Tag Archives: Muriel Spark

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. 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.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Like many other readers, I have been drawn to Muriel Spark and her rather off-kilter view of the world in recent years, partly prompted by Ali’s celebration of her centenary in 2018. The Driver’s Seat is most definitely at the surreal end of the Sparkian spectrum – in fact, positively unhinged might be a more appropriate way of describing it. I can’t quite decide if it’s utterly brilliant or completely bonkers. A bit of both, I suspect, although I’m very much leaning towards the former. As soon as I’d finished this book, I immediately wanted to go back and read it all over again – one of the signs of a great book, I think.

As the novella opens, we encounter Lise – the central character in this twisted story – shopping for new clothes for a forthcoming holiday. Right from the very start, there is an anxious, unsettling tone to the narrative, one that mirrors Lise’s erratic behaviour when a sales assistant tries to identify something suitable for her. In the first shop, Lise tries on a rather garish dress, which she appears to like until the assistant mentions that the material is resistant to stains. On hearing this, Lise becomes extremely agitated (unreasonably so), and she simply cannot get out of the dress quickly enough. The very idea that she should need a garment made from stain-resistant fabric is completely abhorrent to her. At this stage in the game, we don’t know why Lise is reacting in this way, although the significance of this point becomes somewhat clearer towards the end of the story.

Spark’s descriptions of Lise are gloriously off-kilter, portraying her in a manner which suggests a frenetic energy and a buttoned-up quality to her personality all at once. There are mentions of an illness in her past – quite possibly related to her mental well-being as her neurotic behaviour has been noted at work.

She walks along the broad street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. Her lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; (p. 9)

Continuing her frantic search for a suitable outfit, Lise enters another store where she finds the perfect dress – another striking garment in clashing colours and a vivid, asymmetric design.

She swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ (p. 10 –11)

Not content with buying one eye-catching garment, Lise tops things off with a statement coat in a colour scheme that completely clashes with the dress she has already selected. Naturally, Lise doesn’t see things this way. In her somewhat deranged world, the two items go very well together, the clashing colours proving an intuitive match for her rather peculiar style.

More weird behaviour follows as Lise makes her way to the airport to catch a flight to an unspecified Mediterranean destination – possibly Naples based on various references to the area in the book. There are strange encounters with the check-in staff and other passengers in the terminal – think The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9 – a feature that continues during the journey. While boarding, Lise makes a beeline for a particular man, seating herself next to him on the plane. However, something about Lise’s behaviour disturbs the individual in question, and he moves to a different seat just as the plane is about to take off.

Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, and his hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has caused a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opens his mouth, gasping and startled, staring at her as if she is someone he has known and forgotten and now sees again. She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case. (p. 27)

I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lise once she arrives at her destination; I’ll let you discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book. Certain aspects of her trajectory are made very clear from an early stage in the story, although the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the narrative are revealed more gradually over time. What I will say is that Lise appears to be searching for someone in particular, a boyfriend of sorts. At first, we begin to wonder whether this individual is real or merely a figment of Lise’s imagination, particularly given her erratic behaviour.

Interestingly, we never really get to know Lise as a person, her inner self or emotional feelings – even when she tells another character something about herself, it’s almost certainly a fabrication of sorts. There is an unstable, self-destructive aspect to Lise’s nature, a kinetic energy that propels this woman towards her inevitable destination. In some respects, Lise is a fish-out-of-water in the liberated age of the late 1960s. Sex is of no real interest to her; in fact, she positively rejects the idea when various men start making advances towards her.

The novella’s ending is quite brilliant, casting an entirely new light on Lise’s reasons for the visit and her actions while there. Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art.

(Several other bloggers have reviewed this novella including Max, Caroline and Ali. If they’re of interest, you can find my other posts on Spark’s novels here.)

The Driver’s Seat is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Symposium by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far, Loitering with Intent is perhaps the most playful. In some respects, there are similarities with Memento Mori, Spark’s wonderful social comedy on the challenges of ageing – another vehicle for her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. I had a lot of fun with Loitering, a marvellous slice of metafiction about the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality.

