Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

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 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

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – the debut novel of the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner – was an instant success on its publication in 1926. Now regarded as something of an early feminist classic, it tells the story of Laura (Lolly) Willowes, an unmarried woman of semi-independent means who struggles to break free from her conservative family to carve out a life of her own in the lush and seductive countryside of Bucks. While the story starts out in fairly conventional territory, about halfway through it morphs into something more magical, subverting the reader’s expectations with elements of fantasy and wonder. It’s an excellent book, one of the most surprising and unexpected delights of my reading year to date.

From a young age, Laura Willowes has always loved the country, growing up in a quiet, traditional family in the heart of Somerset where she seems at one with nature and everything it has to offer. As an unmarried woman and youngest child in the family, Laura keeps house for her widowed father with consummate ease. She feels contented and at home in this environment with its simple ways and traditions. Moreover, it is clear that Mr Willowes loves his daughter very dearly, to the extent that he secretly hopes she will remain at home to take care of him even though he knows her future happiness may suffer as a result. In reality, marriage holds little appeal for Laura, and she remains relatively satisfied with her position in life.

When Mr Willowes dies of pneumonia in 1902, everything changes for Laura (now aged twenty-eight) as her familiar world is swept away. It is automatically assumed by the remaining members of the family that Laura will leave her home and everything she loves to go and live with her older brother, Henry and his wife, Caroline, in their central London abode. Although Laura has inherited a decent income of her own, there is no question of her choosing to live independently. Her other brother, James, and his wife, Sibyl, are to move into Lady Place (the Somerset home), while Laura herself must be content with the smaller of the two spare rooms in Henry and Caroline’s house.

Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best. (p. 10)

Going along with the family’s decision, Laura tries to make the best of things of London, helping Caroline with her children and other domestic duties. While she proves herself to be a reliable and trustworthy companion, Laura is often left feeling somewhat inadequate and taken for granted. Caroline, for her part, is pleasant enough to Laura, but she is also orderly, dull and unromantic, bowing to Henry’s better judgement on most things – an action which feeds her husband’s high opinion of himself.

In short, Laura feels her loss of identity very deeply. She is no longer Laura, but good old Aunt Lolly, someone who can be relied on to assist with the children – either that or simply ‘Caroline’s sister-in-law’, something of an appendage to the principal members of the household.

At first, Henry and Caroline try to introduce Laura to respectable, unmarried men in the hope that she might find a suitable husband – but Laura is having none of this, and she discourages any further matchmaking efforts with her somewhat eccentric remarks.

One by one, the years pass by, and before she knows it, Laura finds herself in her late forties, still unmarried and living a dull, unfulfilling life in London. By now, we are in the 1920s where it is becoming a little easier for women to branch out and gain some independence for themselves. There are signs that Laura is feeling somewhat restless and frustrated with her life, longing as she does to reconnect with the countryside in some way.

Then, one day while out shopping in the city, Laura experiences a sort of epiphany in the midst of a flower shop. Surrounded by flora and country produce, she imagines herself in an orchard, communing with nature in all its glory.

She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. (p. 80)

As a result of this experience, Laura decides that she is going to move to Great Mop, a tiny village in the midst of Buckinghamshire, where she intends to live modestly on her own. As Laura surveys her family at dinner that evening, it is as if she has awoken from a dream; now she can see how devoid of excitement their regimented lives appear to be.       

During dinner Laura looked at her relations. She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber, to find them almost unrecognizable. She surveyed them, one after the other. Even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. (p. 84)

At first, Laura’s family think her quite mad for wanting to go and live in the country. Henry, in particular, is both astonished and upset by his sister’s outburst, fearing that he and Caroline have failed in their duty to make her feel welcome and part of the household. Nevertheless, Laura is determined to go in spite of the moral and financial pressures Henry tries to bring into play. Not only has Henry taken Laura’s goodwill for granted for so many years, but he has also managed to be careless with her capital, effectively reducing her inheritance by half.

So, reduced circumstances and all, Laura heads off to Great Mop where she must now take rooms in a cottage run by a somewhat idiosyncratic landlady, Mrs Leak. It is here in the unfettered realm of the countryside that Laura is able to rediscover herself, finding freedom and independence in the most unexpected of sources. Without wishing to give too much away, the village holds a secret, one that enables Laura to unleash an element of her psyche that has been lying dormant for years just waiting to be released.

