Tag Archives: Penguin Books

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

Last summer, I read and adored Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s seminal novella about love, jealousy and desire – in essence, the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions. This year I was keen to read her follow-up, the 1956 novella, A Certain Smile – this time in the Irene Ash translation which was rushed out in the same year. (You can read my additional post about Heather Lloyd’s recent translation of Bonjour Tristesse here). In summary, A Certain Smile is the bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth complete with all their intensity and confusion. While I didn’t love A Certain Smile quite as much as Tristesse, I did enjoy it a great deal. It’s a lovely book for the summer, best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side. Perfect reading for #WITMonth (women in translation) which is running throughout August.

The novella is narrated by Dominique, a law student at the Sorbonne, who is experiencing an overwhelming sense of boredom with life. She is bored by her rather immature and petulant boyfriend, Bertrand, by her studies at the University, and at times by the city of Paris itself. Dominique spends her days idling her time away in cafes, listening to records on the jukebox, and generally lolling around. Sagan perfectly captures this sense of ennui, the feelings of listlessness and detachment that stem from a lack of clear purpose in Dominque’s life.

Nevertheless, everything looks set to change for Dominique when Bertrand takes her to meet his Uncle Luc, a businessman and traveller. Luc is older than Bertrand, more self-assured and sophisticated. Naturally, Dominique is instantly attracted to him. In some ways, she sees Luc as a kindred spirit; his expression suggests a certain sadness, a weariness with the world in general.

He had grey eyes and a tired, almost sad expression. In a way he was handsome. (p. 12)

Luc, for his part, is also attracted to Dominque; somewhat unsurprisingly, her youth and freshness prove appealing to him.

To complicate matters further, Luc is married to the charming Françoise, a kind and generous woman who takes Dominique under her wing, buying her clothes and acting as a sort of mother figure in a gentle, subtle way. (In reality, Dominique’s sees little of her own mother who is still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of her son, an event which took place some fifteen years earlier.)

In spite of her fondness for Françoise, Dominque finds herself getting more involved with Luc, especially once he invites her to dine alone with him without Bertrand or Françoise. Dominque knows she is playing a dangerous game here, but what does that matter? This is the most interesting thing to have happened to her in months.

I was young, I liked one man and another was in love with me. I had one of those silly little girlish problems to solve. I was feeling rather important. There was even a married man involved, and another woman: a little play with four characters was taking place in the springtime in Paris. I reduced it all to a lovely dry equation, as cynical as could be. Besides, I felt remarkably sure of myself. I accepted all the unhappiness, the conflict, the pleasure to come; I mockingly accepted it all in advance. (p.29)

In time, Luc asks Dominique to come away with him to the Riviera. He is keen to spend time with her alone, to show her the sea, and to teach her how to feel less inhibited. Even though she knows Luc will return to Françoise at the end of the trip, Dominque accepts his proposal, complete with all its inherent risks and uncertainties. She steels herself to be resilient, deep in the knowledge that Luc will not fall in love with her. It is clear that there have been other affairs in the past, so why should this one be any different?

‘Afterwards I’d go back to Françoise. What do you risk? To get attached to me? To suffer afterwards? But after all, that’s better than being bored. You’d rather be happy and even unhappy than nothing at all, wouldn’t you?’

‘Obviously,’ I replied.

‘Isn’t it true that you’d risk nothing?’ repeated Luc, as if to convince himself.

‘Why talk about suffering?’ I said. ‘One must not exaggerate. I’m not so tender-hearted.’ (p. 47)

Dominique and Luc spend an idyllic fortnight in Cannes, making love and generally enjoying one another’s company. They are united by a common lethargy, a weariness for the day-to-day business of life.

We walked in step, had the same tastes, the same rhythm of life; we liked being together, and all went well between us. I did not even regret too much that he could not make the tremendous effort needed to love someone, to know them, and to dispel their loneliness. We were friends and lovers. […] Sensuality was not the basis of our relationship, but something else, a strange bond that united us against the weariness of playing a part, the weariness of talking, in short: weariness itself. (pp. 64-65)

Somewhat inevitably and in spite of her best intentions, Dominque finds herself falling in love with Luc. She is young and inexperienced in these matters, and her natural emotions soon take over; but when the holiday comes to an end, Luc goes back to Françoise, leaving Dominque on her own in Paris to pick up the pieces.

