Hotel life.

This week Elizabeth Bowen took me to the Italian Riviera. It was 1927. There, I watched a group of seasoned travellers fritter their lives away in aimless drifting.

The start of the story had promise.

Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again.

I was prepared to like Miss Fitzgerald. All kinds of situations were possible. I rarely read the blurb on the back cover. It’s usually either wrong, or gives away key moments. So I had no expectations.

Inside the hotel, Miss Pym responds to the same situation.

She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters – tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase.

Something momentous has happened. Miss Fitzgerald has made a ‘violent exit’ from Miss Pym. She has said something terrible, ‘discharged with such bitterness of finality‘. The phrasing hints at secrets shared in trust, and weaponized in moments of crisis.

What I admire about Bowen is her economy. She moves the story forwards and backwards at the same time.

‘At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive-trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.

If only we could have stayed with these two women. By the second page, though, Mrs Kerr enters. She ‘stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility‘. Who is she? What is she? It’s hard to say.

Though she is a focus of the attention of most characters, we’re not allowed access to her thoughts. Occasionally she tells someone about her emotions, but I’m not sure I always believe her.

Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring’s pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.

That’s as close as we get. I read on because I trust Bowen. She’d presented me with a group of repressed Brits sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and tennis in a sultry foreign landscape, surely something must break.

Theo Champion (1887 – 1952)

There were moments when I was interested. Passion is suggested and characters behave badly. There was comedy and some farce. But the truth is, I didn’t care. I tried to, but I began to feel that really, Bowen didn’t want that.

The guests at the Italian Villa mostly kept mannered distances from me, as well as each other, even in moments of tension. In our previous meetings, Elizabeth Bowen’s been a wonderful hostess. She’s introduced fascinating people, who’ve shared their joys and heartbreaks, and I’ve been sorry to reach the last pages of their stories.

I began to question whether this disconnect was a problem with me. Was I meant to be so conscious that these characters have too much money and luxury? A lot of literature produced up to this point in the twentieth century focused on the rich and privileged, and I don’t usually complain about it.

There was one exchange that offered an alternative explanation. On a rainy afternoon, as Joan, one of three pretty sisters, is writing a letter, Colonel Duperrier, who is a little younger than her father, starts a conversation about one of the few eligible young men in the hotel.

‘Can’t young Ammering get a job?’

‘No he can’t,’ Joan said defensively. ‘It worries him awfully. The War’s come very hard indeed on our generation. I don’t think people understand a bit.’

‘Perhaps they don’t,’ said Colonel Duperrier, who had also fought.

‘We have to make allowances for ourselves,’ continued Joan. ‘You see, nobody makes them for us. I know young people are always supposed to be fearfully idealistic and that sort of thing, but I suppose we can’t help feeling that, considering how hard things are on us, we aren’t really so bad.’

Perhaps, then, the novel intended me to feel uncomfortable. In this 1927 view life has not changed for the better, for the privileged at any rate. There is an emptiness at the heart of their comfortable lives. Behaviour, sex, class, marriage, careers and education all come under the spotlight.

I stuck it out to the end of the novel, and I’m glad to have read it. But it’s not one I’ll be keeping.

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I’d like to recommend ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’

This, Maria Donovan’s first novel, is good. I’ve been enjoying reading her short stories ever since I discovered ‘Pumping up Napoleon‘, in Mslexia magazine, some years ago.

If the truth be told, I’ve looked out for her. I’ve not been disappointed. She’s taken me on an interesting range of short, but often resonant, journeys. What I’ve liked is her humour, humanity and inventiveness. Brevity, I’ve thought, was her forte. So when I stumbled onto her blog site, and discovered she had recently written a novel, I wondered what to expect.

I’m always a little nervous when writers shift from one form to another. It’s a long time since I believed that authors who produce short fiction are practising, building up to the moment when they will write their novel, or that novelists turning to the short forms are clear about how they can work.

It’s true there are some shared skills, in the two forms. Could I list them? Certainly, though if I tried to now, you, or I, would immediately name some short story or novel that refuted my proof. Since I’d rather not set myself up to fail, I’ll get back to talking about this novel.

Let’s start with the first line. It should be good. It should interest/intrigue the reader.

The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

I’m hooked. Apart from the murder, I want to know how anyone can be poisoned using a cheese sandwich. Who is this narrator? Almost as that question is forming, it’s being answered.

Break time he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic? George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.

The first page of this novel is a master class in how to deliver information without stepping to one side and entering lecture mode. Our narrator, the voice that we have to decide whether to trust or not, is that of a twelve-year old boy, Michael. Reading him, I was thrown right back to my junior school days again. His interests, his questing connection to the world, even his reminiscences seemed true. Had you forgotten that children have a view of the past too?