Loitering is narrated by Fleur Talbot, now a seasoned author with a long and successful career under her belt. In order to compile her autobiography, Fleur looks back on her early days as an aspiring writer in the mid-20th century, a time when she was eager to gain a foothold in the literary world.

The setting is London, the year 1949. Fleur takes a job working as a secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a rather odd character who runs the Autobiographical Association, a ‘special circle’ designed to support a small number of individuals in the production of their memoirs. By night, Fleur toils away on her debut novel, Warrender Chase, a dark and sinister story which she claims to be a work of fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop her from taking inspiration from the world around her.

I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed. Not that I reproduced them photographically and literally. I didn’t for a moment think of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, ‘In there are secrets,’ the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself. (pp. 7-8)

Sir Quentin insists that the work Fleur is to undertake at the Association is top secret, to the extent that the opening chapters of the autobiographies are kept in a locked cabinet in his London apartment. It is alleged that the contents of the memoirs are incendiary, full of revelations that ought not to be revealed for several years in case they cause distress to certain persons still alive. In reality, however, the drafts are rather dull and poorly written. As a consequence, Fleur is encouraged by Sir Quentin to spruce up (and maybe even spice up) the texts, giving her licence to act as an editor of sorts as she goes along.

The members of the Autobiographical Association (AA) are an eclectic bunch. There are six of them in total including a French Baroness of indeterminate age, a defrocked priest who has experienced a loss of faith, and an elaborately dressed woman who was raised at the Czar of Russia’s court. Another writer might have chosen to expand on the lives of these characters in more detail, but Spark decides – rather wisely in my opinion – to keep the focus on Fleur and her immediate world.

As Fleur goes about her work at the AA, she begins to suspect that Sir Quentin is involved in some kind of sinister racket – possibly one that involves blackmail, although the financial circumstances don’t seem to fit. He appears to be quite wealthy while most of the members of the Association are not; some of them are actually quite hard up.

To complicate matters further, the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ begin to blur. Some of the people Fleur encounters in her job start to resemble characters from her novel, Warrender Chase. Certain events from her book play out in real life. Particular phrases reverberate and echo through each story as life begins to imitate art.

In my febrile state of creativity, I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was. (p. 42)

To reveal many more details of the plot might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that Spark has a lot of fun in playing out the rest of the novel, a story that involves theft, duplicity and a dash of intrigue.

There are some brilliant characters here. Sir Quentin is quite clearly a crank and a terrible snob, in thrall to a social class that is rapidly fading away.

Fleur herself is a very engaging narrator – funny, independent and a little bit absurd. She is very protective of her novel, Warrender Chase, even though she believes at the time that it may never be published. I don’t think we’re meant to take her entirely seriously, especially as there appears to be an element of unreliability in her narration. Maybe trying to disentangle ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ is all part of the fun here.

Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Lady Edwina, is another marvellous creation – complete with her glamorous tea gowns and immaculately painted nails, she has a penchant for the dramatic entrance. In spite of the fact that Sir Quentin and his housekeeper, the rather bossy Beryl Tims, believe Lady Edwina to be a little senile, Fleur quite correctly intuits that there is nothing wrong with this lady’s mind. Far from it; she is quite sharp with a wicked sense of humour to boot, all of which makes for some interesting interactions with Mrs Tims.

In this scene, Lady Edwina enters a meeting of the AA ‘as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm’. It’s a real delight.

She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?’ Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea dressed freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked Father, ‘Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?’ (pp. 30-31)

All in all, Loitering with Intent is another excellent novel by Muriel Spark, full of ideas and knowing nods to the power of fiction. (I find her a consistently inventive writer.) There are stories nested within other stories here: Fleur’s recollections of her time at the AA; the biographies of the AA members, ultimately augmented by various developments in the book; Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase, of which we learn more as Loitering unfolds.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Fleur as she reflects on her work as a writer, an observation that seems just as applicable to Spark herself.

When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism. (p. 65) 

I am a little early for Ali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 schedule, but you can discover more about her project to celebrate Spark’s centenary here.

