Tag Archives: Virago

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!)

A delightful pair of Viragos – novels by E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West

Another couple of mini reviews from me – this time covering books by the English writers E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West, both published by Virago.

Miss Mole by E. H. Young (1930)

This is a lovely, traditional novel which features a fully-realised character at its heart, the resilient and ever-optimistic spinster, Miss Hannah Mole.

For the last twenty years, Miss Mole has eked out a humble living for herself as a children’s governess and as a companion to a sequence of demanding women, but her somewhat rebellious nature has often resulted in trouble and dismissal. Rapidly approaching forty with no permanent home of her own, Miss Mole accepts a position as housekeeper to the nonconformist minister, Robert Corder, and his two daughters, Ethel and Ruth, both of whom need sensitive care and attention following the death of their mother. In some respects, this move represents an emotional return for Miss Mole to her home district of Radstowe, a place that holds many memories for our protagonist which are gradually revealed throughout the book.

Unfortunately for Miss Mole, her new employer is a rather pompous man. Blind to his own faults and shortcomings, Reverend Corder has a high opinion of himself and his own standing in the community, a view that is not necessarily shared by his new housekeeper. For her part, Miss Mole wishes the Reverend would show a little more compassion and affection for his daughters, virtues that ought to be second nature to any father, especially a widower.

He was not an unkind father; he was amiable enough and ready to expand under the affection he had made it impossible for them to show him, but he seemed to Hannah to treat his daughters as an audience for his sentiments and the record of his doings and to forget that these girls had characters, unless they happened to annoy him. (p. 67)

While twenty-three-year-old Ethel is sensitive and restless and desperate to be loved, young Ruth presents a somewhat different challenge for Miss Mole, her initial hostility requiring careful handling and a softly-softly approach. In time, however, the bright and resourceful Miss Mole coaxes these two girls out of their shells, winning their affections with her charm, candour and natural gift for storytelling.

While there are many familiar elements to this story – the downtrodden spinster, the conceited employer, the undervalued children and the romantic love-interest – what really elevates this novel above the norm is the character of Miss Mole. There are times when she is too stubborn, reckless and outspoken for her own good; but then again, she is also quick, imaginative and very, very funny. In this scene from the early stages of the novel, Miss Mole is discussing the possibility of becoming the Corders’ housekeeper with her cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith, a respected member of the community who prefers to keep her true relationship to Miss Mole under wraps. Interestingly, it is Lilla who has arranged the position for Miss Mole, not Hannah herself, partly as a means of getting her cousin out of the way.

‘But won’t he want to see me?’

‘Not necessary,’ said Mrs. Spenser-Smith in her best Spenser-Smithian manner.

‘Not advisable, you mean! I daresay you’re right. What sort of a man is he? Is he brisk and hearty, or one of those gentle paw-folders?’

‘That isn’t funny, Hannah, it’s vulgar; I might say irreverent. Do try to remember you’re a lady.’

‘But I’m not. I come of the same stock as you do, Lilla, and we know what that is. Simple yeoman stock, […]. (p. 36)

This is a charming story of an invisible woman who knows that her best years may well be behind her, and yet she rarely loses hope that something wonderful could be just around the corner – even when some distressing secrets from the past threaten to catch up with her. All in all, a truly excellent read.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

I really enjoyed this classic story of an elderly woman who grasps the opportunity for a little liberation in life following the death of her esteemed husband, Henry, the Earl of Slane.

The novel is written in three parts, the first of which opens with a family gathering in the wake of Lord Slane’s demise. For the past seventy years, eighty-eight-year-old Lady Slane has devoted her life to the needs of her husband and their six children (now all in their sixties and feeling the responsibilities of middle age). Her own needs and desires have been pushed aside in favour of playing the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband on his diplomatic duties in India and the UK.

