Tag Archives: Penguin Books

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Back in September last year, I read an early Anita Brookner, Providence (1982), a novel I loved for its central characterisation and sensitive portrayal of life’s disappointments both large and small. By rights, I should have begun with her debut novel, A Start in Life (1981), but it wasn’t available at the time – hence the decision to go with Providence instead. Having just finished A Start in Life, I would have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to Brookner’s style and themes. In some ways, it is a richer novel than Providence, more rounded and fleshed out. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

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As A Start in Life opens, Ruth Weiss, a forty-year-old academic and expert on the women in Balzac’s novels, is looking back on her life, the striking opening lines setting the tone for the story that follows.

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. (p. 7)

Interestingly, the balance between the relative merits of pursuing a path of virtue vs. one of vice is a central theme in the novel – more on this point a little later in the review.

Winding back to Ruth’s childhood at the family home in West London, the picture is somewhat unconventional and chaotic. Ruth’s mother, Helen, a relatively successful actress (at least at first) is beautiful, spoilt, lazy and self-centred, a high-spirited woman who spares little thought for the future. By contrast, Ruth’s father, George, a dealer in rare books, devotes much of his time and energy to keeping his wife happy, enacting his role as Helen’s charming and attentive husband. Neither of them seems to have much time for Ruth whose care is largely entrusted to George’s mother, the elderly Mrs Weiss, who also shares the family home. Mrs Weiss is under no illusions about the rather feckless nature of her son’s wife. Moreover, she is concerned that Helen and George’s childlike behaviour and ‘facile love-play’ will damage Ruth in some way. As such, she does her best to maintain the household, looking out for the young girl wherever possible.

Unfortunately for Ruth, the situation deteriorates when Mrs Weiss dies, a development that prompts Helen to ‘get a woman in’ to look after the house. The housekeeper in question is Mrs Cutler, ‘a wry, spry widow, quick to take offence’. Mrs Cutler is a wonderful gossipy creation, and there are some priceless scenes as she begins to insert herself into the lives of Helen and George, always mindful of how to play the situation to her full advantage. Ruth, for her part, is pretty much left to her own devices as the household rapidly goes to pot.

As the years slip by, Helen starts to go downhill fairly dramatically. No longer in work, her looks begin to fade along with her previous zest for life, points that become abundantly clear to George when he catches Helen in one of her private moments.

The bones of her shoulders were sharply outlined. Her wedding ring was loose and sometimes she took it off. Her red hair was now a secret between herself and her hairdresser, and on the days when she was due to have it done she found the atmosphere in the streets threatening. Eventually, Mrs Cutler, the Hoover abandoned in the middle of the floor, would take her, leaving George to finish whatever work she had or had not been doing. On their return, both women would pronounce themselves exhausted, and Helen would retire to bed, where she knew she looked her best. George, harassed, would join her for a drink. Helen’s blue eyes, more prominent now in their pronounced sockets, would gaze out of the window with a wistful and ardent expression, her thoughts winging to past triumphs, part travels, past love affairs. George, looking at her in these unguarded moments, would be shocked to see how quickly she had aged. (p. 36)

George, for his part, finds solace in the company of Sally Jacobs, the widow who buys his book business, as a growing dependency develops between the two.

Meanwhile, Ruth begins to carve out a daily routine for herself. By now she is studying literature at one of the London Universities, living at home again after a brief and somewhat disastrous attempt to break away on her own in a room near the King’s Road – her dedicated attempt to woo an attractive fellow student, Richard, with a romantic dinner for two having ended in crushing disappointment. There are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon, library work in the evenings. In some ways, the relative safety/security of the University environment feels like more of a home to Ruth than her family residence in Oakwood Court. It’s a lonely existence, but it could be worse. Nevertheless, as Ruth reflects on her studies of Balzac, she begins to question whether there is more to life. Is the pursuit of a life of goodness and virtue the best path to the discovery of true love? Surely a little Balzacian opportunism wouldn’t go amiss for Ruth too?

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her dissertation on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can more easily be appraised when they are dead and gone. (p. 136)

Once again, Ruth attempts to add a little freedom, romance and excitement to her days. She secures a scholarship for a year in Paris to further her studies in Balzac, with the ultimate intention of visiting some of the places depicted in his novels. During her time in the capital, Ruth begins to live a little, albeit relatively briefly. She meets a bohemian English couple who take her under their wing, encouraging her to improve her image with a smart new haircut and fashionable clothes. Before long, Ruth falls for a literature professor, a married man who treats her kindly, even though their time together is somewhat limited. She longs for an opportunity to be alone with him in a private place, almost a hope against hope given her previous attempt at romance as a student in London. (I love this next quote; it feels like vintage Brooker.)

