Tag Archives: Penguin Modern Classics

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield

As you may well know by now, Simon and Karen are running another of their ‘Clubs’ this week, this one focusing on literature first published in 1930. (You can find out more about it here.) For my contribution to the event, I’ve decided to write about E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady, the first of four books included in the Penguin collected edition of the series. (The first book appeared in 1930, with further instalments following in 1932, 1934 and 1940.)

So, what can I say about this classic of 1930s British literature that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot – other than to reiterate what a joy it is to read, full of witty asides about the day-to-day minutiae of English country life.

The Provincial Lady in question lives in Devon with her pithy husband, Robert, and their two children, Robin and Vicky. While Robin is away at boarding-school for much of the year, Vicky is being educated at home by a rather sensitive French governess, Mademoiselle, a woman who requires delicate handling by the Lady of the house. Also adding to our protagonist’s challenges are the temperamental Cook and the dutiful parlour-maid, Ethel, reliable domestic staff being so difficult to find and maintain, particularly in the country.

The book is presented as a series of diary entries, capturing the Provincial Lady’s unfiltered thoughts and observations as she goes about her business – mostly domestic or community-based in nature as she attempts to oversee the running of the house. In spite of our protagonist’s best efforts, nothing seems to run quite as smoothly as she would like it to, painting a picture of a somewhat frazzled woman trying to hold everything together but frequently falling a little short of the mark.

Life for the aspirational Provincial Lady can be challenging, even at the best of times. Irrespective of the family’s middle-class status, there never seems to be quite enough money at hand to pay the never-ending stream of household bills, often leading to a reliance on credit and the goodwill of traders. Moreover, our protagonist frequently has to resort to bluffing her way through conversations with various acquaintances in an effort to save face, never having read quite the right books, seen the latest plays, or attended the de rigueur exhibitions of the day.

Keeping up-to-date with the latest fashions, particularly in millinery, represents another major headache for the Provincial Lady. Like many British women through the ages, our protagonist will head off to the shops in search of something new when her spirits are low. However, finding the right hat to flatter the face isn’t quite as easy as it may sound, especially if one’s hair is as wild and unruly as the Provincial Lady’s proves to be…

January 22nd. – Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold – which he has hitherto ignored – is better. I reply that it has gone. Then why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

[…]

Visit four linen-drapers and try on several dozen hats. Look worse and worse in each one, as hair gets wilder and wilder, and expression paler and more harassed. Decide to get myself shampooed and waved before doing any more, in hopes of improving the position.

Hairdresser’s assistant says, It’s a pity my hair is losing all its colour, and have I ever thought of having it touched up? After long discussion, I do have it touched up, and emerge with mahogany-coloured head. Hairdresser’s assistant says this will wear off ‘in a few days’. I am very angry, but all to no purpose. Return home in old hat, showing as little hair as possible, and keeping it on till dressing time – but cannot hope to conceal my shame at dinner. (pp.31-32) 

Meanwhile, husband Robert is unphased by most things, remaining remarkably silent and unmoved by all manner of minor upsets and household crises.

Other diary entries focus on the Provincial Lady’s social interactions with friends and other members of the local community, often covering a wide range of random topics including literature, current affairs, mutual acquaintances and domestic challenges. The rural world and its inhabitants are beautifully captured – the central character in particular, complete with all her flippant thoughts, social anxieties and unfavourable comparisons with others. Our protagonist’s ‘mems.’ or notes to self are another joy, revealing more of her inner musings and wry observations on life.

May 15th. […]

Tea is brought in – superior temporary’s afternoon out, and Cook has, as usual, carried out favourite labour-saving device of three sponge-cakes and one bun jostling one another on the same plate – and we talk about Barbara and Crosbie Carruthers, bee-keeping, modern youth, and difficulty of removing oil stains from carpets. Have I, asks Our Vicar’s Wife, read A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land? No, I have not. Then, she says, don’t, on any account. There are so many sad and shocking things in life as it is, that writers should confine themselves to the bright, the happy, and the beautiful. This the author of A Brass Hat has entirely failed to do. It subsequently turns out that Our Vicar’s Wife has not read the book herself, but that Our Vicar has skimmed it, and declared it to be very painful and unnecessary. (Mem.: Put Brass Hat down for Times Book Club list, if not already there.) (p. 68)

Interestingly, the Provincial Lady has some literary ambitions of her own, a point that is brought out here and then developed further in the subsequent books in the PL series.