Loitering with Intent is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’

At an early stage in the novel, Spark maps out the social hierarchy that has developed within this large boarding house, once a private residence back in Victorian times. The ground floor houses the staff offices, dining room, recreation room and drawing room (the latter freshly papered in depressing shades of sludge-like brown), while the first floor accommodates the youngest members of the club, girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty, recently released from boarding school and used to living in communal dormitories, not unlike the curtained-off cubicles in this part of the building.

The girls on this floor were not yet experienced in discussing men. Everything turned on whether the man in question was a good dancer and had a sense of humour. The Air Force was mostly favoured, and a D.F.C. was an asset. (p. 27)

For those with more money, the second floor offers a little more privacy: shared rooms for two or four residents, mostly occupied by young woman in transit and those looking for flats or bedsits. The third floor is home to a mix of girls, either prim and pretty young virgins destined for a life of near-celibacy, or bossy women in their late twenties who are too sharp to fall for the charms of any man. Finally, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls are to be found on the top floor of the house, typically those with interesting jobs or lovers, and active social lives to boot.

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (p. 9)

Also residing at the May of Teck are three spinsters in their fifties, women who have somehow managed to sidestep the usual rules of the establishment that require members to move on once they reach the age of thirty. These elderly residents provide some nice comic moments in their interactions with one another, and in those with the younger residents of the club.

By 1945 they had seen much coming of new girls and going of old, and were generally liked by the current batch, being subject to insults when they interfered in anything, and intimate confidences when they kept aloof. (pp. 14-15)

The novel focuses on a handful of the girls who reside at the May of Teck – mostly those on the top floor of the building – offering glimpses of their daily preoccupations and concerns as they try to go about their lives as best they can. While the timeline moves backwards and forwards throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place over three months: the period between VE day in May and VJ Day in August 1945.

Central to the novel is Jane Wright, who in 1945 is working for a slightly dodgy publisher, checking out the financial status of aspiring authors and trying to uncover their weak spots for her employer to exploit when negotiating contracts. Also featuring prominently are the beautiful Selina Redwood, a rather statuesque girl who values poise and elegance above all else, Dorothy Markham, the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, chairwoman of the club’s management committee, and Anne Baberton, the owner of a fabulous Schiaparelli gown that is loaned out to the other girls on the top floor whenever the occasion demands. This suitably glamorous dress causes a quite stir wherever it makes an appearance…

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy…it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet-coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons. I give all mine to my grandmother.’

Then Jane would put out her head. ‘Stop being so petty-minded and stop screeching. I’m doing brain-work.’ (p. 35)

(Jane is constantly seeking peace and quiet to concentrate on her important ‘brain-work’.)

Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is Joanna Childe, the self-sacrificing daughter of a country clergyman in the High Church. Young Joanna, who firmly believes that her one great chance for love has already passed her by, now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons to the other occupants of the house in exchange for payment or extra ration coupons. She is a lover of poetry, and her recitations of famous lines and stanzas are threaded through the novel adding an extra element of hilarity and interest.

Most of the chatter among the girls revolves around everyday issues: the men they are dating; their food rations and diets; the trading of clothing coupons and other luxuries; who gets to wear the posh frock when they have an important date, and so on. Nevertheless, against this light-hearted backdrop, there are signs of darker forces at play, mentions of notable events from 1945 are dropped in every now again – most worryingly perhaps, the emerging threat from the deployment of the atomic bomb.

Spark also inserts another strand into the story, one which adds a somewhat unsettling note. In the opening pages of the novel, a death in the present day (presumably some point in the 1960s) acts as the catalyst for the flashbacks to 1945. The missionary, Nicholas Farringdon has been killed in an uprising in Haiti, news of his death having reached Jane by way of a Reuters bulletin – she now works as a successful reporter for a leading women’s journal. Back in the 1940s, Jane had introduced Nicholas – then an aspiring author and intellectual whom she had been tasked with investigating – to the May of Teck Club. He was said to have been an anarchist, albeit a most unlikely one. No one could quite believe it of him at the time.

