotion in a nuanced and non-judgemental way, allowing us to see the situation from two very different perspectives: Robert’s and Lisa’s. The portrayal of complex and conflicting feelings – often in a state of fluidity – is beautifully done. Desire, longing, resentment and anger all come together to illustrate the difficulty of these characters’ situations. The haunting ending, with its air of uncertainty, feels very fitting, highlighting as it does the tragedy of the protagonists’ plight.

The novel also highlights the terrible effects of war, the damage and trauma inflicted not only on the soldiers and forces but also on the ordinary people left behind – women like Lisa who have few options open to them other than compromising their dignity to survive. By focusing on this relatively small group of individuals, Hayes paints a portrait of a country torn apart by the fallout from conflict, where victory and freedom are not what they were promised to be. Instead, the mood is characterised by feelings of frustration, anguish and suffocation.

On the walls of the small villages in the south, they had painted slogans during the other regime: to obey, to fight, to win. Obedience was done, fighting was over, there had been no victory. Agony was left, and a sense of suffocation. (p.74)

Bitterness and resentment are widespread, emotions typified by Antonio’s reactions to Robert and his compatriots as tensions escalate.

‘When we go into the street,’ he said, leaning forward, accusing them, because of the uniform, ‘what do we see? Your colonels, in their big cars, driving with women whose reputations were made in the bedrooms of fascist bureaucrats! With my country’s enemies! Or your soldiers, drunk in our gutters. Or your officers, pushing us off our own sidewalks! Oh, the magnificent promises the radio made us! Oh, the paradise we’d have! Wait, wait – there will be bread, peace, freedom when the allies come! But where is this paradise? Where is it, signori –?’ (pp. 76-77)

We also gain an insight into Antonio’s experiences of the war, the physical and emotional wounds he must deal with as a consequence of the bloodshed.

Finally, a few words about the writing: Hayes’ prose is spare, precise and evocative, qualities that help to convey the deep-rooted mood and atmosphere that underpin the story. As the cold wind sweeps through Rome, there is a sense of darkness and desolation in the city, feelings that mirror the mood of the country as a whole, trapped as it is in a seemingly never-ending war.

The city had no beauty now. The river had no history. When you stood on one of the bridges and looked at the city, you thought of home, and were depressed, and it seemed, because if the grayness over everything, that this war had been going on forever, and it would never end. (p.112)

The Girl on the Via Flaminia is published by Penguin; personal copy.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

First published in 1955, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a novel by the Northern Irish writer, Brian Moore. It’s a book I’ve been saving for quite a while, thinking that it might be my kind of read. Turns out I was right, as it’s definitely one of the best novels I’ve read in recent months, if not this year. It also features a rather marvellous boarding-house setting, an element that generally ticks all the right boxes for me.

The story itself is achingly sad, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a down-at-heel boarding house in a poor area of Belfast in the 1950s. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live.

Having devoted most of her adult life to caring for her selfish, somewhat senile aunt (now deceased), Judith is struggling to make ends meet between her dwindling income as a piano/needlecraft teacher and a pitiful annuity from Aunt D’Arcy’s estate. With a limited education and lack of a husband to support her, Judith is not cut out for the working world of the 1950s in which opportunities for women are slowly starting to open up. To make matters works, poor Judith has very few friends – only the O’Neill family whom she visits every Sunday afternoon, an occasion that proves to be the highlight of her week, prompting her to save up various stories to share with the family over tea (more about these excruciating teatimes later).

As the novel opens, Judith has just moved into her new lodgings, an establishment run by the rather nosy Mrs Rice who dotes on her lazy, good-for-nothing slob of a son, Bernard, an aspiring but frankly hopeless poet. Also in residence at the house are Mrs Rice’s brother, James Madden, recently returned from America under uncertain circumstances, two somewhat idiosyncratic fellow boarders, Miss Friel and Mr Linehan, and the young maid, Mary.

In her desperation and naivety, Judith is rather captivated by James Madden with his tales of America and the hotel business in Times Square. Nevertheless, she knows Mr Madden is likely to find her a dull proposition, especially when they are left alone to make small talk over breakfast – as Judith sees it, he is bound to make his excuses, just like all the other men before him.