Lolly Willowes is a lovely story of a woman’s need for independence, to carve out a life of her own without the interference of those who think they know better. (Interestingly, it predates Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by three years.) I couldn’t help but root for Laura in her quest for fulfilment and pleasure, all the more so given her resilient personality.

The fantastical elements in the last third of the book are nicely done, encouraging the reader to go with the flow at the appropriate moments – and there are some beautiful passages of descriptive writing too, especially in the author’s portrayal of the natural world.

The slope before her was dotted with close-fitting juniper bushes, and presently she saw a rabbit steal out from one of these, twitch its ears, and scamper off. The cloud which covered the sky was no longer a solid thing. It was rising, and breaking up into swirls of vapor that yielded to the wind. The growing day washed them with silver. (p. 184)

The book is not without its touches of humour here and there, particularly in the scenes between Laura and her family when she makes her intentions clear – an element which adds to the enjoyment of Laura’s transformation.

So, all in all, another very satisfying read for me. Highly recommended if you’re willing to embrace a little magic and mischief.

My edition of Lolly Willowes was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been trying to read from my shelves over the past year or so, limiting the acquisition of ‘new’ books in favour of reading older titles from my TBR. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights has been sitting there for some time, patiently waiting for its moment in the sun (or maybe I should say ‘the glow of autumn’ as we are in October now).

It’s a difficult book to describe – part fiction, part memoir, Sleepless Nights blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In terms of style and form, the closest comparison I can think of is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a wonderful book that blew me away with its shimmering vignettes and episodes from the narrator’s life.

Like Speedboat, Hardwick’s book doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. Instead, we are presented with a series of fragments from a woman’s life, the recollections of journeys undertaken, of people encountered and situations observed. The writing has a poetic quality, rich with vivid images with the ability to linger in the mind.

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist. The phlox bloomed in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seemed to be passing away. Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock. (p. 5)

While at first, the individual fragments may seem somewhat unconnected, there is a sort of framing device at work here. As the narrative opens, a ‘broken old woman’ – also named Elizabeth – living in a shabby nursing home is looking back over the years that have gone before.

Over the course of her life, Elizabeth travels from her home in Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, and then to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there are various relationships with men along the way. We learn of Elizabeth’s first lover at the age of eighteen, a casual, romantic figure twelve years her senior. There are other affairs too, perhaps most notably with Alex, a rather vain man in possession of a certain charm. Following the break-up of a long-term relationship with a different lover, Elizabeth reflects on the nature of their bond – in essence, what it can mean for a man and a woman to be joined together in this way.

I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business. (p. 51)

One of the most evocative sections of the book captures Elizabeth’s memories of her time in New York: the sleazy atmosphere of the Hotel Schuyler where she shared rooms with a friend; the smoky jazz clubs of the city, often characterised by their rapidly changing owners; and the magnetic presence of Billie Holliday, a woman drawn to self-destruction like a moth to a flame.

The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. (p. 31)

There are other memories too, reflections on Elizabeth’s father and mother, their values and characteristics. Stories of friends, acquaintances and lovers light up the pages, all coming together to form an intriguing collage or scrapbook of the protagonist’s life.

In the following passage, Elizabeth recalls her former neighbour, Miss Cramer, an old music teacher who has fallen on hard times. Once elegant and self-assured, Miss Cramer is now a dishevelled and sorry presence in her torn canvas shoes and thin dress – following the death of her elderly mother, the advent of poverty was swift and destructive.

Poverty for the autocrat came like a bulldozer, gouging out her pretentions, her musical education, her trips to Bayreuth. The mother died, summers vanished, the voices were silent. Out of the apartment went the piano and the trash of two and a half decades., brilliant American, English, and European trash. Miss Cramer moved down the street, and the move was a descent on the roller coaster, hair flying, trinkets ripped off the ears and the fingers, heart pounding and head filled with a strange gust of air, which was never again released and seemed to be still blowing about behind the brow, rippling the dark eyelashes. (pp. 46-47)

The narrative is also laced with a number of perceptions and insights, particularly those on the status of women and their standing relative to men. There are observations on the ease with which society can define a woman by her relationship with a man, almost as if she has little identity or agency of her own. In this fragment, Elizabeth considers the nature of life for spinsters, reflecting that a form of spinsterhood may even exist within marriage – for some women at least.