As they come together at this momentous time, the Slane children – most of whom are patronising, dismissive, money-grabbing creatures – assume their mother will have next to nothing in her life now that her husband has passed away. In their infinite wisdom, the four eldest Slanes decide that their mother must be parcelled up like a piece of furniture and sent to each of their houses in turn on a rotational basis until the time of her death. The possibility that Lady Slane might have a mind of her own does not come into the equation. As far as her children are concerned, Lady Slane is rather dim and helpless. They see her as an impractical woman, someone with no understanding of the workings of the real world, utterly reliant on her husband for everything; naturally she will be pleased with any arrangements they care to make for her.

Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of. (p. 23)

Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make. Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive—an appendage. […] She was not a clever woman. She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years. (p. 24-25)

Contrary to the prevailing view, Lady Slane is actually much sharper than her children give her credit for. Before long, she declares her intention to leave her prestigious home in Kensington to go and live in a modest house in Hampstead, a place she had first seen and desired some thirty years earlier. Her dutiful French maid, Genoux, is to accompany Lady Slane in this new phase of her life, but other than that, there are to be no regular visits from members of the family – particularly the great-grandchildren who are far too full of the joys and exuberance of youth for Lady Slane to cope with. Naturally, Lady Slane’s children think she is mad, particularly given their (utterly misguided) perception of her as an unworldly, submissive ‘appendage’. Only Edith, Lady Slane’s youngest daughter – herself an outwardly hesitant but insightful woman – has any real appreciation of her mother’s inner life.

In the second and third parts of the novel, we see Lady Slade and Genoux in their new home, their burgeoning friendship with the delightfully eccentric Mr Bucktrout, who acts as an agent for the house, and Mr Gosheron, the decorator/handyman. Mr Bucktrout’s little gestures and small acts of kindness towards his new tenant are very touchingly portrayed.

As the novel unfolds, Lady Slade is revealed as a woman of distinction, one who values art and beauty – in her youth she longed to develop her skills as an artist, an opportunity denied her by an early marriage to Henry and the domestic/diplomatic duties that ensued. Reflecting on various aspects of her life with Henry, Lady Slade is reminded of her youthful dreams and passion along with everything she has lost.

As the novel draws to a close, there a couple of developments which contribute to the enrichment of the remainder of Lady Slane’s life. She receives a visit from Mr FitzGeorge, an old acquaintance of the Slanes from India who has carried a flame for Lady S. for several decades. As a consequence, the pair strike up a gentle friendship, taking walks together on nearby Hampstead Heath. There is another visit too, this time from one of the great-granddaughters, Deborah Holland, a young woman with a passion for music, who reminds Lady Slane of herself in her free-spirited youth.

This is a touching story of a woman who finally finds a sense of freedom and liberation in her twilight years. On the whole, the novel is very well-written novel with some lovely descriptive passages and sensitive insights into the protagonist’s inner life. Definitely recommended.

I’m sure there are quite a few reviews of this novel across the blogosphere, but here’s a link to a recent post from Simon of Tredynas Days, and one from Madame Bibi lophile, which actively encouraged me to read the book. .

You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor – stories from The Blush

I’ve been reading some of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories over the last month or so, dipping in and out of her collections in between novels and other things. Even though I already had some of the old green Viragos, I couldn’t resist buying this beautiful NYRB edition of a selection of her stories curated by Margaret Drabble. The NYRB – You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There – comprises twenty-nine stories from different phases of Taylor’s career including seven from her 1958 collection The Blush. These are the stories I’m going to cover in this piece. (I’ve already written about her earlier collection, Hester Lilly – link here.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written before about my admiration for Taylor – in particular, her ability to capture a character in one or two perfectly judged sentences. In almost every case, these individuals are drawn in such a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns.

Even though these stories were written sixty years ago, the emotions they portray are still universally recognisable today. Here we see people facing up to dashed dreams, acute social embarrassment and the realities of their lonely, marginalised lives.

In The Blush, a respectable middle-class woman, Mrs Allen, gets inadvertently drawn into the private life of her daily help, the ever-grumbling Mrs Lacey. It is only when Mrs Allen receives a visit from the woman’s husband that the depth of Mrs Lacey’s deception of those around her becomes truly apparent.

He was a man utterly, bewilderedly at sea. His married life had been too much for him, with so much in it that he could not understand. (p. 117)

This is an interesting story, quite short but very effective.

