Tag Archives: UK

Recent Reads – Dorothy Whipple and Julian Maclaren-Ross

Brief thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both from the 20th century.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)

Sometimes a big fat Persephone just does the trick, and Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks proved no exception to the rule. A thoroughly enjoyable family saga with clear feminist overtones, spanning the period from 1910 to the mid-1920s.

The novel focus on the Ashton family – in particular, the grandmother, Louisa (who lives at Greenbanks), and her granddaughter, Rachel. The Ashtons are comfortably off – upper middle class by society’s standards – and traditional in terms of behaviour. In a sense, much of the narrative traces Rachel’s childhood, highlighting her growing independence in light of her father’s archaic views. While Ambrose is willing to send his sons to public school, he sees no reason to honour the same commitment to Rachel, such is the folly of educating women for fear they might prove troublesome.

Ambrose intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much. (p. 137)

Most of the men in this novel are horrendous, from the dictatorial Ambrose (Rachel’s father) to the philandering Robert (Louisa’s husband) to the weak-willed Mr Northcote (the local Vicar) – I could go on. By contrast, Whipple’s women are more considered creatures, increasingly aware that they must forge their own paths in life in spite of the men who surround them. There are hints too of the differences between the generations, each demonstrating increasingly progressive attitudes to marriage, class, education and independence than the one before. While Louisa is somewhat ashamed of the breakdown of her daughter Laura’s marriage, Laura herself seems unperturbed, determined as she is to escape a miserable relationship for one based on love.

Louisa winced at the prospect of more talk; she blamed Laura and was angry with her; then she became apprehensive for her because she was leaving the ‘safe’ life; then, watching Laura flying about her packing with a happy face, she marvelled that nothing was ever as you expected it to be. Leaving a husband should surely be a momentous, dramatic affair, yet here was Laura behaving as if she did it every day. (p. 190)

Over the course of the novel, the narrative touches on many issues and developments including bullying, infidelity, authoritarianism and social rejection. Dorothy Whipple may not be the flashiest or most literary of writers, but her insights into women’s lives are always absorbing. Overall, Greenbanks seems a much better novel than The Priory, which I read last year – almost certainly more focused in its storytelling while still conveying more than enough character development to sustain interest. Moreover, Greenbanks doesn’t go for the obvious tidy ending, for one of the main characters at least. Definitely recommended for fans of middlebrow fiction from the early-mid 20th century.

Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing by Julian Maclaren-Ross (collection 2005, individual pieces 1938-1964)

I thoroughly enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection of writing by the British author, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the man who served as inspiration for the idiosyncratic X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time.

Bitten by the Tarantula comprises six sections spanning the titular novella, short fiction, unfinished long fiction, essays on the cinema, essays on literature/book reviews, and literary parodies. While a little uneven in parts, the volume as a whole demonstrates JMR’s breadth and versatility, skilfully moving from fiction to non-fiction and back again as the sections go by.

There’s plenty of impressive stuff here from the Waugh-like titular novella with its themes of debauchery and self-destruction to the affectionate literary spoofs with their nods to Patrick Hamilton, P.G. Wodehouse and other leading writers of the day.

Much of the short fiction is very interesting too, albeit a little mixed, rooted as it is in London’s Fitzrovia and the corresponding milieu. There are hints here of the greatness to come in JMR’s 1947 novel, Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore. Other pieces in this section are concerned with the war – minor comic gems on the bureaucratic frustrations of army life in WW2.

With the unfinished long fiction, we see Maclaren-Ross spreading his wings a little, trying out one or two different genres or styles for size. The Dark Diceman has the genesis of a compelling thriller, populated by a web of characters interconnected by the effects of crime. While these pieces are most definitely in their infancy, it’s fascinating to speculate as to how they might have turned out, particularly if given the right development and support.

However, it is the essays on cinema, authors and other literary topics that really shine for me – the author’s critiques on American film noir, British features, and the world of Alfred Hitchcock are probably worth the entry price alone. JMR was a big fan of Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura (adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel of the same name), favouring it over the Billy Wilder’s much-feted Double Indemnity, another leading film from 1944.