He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was. (p. 32)

Winding back to 1945, Jane is rather attracted to Nicholas and his somewhat bohemian lifestyle. He takes her to parties and poetry gatherings, introducing her to other writers in the process. Ultimately though, Nicholas gets mixed up with the glamorous Selina, spending hot summer nights with her on the May of Teck’s roof.

Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. (pp. 65-66)

Elements of Nicholas’ ultimate fate are revealed in present-day conversations between Jane and the other former members of the May of Teck. Like Joanna’s recitations, these snatches of dialogue are threaded through the novel, a feat Spark pulls off to good effect.

The tone of the novel is by turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant. As the story heads towards its dramatic conclusion, Spark introduces a development that turns out to be both gripping and devastating. It is perhaps no surprise that the earlier elements of humour segue into a sense of imminent tragedy. In a clever twist, the phrase ‘of slender means’ in the novel’s title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the girls’ limited financial resources, while on the other it also relates to their physical build and hip measurements. Only the slimmest girls can slip through the narrow slit-window of the top-floor washroom to gain access to the May of Teck roof for a spot of sunbathing. Selina and Anne can manage it, but not the others, especially not Jane who is rather plump. The ability (or not) to slip through this aperture plays an important role in the closing stages of the book, but I had better not say too much more about this for fear of revealing any spoilers.

I really enjoyed this novel with its cast of interesting, well-crafted characters. Spark manages to pack so much into these 140 pages; it’s really quite remarkable. The period detail is excellent too, very evocative of the time, as evidenced by this passage from the opening page. I’ll leave you with this description of London, a city still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation of WW2.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (p. 7)

The Girls of Slender Means is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

While reading Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori last year, I was reminded of the delights of Barbara Pym’s novels, two of which I read in 2016: Excellent Women and No Fond Return of Love. They came as a set of three from The Book People, the third being Crampton Hodnet, which was published posthumously in 1985. In spite of its late publication date, Crampton was actually written in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of WW2, an event which resulted in Pym’s attention being directed towards her work in the WRNS. When she returned to the novel in the mid-1940s, it seemed to her to be too dated to be publishable at the time, so it sat among her papers until her death in 1980. Viewed from a 21st-century perspective, Crampton doesn’t seem too dated at all. There is a timeless quality to many of the emotions and behaviours on display here, and they remain just as relevant today as they were back in Pym’s heyday.

crampton

Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s, a familiar Pym world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, romantic students and gossipy women. At the centre of this close community are the redoubtable Miss Doggett and her paid companion, the much younger Miss Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties’ who seems old before her time. In spite of being considered as somewhat ‘unworldly’, Miss Morrow is in fact rather more perceptive than other people realise. She is kind, level-headed and tolerant, especially when it comes to dealing with her demanding employer. Here is a wonderful introduction to the meddling Miss Doggett – some male undergraduates are about to arrive for afternoon tea.

‘Well, hurry up! The young men will be arriving soon,’ said Miss Doggett. She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many golden chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself. She pushed past Miss Morrow, who was hovering in the doorway, and entered the drawing-room. (pp. 4-5)

Into this community comes a handsome new curate, the charming Stephen Latimer, who soon finds himself moving into Leamington Lodge, the home of Miss Doggett and her companion. One of the most interesting elements of this novel is the relationship that develops between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow, an easy friendship at least in the first instance.

But Mr Latimer was glad when, by some movement of the crowd, he found himself next to Miss Morrow. If he had analysed his feelings he would have realised that he turned to her with relief, as one does to a person with whom one need not make conversation. But there was no personal quality in his feeling for her. He regarded her simply as a man might regard a comfortable chair by the fire, where he can sit with his slippers on and a pipe in his mouth.