Next up we have The Letter-Writers, which is probably my favourite piece here. In this story, a lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing letters to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – at a distance he had seemed so approachable and attentive.

As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again?

She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might. In ten years there had been no inadvertent hurts of rivalry, jealousy, or neglect. It had not occurred to either to wonder if the other would sometimes cease to write; the letters would come as surely as the sun.

“But will they now?” Emily was wondering now. (p. 123)

Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end. One of Taylor’s best, I suspect.

In a somewhat similar vein, we have Summer Schools, a story that focuses on the experiences of two middle-aged sisters who live together but who seem to have very little in common. The emptiness and quiet tragedies of their respective lives are thrown into sharp relief when they take separate holidays, neither of which live up to their hopes or expectations.

In The Rose, the Mauve, the White, three young girls – all friends from school – attend a formal dance. As the plainest of the three, Frances feels the most exposed – the embarrassment of being left on the sidelines as her friends are whirled around the dancefloor is all too acute.

Frances had attached herself to Charles and Natalie, so that she would not seem to leave the floor alone; but she knew that Mrs Pollard had seen her standing there by the door, without a partner, and for the last waltz of all things. To be seen by her hostess in such a predicament underlined her failure.

“Did you enjoy it, Frances?” Myra asked. And wasn’t that the only way to put her question, Frances thought, the one she was so very anxious to know— “Did you dance much?” (pp.170-171)

Other stories feature a pair of newlyweds whose first night together is scuppered by the husband’s fondness for drink; a young girl whose best friend is now married to her father, thereby putting both girls in very difficult positions at home; and a young girl who ends up making a massive faux-pas at an important function.

While much of the subject matter may sound very melancholy, there are flashes of dark humour in quite a few of these stories – particularly The Blush, The Letter-Writers and Perhaps a Family Failing (that’s the one about the newlyweds). Taylor’s ability to balance these tones so effectively is one of her key strengths.

In summary, these are beautifully understated stories full of insight, nuance and compassion. Overall, The Blush seems to be a stronger, more even collection of pieces than Hester Lilly, which may be a reflection of Taylor’s development as a writer. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction and short stories in general.

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There is published by NYRB Classics, The Blush by Virago; personal copies.

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

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

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon has reviewed this book here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

How tragic is that?

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

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far, Loitering with Intent is perhaps the most playful. In some respects, there are similarities with Memento Mori, Spark’s wonderful social comedy on the challenges of ageing – another vehicle for her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. I had a lot of fun with Loitering, a marvellous slice of metafiction about the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality.

Loitering is narrated by Fleur Talbot, now a seasoned author with a long and successful career under her belt. In order to compile her autobiography, Fleur looks back on her early days as an aspiring writer in the mid-20th century, a time when she was eager to gain a foothold in the literary world.

The setting is London, the year 1949. Fleur takes a job working as a secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a rather odd character who runs the Autobiographical Association, a ‘special circle’ designed to support a small number of individuals in the production of their memoirs. By night, Fleur toils away on her debut novel, Warrender Chase, a dark and sinister story which she claims to be a work of fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop her from taking inspiration from the world around her.

I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed. Not that I reproduced them photographically and literally. I didn’t for a moment think of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, ‘In there are secrets,’ the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself. (pp. 7-8)

Sir Quentin insists that the work Fleur is to undertake at the Association is top secret, to the extent that the opening chapters of the autobiographies are kept in a locked cabinet in his London apartment. It is alleged that the contents of the memoirs are incendiary, full of revelations that ought not to be revealed for several years in case they cause distress to certain persons still alive. In reality, however, the drafts are rather dull and poorly written. As a consequence, Fleur is encouraged by Sir Quentin to spruce up (and maybe even spice up) the texts, giving her licence to act as an editor of sorts as she goes along.

The members of the Autobiographical Association (AA) are an eclectic bunch. There are six of them in total including a French Baroness of indeterminate age, a defrocked priest who has experienced a loss of faith, and an elaborately dressed woman who was raised at the Czar of Russia’s court. Another writer might have chosen to expand on the lives of these characters in more detail, but Spark decides – rather wisely in my opinion – to keep the focus on Fleur and her immediate world.