This is a charming, humorous and at times poignant novel of a largely domestic life in a bygone age. In spite of its firm footing in the late 1920s/early ‘30s, Delafield’s book still holds some relevance to the modern world, especially in terms of the emotions and dilemmas portrayed. In some respects, it may well have paved the way for later diaries capturing the lives of more contemporary women and characters, books like Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life (2013).

So, in summary, a fitting read for the #1930Club, best consumed in small doses to avoid any risk of fatigue. It’s the sort of book you can dip in and out of every now and again when the mood takes you without having to worry about the intricacies of narrative plot.

If you’re interested in my thoughts on other books from 1930, you can find the relevant posts via the following links:

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys – Initial read and re-read

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Miss Mole by E. H. Young

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky is a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. The narrative has a somewhat fractured feel, reflecting the emotional state of its main protagonists, Port and Kit Moresby, an American couple of the like found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, particularly Tender is the Night.

The Moresbys are unmoored, both physically and emotionally, travelling south through North Africa with little purpose or ultimate destination in mind. Eschewing America and Europe in the aftermath of the war, the couple have come to Africa as an escape, hoping to find some kind of meaning in an ever-changing world.

There is a sense that Port views himself as an intrepid traveller, keen to explore the mysteries and remoteness of an unfamiliar land. He is perpetually restless, continually searching for something, although quite what that something is remains rather unclear.

Kit, for her part, is acutely aware of the emotional distance between herself and Port, their marriage having crumbled to dust in the preceding years. Brittle and highly strung by nature, Kit lives a life governed by superstitions, a series of omens that dictate her mood and ability to function. There are times when the feeling of doom surrounding Kit becomes so strong that it results in a form of stasis, almost as if she is experiencing a strange kind of paralysis.

While the Moresbys share much in the way of feelings and emotions, they are divided by their outlooks on life, a situation typified by the following passage.

It made her [Kit] sad to realize that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed. […]

And now for so long there had been no love, no possibility of it. But in spite of her willingness to become whatever he wanted her to become, she could not change that much: the terror was always there inside her ready to take command. It was useless to pretend otherwise. And just as she was unable to shake off the dread that was always with her, he was unable to break out of the cage into which he had shut himself, the cage he had built to long ago to save himself from love. (p. 98-99)

Accompanying the Moresbys on this trip is their friend, Tunner, a somewhat opportunistic chap who appears to be tagging along for the ride. While Tunner has designs on Kit, his motives are ultimately shallow and devoid of any meaningful emotion. In truth, Tunner’s advances are driven predominantly by vanity and a sense of pity for the beautiful Kit. During the course of the journey, both of the Moresbys are unfaithful in rather casual and ultimately unfulfilling ways.

As the party travels south, the unrelenting heat of the desert and rather basic living conditions begin to take their toll, particularly on Port and Kit. There are long, uncomfortable train journeys and equally gruelling bus rides through barren landscapes and rough terrain. The hotels become dirtier and increasingly rancid and with each successive move. Consequently, the sense of unease becomes more palpable by the day, adding to the brooding atmosphere at play. There are disagreements between the couple with Port disappearing into the night, wandering the streets and alleyways of the shadowy towns where he encounters prostitutes and their handlers, both eager to exploit a foreign traveller. Meanwhile Kit longs for the culture and civilisation of the Mediterranean, an environment where her suitcase full of evening gowns might actually get an airing. Instead, she must submit to weevil-infested soup and rabbit stew with added fur, just two of the many hazards to be navigated by the Moresbys during their stay.

While all this might sound rather bleak, there are some moments of light relief here and there – for the reader, at least. Turning up again and again during the journey – much to the Moresbys’ annoyance – are the Lyles, a middle-aged Australian woman and her grown-up son, Eric. While Mrs Lyle is snobbish, obnoxious and insufferable, her son, Eric, is possibly even more unpleasant – a spoiled, untrustworthy brat, intent on tapping Port for some sort of loan. Their presence in the narrative adds an element of farce, accentuating the rather desperate nature of the Moresbys’ plight.

The Sheltering Sky is a potent, terrifying book, one that leads the reader into the heart of darkness, an existential journey in which any form of reconciliation or atonement remains tantalisingly out of reach.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Bowles vividly captures the inner lives of his central characters as the unforgiving nature of the environment permeates their souls. The hallucinatory feel of Port’s night-time ramblings, as he lies ill with a virulent fever, is brilliantly portrayed – as is Kit’s own terrifying descent into darkness in the days and weeks that follow, an experience that leaves her utterly broken and shell-shocked, possibly for good.

