Tag Archives: Penguin

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Back in early 2018, I read Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout’s widely acclaimed novel in short stories set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine. I adored the book but felt I couldn’t write about it at the time – partly because I was taking a break from blogging but mostly because I didn’t want to over-analyse it. Sometimes a book is just so perfect that it feels wrong somehow to break it down, as if by doing so one destroys the magic or fails to capture what makes it so special.

I feel much the same way about the sequel, Olive, Again (2019) – which if anything seems even better, even more profoundly insightful about the day-to-day burdens of life than its predecessor. Nevertheless, I want to try to note a few thoughts about this novel here as it will almost certainly feature in my reading highlights of the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with these books, both focus on Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher who lives in a small-town community in Maine, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s day-to-day business. Each book is structured as a sequence of interlinked short stories. Olive features in pretty much every story – sometimes front and centre in the narrative, other times on the periphery, bumping into the main character in the street, often with a somewhat dismissive wave of the hand over her head. Now and again, an individual from one of Strout’s other (non-Olive) novels appears, the connections to Olive – however tenuous – reaching out to encompass various strands of this author’s work.

Olive is a highly complex, multi-faceted character. She is direct, abrasive, intolerant and cranky; and yet she is also capable of demonstrating real empathy towards others, particularly those who feel depressed, neglected or marginalised by mainstream society. In Olive Again, a young woman dying from cancer is a particularly poignant example. Only Olive has the courage to visit this woman, easing her isolation with her straight-talking manner, while others are too embarrassed or fearful of what to say, preferring instead to avoid any contact.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, our protagonist is in her mid-seventies – newly widowed following the death of her husband, Henry – at the beginning of a potential new relationship with Jack, also bereaved, lonely and at a similar stage of life. The early chapters of Olive, Again chart the couple’s developing bond, a relationship not without its own tensions and frustrations. However, there is enough that unites Olive and Jack to enable them to progress to a shared existence and ultimately marriage in their twilight years. Jack, for his part, is somewhat more easy-going than Olive, more willing to accept her flaws and failings, loving her in spite of and because of her ‘Oliveness’.

The need for Olive to tell her son Christopher – a podiatrist now married to wife no. 2 – of her own forthcoming marriage, forms the basis of one the best, most acutely observed vignettes in the book. Olive’s failures as a mother are painful exposed to her during a tense family visit, as Christopher, Ann and their four children (two from Ann’s previous relationships) make the trip from their home in New York to Crosby, Maine.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She [Olive] had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the lap of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had caused this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack–stunned–she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind. (p. 91, Olive, Again, Viking)

These sudden realisations – the unexpected dawning of uncomfortable truths – run through the narrative as Olive finds herself reflecting on certain aspects of her life. Perhaps most notably, Olive dwells on her lack of appreciation of Henry when they were together as a couple, her coldness towards him when all he was doing was simply asking for her love. This particular insight first strikes Olive in the most unlikely of situations, in the midst of a baby shower which she finds utterly intolerable – both tedious and ridiculous in equal measure. It is one of the standout vignettes in this exceptional novel, laced with a blend of excruciating humour and lacerating poignancy.

In the final third of the book, we find Olive in her early eighties, trying to maintain a sense of independence as the years slip by. As a natural consequence of the ageing process, Olive must learn to accept help from others from time to time. Her interactions with a doctor and a team of home carers offer some deep insights into the human condition – not only for Olive but for her carers too. Everyone has to deal with their own hardships in life, irrespective of the nature of their position. Olive’s opinionated carer, Betty – an avid supporter of Trump, much to Olive’s horror – has her own challenges: more specifically, the fallout from two broken marriages and a son with special needs. Her life sucks, nevertheless it matters – Olive can see this even if Betty cannot.

While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself.

This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the community she lives in. The political nuances of small-town life are vividly portrayed, even when glimpsed for the tiniest of moments. Read it but be prepared to shed a tear or two…

Olive, Again is published by Viking; my thanks to Penguin Random House for kindly providing a reading copy.