As Fleur goes about her work at the AA, she begins to suspect that Sir Quentin is involved in some kind of sinister racket – possibly one that involves blackmail, although the financial circumstances don’t seem to fit. He appears to be quite wealthy while most of the members of the Association are not; some of them are actually quite hard up.

To complicate matters further, the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ begin to blur. Some of the people Fleur encounters in her job start to resemble characters from her novel, Warrender Chase. Certain events from her book play out in real life. Particular phrases reverberate and echo through each story as life begins to imitate art.

In my febrile state of creativity, I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was. (p. 42)

To reveal many more details of the plot might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that Spark has a lot of fun in playing out the rest of the novel, a story that involves theft, duplicity and a dash of intrigue.

There are some brilliant characters here. Sir Quentin is quite clearly a crank and a terrible snob, in thrall to a social class that is rapidly fading away.

Fleur herself is a very engaging narrator – funny, independent and a little bit absurd. She is very protective of her novel, Warrender Chase, even though she believes at the time that it may never be published. I don’t think we’re meant to take her entirely seriously, especially as there appears to be an element of unreliability in her narration. Maybe trying to disentangle ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ is all part of the fun here.

Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Lady Edwina, is another marvellous creation – complete with her glamorous tea gowns and immaculately painted nails, she has a penchant for the dramatic entrance. In spite of the fact that Sir Quentin and his housekeeper, the rather bossy Beryl Tims, believe Lady Edwina to be a little senile, Fleur quite correctly intuits that there is nothing wrong with this lady’s mind. Far from it; she is quite sharp with a wicked sense of humour to boot, all of which makes for some interesting interactions with Mrs Tims.

In this scene, Lady Edwina enters a meeting of the AA ‘as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm’. It’s a real delight.

She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?’ Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea dressed freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked Father, ‘Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?’ (pp. 30-31)

All in all, Loitering with Intent is another excellent novel by Muriel Spark, full of ideas and knowing nods to the power of fiction. (I find her a consistently inventive writer.) There are stories nested within other stories here: Fleur’s recollections of her time at the AA; the biographies of the AA members, ultimately augmented by various developments in the book; Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase, of which we learn more as Loitering unfolds.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Fleur as she reflects on her work as a writer, an observation that seems just as applicable to Spark herself.

When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism. (p. 65) 

I am a little early for Ali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 schedule, but you can discover more about her project to celebrate Spark’s centenary here.

Loitering with Intent is published by Virago; personal copy.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have written before about my love of Barbara Pym’s novels, populated as they are by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, amiable clergymen, fusty academics and one or two more spiky characters – usually female. It’s a world that seems at once both rather absurd and strangely believable, full of the sharply-observed details of a genteel English community in the 1950s. Jane and Prudence is another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life.

In this novel, first published in 1953, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, the forty-one-year-old wife of Nicholas Cleveland, an Anglican minister, and her close friend Prudence Bates, a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who lives on her own in London. (The two women first met one another at Oxford Uni where Prudence was a pupil in Jane’s English Literature class.)

Towards the beginning of the novel, Jane, Nicholas and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora, are in the process of moving to a new parish in the country, clearly hoping that they will be greeted by a gaggle of eager parishioners. While Jane is amiable and well-intentioned, she is less than ideally suited to the role of a clergyman’s wife, liable as she is to mild indiscretions and a touch too much honesty. Her frumpy, ill-matched clothes give her the appearance of a farmer’s wife all set to feed the chickens, and her down-to-earth style means she lacks some of the social graces of her predecessor, the wife of the much-revered Canon Pritchard. Nevertheless, Jane and Nicholas love one another dearly, and they seem happy enough in their new home. If only they didn’t have to get embroiled in those petty disagreements amongst the more opinionated members of the parish council, then everything would be fine.

Jane’s real area of interest is in finding a desirable match for her friend, the bright, elegant and relatively independent Prudence. Much to Jane’s dismay, Prudence seems to have slipped into a sequence of unsatisfactory, shallow love affairs – mostly with unsuitable men.