If only she could sit with him in a room, quietly, talking. If only she could wait for him in some place of her own, hear his footsteps approaching. If she could cook for him, make him comfortable, make him laugh. More than that, she knew, she could not expect. Can anyone? She still measured her efforts and her experience against her disastrous failure with Richard, remembering her expectations and the reality that had destroyed them. That reality had made her wary. Disappointment was now built into any hope she might have had left. But so far Duplessis had not disappointed her. (p. 130)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Ruth never quite manages to break free from the demands of her parents as a mercy call from home cuts short her time in Paris.

A Start in Life is a really terrific debut, beautifully written and brilliantly observed. The characterisation is superb – not just in the creation of Ruth, but the other leading players too. In many ways, the novel explores the classic Anita Brookner territory of fading hopes and dashed dreams as happiness and fulfilment remain somewhat out of reach. I strongly suspect there is a lot of Brookner herself in the character of Ruth Weiss, a rather fragile woman who seems destined to experience significant loneliness and disappointment in her life. In many respects, Ruth is constrained by the demands of those around her, frequently bending to the will of others to the detriment of her own desires. There appear to be some parallels between Ruth’s situation and that of Balzac’s heroine, Eugénie Grandet, so much so that I am sure a familiarity with Balzac’s work (and this book in particular) would bring another dimension to the experience of reading of A Start in Life.

Before I finish, a few words on the novel’s tone. While Ruth’s story is shot through with a delicate sense of sadness, this is beautifully balanced by Brookner’s dry wit and keen eye for a humorous situation. (In this respect, I was reminded of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly The Soul of Kindness which I reviewed back in January.) There are some marvellous scenes involving Helen, George and their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, a woman who always seems to have a cigarette on the go. I’ll finish with a quote which I hope captures something of this tone. Mrs Cutler is imagining her future life running a care home with Leslie Dunlop, a man she has met through a dating agency.

She saw herself in the Lurex two-piece she had bought in the sales, being absolutely charming to some old dear while her husband hovered cheerily in the background. ‘My husband will take care of it,’ she would say. ‘You will have to speak to my husband about that.’ They would make an ideal pair. After all, if she could look after Helen, she could look after a few more. And they had nurses, didn’t they? She sent Leslie back to Folkestone with instructions to make enquiries at all likely establishments along the coast. Then she nipped back to the Black Lion and had two gins to steady her nerves after her momentous afternoon. (p. 114)

A Start in Life is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review 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.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

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

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

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

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

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

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

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

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

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

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

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

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

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

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

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

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

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

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

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

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

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

Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope

Last December I couldn’t resist buying a couple of these lovely Penguin Christmas Classics with their beautiful covers and decorative endpapers – they make wonderful gifts. Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories – my first read in the series – brings together five short stories by Anthony Trollope, all with a seasonal theme. Shot through with the author’s customary insight into the dynamics of human relationships, these stories mostly depict the English middle classes and gentry of the Victorian era, their lives governed by the social conventions of the time.

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The book opens with the titular story, which happens to be one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Having grown accustomed to spending their winters in the South of France, Mr and Mrs Brown are travelling back to England for a family gathering at Thompson Hall in Stratford. Mrs Brown’s younger sister is to be married, and this will be the couple’s first opportunity to meet the girl’s fiancé in person. With her fondness for the traditions of the season, Mrs Brown is eager to get to Thompson Hall in time for Christmas Eve. Her husband, however, seems reluctant to make the trip for fear of aggravating his weak chest and throat, a condition which prompts the couple to break their journey to spend the night in Paris. When his wife asks him if there is anything she can do to relieve his suffering, Mr Brown identifies just the thing – the application of a mustard compress to the throat is sure to be of great help. (As it turns out, Mr B is something of a hypochondriac.)

Down in the salon he had seen a large jar of mustard standing on a sideboard. As he left the room he had observed that this had not been withdrawn with the other appurtenances of the meal. If she could manage to find her way down there, taking with her a handkerchief folded for the purpose, and if she could then appropriate a part of the contents of that jar, and returning with her prize, apply it to his throat, he thought that he could get some relief, so that he might be able to leave his bed the next morning at five. “But I am afraid it will be very disagreeable for you to go down all alone at this time of night,” he croaked out in a piteous whisper.

“Of course I’ll go,” she said. “I don’t mind going in the least. Nobody will bite me,” and she at once began to fold a clean handkerchief. “I won’t be two minutes, my darling, and if there is a grain of mustard in the house I’ll have it on your chest immediately.” (pp. 7-8)

What follows is a hilarious sequence of white lies, misunderstandings and coincidences, all of which culminates in a most embarrassing predicament for Mrs Brown. To say any more might spoil the story – this is a wonderful piece, one that makes an excellent introduction to the collection.

Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage is a beautifully observed story of the dynamics between two young lovers who are drawn together over the festive season. While Isabel Lownd, the daughter of the household, and Maurice Archer, a ward of the family, clearly have feelings for one another, a disagreement over their respective views of Christmas leads to a bit of an impasse. One of the joys of this piece is the interplay between Isabel and Maurice as they try to hold their respective positions, hiding their true feelings for one another in the process.

Why had Isabel made herself so disagreeable, and why had she perked up her head as she left the room in that self-sufficient way, as though she was determined to show him that she did not want his assistance? Of course, she had understood well enough that he had not intended to say that the ceremonial observance of the day was a bore. He had spoken of the beef and the pudding, and she had chosen to pretend to misunderstand him. He would not go near the church. And as for his love, and his half-formed resolution to make her his wife, he would get over it altogether. If there were one thing more fixed with him than another, it was that on no consideration would he marry a girl who should give herself airs. (p. 77)

This is a gentle story of misunderstandings, pride, generosity and the true spirit of Christmas, another fine addition to the collection.

The Mistletoe Bough has much in common with the previous piece, set as it is in the home of another English family coming together over the festive season. Central to the story are two young sweethearts, Elizabeth Garrow, and her former fiancé, Godfrey Holmes. Some months earlier, a disagreement between the pair caused their brief engagement to come to an end; nevertheless, Elizabeth remains very much in love with Godfrey even if she refuses to admit it. Once again, Trollope illustrates his skills in portraying the dynamics of human relationships. I particularly like Trollope’s depiction of the women in these stories as he seems genuinely interested in their thoughts and feelings. Here’s a short quote from a conversation between the couple in question – Godfrey is the first to speak.

“In marriage should not the man and woman adapt themselves to each other?”

“When they are married, yes; and every girl who thinks of marrying should know that in very much she must adapt herself to her husband. But I do not think a woman should be the ivy, to take the direction of every branch of the tree to which she clings. If she does so, what can be her own character?” (p. 148)

While the outcome of this story is somewhat predictable, it is nevertheless an engaging read.

The Two Generals is rather different from the other pieces in this collection. Set in Kentucky in the early 1860s, this is the story of a family fractured by the divisions of the American Civil War. It features a father and his two sons: Tom, the elder of the boys, a Southern gentleman who has profited from the presence of slave labour on his land; and Frank, the younger son, a member of the National Army and supporter of the North. The two brothers end up joining opposing sides in the war – Tom for the Confederacy, Frank for the Union – a situation which creates significant tension within the family. (Tom has already claimed that he will not hesitate to shoot his own brother should he come face to face with him on the battlefield.) Furthermore, both brothers are in love with the same woman, Ada Forster, a distant relative of the family who also happens to live in their house. Somewhat surprisingly given her Yankee sympathies, Ada is engaged to Tom; Frank, with his strong conviction to the principles of the Union, remains ever hopeful of winning her hand. To a certain extent, the narrative plays out as the brothers return home over successive Christmases while the war continues to rage on their doorstep. This is an excellent story, one of the highlights here.

The book closes with Not If I Know It, the shortest and least memorable piece in the collection. It centres on a disagreement between two brothers-in-law, something that could have been resolved fairly quickly and easily. Once again, misunderstandings, unnecessary pride and bruised feelings all play a role here, but in this instance the characters seem thinly sketched compared to those in the other stories.

Overall, this is a most enjoyable collection, one that would make a fine introduction to Trollope’s style. Ali has also reviewed this book here.

Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories is published by Penguin Books.

Providence by Anita Brookner

Anita Brooker is another of those writers I’ve been meaning to read or revisit for a while. I liked her Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. That said, my tastes in literature have changed quite substantially since the days of my early twenties when I was young and carefree and too foolish to know any better. Now that I’ve come to appreciate the work of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, I thought it would be a good time to try Brookner again, all the more so given her passing in March of this year. (Julian Barnes wrote a beautiful piece about her for The Guardian, which you can read here.) Anyway, to cut a long intro short, I really loved Providence (Brookner’s second novel, first published in 1982), so much so that I’d like a few more of her early books over the next year or two.

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I suspect there is a reasonable degree of Brookner herself in Kitty Maule, the central character in this short but subtle novel of life’s hopes, expectations and various misfortunes. Kitty, an intelligent, sensitive and presentable young woman in her thirties, lives on her own in a flat near Chelsea. By her own admission, Kitty is somewhat difficult to place, her father having died shortly before she was born, and her mother some three years ago. Fortunately for Kitty, she is not entirely alone in the world. Her French grandmother, the dressmaker Maman Louise, and her grandfather, Vadim, have lived in London ever since they moved to the city shortly after their marriage several decades earlier.