Everything had turned to dust and ashes. I realized that I was not suited to be the gay paramour of a married man. I loved him. I should have thought of that sooner, or at least have taken it into consideration; the obsession that is love, the agony when it is not satisfied. (p. 101)

This is a book in which emotions are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. The prose is cool, clear and candid, a style that perfectly suits Dominique’s character and the nature of her story, while the mood is free-spirited and oh-so-French – like a Jean-Luc Godard movie or Mia Hansen-Løve’s appropriately-titled 2011 film, Goodbye First Love.

In spite of everything that has gone before, Dominque’s story ends on a more hopeful note. There are moments of brightness earlier in the narrative too, like this scene in which our narrator reflects on Paris, the ‘shining golden city’ that stands apart from so many others. I’ll leave you with this final passage which I loved for its youthful exuberance.

Paris belonged to me: Paris belonged to the unscrupulous, to the irresponsible; I had always felt it, but it had hurt because I was not carefree enough. Now it was my city, my beautiful, shining golden city, ‘the city that stands aloof’. I was carried along by something that must have been joy. I walked quickly, was full of impatience, and could feel the blood coursing through my veins. I felt ridiculously young at those moments of mad happiness and much nearer to reality and truth than when I searched my soul in my moods of sadness. (p. 28)

A Certain Smile is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has also reviewed this novel.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

First published in 1945 but set largely in the interwar years, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful novel about a young woman’s search for true love, complete with all the delights and disappointments such a quest entails.

While Mitford’s novel focuses on the amorous adventures of Linda Radlett, everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of Linda’s cousin, the sensible and level-headed Fanny. Having been abandoned by her mother – known within the family as ‘the Bolter’ for her tendency to run off with a sequence of lovers – Fanny has been raised by her kindly Aunt Emily in a small but comfortable home in Shenley. Childhood Christmas holidays are spent with the rather eccentric Radletts at their estate in the Cotswolds, a large manor house by the name of Alconleigh. The Radlett family is headed by Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, a large blustering man whose favourite sports are catching Germans with his entrenching tool, hunting of any description (including the pursuit of his children around the grounds), and stomping about in search of an outlet for his many frustrations; then there is Aunt Sadie (Emily’s sister), who does her best to maintain some semblance of order within the household; and finally, the six Radlett children, most notably Linda, Fanny’s cousin and closest friend. Mitford does a great job in conveying the various idiosyncrasies of this unconventional upper-class family – we are privy to their passions and beliefs, their rather silly preoccupations with outmoded social conventions, and their various peccadillos and habits.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives. (p. 9)

Fanny and Linda spend much of their time chatting together about girlish things, hiding out in the linen closet (or ‘Hons’ cupboard’ as it is called), the only warm place in the house. It is here that the hopelessly romantic Linda talks of finding true love, one that is lasting and passionate, the sort that only comes along once in a lifetime. In particular, she is entranced by the glamour and sophistication of the smart set of bright young things she meets by way of her neighbour and advocate, the cultured Lord Merlin.

By the time of her coming-out ball, Linda is ripe for the taking. Much to Uncle Matthew’s dismay, she falls in love with an attractive young banker, Tony Kroesig, whose family originally hailed from Germany, albeit several generations ago. In this scene, Uncle Matthew lets rips to Davey, Aunt Emily’s delightful but rather sensitive husband. As you can see, his language is gloriously unfiltered, very much a reflection of his bombastic nature and the prevailing attitudes of the day.

‘Who is that sewer with Linda?’

‘Kroesig, Governor of the Bank of England, you know; his son.’

‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house – who on earth asked him?’

‘Now, Matthew dear, don’t get excited. The Kroesigs aren’t Huns, they’ve been over here for generations, they are a very highly respected family of English bankers.’

‘Once a Hun always a Hun,’ said Uncle Matthew, ‘and I’m not too set on bankers myself. Besides, the fellow must be a gate-crasher.’

‘No, he’s not. He came with Merlin.’