The paradox of the woman who reaches her true spinsterhood only after she is at last married and settled. She takes command and reaches a state of dominating dependency to which only she has the clue. How confident her reign, how skillful the solitary diplomacy, the ordering of the future and control of the present. She gathers in revenues and makes dispensations, carefully, never forgetting that she is alone. (p. 20)

Like Adler’s book, Sleepless Nights was first published in the late 1970s, and its slightly detached tone leaves me wondering whether this was some kind of reflection of the sense of unease in the US at the time. It’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, there is a fluidity and luminosity to Hardwick’s prose that makes her novel a real pleasure to read. There is a dreamlike quality to the overall feel of the book, akin to the way in which seemingly unconnected fragments or shards of memories seem to emerge from nowhere to flow through the mind. All in all, this is a beautiful, elegant read to stimulate the senses.

I’ve posted this review today to coincide with Lizzy’s NYRB Classics fortnight which is running from 1st– 14th October. You can find out more about it via the link.

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor – stories from The Blush

I’ve been reading some of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories over the last month or so, dipping in and out of her collections in between novels and other things. Even though I already had some of the old green Viragos, I couldn’t resist buying this beautiful NYRB edition of a selection of her stories curated by Margaret Drabble. The NYRB – You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There – comprises twenty-nine stories from different phases of Taylor’s career including seven from her 1958 collection The Blush. These are the stories I’m going to cover in this piece. (I’ve already written about her earlier collection, Hester Lilly – link here.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written before about my admiration for Taylor – in particular, her ability to capture a character in one or two perfectly judged sentences. In almost every case, these individuals are drawn in such a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns.

Even though these stories were written sixty years ago, the emotions they portray are still universally recognisable today. Here we see people facing up to dashed dreams, acute social embarrassment and the realities of their lonely, marginalised lives.

In The Blush, a respectable middle-class woman, Mrs Allen, gets inadvertently drawn into the private life of her daily help, the ever-grumbling Mrs Lacey. It is only when Mrs Allen receives a visit from the woman’s husband that the depth of Mrs Lacey’s deception of those around her becomes truly apparent.

He was a man utterly, bewilderedly at sea. His married life had been too much for him, with so much in it that he could not understand. (p. 117)

This is an interesting story, quite short but very effective.

Next up we have The Letter-Writers, which is probably my favourite piece here. In this story, a lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing letters to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – at a distance he had seemed so approachable and attentive.

As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again?

She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might. In ten years there had been no inadvertent hurts of rivalry, jealousy, or neglect. It had not occurred to either to wonder if the other would sometimes cease to write; the letters would come as surely as the sun.

“But will they now?” Emily was wondering now. (p. 123)

Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end. One of Taylor’s best, I suspect.

In a somewhat similar vein, we have Summer Schools, a story that focuses on the experiences of two middle-aged sisters who live together but who seem to have very little in common. The emptiness and quiet tragedies of their respective lives are thrown into sharp relief when they take separate holidays, neither of which live up to their hopes or expectations.

In The Rose, the Mauve, the White, three young girls – all friends from school – attend a formal dance. As the plainest of the three, Frances feels the most exposed – the embarrassment of being left on the sidelines as her friends are whirled around the dancefloor is all too acute.

Frances had attached herself to Charles and Natalie, so that she would not seem to leave the floor alone; but she knew that Mrs Pollard had seen her standing there by the door, without a partner, and for the last waltz of all things. To be seen by her hostess in such a predicament underlined her failure.

“Did you enjoy it, Frances?” Myra asked. And wasn’t that the only way to put her question, Frances thought, the one she was so very anxious to know— “Did you dance much?” (pp.170-171)

Other stories feature a pair of newlyweds whose first night together is scuppered by the husband’s fondness for drink; a young girl whose best friend is now married to her father, thereby putting both girls in very difficult positions at home; and a young girl who ends up making a massive faux-pas at an important function.

While much of the subject matter may sound very melancholy, there are flashes of dark humour in quite a few of these stories – particularly The Blush, The Letter-Writers and Perhaps a Family Failing (that’s the one about the newlyweds). Taylor’s ability to balance these tones so effectively is one of her key strengths.

In summary, these are beautifully understated stories full of insight, nuance and compassion. Overall, The Blush seems to be a stronger, more even collection of pieces than Hester Lilly, which may be a reflection of Taylor’s development as a writer. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction and short stories in general.

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There is published by NYRB Classics, The Blush by Virago; personal copies.

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

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 narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.