Kitty works as a college tutor in literature, her key area of focus being literature in the Romantic Tradition. For some time she has been harbouring hopes of a budding romance with one of her colleagues, the rather passive and thoughtless Maurice Bishop, one of the key players in her department. Maurice, however, seems rather reluctant to commit. While he is happy to drop round to Kitty’s flat for the occasional dinner of an evening, Maurice demonstrates very little in the way of warmth or affection for her. In many ways, I thought him a rather selfish man in spite of a broken relationship in his past. It turns out that Maurice is still rather emotionally attached to Lucy, the childhood sweetheart whom he had hoped to marry. Alas, Lucy’s faith and calling in life intervened and so the marriage wasn’t to be. At least that’s what Maurice tells Kitty one evening when they are together in her flat. Kitty, for her part, cannot help but wish for something more in her life. She is tired of being admired for her sensible nature and professional expertise. In short, she wants to feel loved and cherished.

But I want more, she thought, blowing her nose resolutely. I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet. I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable, I do not want to do wonders with Professor Redmile’s group, I do not even care what happens to Larter. I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook, she thought, turning the tap with full force on to a bowl rusted with the stains of her fresh tomato soup. I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful. I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding present. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (pp. 59-60)

As the novel unfolds, we gain an insight into the other aspects of Kitty’s life: the occasional visits to her grandparents complete with Maman Louise’s devotion to making dresses and various outfits for her to wear; Kitty’s tutorials on Constant’s novel Adolphe, a text which I feel sure would add another layer to the nature of her relationship with Maurice; and perhaps most significantly, Kitty’s interactions with her two closest friends – her rather annoying but kindly neighbour, Caroline, and her academic colleague and fellow spinster, Pauline. Deep down in her heart of hearts, Kitty knows that she may well end up like Pauline, a lonely woman cut adrift from so many pleasures in life while she cares for her blind mother. On a visit to Pauline’s cottage, Kitty gets a glimpse of what her own life might come to if things don’t change for the better very soon. (This is a long quote, but it is worth reading in full.)

Kitty felt a pang of pain for her. She comes here every night, even in the darkest winter, she said to herself. There is no one for her to talk to. She has to make arrangements for people to come in and see to her mother during the day. And when her mother dies, what will she do? Probably go on living in the same place, even lonelier. And she knows all this. She is too clever not to know. She is what is called a liberated woman, thought Kitty. The kind envied by captive housewives. She felt an urgent need to put her own life into some sort order, to ensure that she did not turn out like Caroline or like Pauline, the one so stupid, the other so intelligent, and both so bereft. She saw her two friends, who would have nothing to say to each other if they should ever meet, as casualties of the same conflict, as losers in the war in which Providence was deemed to play so large a part, and to determine the outcome, for some, not for others. (pp. 80-81)

In her yearning for Maurice, Kitty’s pursuit takes her on a somewhat fruitless trip to France, a period of waiting alone in a guest house while the love of her life takes in the cathedrals of the country. At home in London, she is persuaded to consult a clairvoyant in the hope of discovering some positive news about her potential future and related matters of the heart.

Even though I’m still quite new to Brookner, I strongly suspect that Providence is highly representative of much of her work. It’s a quiet, beautifully observed novel about the disappointments in life, both large and small, the crumbling of those hopes and dreams that many of us hold dear. I felt a great death of empathy and sympathy for Kitty as her somewhat inevitable story played out across the pages of this book. In some ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek in its precision and insight into the inner life of a woman whose life remains unfulfilled. The central characterisation is excellent, Kitty in particular. Moreover, there is much warmth and compassion in Brookner’s portrayal of the grandparents, Louise and Vadim. There’s a lovely scene in which Kitty takes the elderly couple out for the afternoon, a trip that warms their hearts.

I loved this book and would recommend it as a suitable point of entry (or re-entry) into Brookner’s work. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a gateway novel for me.

Providence is published by Penguin Books. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

#ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts

Well, what a busy week it’s been for #ReadingRhys! When I canvassed interest in the concept of a Jean Rhys Reading Week earlier this year, I had no idea that it would gather quite so much momentum in such a short space of time. It’s been truly wonderful to see the level of interest in reading Rhys’ work both amongst new readers and those already familiar with her unique style.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Eric at Lonesome Reader for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable co-host for the week – his insights into Jean Rhys and her work have been truly enlightening. Thanks also to Poppy at poppy peacock pens and Margaret at New Edition for taking a lead in reviewing and contributing to the discussions on a few of Rhys’ books as part of the week. Do visit their blogs if you haven’t done so already as they’re definitely worth a look. Thanks to Andy Miller (author of The Year of Reading Dangerously and co-host of the Backlisted podcast) for kindly speaking to me about Rhys – I couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic advocate of her work. Finally, and most importantly, a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has participated in the Reading Week, either by posting a review, sharing thoughts via Twitter, contributing to the discussions on blogs, GoodReads or social media, or simply by reading one of her books – the level of engagement has been terrific. Just for a bit of fun, I’ve collated together a selection of tweets from the week, mainly pictures, quotes and responses from various readers – you can view them here via Storify.