Miss Morrow felt this, but it did not worry her. Inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people, she thought. (p. 38)

Not long after he moves in, Mr Latimer misses evensong after getting delayed during a mildly furtive walk in the country with Miss Morrow, an episode that gives rise to him telling a white lie in the hope of covering his tracks. Meeting the vicar’s wife on his return, Latimer claims he was helping a colleague at another parish in the Cotswolds – in the non-existent village of Crampton Hodnet, hence the novel’s unusual title. Of course the vicar’s wife suspects a budding romance may be developing between the new curate and Miss Doggett’s companion – and perhaps she could be on to something there, as it’s not long before Mr Latimer decides that ‘he might do worse’ than marry Miss Morrow. There are hints of some scandalous entanglements with women in Stephen Latimer’s past, so a sensible wife and helpmeet might just be the answer to the complications that can arise from potential admirers. What follows is a desperate attempt at a half-hearted marriage proposal on the part of Mr Latimer, one which leaves Miss Morrow in no doubt that she must turn it down. Miss Morrow is a bit of a romantic at heart, and it is love she is hoping for, not respect and admiration.

And then, how much more sensible it was to satisfy one’s springlike impulses by buying a new dress in an unaccustomed and thoroughly unsuitable colour than by embarking on a marriage without love. For, after all, respect and esteem were cold, lifeless things – dry bones picked clean of flesh. There was nothing springlike about dry bones, nothing warm and romantic about respect and esteem. (p. 118)

Alongside the Latimer-Morrow storyline, there is another romantic entanglement at play here as Francis Cleveland, a married University tutor in his fifties, loses his head over one of his students, the pretty and intelligent Barbara Bird. Francis, who also happens to be Miss Doggett’s nephew, is treading water in a staid but comfortable marriage to his wife of over twenty years, the efficient and level-headed Margaret. In essence, he feels somewhat marginalised and redundant in his own household. When Miss Doggett spots Francis taking Miss Bird to tea, she is convinced that something untoward is afoot. Even though she is desperate to meddle in her nephew’s affairs, Miss Doggett decides to keep a watching brief on the situation in the hope that it will develop into something even more scandalous in the future.

‘I do not think it is really our business,’ said Miss Doggett. ‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind. It was quite possible that there would be further incidents in the story. It would be much more interesting to wait. It was really not her duty to tell Margaret about last week, but it might very well be to confront her with a complete and convincing story of her husband’s unfaithfulness. (pp. 75-76)

This element of the story gives rises to several priceless scenes as Francis starts behaving like a love-struck teenager, declaring his passion for Barbara in the middle of the British Museum, an outburst that causes the young girl to pause and think again. In spite of her romantic tendencies, Barbara knows that her love is a wild, school-girl crush, not something deep and meaningful to be acted upon or taken seriously. If that were to be the case, who knows what might happen?

How could she explain to him what her love was like? That although it was a love stronger than death, it wasn’t the kind of love one did anything about? On the contrary, doing nothing about it was one of its chief characteristics, because if one did anything it would be different – it might even disappear altogether. (p.126)

Other calamities soon follow including a slightly unfortunate trip along the river and a romantic adventure that doesn’t quite go according to plan. There is also space in this novel for a third romance, the blossoming of young love between Francis and Margaret’s attractive young daughter, Anthea Cleveland, and the ambitious young undergrad, Simon Beddoes.

All in all, Crampton Hodnet is a thoroughly charming and engaging social comedy. In fact, I think it’s the funniest of the three Pyms I’ve read to date. While Crampton does not necessarily have as much depth as Excellent Women, it is an extremely enjoyable novel, all the more so for its pin-sharp characterisation and multitude of hilarious developments. In some ways, the book seems to be saying that wild, passionate, ‘romantic’ love is rather idealised and troublesome, whereas a love that is lasting and fulfilling is much harder to find. Irrespective of the central message, the scenes in this novel are so brilliantly observed, underscored as they are with Pym’s trademark insight and wit – even the little details are spot-on. I couldn’t resist this final quote about Mrs Doggett and her hat (Pym is marvellous when it comes to capturing a character through their dress or hat).

Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow were sitting side by side on the sofa. Miss Doggett was wearing a terrifying new hat trimmed with a whole covey of cyclamen-coloured birds, but Miss Morrow was her usual drably comforting self. (p. 248)

As the story draws to a close, there is a sense that life in North Oxford will continue as before from one academic year to the next; it is only some of the people who will change.

Crampton Hodnet is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

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.

books-of-the-year

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!