Before her eyes was the violent blue sky – nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed. (p. 336)

Bowles’ prose is stunning, both lucid and evocative. I love this description of Kit from the beginning of the book, one that captures something of her disturbed mindset through the intensity of her eyes.

Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained. (p. 6-7)

The sense of place and suffocating atmosphere are also powerfully imagined, rich in authenticity and detail, qualities that undoubtedly reflect Bowles’ own experiences of travelling through Morocco and Algeria during the period in question.

Boussif was a completely modern town, laid out in large square blocks, with the market in the middle. The unpaved streets, lined for the most part with box-shaped one-storey buildings, were filled with a rich red mud. A steady procession of men and sheep moved through the principal thoroughfare towards the market, the men walking with the hoods of their burnouses drawn up over their heads against the sun’s fierce attack. There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. At the ends of the transversal streets the bare waste-land sloped slowly upward to the base of the mountains, which were raw, savage rock without vegetation. (p. 89-90)

This is a fateful story of fractured souls, a couple who cannot meaningfully connect with one another, failing to realise the depth of their feelings until it is far too late. It is a tense, emotionally-draining read, brilliantly rendered by an imaginative writer. I can understand why it is considered a 20th-century classic.

The Sheltering Sky is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

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

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind.

First published in the late 1970s as a series of interlinked short stories, Territory of Light focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. As the story opens, the unnamed woman – who narrates the novella – and her three-year-old daughter are newly established in a fourth-floor apartment with windows on all sides, thereby forming the ‘territory of light’ of the title.

Tsushima poignantly depicts the young woman’s pain in adjusting to life as a single parent, no longer sure of her own sense of self or future existence. The husband, Fujino, is in a new relationship, unable or unwilling to contribute financially to his daughter’s upbringing – a situation that leaves the narrator trying to cope with the unsettling transition taking place.

This man was my daughter’s father and my husband, but he knew nothing of the life I had been leading for over a month now – an existence that was uneventful enough in its way, and yet the tranquillity of the days ahead only fed my apprehension – and I could give him no idea of that life. I felt as though I had before me an invisible, rickety, misshapen mass that not only kept its precarious balance but was actually sending out roots and even tentative new shoots that only my eyes could see. Having been presented with this unstable object, I’m starting to grow too attached to it to be able to slip back into married life with Fujino as if nothing had happened. The way he spoke to me, as my husband, didn’t feel right anymore. (pp. 22-23)

There are times when the narrator oscillates between openly trying to prevent her husband from spending time with his daughter and secretly wishing they could all get back together – to coexist as a typical family unit, whatever form that may take.

I longed to have my old life back. But there was no going back now, nor any way out. I couldn’t decide whether I’d done this to myself or fallen for a ruse of unknown origin. What I’d failed to see so far, it turned out, it was my own cruelty. (p. 59)

In the meantime, she must juggle the needs of a lively three-year-old alongside her job as an archivist in an audio library, relying on the support of a day-care centre for childcare during the week. As the demands of single parenthood increase, there is a sense of this woman receding into the darkness, giving rise to feelings of guilt, fear, annoyance and fatigue. Her nights are haunted by anxiety-fuelled dreams and fragments of memories, frequently punctuated by the toddler’s persistent cries – something the narrator tries to block out through an increasing reliance on alcohol.

Interestingly, Tsushima doesn’t shy away from illustrating the fragile nature of the young woman’s state of mind, characterised by her increasing consumption of drink, a tendency to oversleep on weekdays, a lack of care for the apartment, and – most worryingly of all – her neglect of the child’s wellbeing. Even though it is clear that the narrator loves her child very much, the practicalities of the situation remain stark and unadorned.

As one might expect from the title, imagery plays a significant role in the novella, contributing significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the piece. Tsushima’s prose has a fluid, poetic quality, particularly when depicting the play of light within the building itself.

No one else must know about this place that made me yearn to dissolve until I became a particle of light myself. The way that light cohered in one place was unearthly. I gazed at its stillness without ever going in through the gate. (p. 119)

The narrative is punctuated with beguiling images, each one possible to visualise in the mind – perhaps best illustrated by the mosaic of bright colours ‘like a burst of bright flowers’ that suddenly appears on the roof next door.