‘I knew that bloody Merlin would start bringing foreigners here sooner or later. I always said he would, but I didn’t think even he would land one with a German’ (p. 56)

At first, both families are dead against the match, albeit for very different reasons. Uncle Matthew has an intense hatred of all foreigners, irrespective of their standing and tenure in Britain. The Kroesigs, on the other hand, consider landed gentry such as the Radletts to be feckless and no longer of any great relevance in the modern world. Moreover, they would prefer young Tony to concentrate on his career for a while, with the hope that he might also go on to marry the daughter of one of the other big banking families in the city, thereby creating a union of great worth. Nevertheless, in spite of this initial opposition, the Kroesig-Radlett wedding goes ahead, and Linda and Tony begin their rather ill-fated life together.

As Fanny quite rightly intuits, the marriage turns out to be a failure almost right from the start. Tony is soon revealed to be a frightful bore, a pompous, self-centred ass whose only interests revolve around money and politics – shortly after the wedding he gains a comfortable seat as a Tory MP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Linda proves a disappointment to the Kroesig family who consider her eccentric, distracted and extravagant. Tony’s work and political activities are of no interest to Linda whatsoever, a point which becomes patently obvious for all to see. By the time her daughter Moira is born, Linda has fallen totally out of love with Tony; his many shortcomings are simply too ingrained to overlook, those first flushes of love have long since gone.

The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual, and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination. Linda did not commit the usual fault of blaming Tony for what was entirely her own mistake, she merely turned from him in absolute indifference. This was made easier by the fact that she saw so little of him. (p. 88)

Then one day at her in-laws’ home, Linda meets Christian Talbot, a handsome Communist full of energy and ideas. Entranced by this young man, his passions and beliefs, she runs away from Tony in the hope of finding true love with husband number two.

Linda was a plum ripe for shaking. The tree was now shaken, and down she came. Intelligent and energetic, but with no outlet for her energies, unhappy in her marriage, uninterested in her child, and inwardly oppressed with a sense of futility, she was in the mood either to take up some cause, or to embark upon a love affair. That a cause should now be presented by an attractive young man made both it and him irresistible. (p.98)

But once the initial excitement dies down, Linda discovers that her new life with Christian isn’t all she had hoped it would be. All too soon, during a trip to France to support the refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Christian reveals himself to be a rather hopeless husband. Concerned as he is with the major revolutions of the day, Christian remains oblivious to the feelings and emotions of others, especially those closest to him; it is radical ideas and left-wing causes that interest Christian, not individual people and their emotional needs. All of a sudden this becomes apparent to Linda – and so she packs her suitcase and leaves, forsaking another husband in the process.

Then, just when Linda is at her lowest ebb, stranded in Paris with insufficient money to make it home to England, a dashing stranger appears and comes to her rescue. The man in question is Fabrice, a wealthy duke and bon viveur, the man who turns out to be the one great love of Linda’s life. At long last, there is a chance of true happiness for our heroine; but the question is, will it last?

But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking upon the authentic face of love, and she knew it, but it frightened her. That it should come so casually, so much by a series of accidents, was frightening. (p. 139)

The Pursuit of Love is an utterly charming novel. It is by turns hilarious, artful, touching and poignant, peppered as it is with Mitford’s sparkling dialogue and wit. The author has drawn heavily on her own family here, particularly in the portrayal of Uncle Matthew, a thinly-veiled version of her father, Lord Redesdale. The characterisation is fabulous throughout, from the privileged, whimsical Linda, to the indomitable Uncle Matthew, to the pitch-perfect minor characters of Davey and Lord Merlin, both of whom remain ardent supporters of Linda in her quest for personal fulfilment. Even the infamous Bolter makes a cameo appearance at one point – another memorable character, vividly sketched.

For all its wit and satirical humour, this novel also conveys a strong sense of humanity. In spite of her many mistakes and failings, Linda is always welcomed back into the family fold, supported by Fanny, Aunt Sadie and even Uncle Matthew. There is a sense of real support and affection here, a family sticking together despite what life may throw at it.

As the story draws to a close during the turmoil of WW2, Mitford also reminds us of the fragility of our existence. This was not a time for the frivolous pleasures of love; rather the focus was on survival and the preservation of life. While the closing section is rather poignant, the novel ends on a fitting note. All in all, this is a great book, fully deserving of its status as a modern classic. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Pursuit of Love is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

brookner-start

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.