Janey’s birthday is in April and mine is October so she started school before me. Sometimes her mum looked after me, and I would curl up in an armchair on rainy afternoons and doze and dream, waiting for Janey to come back in her uniform smelling of pencils. I was happy when I first started school, because I knew Janey would be there.

Creating an authentic child-voice is tricky. The author must hold firmly to the sight and understanding that belongs in the age group. Their vocabulary might be fairly sophisticated, but it cannot imply an adult understanding of all that they see. Though it can ape an adult view, as in Michael’s idyllic description of how his life used to be:

Photo from Newsflare

You could knock on anyone’s door, open it, call out hello and just walk in. Sometimes I used to climb through the dog flap in Irma’s kitchen door and help myself to biscuits. If she came home and found me sitting at the kitchen table she didn’t mind. When the dog died she still kept the dog flap and though Janey said it was for the dog’s ghost, so he could come and go, I knew it was for me.

The beauty of using a child narrator is that it forces the reader to become involved. The other day, one of my students was asking about unreliable narrators. This novel is a lovely demonstration of how naivety can create that effect. The view of a child is, generally, limited, not always because of their lack of size. Adults have shaped their world, for good or bad reasons.

Ted is the only thing I have that was my dad’s. Before he met my mum and ‘went to the bad’. I’m not really sure what bad they went to. Nan won’t talk about it.

I’m not going to tell you much more either, in case I give the game away. This is one of those novels that both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be. It’s called The Chicken Soup Murder because there is chicken soup, and Michael believes that a murder has happened. There are moments when lives hang in the balance.

There are also revelations about various types of death and lives and, even, sex. It’s a story about growing up, family, love, grief, friendships and determination. It’s set in 2012, on a Dorset street, and visits Cardiff. There, that should be enough to wet the appetite.

Bridport Boxing-Day swim, photo from Bridport News.

I’ve just read Stoner, by John Williams. Do you know it?

The blurb on the cover says this is ‘the greatest novel you’ve never read’. High praise indeed, and maybe it carries some credibility coming from the Sunday Times, though does that include in America?

When my brother handed me the novel he said, ‘You ought to try this. It’s interesting.’

‘In what way?’ I probed.

‘It’s different,’ he said. ‘Unusual.’

‘But you liked it?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘I kept reading it.’

I could get no further comment from him, so having a few moments to spare the other day, I skipped past John McGahern’s introduction and looked at the first page of story.

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

This was not the usual sort of hook. I could see no hints of a great issue to be solved, no situation that needed to be explored. Where was the characterisation? It read like an obituary notice. What, I wondered, was the book offering? So far there was no hope that William might be an Indiana Jones type, with a secret second occupation. Perhaps I needed to read a little further.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

What? The central character will be dead by the end of the novel, and has so little charisma that his students can’t remember him? I haven’t met him yet, and I’m wondering why I should want to.

Yet, I read on. Was I, perhaps, influenced by that recommendation on the cover? Not really. I’ll admit to a contrary streak that makes me suspicious of statements like those, particularly when they’re plastered to the front of re-issued novels.

It wasn’t my brother’s recommendation that kept me reading, either. Much as I love him, I value the fact that our tastes in the arts are individual.

It was, in the first place, the writing I fell for. I liked the apparent simplicity.

He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University.

There is an elegance in presenting the concrete details without flamboyance. The story, this style seemed to promise, was yet to come. The first nineteen years of William’s life is covered in two pages, because it needs no more. It describes, without detail, the long hours of monotonous labour that are small-farm-life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then do we move in closer to the characters.

His father shifted his weight on the chair. He looked at his thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away.

This is economy. Here is no high drama, it is a domestic scene. Look at how William takes his father’s suggestion that he should go to the new school at the University in Columbia, the College of Agriculture:

William spread his hands on the tablecloth, which gleamed dully under the lamplight. He had never been further from home than Booneville, fifteen miles away. He swallowed to steady his voice.

I was four pages into the novel, and I believed it. From that point, I stopped counting. I forgot to notice how the pages turned, or the morning passing. It’s not a long novel. I finished it by lunchtime.

To tell you more would be to spoil what is a beautifully paced and presented tale-of-a-life. If you’re looking for a new read, I’m recommending this book, though I offered it to a visitor a couple of days later, and she said, ‘Read it. I hated it.’

When I saw my brother again, I pushed him for an opinion, but he wasn’t to be shifted. ‘Odd,’ he said. ‘Not like anything else I’ve read.’ So I suppose that will have to do.

I hear there’s talk of turning it into a film. I don’t think I’ll want to watch it. Talking through a book is one thing, seeing how someone else envisions and understands it, that’s a wholly different type of spoiler.