The unexpected sight of bright colours on that weathered tiled roof set my heart racing with sudden foreboding. I leaned out of the window and took a closer look. They were coloured paper squares. Red ones. Blue ones. Green, yellow…I could only conclude that every sheet in the pack of origami paper I had bought my daughter a few days earlier had floated down, one after the other, taking its time and enjoying the breeze, on to the tiled floor roof below. I pictured a small hand pluck one square at a time from the pack, reach out the window, and release it in midair. My daughter, who had just turned three, would have been laughing out loud with pleasure as she watched the different colours wafting down. (p. 47)

Territory of Light is a quiet, contemplative novella – strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting, the apartment being located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Tsushima’s focus on the day-to-day minutiae of life is a powerful one, forcing us to contemplate how we would cope in similar circumstances, how our own failings and vulnerabilities might be exposed.

Moreover, the spectre of death runs through the narrative – from the young boy who falls to his death accidentally while playing, to a suicide on the railways, to the funerals glimpsed in the street, the concept of our ephemerality is keenly felt. Tsushima’s own father – the Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai – took his own life when she was just one year old, a point that adds another layer of emotional intensity to story reflected here. Nevertheless, there are moments of brightness too – the simple pleasures that motherhood can bring in spite of the myriad of challenges.

By the end of the book, there are tentative signs of some kind of acclimatisation on the part of the mother, the glimpse of a new beginning on the horizon. Nevertheless, the delicate balance between darkness and light remains, a point that serves to remind us of our own fallibilities in life.

This is my second piece for #WITMonth (women in translation) which runs throughout August. Several other bloggers have written about this book. Here are links to relevant posts by Grant and Dorian.

Territory of Light is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson

Mini reviews of three recent reads – hopefully you’ll find something of interest across the mix.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

This beautiful, charming novel – presented through a blend of stream-of-consciousness and more traditional narrative – manages to combine a lightness of touch with a real depth of personal feeling.

On the day of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia Curtis receives from her parents a roll of flame-coloured silk to be fashioned into an evening dress for a forthcoming dance. The occasion will represent Olivia’s introduction to society, a world already glimpsed by her older sister, the attractive, more self-assured Kate.

In the days leading up to the dance, we sense Olivia’s anticipation of the event, a mixture of excitement and apprehension over various aspects of the evening: nervousness as to how her dress will turn out; speculation over who else will be attending, particularly which boys; worries about there being sufficient dance partners for the girls; and ultimately, whether her first experience of a ball will be a success or a disappointment. The idea of ending up as a wallflower is almost too much for Olivia to bear.

Why go? It was unthinkable. Why suffer so much? Wrenched from one’s foundations; neglected, ignored, curiously stared at; partnerless, watching Kate move serenely from partner to partner, pretending not to watch; pretending not to see one’s hostess wondering: must she do something about one again? – (but really one couldn’t go on and on introducing these people); pretending not to care; slipping off to the ladies’ cloakroom, fiddling with unnecessary pins and powder, ears strained for the music to stop; wandering forth again to stand by oneself against the wall, hope struggling with despair beneath a mask of smiling indifference. (pp. 126-127)

The ball itself is beautifully conveyed in a series of vivid scenes, immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the event. Lehmann’s style is evocative and impressionistic, like the brushstrokes of watercolour artist practising their craft. The little pen-portraits of various attendees are very finely sketched, giving just enough detail to bring the characters to life.

Ali has written a characteristically perceptive review of this book, highlighting some interesting observations on class. Simon has also written about it here (his piece focuses on Olivia’s clothes and appearance). Olivia and Kate are very much viewed as country mice by their sophisticated cousin, Etty, also present at the dance – while bright and respectable, the middle-class Curtis family belong to a somewhat different social sphere to that of their hosts, Sir John and Lady Spencer. Olivia’s seamstress, the rather tragic Miss Robinson, provides another contrast – a woman whose narrow, unfulfilled life is heartbreaking to see.

I really enjoyed this novel for its expressive, impressionistic style, the exquisite prose, and its insight into the inner life of an expectant young girl. Very highly recommended indeed.