(I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy of the finished book, used for the quotation here.)

Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

Childhood is the first in a series of three volumes which together form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen (1917-78). It is a striking text, shot through with a tangible note of sadness, in which the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an austere world. (The subsequent volumes – Youth and Dependency, which I’ll touch on at the end of this piece – cover the author’s adolescence and adult years respectively.)

Born into a working-class family in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen, Tove experiences a rather harsh and lonely childhood. With her love of books, songs and poems, Tove is considered somewhat unusual by her family – particularly her mother, whose intolerance and dismissive attitude give rise to a fractured mother-daughter relationship.

Tove finds her childhood narrow and restricting, ‘like a coffin’ in which she is shackled and constrained. In search of solace and a means of expression, Tove longs to write down all the words that flow through her, the fledgling poems that come naturally throughout her days. Nevertheless, she keeps these artistic ambitions to herself for most of her early years, jotting down her poetry in a private album which she hides in her room – mostly out of a fear of being ridiculed by her family. In essence, these poems become a way for Tove to cover the exposed areas of her childhood by enriching her limited existence through creative expression.

It is only once Tove reaches middle school that her world begins to widen somewhat, sparked by her introduction to the public library and everything it contains. While the librarian suggests books suitable for children, Tove finds these too basic for her requirements. It is more challenging fiction that she is after, grittier stories like Les Misérables and other such texts.

By the age of twelve, Tove is experiencing signs of depression, haunted by thoughts of death and mortality. A foreigner in her own world, she longs to escape the narrow confines of her local community, eager to make her own way in life. The conventional trappings of marriage and motherhood are not for her; she shuns everything a reliable, steady life represents, including its feeling of security.

While Tove finds her childhood very restrictive, there is also a sense that she acknowledges these early years to be precious in their own way – possibly something to be looked back on with a degree of nostalgia or fondness, even if they never seem quite so rosy at the time. As her childhood draws to a close with her confirmation, Tove becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of the future, ‘a monstrous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.’

What particularly strikes me about Childhood is Ditlevsen’s powerful tone of voice. The memoir is written in a candid, unvarnished style, almost childlike in certain respects, which fits so naturally with the subject matter at hand. Nevertheless, the reader is frequently pulled up short by the arresting nature of Tove’s experiences – made all the more shocking due to the plain-speaking style in which they are delivered.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.… Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different. (pp. 30–31, Childhood).

In this respect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the British writer Barbara Comyns, whose excellent semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a favourite of mine. (There’s a link to my review here if it’s of interest.)

Now that I’ve read all three books in Ditlevesen’s trilogy, I can safely say that they’re all just as absorbing as the first – perhaps even more so given the way Tove’s life develops into adulthood. There is a frankness to Tove’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist.

In Youth we follow Tove through a string of unsuitable menial jobs, some of which only last a few days before she is fired for her naivety and unfiltered views. As far as Tove is concerned, her eighteenth birthday can’t come soon enough, a time when she can finally strike out on her own outside of the boundaries of her family.

Throughout her adolescence, Tove continues to write poetry, frequently composing pieces and songs for work colleagues and associates. Her life remains lonely and challenging; nevertheless, there is a seam of dark humour running through this volume (and parts of the subsequent one, Dependency), largely stemming from the author’s matter-of-fact tone of voice and narrative style.

One evening Nadja comes over, dressed, as usual, as if she had just escaped a burning house. (p. 29, Dependency)

There are moments of brightness too, glimmers of hope and determination on the part of Tove that one day some of her poems may be published.

I can’t explain to myself, either, why I want to so badly to have my poems published, so other people who have a feeling for poetry can enjoy them. But that’s what I want. That’s what I, by dark and twisting roads, am working towards. That’s what gives me the strength to get up every day, to go to the printing office and sit across from Miss Løngren’s Argus eyes for eight hours. That’s why I want to move away from home the same day I turn eighteen. (p. 63, Youth)

Meanwhile the impeding outbreak of WW2 rumbles away in the background, casting a shadow of darkness over the external world.

By her early twenties, Tove is a published poet, now married to a literary editor, a much older man named Viggo F – a most unsuitable match as it turns out. In Dependency, Tove recounts the experiences of her early adult life: a sequence of love affairs and marriages, some gratifying and others not so much; pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted (a distressing search for a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion is painfully relayed); and ultimately, a battle with opioid addiction that will consume her day-to-day existence and emotional soul.

There are brief periods of solace when Tove finds an outlet through creative expression, her writing remaining a source of fulfilment whenever it is possible. Nevertheless, the spectre of addiction continues to hover overhead, even during Tove’s ‘clean’ periods of remission.

It [the pharmacy] radiated a muted light from containers of mercury and beakers filled with crystals. I kept standing there, while yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realized while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it. I pulled myself away reluctantly, and kept walking. (p. 130)

This is a remarkable series of books – clear, candid, striking and elegant. It has something of the power of the most compelling memoirs, coupled with a simplicity that feels almost poetic, certainly at times. In short, very highly recommended indeed. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of the publishers.

Childhood, Youth and Dependency are published by Penguin; personal copies.

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

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.

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

First published in 1930, Vile Bodies was Evelyn Waugh’s second novel, a wickedly funny satire about the farcical escapades of London’s Bright Young People from the high society set. I enjoyed it a lot – much more than Waugh’s debut, Decline and Fall, which I liked in parts but not as a whole. Interestingly, Vile Bodies was more successful than D&F on its release, catching the attention of both the critics and the public alike. It’s a very good book, one that captures the uncertainties and excesses of the time to great effect. Definitely recommended for readers with an interest in the period.

The novel centres on Adam Fenwick-Symes, an aspiring writer who has just drafted his memoirs with a view to finalising the details with his publishers. As the story opens, Adam is returning to London from France when his manuscript is confiscated and subsequently destroyed by Customs Officials at Dover, who take delight in declaring it to be in breach of new regulations – specifically those relating to literary obscenities.

This rather unfortunate episode puts Adam in a bit of a fix. With no income from the promised book deal, Adam is penniless, leaving him unable to marry his long-term girlfriend, Nina Blount. While Adam and Nina are on the fringes of the Bright Young People, neither of them has enough money of their own to tie the knot – this in spite of their penchant for dining out and drinking to excess.

Luckily for Adam, he wins £1,000 on a couple of ridiculous bets; but then he blows it all by giving the proceeds to a rather persuasive but drunken Major to put on a horse, a rank outsider in a forthcoming race. Much of the rest of the plot – if there is such a thing in this novel – revolves around Adam’s quest to obtain enough money to marry Nina, either by hunting down the Major (the horse actually romps home at 35-1) or by tapping up Nina’s father, the blustering Colonel Blunt.

The on-off nature of Adam and Nina’s wedding is a running theme throughout the book, as one minute the required £1,000 seems to be safe only for it to slip tantalisingly out of reach again before anyone can say ‘boo’. In some ways, the story becomes a sort of money chase, a fitting detail given the Bright Young People’s fondness for treasure hunts as a form of entertainment.

Waugh makes excellent use of telephone calls between Adam and Nina, typically whenever their situation changes – another feature that crops up again and again as the narrative plays out.

Adam felt a little dizzy, so he had another drink.

‘D’you mind if I telephone?’ he said.

He rang up Nina Blount.

‘Is that Nina?’

‘Adam, dear, you’re tight already.’

‘How d’you know?’

‘I can hear it. What is it? I’m going out to dinner.’

‘I just rang up to say that it’s all right about our getting married. I’ve got a thousand pounds.’

‘Oh, good. How?’

‘I’ll tell you when we meet. […]’ (p. 36)

Along the way, we encounter a multitude of striking characters, all sketched by Waugh with consummate skill. There’s Miss Agatha Runcible, a central member of the Bright Young People, who distinguishes herself by bursting in on the Prime Minister in his study the morning after a rather wild party in town. The fact that she is still dressed in her Hawaiian costume at the time does not go unnoticed. Then there are the gossip columnists – typically men within the same social set – who earn their living by reporting various comings and goings, satisfying the public’s appetite for salacious titbits. And finally (for now) there’s Lottie Crump, the rather drunken but genial woman who runs Shepheard’s Hotel, where Adam currently resides. It is here where he first meets the drunken Major who relieves him of his much-needed £1,000.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Waugh is very good on the shallowness and short-sightedness of the Bright Young People, particularly given the fact that he experienced life on the fringes of this milieu. The novel is peppered with pitch-perfect dialogue, complete with the offhand tone that seems to characterise the lifestyle within this set. In this passage, Agatha Runcible is telling Adam about a new chap on the scene, a terrible social climber by the name of Archie Schwert.

‘He’s rather sweet, really, only too terribly common, poor darling. He lives at the Ritz, and I think that’s rather grand, don’t you?’

‘Is he giving his party there?’

‘My dear, of course not. In Edward Throbbing’s house. He’s Miles’ brother, you know, only he’s frightfully dim and political, and doesn’t know anybody. He got ill and went to Kenya or somewhere and left his perfectly sheepish house in Hertford Street, so we’ve all gone to live there. You’d better come too. The caretakers didn’t like it a bit at first, but we gave them drinks and things, and now they’re simply thrilled to the marrow about it and spend all their time cutting out “bits”, my dear, from the papers about our goings on.’ (p. 24)

The portrayal of these people is dazzlingly good – the ‘vile bodies’ who party too hard, sleep too little and stumble their way through life from one escapade to another. There are reports of girls swinging from chandeliers, car races and crashes, numerous instances of libel/fabrication, not to mention the odd catastrophe or two. It all makes for a very amusing read.

Waugh also has a lot of fun with the characters’ names in this novel. We have Mr Outrage (last week’s Prime Minister as the government has just fallen), Miles Malpractice (a Bright Young Person who becomes a gossip columnist), Mrs Melrose Ape (the leader of a troop of singing angels), and Fanny Throbbing (a minor player with the most outrageous of names).

The actual characterisation is excellent too, from the impetuous Agatha Runcible to the blustering Colonel Blount. The latter is terribly irritable and forgetful, so much so that he fails to recognise Adam as the man who wants to marry his Nina. By this point in time, Adam has also joined the ranks of the gossip columnists, merrily inventing members of the upper classes who regularly feature in his Society reports. In this scene, the Colonel is actually talking to Adam about Adam, or Mr Chatterbox as he is known to his readers.

‘She’s very nearly made several mistakes. There was an ass of a fellow here the other day wanting to marry her. A journalist. Awful silly fellow. He told me my old friend Cannon Chatterbox was working on his paper, Well, I didn’t like to contradict him – he ought to have known, after all – but I thought it was funny at the time, and then, d’you know, after he’d gone, I was going through some old papers upstairs, and I came on a cutting from the Worcester Herald describing his funeral. He died in 1912. Well, he must have been a muddle-headed sort of fellow to make a mistake like that, must he?…Have some port?’ (p. 182)

While the novel begins in a very amusing vein, the tone starts to shift a little towards the midpoint, darkening somewhat every now and again towards the end. The pressure to deliver enough material to satisfy the newspaper editors takes its toll on one of the gossip writers, an unfortunate chap who finds himself excluded from a prestigious party by the discontented host. There is also the threat of war, something that never seems to be too far away.

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions. (p. 112)

It is suggested elsewhere that these tonal shifts may have been a reflection of Waugh’s state of mind during the creative process – Waugh’s wife allegedly left him for another man as he was halfway through the novel. Irrespective of this, the tonal variations never feel odd or awkward – quite the opposite in fact as any changes seem to be an inherent part of the story.

So, a rather enjoyable and entertaining read for me, another success from my Classics Club list.

Vile Bodies is published by Penguin; personal copy.

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.