Personally I preferred Laura by far. The dialogue was the most subtle and scintillating I have heard on a soundtrack for years; for once the script-writers had improved considerably on the novelist’s conception; from the first fade-in – the darkened screen and the sad impressive interior monologue – to the last scenes full of terrific suspense – Laura turning out light after light, locking herself in with the murderer when she believes she is alone in the flat; the murderer screwing his face up with a shudder of revulsion as he loads the shotgun […].(p. 248)

I know I’ve only skimmed the surface of this thoroughly absorbing book, but hopefully this given you a brief taster of what it contains. In summary, this is a fascinating selection of writing from a much-underrated author. One for lovers of film noir, British fiction and the seedy London milieu.

Greenbanks is published by Persephone Books, Bitten by the Tarantula by Black Spring Press; personal copies.

Recent Reads – Lanny by Max Porter, Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Some brief thoughts on a few books I read towards the end of last year, all published in 2019.

Lanny by Max Porter

A relatively rare foray into contemporary fiction for me, but one that pretty much blew me away, both structurally and narratively. In short, this beguiling, poetic novella touches on themes of community, nurturing, difference and suspicion, blending the modern with the mythic in the most inventive of ways.

The titular Lanny – a wonderfully imaginative little boy – lives with his parents in a rural village somewhere in the home counties. Lanny’s mother, Jolie, stays at home to work on her fledgling novel, an activity which allows her to maintain a close bond with her son – something her commuter husband finds harder to sustain. Meanwhile, Lanny is allowed to roam freely amongst the woods and fields, exploring the natural habitat with all its inherent mysteries. Living alongside the family in the local community is Pete, an ageing artist who spends time with Lanny after school, encouraging his creativity and flourishing imagination.

Either side of us, woods. Ahead of us, hills. Counties lapping falsely at each other over the stone plates which rough-and tumbled to form this gentle landscape. Some very old trees round this way. Saints.

We tramp down the steep-walled chalk and moss run, tree roots like sea monsters lining our route, and we discuss the passing of time.

I tell Lanny about the ghost of Ben Hart who runs up and down this track trying to find his beloved. Headless Ben Hart calling out for his girl. I’m only teasing, trying to shit him up a bit, but he replies in all sincerity, Brilliant, I hope we meet him. (p. 31, Faber & Faber)

As this is a novella, I don’t want to reveal too much about the storyline – partly as it might spoil the magic for prospective readers. What I will say is that the book is brilliantly constructed, building very skilfully to an unexpected and moving conclusion; the final third, in particular, has a momentum all of its own. I’m not usually a fan of fables or stories containing elements of fantasy, but Lanny represents an exception to the rule. This is a thoroughly engaging novella, moving seamlessly between different styles, using language and imagery to great effect. Very highly recommended indeed.

Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall

An excellent collection of short stories from one of our most highly-regarded practitioners of the form. Here are tales of family ties, sex, vengeance, mortality, grief and loss, all conveyed in Hall’s characteristically lyrical prose.

Like Max Porter in Lanny, Hall occasionally blends the real with the imaginary in these pieces, transitioning from one mode to another to heighten the desired effect. This is particularly true of the opening story, M, in which a woman enacts her revenge on a series of abusive men.

Alongside the poetic beauty of Hall’s prose, there is a precision too – one that suggests an experienced writer who has honed her craft over several years.

Winter. It is colder than it’s been for years. Inside the walls of buildings water swells, turns rigid, splitting pipes, displacing bricks. Ceilings collapse with the weight of ice. The trees are black and stiff as railings. Long, productive darkness, but at dawn, and in twilight hours, there are great studios of teal above the city. She continues to administer, to those she didn’t reach, couldn’t reach, before. (p. 19, Faber & Faber) 

Fantasy also play a role in Orton, albeit in less fantastical form – the protagonist has been fitted with a pacemaker that can be deactivated by choice whenever she wishes to die. In this story, the central character chooses to revisit her past while contemplating her own impending mortality.

Other pieces are firmly grounded in reality, stories such as The Women the Book Read, in which a man living in a Turkish resort believes he recognises a woman from his past – presumably someone visiting the destination for a holiday. It is only once the man begins to follow this woman that their history becomes clear.