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By way of a wrap-up, here’s a list of all the new reviews/articles posted as part of the JR Reading Week – if I’ve missed any posts, do let me know in the comments and I’ll add a link. Plenty to explore here, so do take a look if you’re interested. (I haven’t collated links to the various archive reviews as I fear this would take me until Christmas!)

The Left Bank and Other Stories – 1927

Quartet (originally published as Postures) – 1928

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie 1930

Voyage in the Dark – 1934

Good Morning, Midnight – 1939

Wide Sargasso Sea – 1966

Tigers Are Better-Looking – 1968 

Sleep It Off, Lady – 1976

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography – 1979

Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-66 – 1984

Other posts

A number of things struck me during the week, especially in relation to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and the short stories, my main areas of focus for the event. Firstly, Rhys’ wonderful use of imagery as a way of creating mood and emotion. Several people commented on this during the week, and it was interesting to see the following passage cropping up more than once in reviews of Mr Mackenzie:

But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa stood for the act.

Secondly, there is Rhys’ ability to create and convey character. Much has been said about Julia Martin, a figure who elicited mixed opinions among the various readers of this book. While some people saw her as vulnerable women with limited options in life, others viewed her as rather feckless and self-centred – a woman with a strong sense of entitlement for want of a better phrase. To me she seems like a woman deserving of our understanding and compassion, another of Rhys’ women trapped by circumstances and the cruelty of life. I particularly liked Grant’s comments on Julia. Here’s a brief passage from his review.

Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost. (Grant on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie)

While it is natural to view Rhys’ fiction as bleak and melancholy, a number of people picked up on the undercurrent of wry humour in her work, not just in the novels, but in the stories too. Staying with Rhys’ short fiction, other readers highlighted some of the parallels between these pieces and certain elements of the writer’s own life. In some ways, her stories read like little vignettes, dealing as they do with the marginalisation of women and the perpetual fragility of lives lived on the edge. As Marina put it, where Rhys succeeds so brilliantly is in her ability to take a certain experience from her own world and heighten it, “polishing it until it catches the light of universality.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons why her work remains so relevant today; the emotions are timeless. All the elements of Rhys’ fiction are here in miniature: the feeling of being the perpetual outsider; the fear of poverty and the constant scrabble for money; the importance of clothes in these women’s lives; the near constant dependence on men. There are many more.

Finally, I couldn’t finish without mentioning a few of the descriptions of Rhys’ work which stayed with me throughout the week. A couple of people quite rightly described Rhys as a poet, someone who gave a voice to the sole woman, the lonely outsider whose very existence hangs by a thread. All three succeeded in capturing something of the essence of this unique writer.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. (Marina on Smile Please & Sleep It Off, Lady)

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. (Max on Voyage in the Dark)

Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. (Ali on Good Morning Midnight)

Eric, Poppy and Margaret have also posted few closing thoughts on Rhys’ other works as part of their wrap-ups for the week, so please do take a look at their blogs. (Note: Poppy’s summary to follow.)

All that remains is for us to reveal the winner of our prize for making a significant contribution to the week. We’re delighted to announce that the winner is Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for his brilliant post on Teaching Rhys. Congratulations Dorian – a special bundle of Rhys’ books will be on its way to you shortly. Many thanks to Penguin for their generosity and support of the reading week – it is very much appreciated.

The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys

Earlier this week I posted a piece about Tigers Are Better-Looking, a set of short stories by Jean Rhys – the book was first published in 1968 even though many of the pieces were in fact written much earlier (during the 1940s and ‘50s, I believe). Wednesday’s post looked at the eight stories in the first section of the book. My 1987 Penguin edition of Tigers also includes nine pieces from Rhys’ first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, a collection of sketches and vignettes published in 1927. It is now widely considered that these Left Bank pieces (along with her early novels) were significantly ahead of their time in terms of style, tone and theme. The Left Bank itself is currently out of print, but I managed to get hold of a relatively rare copy by way of an inter-library loan. It’s a fascinating book, all the more so because it’s possible to see the origins of some of Rhys’ themes and preoccupations in these early sketches.