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tr. John Markham Beach) (1961)

A thoroughly engaging memoir of this French writer’s early life and ongoing quest to fulfil his mother’s ambitions, namely for Gary to become a great artist, a person of distinction. In addition to these creative pursuits, the memoir also touches on Gary’s time as an instructor and pilot during the Second World War. It is by turns humorous, entertaining, charming and poignant, a story that blends the light-hearted with the moving and profound.

I stood there in my leather flying jacket, with that ridiculous cigar in my mouth, my cap pulled down jauntily over one eye, my hands in my pockets, and the familiar tough look on my face, while the whole world around me became a strange, foreign place empty of all life. That is what I chiefly remember of that moment today: a feeling of utter strangeness, as though the most familiar things, the houses, the trees, the birds, and the very ground under my feet, all that I had to come to regard as certainties, had suddenly become part of an unknown planet which I had never visited before. My whole system of weights and measures, my faith in a secret and hidden logic of life were giving way to nothingness, to a meaningless chaos, to a grinning, grimacing absurdity. (p. 212)

Grant has already written an excellent review of this book, and I agree with pretty much everything he says in his piece – do take a look. Emma has a page devoted to Romain Gary on her blog, so you’ll be able to find more posts about the author’s work there.

This is a thrilling yarn laced with philosophical reflections on this nature of life – my first encounter with this esteemed writer, but hopefully not my last.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

I do love these British Library Crime Classics with their vintage settings and stylish covers. This is an interesting entry in the series from the Labour politician and writer, Ellen Wilkinson. In short, it is a most enjoyable mystery with a political edge.

Up-and-coming Conservative MP and parliamentary private secretary, Robert West, turns amateur detective when an influential financier is shot dead during a private dinner at the House of Commons. What appears at first to be a case of suicide turns out to be far more complicated than that, especially once the official investigation – led by Inspector Blackitt of the Yard – gets underway.

This is a compelling little mystery with a likeable central character in Robert West. While the ending feels a little rushed, the atmosphere in the House of Commons is captured in vivid detail, bringing to life the hustle and bustle of political life in the 1930s.

Shaw followed West along the locker-lined corridor to that octagonal space where the heart of Parliament beats. The House of Commons had risen soon after the nine o’clock division, and it was now ten-thirty, but groups of Members still stood excitedly discussing the sensation of the day–-for the threatened crisis had disappeared with the announcement of the Government’s majority. Again Shaw had to admire his friend’s technique.

Every one made a dart at West, who somehow managed to deny rumours, to quieten agitated and elderly M.P.s and even to deal with a cynical young woman who wanted to know why he had only shot one poor little millionaire instead of turning a machine-gun on to the whole Front Bench. (p. 43)

There are some nice reflections on the changing nature of Britain too, as the old traditions and values must give way to new sources of business and revenue streams. The economic context/state of the nation forms an important backdrop to the story, adding to the political intrigue.

Karen has written a great review of this, and I agree with everything she highlights in her piece. In spite of a few flaws, this is an interesting mystery with an atmospheric sense of place.

My copies of Invitation to the Waltz, Promise at Dawn, and The Division Bell Mystery were published by Virago, Penguin, and the British Library respectively; personal copies.

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

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

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon has reviewed this book here.

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

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

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

How tragic is that?

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

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to try Shirley Jackson’s widely-acclaimed Gothic classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a book that has been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. Fortunately, it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite magical. I think I can see why this book has earned its place in the 20th-century canon.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her gentle older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a village in New England. (The location is thought to be loosely based on North Bennington, Vermont, the place where Jackson lived for much of her adult life.)

The vast majority of the local townsfolk will have nothing to do with the Blackwoods as a result of an infamous incident that took place at the house some six years earlier. The girls’ parents, aunt and younger brother all died of arsenic poisoning after the deadly substance had been mixed with the sugar they consumed with their blackberries at dinner. Merricat was not present at the time as she had been sent to bed before the meal commenced. To this day the local villagers remain convinced that Constance – then aged twenty-two – administered the poison, even though she was found not guilty of the charge due to a lack of evidence. Constance did not take sugar on her berries that day, a point which counted against her at the time of the trial.

As a consequence, the Blackwood girls now live a highly secluded life with their Uncle Julian, the only other survivor of the poisoning. In failing health both mentally and physically, Julian continues to be preoccupied with the murders; as such, he spends much of his time obsessing over his notes on the case in the hope of completing a book on the subject.