In a few of these pieces, Hall does that wonderful thing of upending our impressions of a character or situation partway through, causing us to question and reframe our initial assumptions. I love that about her work. It’s one of the things I most admire in a short story, where the narrative has to make a significant impact in a relatively brief window of time.

In short, this is a terrific collection of stories – sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsettling, always memorable. There is an elegance or delicacy to certain pieces, a quality that acts as a contrast with some of the visceral imagery. All in all, a very accomplished set of stories, vividly told.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

A luminous meditation on the interminable condition of insomnia, that shadowy hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness.

Anyone who has ever experienced the long-drawn-out restlessness of a night without sleep will almost certainly find themselves nodding along to various elements with this jewel-like book. Benjamin – a writer, journalist and editor by trade – writes beautifully about her intimate relationship with insomnia, punctuating her own experiences with fragments spanning the cultural, philosophical and artistic history of the condition in a way that feels both candid and immersive all at once. Her descriptions of insomnia are lyrical and lucid, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between disparate thoughts as the mind rapidly darts from one topic to another, like a pinball machine firing up in the subconscious.

Too often my insomniac mind is stuck in crud-chewing mode. It feeds me snippets of song, meshed with advertorial-type sloganising that might, in turn, trigger a memory from childhood before pinging back to a thought-of desire (a want) or to something I saw on the internet, or something someone told me – then on again, unpredictable, inconsequential, threading and worming inside my head. Nothing is more inimical to rest and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought. (pp. 85–86, Scribe)

The fragmentary structure of the book works very well, mirroring the disparate, almost dreamlike nature of the condition itself. At times, there are passages of heightened self-reflection, instances when Benjamin comes to question the impact of insomnia on her own existence – or, more specifically, her sense of self.

What time-bending tricks has life played on me? I have honoured every emotional contract I was signatory to and yet I seem to have lost myself. At moments such as these, everything that is closest to my heart, that generates the impression of gravity in my world, gets rudely pitched across the universe. (p. 94)

This is a beautiful, wise, insightful book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives. At its core, there is a deep-rooted yearning, a sense of longing for elusive restorative sleep, all captured in the author’s luminous poetic style. A book to keep on the night table for the bewitching hours between darkness and light, to dip into as balm for the soul.

(My thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing reading copies of Lanny and Sudden Traveller.)

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Like many other readers, I have been drawn to Muriel Spark and her rather off-kilter view of the world in recent years, partly prompted by Ali’s celebration of her centenary in 2018. The Driver’s Seat is most definitely at the surreal end of the Sparkian spectrum – in fact, positively unhinged might be a more appropriate way of describing it. I can’t quite decide if it’s utterly brilliant or completely bonkers. A bit of both, I suspect, although I’m very much leaning towards the former. As soon as I’d finished this book, I immediately wanted to go back and read it all over again – one of the signs of a great book, I think.

As the novella opens, we encounter Lise – the central character in this twisted story – shopping for new clothes for a forthcoming holiday. Right from the very start, there is an anxious, unsettling tone to the narrative, one that mirrors Lise’s erratic behaviour when a sales assistant tries to identify something suitable for her. In the first shop, Lise tries on a rather garish dress, which she appears to like until the assistant mentions that the material is resistant to stains. On hearing this, Lise becomes extremely agitated (unreasonably so), and she simply cannot get out of the dress quickly enough. The very idea that she should need a garment made from stain-resistant fabric is completely abhorrent to her. At this stage in the game, we don’t know why Lise is reacting in this way, although the significance of this point becomes somewhat clearer towards the end of the story.

Spark’s descriptions of Lise are gloriously off-kilter, portraying her in a manner which suggests a frenetic energy and a buttoned-up quality to her personality all at once. There are mentions of an illness in her past – quite possibly related to her mental well-being as her neurotic behaviour has been noted at work.

She walks along the broad street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. Her lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; (p. 9)

Continuing her frantic search for a suitable outfit, Lise enters another store where she finds the perfect dress – another striking garment in clashing colours and a vivid, asymmetric design.

She swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ (p. 10 –11)

Not content with buying one eye-catching garment, Lise tops things off with a statement coat in a colour scheme that completely clashes with the dress she has already selected. Naturally, Lise doesn’t see things this way. In her somewhat deranged world, the two items go very well together, the clashing colours proving an intuitive match for her rather peculiar style.

More weird behaviour follows as Lise makes her way to the airport to catch a flight to an unspecified Mediterranean destination – possibly Naples based on various references to the area in the book. There are strange encounters with the check-in staff and other passengers in the terminal – think The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9 – a feature that continues during the journey. While boarding, Lise makes a beeline for a particular man, seating herself next to him on the plane. However, something about Lise’s behaviour disturbs the individual in question, and he moves to a different seat just as the plane is about to take off.

Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, and his hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has caused a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opens his mouth, gasping and startled, staring at her as if she is someone he has known and forgotten and now sees again. She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case. (p. 27)

I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lise once she arrives at her destination; I’ll let you discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book. Certain aspects of her trajectory are made very clear from an early stage in the story, although the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the narrative are revealed more gradually over time. What I will say is that Lise appears to be searching for someone in particular, a boyfriend of sorts. At first, we begin to wonder whether this individual is real or merely a figment of Lise’s imagination, particularly given her erratic behaviour.

Interestingly, we never really get to know Lise as a person, her inner self or emotional feelings – even when she tells another character something about herself, it’s almost certainly a fabrication of sorts. There is an unstable, self-destructive aspect to Lise’s nature, a kinetic energy that propels this woman towards her inevitable destination. In some respects, Lise is a fish-out-of-water in the liberated age of the late 1960s. Sex is of no real interest to her; in fact, she positively rejects the idea when various men start making advances towards her.

The novella’s ending is quite brilliant, casting an entirely new light on Lise’s reasons for the visit and her actions while there. Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art.

(Several other bloggers have reviewed this novella including Max, Caroline and Ali. If they’re of interest, you can find my other posts on Spark’s novels here.)

The Driver’s Seat is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Thoughts on a couple of recent reads – both excellent, both published this year.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed.

In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own.

The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)?

The failings of human nature constitute another key theme here – a fear of shame and the desire to maintain appearances both play their part in dictating Betty’s path in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts.

The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago. Then it seemed to me that all we needed was more evidence to solve it, more knowledge in the form of documents, letters, hard facts. But to my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. (pp. 12–13)

Only by repeatedly sifting these details, returning to them again and again, is Cumming able to come to some kind of resolution about the nature of her mother’s past. The need to consider all the alternatives, to view the situation from various perspectives, is crucial to unravelling the enigma at its heart.

When viewed as a whole, this book is a loving testament to Laura’s mother, a woman whose warmth, generosity and compassion shine through the text. This deeply personal story also conveys a vivid portrait of a small, close-knit community in the early 1930s, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business – except, perhaps, the central individual concerned. All in all, this is a remarkable story, exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

This book caught my eye when it ended up on the Booker shortlist, largely because it was one of two contenders that seemed to be attracting the most positive reviews at the time (the other being Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). So, when Girl won the Prize itself – a controversial decision as we know – I felt I had to read it.

In short, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant portrayal of twelve different characters – mostly black, mostly women – who together offer an insight into a sector of British society over the past hundred years. Here we have women spanning a variety of ages and walks of life, from nineteen-year-old Yazz, a street-smart young woman just starting out at University, to ninety-three-year-old Hattie, keen to remain self-sufficient in her home on the family farm. In between there are mothers and daughters, cleaning entrepreneurs and theatre directors, teachers and bankers, many of whom are forging unfamiliar paths in life – hopefully for others to follow suit.

Over a sequence of thirteen chapters – one for each character and a final after-party scene – Evaristo teases out the connections between various characters, some clear and direct, others more tenuous.

These women are bright, dynamic, resolute and determined, largely irrespective of the hand they’ve been dealt by society at large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have encountered abuse and prejudice over the years, and yet they have managed to find their own ways through it, often with the aid of sheer grit and perseverance. I suspect there is more than a hint of Evaristo herself in Amma, a fifty-something director of ground-breaking feminist theatre. Having lived most of her creative life on the radical fringes, Amma now finds herself joining the establishment with her new play due to open at the National, hopefully to great critical acclaim.