As you may know by now, Penguin will be publishing Jean Rhys’ Collected Short Stories in March 2017 – this volume will include all the stories from her three collections, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). A hugely exciting development for fans of Jean Rhys!

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In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the nine ‘Left Bank’ sketches which appear in editions of Tigers – these pieces form the second section of the book.

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In Illusion, one of my favourite stories in this section, the narrator tells us about her friend, Miss Bruce, a portrait painter from Britain who has been living in Paris for the past seven years. To all intents and purposes, Miss Bruce appears untouched by the beauty and indulgences of life in the French capital. Eschewing anything frivolous in favour of a sensible tweed suit and brown shoes, her one concession to Paris is a touch of powder on her nose.

One day, a more surprising side of this lady’s character emerges. When Miss Bruce falls ill and is taken to hospital, her friend thinks she might need some things from her room, a couple of nightgowns and a comb or a brush. But when she opens Miss Bruce’s wardrobe, the narrator is astonished to find an array of beautiful dresses, gowns of every colour, ‘a riot of soft silks’. This discovery reveals a quest both for the perfect dress and for the transformation it might help to furnish. In essence, the contents of this wardrobe represent the search for an illusion.

Then must have begun the search for the dress, the perfect Dress, beautiful, beautifying, possible to be worn. And lastly, the search for illusion – a craving, almost a vice, the stolen waters and the bread eaten in secret of Miss Bruce’s life. (p. 143)

Mannequin features a typical Rhys protagonist. It focuses on Anna – a fragile, delicate girl, her hair ‘flamingly and honestly red’ – who goes for an interview as a mannequin in a Paris salon. Having gained the approval of the vendeuse, Anna is engaged to model the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. Her salary is a pittance, but as a beginner she can scarcely expect anything more. At first, everything seems strange and alien to Anna; the atmosphere is efficient if somewhat hectic.

In the mannequins’ dressing-room she spent a shy hour making up her face – in an extraordinary and distinctive atmosphere of slimness and beauty; white arms and faces vivid with rouge; raucous voices and the smell of cosmetics; silken lingerie. Coldly critical glances were bestowed upon Anna’s reflection in the glass. None of them looked at her directly…A depressing room, taken by itself, bare and cold, a very inadequate conservatory for these human flowers. (p. 150)

In time though, Anna meets the other eleven mannequins; each of the twelve has her own distinct style and individual look.

Despite the coldness of that passage quoted above and a few wobbles for Anna along the way, Mannequin is pretty upbeat for a Rhys story. It finishes on a fairly optimistic note as the young girl feels a sense of connection to the Paris, this ‘great maddening city’ that is her home.

The appropriately titled Hunger features a woman teetering on the edge of a precipice. Breakfast consists of coffee, and if she is lucky, there might be some bread for lunch. It is not uncommon for her to go without food for several days. In this story, the narrator describes how she feels as the days of starvation pass by. It’s tremendously powerful stuff.

On the second day you have a bad headache. You feel pugnacious. You argue all day with an invisible and sceptical listener. (p. 169)

It is like being suspended over a precipice. You cling for dear life with people walking on your fingers. Women do not only walk : they stamp. (p. 170)

A couple of the stories are rooted in the Caribbean. Mixing Cocktails draws on the languid dreams of a young girl, a childhood spent in the heat of the sun. Set in Dominica, Again the Antilles tells of a quarrel between a newspaper editor – a born rebel embittered by the colour of his skin, he is neither black nor white – and a local landowner/producer. Both of these pieces are brief sketches.

The collection ends with two longer pieces, the first of which, La Grosse Fifi, is set in a gloomy hotel on the French Riviera. This story focuses on two women, both of whom are staying there: a somewhat melancholy lady named Roseau and a rather large woman by the name of Fifi.

Fifi was not terrific except metaphorically, but she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with a rakish sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast, and her voice was hoarse though there was nothing but Vichy water in her glass. (p. 173)

One of Roseau’s acquaintances considers Fifi to be a bit of an old tart (this woman certainly stands out from the crowd). He makes fun of Fifi, laughing at her appearance and her gentleman friend, a young gigolo by the name of Pierre Rivière. Roseau, on the other hand, thinks rather fondly of Fifi, especially as the woman comes to her aid one night when she is feeling rather tired and bruised by life. Fifi’s presence is comforting to Roseau; in some ways, it makes her feel protected and strengthened. I don’t want to say too much more about this piece; it might spoil it, I think. What I will say is that it ends with a mix of emotions, a dramatic development adding a touch of poignancy to Fifi’s story.

