Tag Archives: HarperCollins

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

RPD was put through.

‘Jeff, I want you to hear my case.’

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

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

‘How can that be?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. (pg. 3)

On the evening of 30th December 2003, Joan Didion sat down to dinner with her husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, at their home in New York. Moments later, John experienced a massive coronary event that was to lead to his death. At the same time, the couple’s only child, Quintana, was lying unconscious in an intensive care unit at the Beth Israel North Medical Center in the city. She had been there since Christmas Day when, what had at first appeared to be a case of flu, suddenly morphed into pneumonia and septic shock. The Year of Magical Thinking charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed these tumultuous events in her life, a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness and death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage and 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.

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Written between October and December 2004, the book’s title has its origins in “magical thinking,” a state whereby a person believes that their thoughts and wishes can bring about certain events or change an outcome in some way. Despite the fact that Didion appeared cool and rational in the hours and days immediately following John’s death, she began to believe that she could bring him back, ‘to reverse time, to run the film backwards.’

I see now that my insistence on spending that first night alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. […] Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone. […]

I needed to be alone so that he could come back. (pgs. 32-33)

As she looks back at that time, Didion identifies a number of instances of this covert thinking which remained somewhat hidden from others and even from herself: she had not been able to read the obituaries when they appeared in the papers as they would have confirmed John’s death; she had resisted the suggestions to clear his clothes, to give them away to charity, as he might need them when he returns; she had declined a request from the hospital to donate his organs. ‘How could he come back if they took his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?’

In an attempt to make sense of the range of emotions she is experiencing, Didion begins to explore the literature on grief, turning initially to poetry, novels and memoirs. Given that grief touches virtually all of us as some stage in our lives, there is surprisingly little coverage of it in the sources Didion finds close to hand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most illuminating insights into grief come from Didion herself. In this passage, she distinguishes between our image of what grief will be like and the reality of actually experiencing it for ourselves, a description that rings completely true to me based on my own experience of loss.

In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (pgs. 188-189)

Didion is also very good on the feeling of utter disorientation and dislocation that follows the death of a loved one, that fuzzy, ‘mudgy’ state of mind that perhaps only others going through a similar experience can fully recognise. There is clear sense of fragility and vulnerability here.

People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off. These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved. (pg. 75)

Intercut with these reflections on bereavement are Didion’s examination of her life with John, in particular, the years they spent in California and their time with Quintana. She describes how even the smallest of objects – often chanced upon at the most unexpected of times – can trigger the vortex effect, the opening up of a tunnel of memories that catapult her into the past. While glancing at a TV commercial, Joan happens to catch sight of a familiar stretch of coastal highway – all of a sudden she is back at Palos Verdes Peninsula, immersed in memories of the house where she and John lived with Quintana when she was a baby.

Reflections from the months leading up to John’s death form another focal point. There are a number of occasions when Joan wonders whether John had sensed that time was running out for him. In the autumn of 2003, John persuaded Joan that they should take a trip to Paris as he feared that if they did not go then, he might never see the city again. Moreover, when she thinks back to the time shortly before his death, Joan recalls John saying several things about his current and previous work which, at the time, made it difficult for her to dismiss his mood as depression (something she considers a typical phase of any writer’s life). Here is just one example of the things that continue to gnaw away at her. It was either the evening of John’s death or the previous night; John and Joan were travelling home in a taxi having just visited Quintana in the ICU unit at Beth Israel North.

Everything he had done, he said, was worthless.

I still tried to dismiss it.

This might not be normal, I told myself, but neither was the condition in which we had just left Quintana.

He said that the novel was worthless.

This might not be normal. I told myself, but neither was it normal for a father to see a child beyond his help. (pg 81-82)

I don’t think I’m up for this, he had said in the taxi on our way down from Beth Israel North that night or the next night. He was talking about the condition in which we had once again left Quintana.

You don’t get a choice, I had said in the taxi.

I have wondered since if he did. (pg. 217)

‘Did he have some apprehension, a shadow?’ These questions and more continue to haunt Joan as she tries to make sense of John’s death, prompting a re-examination of life with her husband as she had previously understood it.

Magical Thinking is a remarkable piece of writing, at once utterly compelling, deeply affecting and emotionally truthful. (There are other threads within Magical Thinking which I haven’t even touched on here, most notably Joan’s account of Quintana’s illness and its impact on her own state of mind.) Didion brings a great deal of honesty and candour to this work. 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. Certain questions are left unanswered, doubts remain in the mind; and yet there is a sense that the very process of writing this book has helped Didion in some way.

As is often the case when I try to write about a favourite book, I am left feeling that I have fallen short, that I haven’t done it justice, that I have failed to articulate what makes it special. All I can say is that this is an exceptional book. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Delphine de Vigan’s autobiographical novel, Nothings Hold Back the Night, a book that made my ‘best-of’ list last year.

The Year of Magical Thinking is published by Harper Perennial. Source: personal copy.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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