What I love about this book is the way Evaristo prompts readers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes of black women typically presented to us in films, TV and other cultural media, encouraging us to see her characters for who they really are – rounded individuals with a multitude of thoughts and feelings.

Yazz wishes the play had already opened to five-star universal acclaim so that she can watch it stamped with pre-approval, it matters because she’ll have to deal with the aftermath if it’s slagged off by the critics and Mum’ll go on an emotional rampage that might last weeks – about the critics sabotaging her career with their complete lack of insight into black women’s lives and how this had been her big break after over forty years of hard graft blah di blah and how they didn’t get the play because it’s not about aid workers in Africa or troubled teenage boys or drug dealers or African warlords or African-American blues singers or white people rescuing black slaves

guess who’ll have to be on the end of the phone to pick up the pieces?

she’s Mum’s emotional caretaker, always has been, always will be

it’s the burden of being an only child, especially a girl

who will naturally be more caring. (pp. 49 – 50)

The narrative explores many themes of relevance to our society over the past century, delving into class, race, gender, sexuality, feminism and social mobility, with some of the dialogue in the novel offering a vehicle for raising key issues and prompting debate.

In summary, this is a thoroughly absorbing, cleverly-constructed novel featuring a myriad of interesting voices – by turns exuberant, striking, funny and poignant. There is a richness of experience on offer here which makes it feel highly pertinent to our current times. In spite of the diversity of modern multicultural Britain, Evaristo shows us that maybe, just maybe there is more that connects us as individuals than divides us. A thoroughly inspiring story in more ways than one.

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus, Girl, Woman, Other by Hamish Hamilton; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

My first experience of Iris Murdoch’s fiction but hopefully not my last. Under the Net – Murdoch’s debut novel, first published in 1954 – is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, all set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s.

The novel is narrated by Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. As the story opens, Jake arrives back in London following a trip to France only to discover that he is being thrown out of the flat where he has been living virtually rent-free for the past couple of years. The flat in question is owned by Jake’s friend, Magdalen, who is worried that her new fiancé – a wealthy bookmaker and businessman known as Sacred Sammy – might not like the idea of Jake being back on the scene.

As a consequence, Jake – accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – must find a new place to live, a quest that sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape his outlook on life in subtly different ways.

There are some wonderful characters in this novel from the talented Anna Quentin, a folk singer with a stake in an experimental theatre, to her sister, Sadie, a glamorous actress whose motives may not be quite as innocent as they initially seem. Perhaps the most notable of all is the kindly Mrs Tinckham, a rather eccentric lady who runs a newsagent’s shop near Charlotte Street – a dusty, higgledy-piggledy kind of place that is always full of cats.

In the midst sits Mrs Tinckham herself, smoking a cigarette. She is the only person I know who is literally a chain-smoker. She lights each one from the butt of the last; how she lights the first one of the day remains to me a mystery, for she never seems to have any matches in the house when I ask her for one. I once arrived to find her in great distress because her current cigarette had fallen into a cup of coffee and she had no fire to light another. Perhaps she smokes all night, or perhaps there is an undying cigarette which burns eternally in her bedroom. An enamel basin at her feet is filled, usually to overflowing, with cigarette ends; and beside her on the counter is a little wireless which is always on, very softly and inaudibly, so that a sort of murmurous music accompanies Mrs Tinckham as she sits, wreathed in cigarette smoke, among the cats. (p. 12)

This novel is witty, engaging and fast-paced, much more so than I expected – the humour in particular comes as a complete surprise. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. (There is some glorious writing about London here, really atmospheric and evocative.) On one level it’s all tremendous fun.

Nevertheless, there is room for some debate and self-reflection too. Central to the novel is the exploration of one of Wittgenstein’s theories, the idea that our deepest emotions remain trapped ‘under the net’ of language, inaccessible to others in spite of our best efforts to express them through dialogue or the written word. Jake’s philosopher friend, Hugo, acts as a conduit for Murdoch’s exploration of philosophical themes – discussions that Jake has knowingly appropriated to write a book of his own, The Silencer, a past transgression which he now regrets.

The novel is also an exploration of the fickle nature of love – the kind of story where A loves B, B loves C, C loves D, and D loves A. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person; if only Anna could feel differently about Jake, perhaps everything would be okay.

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of coexistence; and this too is one of the guises of love. (p.277)

As the novel draws to a close, we find Jake in a better place, more at ease with himself than at the outset. In short, he is optimistic, eager to find regular work and open to the experiences of life, complete with its various ups and downs.

All in all, this feels like an excellent, lively introduction to Iris Murdoch’s work. I haven’t even had time to mention the Marvellous Mister Mars, a performing Alsatian who manages to get Jake out of the trickiest of situations in the nick of time…he’s almost certainly worth the entry price alone.

Under the Net is published by Vintage Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 10-12

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve reached the end of my little project to read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a wonderful twelve-part series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. It’s been a hugely enjoyable and satisfying experience, easily one of my bookish highlights in recent years. Having ‘lived’ with these characters for the best part of six months, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that the cycle is complete. The idea of revisiting it at some point in the future is very tempting indeed.

As with my previous Powell posts, I’m going to touch on some of the highlights from the final volumes in the series – hopefully relatively spoiler-free, although there may be the occasional mention of a key development here or there.

Books Do Furnish a Room (book 10 in the sequence), sees Jenkins in a contemplative, melancholic mood as he returns to his old University to gather material for a forthcoming book on Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a tone reflected in the bleak and wistful atmosphere of post-war British life, replete with its deficiencies and uncertainties.

This is a very ‘literary’ instalment in the series, one that revolves around books, writers, critics and publishers – in particular, those connected to the newly-established publishing house Quiggin & Craggs. Jenkins is engaged by Q&C to commission and manage literary reviews, a role which brings him into contact with the author X Trapnel, an idiosyncratic character who enjoys perpetuating his own somewhat legendary urban myth. (For the interested, it is well-documented that Powell drew on the figure of the talented but troubled writer Julian Maclaran-Ross, author of the excellent novel Of Love and Hunger, as inspiration for this character.)

X Trapnel – or ‘Trappy’ as he is affectionately known – is a marvellous creation, undoubtedly one of Powell’s finest across the series. In spite of his hand-to-mouth existence and frequent shuttling from one down-at-heel Bloomsbury hotel to another, Trappy gives the impression of being something of a dandy with his tropical suit, grey suede brothel-creepers and flamboyant, skull-topped walking stick.

The walking stick struck a completely different note. Its wood unremarkable, but the knob, ivory, more likely bone, crudely carved in the shape of a skull, was rather like old Skerrett’s head at Erridge’s funeral. This stick clearly bulked large in Trapnel equipment. It set the tone far more than the RAF greatcoat or tropical suit. For the rest he was hatless, wore a dark blue sports shirt frayed at the collar, an emerald green tie patterned with naked women, was shod in grey suede brothel-creepers. These last, then relatively new, were destined to survive a long time, indeed until their rubber soles, worn to the thinness of paper, had become all but attached from fibreless uppers, sounding a kind of dismal applause as they flapped rhythmically against the weary pavement trodden beneath. (p. 106, book 10)

Naturally, Trappy’s preferred mode of transport is the taxi – not only to avoid descending to the undesirable level of the bus or tube but to provide some protection from loitering bailiffs hoping to serve writs for outstanding debts. Irrespective of his precarious financial position, Trappy never hesitates in spending his last few shillings on a taxi, a touch that adds to the air of panache he chooses to adopt when facing the outside world. As a character, he is continually playing a role, always performing to the gallery in one form or another.

Once again, Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) astute powers of observation come to the fore in capturing this individual’s trademark characteristics, complete with all their various tensions and contradictions.

Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, and opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age. Each of these ambitions had something to recommend it from one angle or another, with the possible exception of being poor – the only aim Trapnel now achieved with an unqualified mastery. (pp. 144-145, book 10)

As with previous volumes, humour plays a vital role in these books, balancing the poignant developments with some lighter moments here and there. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent of sadness running through the twilight of the series, a sense of loneliness and disenchantment in an uncertain, shifting world. Allusions to classical Greek myths also play their part, particularly in books 11 and 12, Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies respectively.

Several familiar faces make welcome reappearances here, most notably Quiggin, Sillery, Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton. There are some classic ‘Pamela’ moments in these books, powered by this character’s unpredictable, fiery nature – a veritable tour-de-force of hostility and disdain. In this scene, Widmerpool (now a member of the House of Lords) tries to capture Pamela’s attention following his arrival in Venice, albeit rather unsuccessfully.

Pamela threw him a glance. Her manners suggested that a man – a very unprepossessing man at that – was trying to pick her up in a public place; some uncouth sightseer, not even a member of the Conference, having gained access to the Palazzo because the door was open, was now going round accosting ladies encountered there. Widmerpool persisted. (p. 105, book 11)

The spectral Mrs Erdleigh – first glimpsed in book 3, The Acceptance World – also pops up again, just when you least expect it.

Age – goodness knows how old she was – had exalted Mrs Erdleigh’s unsubstantiality. She looked very old indeed, yet old in an intangible, rather than corporeal sense. Lighter than air, disembodied from a material world, the swirl of capes, hoods, stoles, scarves, veils, as usual encompassed her from head to foot, all seeming of so light a texture that, far from bringing an impression of accretion, their blurring of hard outlines produced a positively spectrum effect, a Whistlerian nocturne in portraiture, sage greens, sombre blues, almost frivolous grays, sprinkled with gold. (pp. 241-242)

Alongside these regulars, Powell adds some new characters to the mix – most notably two Americans, the biographer Gwinnett and the film producer Glober, both of whom share an interest in X Trapnel’s work. Oddly enough, these two men also become entangled with the infamous Pamela, albeit in their rather different ways.

Another memorable character making his mark is Scorpio Murtlock, the enigmatic leader of a strange cult with a penchant for night-time rituals and various risqué practices. The battles for power, which have always formed an important thematic strand within the series, are in evidence once again, this time with Murtlock’s cult playing a crucial role.

With the final two volumes in particular, there is a sense of the series drawing to a close, of the old guard moving on in mind, body and spirit. The twin spectres of ageing and impending mortality haunt these books with funeral services offering the main opportunities to catch up with old acquaintances and to reminisce about the past.

Widmerpool continues to loom large in the proceedings, although his standing and reputation in society are now very much in decline. The final chapters of the sequence bring a strong sense of closure to his story, culminating in a remarkable denouement that feels at once both shocking and strangely fitting, particularly given this character’s rather idiosyncratic personality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is an element of the narrative coming full circle, harking back to our very first image of Widmerpool emerging out of the mist during an afternoon run at school. A truly memorable end to this richly rewarding series.

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A week or so ago, I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1972 novel, Odd Girl Out, which I mostly enjoyed. The preceding EJH, Something in Disguise (1969) proved to be a less satisfying read for me, a somewhat uneven novel compared to either After Julius (1965) or Odd Girl Out. More about the reasons for this a little later.

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In short, Disguise could be thought of as a family saga, one that delves into the challenging nature of relationships, particularly those between husbands and wives. Central to the family is May, whose first husband was killed many years earlier in the Second World War. May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.

Both partners have grown-up children from their former marriages. May has two: twenty-four-year old Oliver, a bright, easy-going chap who would much rather find a wealthy young woman to marry than earn a living by getting a job; and twenty-year-old Elizabeth, a caring, idealistic young woman looking to make her own way in life. (As the novel opens, Elizabeth somewhat reluctantly leaves the Surrey home to join Oliver at his flat in London, chiefly as a means of escape from Herbert and his annoyingly boorish ways.)

Completing the ‘family’ is Herbert’s daughter, Alice, a shy, guileless young woman just setting out on married life with her much older husband, Leslie – another conceited bore with little concern for others. (In truth, Alice is so desperate to get away from her father that she accepts a proposal of marriage from the first man who shows an interest in her, almost from fear that there may never be another.) The following quote – taken from a discussion between the couple on their wedding night – captures Leslie’s attitude in a nutshell.

[Leslie] ‘Well – it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect me to be completely inexperienced at my age – now would it?’

[Alice] ‘No.’

‘I’m not – you see. Not at all inexperienced: quite the reverse – you might say. I’ve been – intimate – with quite a number of women. I’ve never known them well,’ he added hastily, ‘you understand what I mean, don’t you Alice?’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean, naturally, they weren’t the sort of women you’d expect me to have known well. That wasn’t their function if you take me. But it does mean that I know a good deal about a certain side of life. That’s necessary for men. For women – of course – it’s different. I don’t suppose – well I wouldn’t expect you to know anything at all about that.’ He finished his brandy and looked at her expectantly. ‘No.’

‘Of course not.’ He seemed at once to be both uplifted and disheartened by this. (p. 38)

Much of the novel’s ‘action’ revolves around Elizabeth and her relationship with John Cole, a wealthy, attentive man whom she meets in the course of her work, cooking dinners for private clients in the upmarket areas of London. In short, John sweeps Elizabeth off her feet, whisking her away to a villa in the South of France, one of his many luxurious properties in exotic places. Their affair is passionate, idyllic and rather unrealistic – to the point where it all begins to feel rather silly. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges for the couple along the way, not least in the form of John’s daughter, Jennifer, a spoilt brat who does her utmost to thwart her father’s new relationship. The fact that Elizabeth is the same age as Jennifer herself makes the situation seem all the more galling.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, May is starting to feel the strain of life on her own with Herbert, without any of the children present to offer their support. As the days slip by, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. A visit from Elizabeth – who is left reeling from Jennifer’s impact on her relationship with John – should prove beneficial to May. However, both women shy away from opening up about what is really going on in their lives, preferring instead to pretend that everything is okay.

In spite of this novel’s flaws – the rather uneven quality, the unrealistic scenarios, the overly romanticised view of certain relationships – there are some real moments of insight here, particularly in the portrayal of May’s relationship with Herbert. The following observation is very telling, hinting at the Colonel’s selfish, duplicitous nature, something that becomes increasingly apparent as the novel progresses. (The novel’s title, Something in Disguise, does feel rather apt.)

Herbert was sitting in his large chair with his head thrown back listening to the cricket news from a small and badly serviced radio resting on the arm of his chair. A whiskey and soda lay within his grasp. When he became aware of Elizabeth, he went through the bizarre and contradictory motions of not getting up out of his chair although he knew he should: or, possibly, seeming to get up out of his chair and then not managing it because he was listening too hard to the radio. Elizabeth took advantage of this pantomime to make signs at the drink and herself, and with the barest flicker of hesitation, he seemed to agree. Luckily for her, the drink was still unlocked… (pp. 180-181)

Some of the secondary characters are particularly well-drawn, most notably Alice, who is utterly miserable in her new life with Leslie, trapped in a pokey bungalow not far from her husband’s family. Rosemary (Leslie’s nosy sister) is utterly believable, in spite of only being glimpsed in brief. Pregnant, lonely and homesick, Alice misses her cat, Claude, terribly, a situation made all the more painful by the gift of a demanding puppy from Leslie’s beloved mother – a well-meaning gesture that completely misses the mark.

Ultimately, the novel builds to a rather dramatic denouement with two shocking incidents playing out virtually simultaneously. Once again, there are credibility issues here with least one of the developments – that involving Elizabeth and John – feeling somewhat brutal and unnecessary.

Having now read a few of this author’s novels, I am coming to the realisation that many of the scenarios created by EJH are deliberately designed to highlight the rather unrealistic, idealised vision of marriage held by society at the time. There is a sense that she is highlighting the foolishness of the women who fall into these traps – particularly those who buy into the highly romanticised vision of love at first sight, many of whom discover that the reality is much less fulfilling than the idealistic vision they were led to believe. Equally, others drift from one doomed relationship to another, hopelessly clinging to unsuitable men in spite of the knowledge that they will almost certainly end up damaged as a result. There are glimpses of hope amidst the pain and oppression of delusion, but these are relatively few and far between.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.