In order to remain out of public view, Constance prefers to stay within the confines of the Blackwood estate, thereby leaving Merricat in the unenviable position of being the main link between the family and the outside community. Twice a week Merricat ventures into the nearby village to buy groceries and collect books from the library. Here she must run the gauntlet, steeling herself against the taunts, prejudices and slights from the villagers who consider the Blackwood sisters to be nothing less than evil demons.

“The Blackwoods always did set a fine table.” That was Mrs. Donell, speaking clearly from somewhere behind me, and someone giggled and someone else said “Shh.” I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there in back of me without looking into their flat grey faces with the hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead. (p. 8)

As a character and narrator, Merricat Blackwood is someone you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. There is a childlike quality to her highly distinctive voice; for Merricat, it is as if time has stood still since the poisonings as she speaks and behaves like a young girl, one intent on maintaining the security and stability of her make-believe world. A deeply superstitious individual at heart, Merricat believes she can protect her beloved sister and Uncle Julian from external dangers and evils by relying on magic words, strange rituals and imaginary games. She loves her sister dearly and would like nothing more than to transport Constance and Uncle Julian to the moon – a fantasy world of winged horses, magical plants and eternal sunshine, a place where they could be safe and happy.

“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.” (p. 75)

Constance for her part indulges her younger sister, playing along with her escapist fantasies and dreams to her heart’s content. Nevertheless, Merricat can sense something disturbing in the air – a change is coming and not for the better. The arrival of the girls’ estranged cousin, Charles, seems set to disrupt the comfortable atmosphere in the household, a dynamic that Merricat is determined to preserve. Now that Charles’ father is dead, a man who cut off all relations with the Blackwoods at the time of the trial, Charles is free to reconnect with his relatives. However, he seems more intent on getting his hands on the Blackwoods’ money – the majority of which is locked away in a safe in the house – than demonstrating any genuine interest in the girls’ welfare.

Naturally, Merricat sees through the formidable Charles in an instant. In particular, she is dismayed by two things: firstly, Charles’ outright intolerance of Julian whom he considers a burden; and secondly, his developing friendship with Constance who, on account of her sweet nature, can only see her cousin in a positive light. Merricat makes no secret of her hostility towards Charles, a point he intuits immediately. If only Charles would go away, then everything would be alright again and the family would be safe.

Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. (p. 69)

While this is a slim book, it has much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. From what I can glean about Jackson and her fiction, it would appear that this theme of being the outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a feature in much of her work.

The plot works very well within the framework established by the set-up. For example, we do learn the truth about the fateful poisonings, but that’s not the main point here. What really sets this novel apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of Merricat’s voice. Childlike chants and rhymes are repeated at various points in the story, an effect that adds a strange lyrical quality to the text, albeit a rather unsettling one.

While I was expecting this to be a somewhat unnerving or chilling read (there are times when Merricat is quite disturbing), I wasn’t prepared for the dark humour, a tone that Jackson uses to great effect in certain scenes. Most of these comic moments revolve around Uncle Julian, whose ramblings about the past provide much amusement for the reader. At an early stage in the story, he puts on a great show for Mrs Wright, a rather timid but nosy woman who is fascinated by the mystery of the Blackwood poisonings. Mrs Wright has come to the Blackwoods’ house to accompany her friend, Helen Clarke, one of the few locals who will have anything to do with the Blackwood sisters. In calling on the Blackwoods on a weekly basis, Helen hopes to encourage Constance to reconnect with society, to begin to live her life again.

Much to Helen’s disapproval, Mrs Wright gets swept up by Uncle Julian as he proceeds to show her the dining room where the infamous poisonings occurred. It’s a marvellous scene, too long to quote here. Instead, I’ll finish with a short passage on the ladies’ arrival at the house, one that hints at Jackson’s eye for a humorous incident.

Constance was perfectly composed. She rose and smiled and said she was glad to see them. Because Helen Clarke was ungraceful by nature, she managed to make the simple act of moving into a room and sitting down a complex ballet for three people; before Constance had quite finished speaking Helen Clarke jostled Mrs. Wright and sent Mrs. Wright sideways like a careening croquet ball off into the far corner of the room where she sat abruptly and clearly without intention upon a small and uncomfortable chair. Helen Clarke made for the sofa where Constance sat, nearly upsetting the tea table, and although there were enough chairs in the room and another sofa, she sat uncomfortably close to Constance, who detested having anyone near her but me. “Now,” Helen Clarke said, spreading, “it’s good to see you again.” (pp. 25-6)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.