The dining-room with its cold morning light, its heavy furniture, its dirty teacups and plates, became quiet as a church. Alone with this lonely stranger, she waited for his fumbled excuses, his departure. For now that the others had gone, it would be as it had always been. He would see her shyness, her stiffness. And it would frighten him, he would remember that he was alone with her. He would listen politely to whatever inanity she would manage to get out and then he would see the hysteria in her eyes, the hateful hot flush in her cheeks. And he would go as all men had gone before him. (p. 26)

But, much to everyone’s surprise, James Madden appears to show some interest in Judith, inviting her to the pictures and the occasional outing or two – and before she knows it, Judith is fantasising about a future life with Madden, back at his fancy hotel in New York. As a consequence of her loneliness, Judith is living in something of a dream world, periodically hoping that fate will offer her one last chance at romance and a life of happiness.

Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena. The honeymoon? Niagara Falls, isn’t that the place Americans go? Or perhaps Paris, before we sail. (p. 29)

Little does Judith know that Madden was actually a doorman at the hotel in New York, not a manager or proprietor as she has assumed from his carefully judged comments. To complicate matters further, Madden is also under a misconception about Judith, imagining her to be wealthy and knowledgeable from the jewellery she wears and her interest in America and the broader world in general.

He smiled at her. Friendly she is. And educated. Those rings and that gold wrist watch. They’re real. A pity she looks like that. (p. 35)

(Interestingly, Moore offers us direct access to other characters’ thoughts at various points in the narrative, a technique that adds considerably to our understanding of their impressions and motives alongside Judith’s.)

In light of this belief, Madden is hoping to ‘play’ Judith by persuading her to invest in his new business venture: a plan to open a US-style hamburger joint in the middle of Dublin to tap into the tourist business. However, while Judith has very little money of her own, she does harbour a terrible secret – a private passion which she tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to keep under wraps.

When Judith’s dreams of a future with James Madden start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, leading to significant tensions and gossip in the house. As a consequence, Judith seeks solace in the Catholic Church, her one guiding light during the many years of darkness. But when the priest on duty fails to grasp the true gravity of her concerns, Judith’s faith in God begins to fracture, adding considerably to her sense of desperation. It’s a testament to Moore’s skill and insight as a writer that one can really sense the overwhelming nature of Judith’s anxiety when her religious conviction is put to the test.

With her belief system in tatters, Judith turns instead to the people she has always considered to be her true friends, the O’Neills. In reality, however, the O’Neills dread Judith’s Sunday afternoon visits, making fun of her behind her back and arguing over whose turn it is to do their duty that week. In her heart of hearts, Judith knows that she is thought of as a rather fussy and silly old woman, especially by the younger members of the O’Neill family, Una, Shaun and Kevin; nevertheless, in spite of this, she still believes the O’Neills are kindly people, even if they understand little of the realities of her life. Moore injects these ‘teatime’ passages with considerable humour, but it is a painfully dark kind of humour due to the tragedy and narrowness of Judith’s world.

‘Another sherry?’

‘Well, really, I shouldn’t. But it’s so good.’

She drank a second glass quickly and young Una lifted the decanter. ‘Let me fill your glass up, Miss Hearne.’

‘No, thank you, I couldn’t really. Two is my absolute limit.’

There! She’d done it again, saying something she always said. She saw the small cruel smile on Una’s face – like the day I came into the room and she and Shaun were saying over and over, imitating me. ‘Your mother will bear me out on that, won’t you?’ Over and over, and it’s what I always say – well, I won’t say two is my absolute limit ever again. Anyway, a child like her, what does she know about life? Or life’s problems? (p. 77)

As the novel reaches its shattering conclusion, Judith’s mind begins to spiral out of control as she loses her grip on reality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is a certain inevitability about the story which comes full circle towards the end. We see Judith adopting an air of resignation in her new home, another room in which she carefully places the two symbols that follow her everywhere: the silver-framed photograph of her aunt and the coloured oleograph of the Sacred Heart. As readers, we can only imagine what the future may hold for her.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an outstanding novel (probably one of my top three for the year), but it’s also a devastating read. The characterisation is truly excellent, from the nuanced portrait of Judith, complete with all her flaws and complexities, to the immoralities of James Madden and Bernard Rice. (In a novel not short of damaged and dishonourable characters, James and Bernard definitely stand out.) It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to the loneliness of a life without love. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy