Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies, reasonably similar in style to her earlier works, Human Voices and OffshoreMany of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopeless, befuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. It’s an excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature both positive and negative.

Situated in the midst of Covent Garden, the Temple Stage School is managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Aiding Freddie in this capacity is Miss Blewett – affectionately known as the Bluebell – her devoted assistant of several years. The school specialises in training children for classic roles, parts in Shakespeare’s plays, Peter Pan and other such staples. Naturally, Freddie’s pupils are terribly precious in a rather dramatic way, prone to overexcitement and competitiveness, qualities typified by the following passage.

The children did a half day’s education only. If they went to their music, dancing and dramatic classes in the morning, they spent the afternoon in a kind of torpor; if they weren’t to go till the afternoon, they were almost uncontrollable all morning. Feverishly competitive, like birds in a stubblefield, twitching looks over their shoulder to make sure they were still ahead, they all of them lied as fast as they could speak. Whether they had any kind of a part in a show or not, they wrote ‘Working’ against their names in the register and claimed that they were only in school because there wasn’t a rehearsal that day. The first professional secret they learned was an insane optimism. Still, all children tell lies. But not all of them, if reproached, well up at once with unshed crystal tears, or strike their foreheads in self-reproach, like the prince in Swan Lake. (pp. 29-30)

While Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with recreating a rather peculiar world, the novel does have a narrative thread of sorts, namely the perilous state of the school’s finances. (Pupils must carefully navigate the sagging floors and areas of disrepair to avoid any unpleasant accidents.) For years, Freddie has used her considerable and power and influence in the theatre community to keep the establishment going, procuring resources here and there to maintain the business. Moreover, when necessary, she has been successful in combating various adversaries, as evidenced by her success in staving off the creditors.

Debt collectors had long since given up waiting at the front and back doors of the Temple School. They knew there was no prospect of getting anything, and it was said that one of them, in the manner of the old comedies, had been persuaded to part with his waistcoat and jacket and donate it to the stock of costumes. ‘He gave them to Freddie’s Frocks, dear,’ said the Bluebell with loyal vagueness. (p. 59)

However, now we are in the ‘60s, the surrounding world is beginning to change. The importance of television is growing, but Freddie remains wedded to the medium of theatre, a place where longevity and tradition are admired and treasured.

Into the mix comes Mr Blatt, a potential investor in the school, if only he could make Freddie see sense. Blatt is dismayed at the lack of business management at the Temple, so he sets about making a number of sensible suggestions for improvement, all of which are promptly ignored. As far as Blatt sees things, the potential for TV and radio commercials is vast, but Freddie remains steadfast, at least until the novel’s closing stages. Fitzgerald is clearly making a point about the dynamics between artistic merit and commercialisation – that said, it never feels forced or laboured, just wonderfully ironic instead.

Also threaded through the novel is a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll, both recently hired from Northern Ireland (naturally, as this is Freddie’s, they are being paid a pittance). Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, a point successfully identified by Freddie during their discussions about the role, hence her ability to strike a bargain on the girl’s salary.

Hannah Graves was a nice-looking girl of twenty, with too much sense, one would have thought, to consider a job at eleven pounds fifteen shillings a week. But Freddie had instantly divined in her that attraction to the theatre, and indeed to everything theatrical, which can persist in the most hard-headed, opening the way to poetry and disaster. (p. 19)

Pierce, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world. As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each another, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, aware of his own tragedy but clueless as to how to negate it.

Interspersed with these storylines are various vignettes of life at the stage school and the theatre in general. We follow the progress of twelve-year-old Mattie (a bit of a prankster) and his gifted friend, Jonathan, both of whom have landed the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John. (Mattie is to play the part for the first twelve weeks followed by Jonathan for the remainder of the run.) There are also some highly amusing pen portraits of the various luvvies in the theatrical world, typically men with overinflated views of their own importance. Take William Beardless, for instance, the actor who has been hired to play King John – a performer whose reputation proceeds him.

He [Beardless] was disliked throughout the profession for his habit of handing out little notes to the cast after every performance, pointing out, in a friendly spirit, exactly where they had gone wrong. His notebook and pencil were out already. (p. 91)

A visit from Noël Coward is another highlight, an occasion that prompts Mr Blatt to give nine-year old Jonathan a drink of whisky for courage, something that results in the young lad being sick in the boys’ toilets.

Overall, At Freddie’s offers a marvellous insight into a rarefied world, that of a stage school struggling to survive in a time of change. The theatrical world in general is revealed as one characterised by resentments, jealousies, overinflated notions and egos, and yet there is also compassion and understanding too. As ever, Fitzgerald is wonderfully perceptive on the opportunities and disappointments of life, both big and small. The Covent Garden setting, with its traditional fruit and vegetable market, is also beautifully evoked.

Once again, Penelope Fitzgerald confirms her status as one of my favourite writers. If they’re of interest, you can find my posts on some of her other novels here.

At Freddie’s is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience.

The woman in question is Frances Hinton, a spinster who works in the reference library of a medical research institute, organising and cataloguing images of various mental conditions and abnormalities of human behaviour. Highly analytical and orderly by nature, Frances is a keen observer of her colleagues and visitors to the institute, studying and recording her observations as potential material for short stories, or possibly even a novel. In her spare time, of which there is ample, Frances aspires to be a writer, viewing her writing as a means of expression, of reminding other people that she exists. In short, it is her one way of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at me’.

After work, Frances returns to the large, outmoded flat in Maida Vale she has inherited from her recently-deceased mother. There she is looked after by the family’s elderly maid, a steadfast yet loyal Irish woman by the name of Nancy, who ministers to Frances as if she were still a child, serving her the same bland meal each evening out of habit and routine.

There are times, especially at night, when Frances wonders if this is to be her lot, with Nancy shuffling along the corridor in her worn slippers, carrying the same old-fashioned tray with the same meagre dinner ad infinitum; for while she is used to her own company, Frances longs for a little enjoyment and excitement in her life.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more, and I even think I deserve it. I have something to offer. (p. 19) 

Then, just when she is least expecting it, Frances finds herself being drawn into the seductive world of Dr Nick Fraser, a charming yet shallow researcher at the institute, and Alix, his alluring, self-confident wife. In many ways, Nick and Alix appear to be the golden couple – glamorous, bohemian and flamboyant. Almost like the product of some form of natural selection, they attract various devotees and followers, drawing in admirers wherever they go. Naturally, Frances is intrigued by the Frasers’ sophisticated lifestyle, their spontaneity and ease with one another, and she clings to their company in the hope that some of the glamour and vitality will rub off.

Nevertheless, while Frances is fascinated by Nick and Alix, she also recognises that there is something a little repellent about them – more specifically, their need to show off or exhibit their relationship, as if she is there to serve as an audience for their performance, not as a friend or companion. 

What interested me far more, although I also found it repellent, was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. […] I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imagination. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be. (p. 57) 

Alix, in particular, is rather careless and unfeeling, treating Frances as a kind of toy or plaything for her personal amusement, tossing her aside whenever she is bored. And yet, Frances puts up with Alix’s supposedly good-natured taunts, submitting to being referred to as ‘Little Orphan Fanny’ even though she claims to dislike the use of this pet name.

As her association with the Frasers continues, Frances also becomes involved with James Anstey, another researcher at the institute, who on the surface seems reliable and considerate. As a consequence, they begin to see one another, albeit in a fairly chaste and innocent fashion. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Frances starts to imagine a different kind of future for herself, far away from that of her predecessor at work, the bitter Miss Morpeth, who now faces a relatively bleak retirement; or that of Mrs Halloran, a regular visitor to the library who ekes out her days with the help of substantial quantities of drink. 

Beginnings are so beautiful. I was not in love with James, but now there was something to get up for in the mornings, other than that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth, although I had no niece in Australia who might brighten my last years. Nor would I turn into Mrs Halloran, still game, but doomed to hopelessness. No glasses of gin for me, no bottle in the wardrobe of a room in a hotel in South Kensington, no evenings lying on the bed dressed in a housecoat too young and too pink, casting superior horoscopes for those who fear the future. With what thankfulness did I register my deliverance from this dread, which had possessed me for as long as I could remember. (pp. 85-86) 

Naturally, as this an Anita Brookner novel, the aura of happiness that surrounds Frances is somewhat short-lived. All too soon, Alix is berating Frances, accusing her of stringing Nick along and selfishly taking advantage of him – this seems a bit rich coming from Alix, who has to be one of the most heartless, self-absorbed characters you are ever likely to encounter. 

I felt that I was being hurried along a path that I had not originally wanted to take, or at least not with so much dispatch, so much secrecy. I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money’s worth, urging their right to be entertained. And I no longer wanted to be available for that particular function. (p. 105) 

It all ends rather badly, of course, with a shattering dinner at the restaurant frequented by Alix and Nick. Before the night is out, Frances is subjected to another haunting experience as she combs the streets of London in a state of shock, fear and disorientation. 

Look at Me is a very accomplished novel. What impresses me most about it is how cleverly Brookner controls the narrative. There is something incredibly compelling about Frances’ voice, the carefully-constructed reflections and insights into her complex personality. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

While Frances isn’t a classic unreliable narrator as such, there is something slippery and elusive about her story. She frequently contradicts herself or claims to desire things that are pulling in opposite directions. For example, Frances is fatally drawn to the Frasers and their alluring lifestyle; and yet in her heart of hearts, she knows there is something repulsive about them, something unsavoury and possibly dangerous. Moreover, she declares a lack of love for James, and yet she also persists in dreaming of some kind of life with him. There are instances when Frances seems at once both childlike and old before her time – and for someone so analytical in nature she lacks self-awareness, failing to recognise how others perceive her. There are also some oblique references to a previous relationship in her life, a painful, damaging affair, almost certainly with a married man.

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Frances realises she was out of her depth with the Frasers, destined for a brief flirtation with their gilded lives without every truly taking part. Her only consolation is that she now has ample material for her novel, the various characters and scenarios seem fully formed.

I have quoted very extensively from this novel, partly because of the flawless nature of Brookner’s prose – not a word wasted or out of place. I’ll finish with one last passage from the final section, Frances forever the outsider, always looking in. 

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my assumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being…not suitable. (p. 181)

Look at Me is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publisher for providing a copy.

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

What a joy it is to return to the world of Barbara Pym, a place where the most difficult decision anyone has to make is what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler.) While clergymen are in relatively short supply in Pym’s 1955 novel Less Than Angels, there are plenty of anthropologists to be found, drawing once again on the author’s own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London where she worked for a number of years.

The novel focus on the lives, loves and concerns of a group of British anthropologists and the individuals they interact with as they go about their business from one day to the next. Pivotal to the story is Tom Mallow, a twenty-nine-year-old academic who has just returned from Africa where he was tasked with observing the societal structure of a particular tribe.

On his return to London, Tom moves back in with his companion, Catherine Oliphant, a thirty-one-year-old writer of romantic fiction and articles for women’s magazine. I say ‘companion’ as Catherine’s relationship with Tom is a little hard to define – more ‘old married couple’ than ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’, Catherine is fond of Tom in spite of their differences in outlook.

Catherine had always imagined that her husband would be a strong character who would rule her life, but Tom, at twenty-nine, was two years younger than she was and it was always she who made the decisions and even mended the fuses. It did not seem to occur to Tom that they might get married. Catherine often wondered whether anthropologists became so absorbed in studying the ways of strange societies that they forgot what was the usual thing in their own (p. 21)

Back at the research centre in London, Tom meets Deirdre Swann, a young, impressionable anthropology student who falls instantly in love with him and everything he represents. Deirdre lives in the midst of the suburbs with her mother, maiden aunt and brother, where she enjoys a quiet life surrounded by the comforts and traditions of home. Tom, for his part, is also attracted to Deirdre, whom he views as sweet and straightforward and easy to get along with – unlike Catherine who is somewhat more forthright in her views.

She [Deirdre] was really very sweet, he thought, uncomplicated and honest; being with her took him back years and reminded him of Elaine, his first girl friend, whom he had known at home when he was eighteen. Catherine, being older, had already been too much of a personality in her own right, always wanting to make him conform to her idea of what he ought to be. (p. 152)

While this isn’t really a plot-driven novel – Pym’s primary focus is the observation of human behaviour – what action there is revolves around Tom’s feelings for Catherine, Deirdre and also Elaine, his childhood sweetheart. During a brief visit to the family home in the country, Tom reconnects with Elaine, and his feelings for her are rekindled. These emotions, coupled with the sense that he has drifted away from his mother and brother, leave Tom feeling rather alienated from his origins and the life he passed up to study anthropology. What does he really want going forward? It’s a little hard for him to figure out…

On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to Tom’s story, one that only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. There are the usual priceless observations of human nature, and it is often the most trivial of matters that prove to be the most troublesome, especially where academic institutions are concerned. In this scene, we gain an insight into an earlier disagreement between Miss Clovis, the new caretaker of the research centre, and her former employer, the President of a Learned Society – an incident so *serious* it had prompted Miss Clovis to hand in her notice!

The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously at fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed…whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation. (p. 7)

The activities of the other young students attached to the research institute also provide some delightful moments, especially when they try to make a good impression with their tutors in the hope of securing a research grant. In one such development, Professor Mainwaring invites four students – two male and two female – to a weekend retreat with the express purpose of observing them at close quarters. It’s an event that ends in frustration – not just for the students hoping for funding but for Mainwaring too.

There is also much to enjoy in the character of Rhoda, Deirdre’s nosy maiden aunt, who seems intent on doing a little anthropological research of her own – so interested is Rhoda in other people’s business that she can barely contain herself.

How silly Rhoda is, thought Deirdre, almost as if she were interested in Father Tulliver in a flirtatious way. She was as yet too young to have learned that women of her aunt’s age could still be interested in men; she would have many years to go before the rather dreadful suspicion came to her that one probably never does cease to be interested. (p. 150)

I also loved the character of Catherine, a bright, independent young woman with much more insight into the workings of the wider world than Tom gives her credit for.

While Less than Angels isn’t my favourite Pym, it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of her work. In writing this book, Pym seems to be saying that one doesn’t have to travel to Africa or be a qualified anthropologist to study the foibles of human nature; one can just as easily observe these things at home without any specialised training.

Less Than Angels is published by Virago; personal copy.

My reading list for the Classics Club – an update

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re having a good break.

Back in December 2015, I joined the Classics Club, a group of bloggers and readers who wish to share their views on the “classic” books they read. (If you’re not familiar with the Club, you can find out all about it here.)

In essence, new members of the Classics Club are invited to put together a list of at least 50 classics they intend to read and write about at some point in the future. The structure allows for some flexibility – each member can set their own end date provided it’s within five years. Also, the definition of what constitutes a “classic” is fairly relaxed – as long as the member feels the book meets the guidelines for their list, he or she is free to include it. All the books need to be old, i.e. first published at least twenty-years ago – apart from that, the definition is pretty flexible.

At the time of joining, I put together my selection of 50 books (playing rather fast and loose with the definition of a “classic”) with the aim of reading and writing about them by December 2018. Since then, I’ve been working my way through that list on a relatively steady basis, running the books alongside my other reading.

So, now we’ve reached the year-end, how have I been getting on? Well, I’ve read and written about 46 of the 50 books on my list – pretty good going, really, considering I took a break from blogging for the first three or four months of last year.

This was always going to be a three-year project for me, so I’ve decided to draw a line under it now as December 2018 feels like the natural end-point. While I could carry on, I don’t actually have physical copies of three of the four remaining books on my original list – and given that my current focus is to read the books in my existing TBR, I probably won’t get around to buying them any time soon. The three books in question are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Nella Larson’s Passing and Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy – all of which I may get at some point, just not in the foreseeable future.

The final book is The Leopard, which I own and tried to read a little while ago but couldn’t get into at the time. One for another day, perhaps, but not in the immediate future.

You can see my original list below, together with suitable replacements for the four books I didn’t read. In each case, I’ve substituted something relatively close to my original choice (also read in the last three years), e.g. Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy; James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk for Nella Larson’s Passing; and Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Okay, I know I’m cheating a little by doing this, but hopefully you’ll cut me some slack here. Virtually every book I read these days could be considered a “classic” of some description, so a little swapping here and there doesn’t seem unreasonable.

  1. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
  2. They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy + an additional post on the politics and history
  3. A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
  4. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  5. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (replaced with Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze)
  6. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  7. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  8. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
  9. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
  10. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  11. An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov
  12. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  13. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
  14. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
  15. Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey
  16. Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
  17. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
  18. The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
  19. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  20. Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
  21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  22. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy
  23. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (replaced with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani)
  24. Passing by Nella Larsen (replaced with If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin)
  25. The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
  26. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  27. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  28. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
  29. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  30. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  31. Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
  32. Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth (replaced with Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum)
  33. A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
  34. Improper Stories by Saki
  35. The Widow by Georges Simenon
  36. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  37. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  38. The Gate by Natsume Soseki
  39. Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb
  40. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
  41. A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
  42. Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas
  43. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  44. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  45. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  46. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  47. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
  48. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
  49. The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován
  50. Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

As for what I’ve learned or gained by participating in the Club…well, I’ve met some new bookish friends who share an interest in older books, always a good thing. I’ve discovered some terrific *new* writers, some of whom have gone on to become firm favourites: Barbara Pym, Dorothy B. Hughes, Olivia Manning and Françoise Sagan to name but a few. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to delve into the backlist of some established favourites: writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, Patrick Hamilton, Edith Wharton and Patricia Highsmith, all chosen for this very reason.

On the downside, my experience of the books in translation has been somewhat mixed leading to some winners and a few losers. Looking back at my list, I don’t think I made the best choices in this area as my tastes have shifted somewhat in recent years — towards books by British, Irish and American writers, mostly from the mid-20th century.

Books in translation I really enjoyed or appreciated include Béla Zombory-Moldován’s remarkable WW1 memoir, The Burning of the World Miklós Bánffy’s epic Transylvanian Trilogy which began with They Were Counted, Natsume Soseki’s novel of urban angst, The Gate, and Françoise Sagan’s effortlessly cool A Certain Smile – all of these come highly recommended.

Less successful for me were The Invention of Morel (Bioy Casares), Spring Night (Tarjei Vesaas) and The Adventures of Sindbad (Gulya Krúdy). While the Krúdy worked well in small doses, the book as a whole just felt too samey and repetitive. A pity, really, as the writing was wonderfully evocative at times.

So, that’s pretty much it, a very rewarding experience all told. I’ve read some terrific books over the last three years, and I think it’s given me a better feel for the types of “classic” writers and books that are most likely to work for me in the future.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on any of these books in the comments below. I’m also interested to hear about your experiences of the Club if you’ve been involved with it. How has it been going for you? What have you gained from participating? I’d like to know. (Naturally, comments on my own experiences are also very welcome!)

My books of the year, 2018 – favourites from a year of reading

Regular readers of this blog will probably experience a strong sense of déjà vu when they scan through my list of favourites from 2018, such is the familiar nature of the selection. Several of the authors listed here have already appeared in some of my other best-of-the-year posts, writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and Dorothy B. Hughes – it’s getting to the point where they’re virtually guaranteed their own dedicated slots! In other words when it comes to reading, I know what I like, and I like what I know.

Still, there are a few *new* names in this year’s line-up, writers like William Trevor, Dorothy Whipple and Brian Moore, all of whom I’d like to revisit in the future.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2018 in order of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

What better way to kick off the year than with this early novel by Elizabeth Taylor, a beautifully crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town a year or so after the end of WW2. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, packed full of flawed and damaged characters who live in the kind of watchful environment where virtually everyone knows everyone else’s business. Probably my favourite book of the year – fans of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop will likely enjoy this.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. Another excellent ensemble piece, this one focusing on the lives and concerns of a disparate group of lost souls, each with their own individual characteristics and personality traits. A wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, this claims the spot for my boarding-house novel of the year. (That said, I must mention Patrick Hamilton’s Craven House in this context – not a perfect novel by any means but a hugely enjoyable one nonetheless.)