The final piece, Vienne, is arguably the most ambitious in the collection. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes, snapshots of central Europe in a certain era. Narrated by Francine, a young woman in her twenties, it follows a young couple’s travels from Vienna to Budapest to Prague in the early part of the 20th century (more specifically the 1920s, I think). Having made his fortune on the exchange, Pierre has plenty of money to spend on Francine, at least at first; there are cars, a chauffeur, clothes, and jewellery, everything a woman could want. Nevertheless, in spite of living the high life, Francine has a terrible presentiment of danger ahead; in the knowledge that she will never be able to cope with being poor again, her mind races at the prospect.

Not to be poor again. No and No and No.

So darned easy to plan that – and always at the last moment – one is afraid. Or cheats oneself with hope.

I can still do this and this. I can still clutch at that or that.

So-and-So will help me.

How you fight, cleverly and well at first, then more wildly – then hysterically.

I can’t go down. I won’t go down. Help me, help me!

Steady – I must be clever. So-and-So will help.

But So-and-So smiles a worldly smile.

You get nervous. He doesn’t understand, I’ll make him –

But So-and-So’s eyes grow cold. You plead. (p. 202)                   

And so it continues in this vein.

When everything comes crashing down, as it inevitably must, the pair make their escape to Prague. This is a wonderful story packed with little sketches and vivid images of life in Vienna, Budapest, and the journey from Hungary to Czechoslovakia as it was then.

Like some of the later pieces from Tigers, one or two of these early Left Bank stories include snatches of stream of consciousness – you can see it in the passage from Vienne quoted above. In The Left Bank stories, Rhys’ themes are perhaps a little broader than those she mines in Tigers. Alongside the pieces which explore the loneliness of the outsider, the fear and anxiety of lives lived on the margins, there are other topics too – most notably the central European culture of the day depicted in Vienne.

Rather than repeating some of the ground I covered in my first piece on Tigers, I’ll leave it there. Hopefully these posts will have whetted your appetite for Rhys’ Collected Short Stories which Penguin will be publishing next year. In the meantime, do take a look at Max’s review of La Grosse Fifi and three other stories from The Left Bank.

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For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 2

I’m delighted to welcome back Andy Miller (AM) for the second part of our discussion on the work of Jean Rhys. If you missed the first part, please do take a look as it contains some fascinating insights into Rhys’s appeal, in particular the settings for her books, her unique voice and some of the central themes in her work. You’ll also find a brief account of how Andy came to Rhys’s work in the first place.

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Just to give you some background on Andy, he describes himself as a reader, author and editor of books – his most recent book, The Year of Reading Dangerously, is an account of a year-long expedition through literature: classic, cult and everything in between. Alongside his role as co-host of Backlisted, a series of podcasts designed to give new life to old books, Andy is also the reader in residence at this year’s Durham Literary Festival.

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JW: How do you feel about the characters in Rhys’s work and their relationship with men, this sense of reliance on men – often ex-lovers – for money, dinners and other sustenance too? In many ways, these men are cast as providers of things in these women’s lives.

AM: Let me ask you a question first. What do you think Jean Rhys’s characters want from men?

JW: I have asked myself this a number of times; I wonder if deep down they are searching for some warmth and affection…

AM: Yes, they want to be loved. They don’t want to be outsiders. She articulates the voice of the outsider brilliantly, whilst simultaneously none of those women really want to be that person. I think in their relationships with men, that’s frequently what they want. We know they are scared of men, but they are aware that they need the patronage of men in a way they would prefer not to. There’s that brilliant line from Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS): “I had two longings and one was fighting the other. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to be always alone.”  That for me is one of the emblematic quotes both of the Rhys heroine and of Rhys’s writing. And the same dichotomy applies in her approach to the reader: the desire to pull the reader in and push them away at the same time. She reels you in; she wants you to understand her, but not too much, and on her terms not your terms. And in a sense that’s also true of her female characters’ relationships with the male characters. What do you think? Do you find the male characters two-dimensional?

JW: I wouldn’t necessarily say they are two-dimensional, but I would describe them as flaky. So they want things from these women, but they don’t really want the responsibility that goes with it. I get the impression that all of these men are momentarily fascinated by the Jean Rhys heroine; but then they tire of these women quite quickly and want to distance themselves as soon as possible.

 AM: Yes, that’s also very true of Voyage in the Dark (VITD), that awful seemingly endless dance between the main character, Anna, and a series of men. Anna is basically seduced and rebuffed by 3 or 4 male characters in the course of that book with increasingly disastrous results, each encounter building on the previous one. VITD is such a fantastic book.

JW: Yes, that novel really blew me away. I loved After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (ALMM) when I read it, but I wasn’t prepared for how powerful VITD would be – it just knocked me sideways.