As the novel opens, the primary object of Prudence’s attention is her boss, the rather remote academic/publisher, Arthur Grampian. For some months now, Prudence has been worshipping Dr Grampian from afar in spite of the fact that he is married and entirely unsuitable for her. (In reality, she is far too good for him.) Jane, however, has other ideas for Prudence, especially once she meets Fabian Driver, a handsome if somewhat vain young widower who lives in the village. In this scene, Jane tries to casually mention the existence of Fabian to Pru without appearing to have an agenda for doing so. Prudence, however, intuits quite clearly what Jane is hoping to seed by the comment…

Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.

‘Yes – you said something about him eating the hearts of his victims,’ said Prudence, equally casual. She realised that Jane might have some absurd idea in her mind about ‘bringing them together’, but determined not to let her see that she suspected or that she entertained any hopes herself. So they were both satisfied and neither was really deceived for a moment. (pp.74-75)

In time, Prudence pays a visit to the Clevelands, the village whist drive being touted as the main social attraction of the weekend. Here she meets Fabian, and the pair slip away for a quiet drink together at the local pub. With her natural distrust of good-looking men, Prudence is a little wary of Fabian at first, but after a few dinners and trips to the theatre back in London, their relationship soon starts to develop.

Fabian himself is a very interesting character, perhaps more complex than he appears at first sight. I love this quote about his late wife, Constance, a passage that says as much about Fabian as it does about his former partner.

She had been a gentle, faded-looking woman, some years older than Fabian. She had been pretty when he had married her and had brought him a comfortable amount of money as well as a great deal of love. He had been unprepared for her death and outraged by it, for it had happened suddenly, without a long illness to prepare him, when he had been deeply involved in one of the little romantic affairs which he seemed to need, either to bolster up his self-respect or for some more obvious reason. The shock of it all had upset him considerably, and although there had been several women eager to console him, he had abandoned all his former loves, fancying himself more in the role of an inconsolable widower than as a lover. (p. 56)

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 with the most unlikely of potential partners.

Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. There is an opportunity to revisit the formidable Miss Doggett and her sharp-witted companion, Jessie Morrow, a wonderful pair of characters who were first created by Pym for her delightful social comedy, Crampton Hodnet. (The novel was originally written in the late 1930s but published posthumously in 1985.) There is also the gossipy Mrs Glaze, a sort of daily woman/help who seems to enjoy busying herself around the Clevelands’ house. Her observations on the comings and goings in the village are a real delight. Finally, there are Prudence’s work colleagues, the rather parochial Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, both of whom appear to be more interested in trying to take the moral high ground over their time of arrival at the office than in the duties they are to carry out once they get there.

Pym’s trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. In this passage, she manages to convey Miss Doggett’s self-assumed superiority over the other ladies who help out at the church while also describing their headwear.

It seemed that there was a particular kind of hat worn by ladies attending Parochial Church Council meetings – a large beret of neutral-coloured felt pulled well down to one side. Both Mrs Crampton and Mrs Mayhew wore hats of this type, as did Miss Doggett, though hers was of a superior material, a kind of plush decorated with a large jewelled pin. Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard. (p. 143)

While there is no curate here for the ladies of the village to fuss over and cherish, Pym does offer us a kind of curate substitute, the rather charming Edward Lyall, the local MP. Lyall proves to be an admirable replacement for the young innocent when he captures the villagers’ attention at the whist drive.

All in all, Jane and Prudence is another marvellous novel from Barbara Pym. Once again, she gives us an insight into the lives of her characters, women in particular, and their desire to feel valued.

In many respects, several of Pym’s central protagonists are women living on the fringes, their lives feeling somewhat unsatisfactory and unfulfilled – almost as if they have become accustomed to waiting in the wings, observing others from a distance. Nevertheless, by the end of her novels, one usually gets the sense that these individuals are somewhat better off, more content with the world and their place within in it. I certainly feel that’s the case here with Prudence – and with Mildred in Excellent Women, too.

Jane and Prudence is published by Virago Books; personal copy.