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

A young doctor picks up a dishevelled teenage girl on a deserted highway while driving to a family wedding. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything as it turns out in Hughes’ seriously gripping novel set in 1960s America. There’s a crucial ‘reveal’ at certain point in the story, something that may well cause you to question some of your assumptions and maybe expose a few subconscious prejudices too. A truly excellent book, beautifully written, this proved a big hit with my book group.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year Shirley Jackson made my ‘best-of’ list with her gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Now she’s back again, this time with The Haunting of Hill House a brilliantly unsettling book that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence. Hill House itself, with its curious, labyrinthine design and off-kilter angles, is an imposing presence in the novel, a place marked by its complex and ill-fated history. Also central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. An unnerving exploration of a character’s psyche.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A wonderful collection of stories featuring ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front during WW2. We see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources. Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity. Probably my favourite collection of short stories this year, although Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection comes a very close second.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

A book powered by Highsmith’s trademark interest in decency and morality, The Cry of the Owl appears to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. The story centres on Robert, a deeply lonely man who finds some comfort from naively observing a girl through her kitchen window as she goes about her domestic routine. What really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off. We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the supposedly upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes. Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the plot may appear somewhat confusing at first, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing their perseverance will be rewarded in the end. The tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed, perfectly capturing the political distrust and uncertainty that prevailed during the Cold War of the early ‘60s. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

My first experience of Whipple’s work but hopefully not my last. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage, brought about by a venomous serpent in the Garden of Eden. Whipple captures everything with such skill and attention to detail that it feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. In writing Someone at a Distance, she has created a really excellent novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. Possibly one for fans of Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

After Midnight by Imrgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, After Midnight is in fact a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. A little like The Artificial Silk Girl (also by Keun), the novel is narrated by a seemingly naïve and engaging young woman, Sanna, who turns out to be somewhat sharper than she appears at first sight. A fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. My favourite read in translation this year, although The Burning of The World, a remarkable WW1 memoir by the Hungarian writer Béla Zombory-Moldován, also deserves a mention.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

This is a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical that it’s hard to do it any kind of justice in a few sentences. The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her family in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. It’s a novel shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of familial love and familial tensions. The forthcoming film adaptation by Barry Jenkins is pretty wonderful too.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

This is an achingly sad novel, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a tawdry boarding house in 1950s Belfast. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live. When Judith’s dreams of a hopeful future start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed, characterised as it is by a shameful secret. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, but to say any more would spoil the story. This is an outstanding novel, easily in my top three for the year. It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to a solitary life without love.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

This jewel-like novel, my third by Hayes, focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in Rome in 1944. Robert is hoping to make a simple arrangement with a local girl, Lisa – namely some warmth and company at night in exchange for a few sought-after provisions. But nothing in wartime is ever easy, and in times of unrest and uncertainty even the most straightforward of arrangements can run into complications. Another brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness.

So there we are, another pretty satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2018.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to another.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any minute.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last year I read and loved Irmgard Keun’s novel The Artificial Silk Girl, written in the early 1930s as a sort of German response to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. (I liked it so much that it made my 2017 list of favourites, a belated write-up from April this year.) So, when the time came to look for something suitable to read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, another Keun felt like a natural choice for me.

After Midnight was written and published in 1937 while Keun was living in exile in Europe having left Germany the previous year. Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, the novel is actually a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who had experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. It’s an excellent book, one that draws the reader in from its striking opening line.

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. (p. 3)

The novel is narrated by Sanna, a relatively ordinary nineteen-year-old girl who has fled from Cologne to Frankfurt after being questioned by the Gestapo – a move prompted by the malicious actions of her aunt as a way of currying favour with the authorities. Regrettably, Sanna has had to leave behind her cousin and fiancé, the rather unassuming Franz; but as the book opens, Sanna receives a letter which suggests that Franz may be coming to Frankfurt in the hope of seeing her again, hence the mention of an envelope in that very first line.

As the story progresses, we learn more about Sanna’s life in Frankfurt – and through this, more about the perils of living in Nazi Germany, a society where almost every view expressed or every action taken can be used against someone, depending on how they are interpreted by others.

Much of the novel’s subtlety stems from Sanna’s seemingly simple observations on the nature of life in Germany. Her style is uncomplicated and conversational with a natural flow to it; and while some readers may feel these remarks are somewhat too breezy given the seriousness of the situation, her lightweight tone belies the strength and perceptiveness of the message underneath. Sanna’s comments are frequently as astute as they are ironic when she repeatedly points out the hypocrisies of the prevailing regime. In the following passage, Sanna is reflecting on her friend Gerti, whose lover is considered to be of ‘mixed race’, his father being Jewish and his mother non-Jewish – a dangerous position given the political environment at the time.

Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? It’s hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business—business, as we all know, can be very trickily organized—and now we have to know the rules for love too. It isn’t easy, it really isn’t. Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant. Love is supposed to be all right, and German women are supposed to have children, but before you can do that some kind of process involving feelings is called for. And the law says no mistakes must be made in this process. I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that’s allowed. (p. 34)

Sanna and her friend Gerti have much the same preoccupations as any other young women of their age. They are not particularly interested in politics; instead, they just want to go out and have fun without worrying too much about the future. But the nation’s politics seep into every corner of life, to the extent that they cannot be ignored, even when it comes to love and family relationships.

While at first Sanna may seem somewhat unsophisticated and naïve, she is in fact sharp enough to see many of the dangers of living in an environment where suspicion and mistrust are rampant, where people will stop at nothing, even going as far as informing on friends and family to protect their own positions.

We are living in the time of the greatest German denunciation movement ever, you see. Everyone has to keep an eye on everyone else. Everyone’s got power over everyone else. Everyone can get everyone else locked up. There aren’t many can withstand the temptation to make use of the kind of power. The noblest instincts of the German nation have been aroused, and they’re being tenderly cultivated. (p. 100)

The novel is peppered with Sanna’s casually satirical observations, many of which are eminently quotable and on point.

Herr Kulmbach had been saying the Führer had united the whole German nation. Which is true enough, it’s just that the people making up the whole German nation don’t get on with each other. But that doesn’t make any difference to political unity, I suppose. (p. 33)

Keun is also particularly insightful on the dilemmas faced by writers under the Nazi regime. After travelling to Frankfurt, Sanna goes to stay with her older stepbrother, Algin, a once successful novelist whose books are now banned by the authorities. With the prospect of another purge of literary figures looming on the horizon, Algin is effectively caught in a Catch-22 situation – damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to using his art to express a view.

He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Führer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far. But even that might be dangerous. Because National Socialist writers might take exception to his daring to write about the Führer without being an old campaigner for the cause. Similarly, he daren’t write a Nazi novel, because it wouldn’t be fitting. However, if he doesn’t write a Nazi novel that makes him undesirable. People still like reading his books, people still want to print them, and that’s not right either. (p. 97)

As another character, Heine, observes, the Nazi regime has effectively neutered Algin’s true voice and political conscience. For the love of his wife and their lifestyle in the city, Algin has compromised his own values, putting his name to pieces that go against his personal views to evade the threat of punishment.

A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world. A writer who is afraid is no true writer. (p. 98)

Heine, we discover, is a former journalist who now writes very little as a consequence of the poisonous climate. Heine is older and more forthright than Algin, such that his criticisms of the authorities are quite explicit and direct, contrasting starkly with Algin’s effective impotence and the veiled nature of Sanna’s critique of the powers that be.

While the novel is primarily concerned with highlighting the inhumanities and idiocies of Nazism as a doctrine, it does contain elements of plot, all of which culminate in a dramatic climax towards the end of the book. The scene in question takes place during a lavish all-night party hosted by Liska, Algin’s sophisticated and glamorous wife, who loves Heine with a fierce passion. As the story moves towards its shocking denouement, the mood darkens considerably and the tension rises. There is a sense of desperation and peril in the air as several of the characters seem poised on the edge of a precipice where the chances of securing a safe outcome seem terribly uncertain.

After Midnight is a fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into a country on the brink of self-destruction. Keun is particularly illuminating on how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. The Melville House edition comes with an excellent afterword by German Studies expert, Geoff Wilkes, who goes into considerable detail on Keun’s life and literary career.

In Sanna, Keun has created a very engaging, relatable narrator, drawing on her own experiences in Germany and possibly the time she spent as an émigré in Europe. I’ll finish with a final passage in which Heine reflects on the concept of a life in exile, a proposition that holds precious little appeal for him, primarily due to the sense that one will always remain an outsider at heart irrespective of the country’s welcome.

You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you. (p. 143)