 AM: For me it’s Good Morning, Midnight (GMM), that’s my favourite of Jean Rhys’s books. Actually it’s become one of my favourite novels by anyone. It seems to me like the culmination of the sequence, of the character’s unhappy destiny. And you can open it at almost any page and find something astonishing and beautiful.  There’s a famous phrase at the beginning of GMM: “I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink after dinner. I have arranged my little life.” The weariness of it. “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that’s all any room is.” 

JW: Yes, this overwhelming tiredness with life is very striking. It’s in much of her work from the short stories to the early novels. 

AM: Yes, and one of the other things I like about Rhys, as a writer, there’s an insolence to her work, which I find very appealing. That kind of insolent, almost provocative sense of ‘Reader, I care very deeply but at the same time I don’t give a damn; because to give a damn would be to let you in. Keep your distance.’ Wonderful!

JW: You mentioned earlier that Tigers Are Better-Looking (Tigers) was the one that really made you sit up and take notice of her work. What was it about those stories that made you feel that way? Can you remember what in particular struck you about them? 

AM: Partly it’s like when you listen to a record 3 or 4 times and it takes a while for it to grow on you. By the time I got to Tigers, as I said, I had some experience of Rhys’s writing. I remember specifically reading the third story in Tigers, Let Them Call It Jazz (LTCIJ), and having one of those once-in-a-decade moments of thinking ‘I’ve never read anything as good as this.’ LTCIJ is a story she didn’t like very much, incidentally. And then the story Tigers itself is very good as well – sorry Jean! And that’s followed by Outside the Machine, which is set inside a psychiatric clinic, I think I’m right in saying. And that’s shockingly bleak and brave, that story, it’s extraordinary.

Also, as a writer, you can see when someone has worked and reworked and reworked, which Jean Rhys certainly did. She would write draft after draft, because what she’s aiming for is almost a kind of musical cadence, I think, in the prose. An economy of style that is almost epigrammatic.

JW: There isn’t a word out of place, is there? Nothing superfluous in her writing.

AM: Yes, there’s something about the musical and lyrical nature of the phrasemaking which means you can pick almost any sentence and it will have some internal rhythm that allows it to work out of context too. But we haven’t really talked about how experimental these books are, have we? They are genuinely pioneering in their use of inner voice and fragmented narrative. They’re quite challenging to read now in some ways, so the mind boggles at what it was like picking one of these up in the 1930s.

JW: Yes, at the time they must have been hugely groundbreaking.

AM: Well, they’re groundbreaking, but not noisily so, in the way that we might think of other modernist work from this era, e.g. Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Rhys’s books are quieter, but they are deliberately quieter; and yet as they go on, there’s an experimentalism with chronology and narrative voice, which must have been really challenging, I think, to a reader in the 1930s.

I’ve got a real soft spot for the humorous grump, from Eeyore to Philip Larkin to Morrissey, and I think Jean Rhys is one of those. If someone were to say about her writing: ‘Oh, it’s so miserable,’ with the best will in the world they don’t get it – because it can be miserable, but it’s all these other things as well; not just funny and brave but also formally ambitious and experimental.

JW: We’ve talked about the past, and how the books were received at the time. How relevant do you consider these novels to be in today’s day and age? In other words, what do they have to say to the modern reader? 

AM: There’s that famous definition of a classic by Italo Calvino: ‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. So on one level, I think Rhys is a ‘great writer’ in the classic sense, and therefore everything she wrote is art and art that has something to say to us now, as I would say about any literary artist, Thackeray or Jane Austen or William Burroughs. In Rhys’s case, there is also something about the solitary urban existence that she paints in those ‘30s novels that probably does have something specific to say to people right now. This is something Lauren Elkin talks about in her new book, Flâneuse, about Rhys, and likewise Olivia Laing in her most recent book The Lonely City. So I think Rhys has quite a lot to tell people about that existence, which we perhaps think of as being a uniquely 21st century state of affairs; but I think you can see in that sort of aimless wandering from bar to rented room to never being sure of your position with either men or other women, a kind of loneliness. As Olivia Laing says, loneliness and solitude not being the same thing! But I think Rhys probably has something to say about both.

The fact that she is finding new, enthusiastic readers all the time and you and Eric are running #ReadingRhys is testament to her popularity with modern readers. I wonder what she would make of it all. You know what she said when she won the WH Smith Award for Wide Sargasso Sea, don’t you? “It has come too late.” [LAUGHS]  Very Jean Rhys.

JW: Andy, thank you so much for such an fascinating insight into Rhys’s enduring appeal. It’s been a real pleasure to have your involvement in the Jean Rhys Reading Week.

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We hope you found our discussion of interest – do let us know in the comments below.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my final post for the week, a review of The Left Bank stories.