I’d like to recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Stories.

Please don’t be put off by the title. This is not a straight forward selection.

About four years ago, as I was rushing out of the library, dangerously close to my time limit for car parking, I saw this cover on a display stand. I paused to pick it up only because I wanted to be convinced I didn’t need to read it.

What led me to take a deeper look was the contents list. It was divided into four categories:

  1. Front
  2. Spies and intelligence
  3. At home
  4. In retrospect

I skimmed down the authors within them. Alongside the ones I might have expected, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, John Buchan, W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, for instance, were some unexpected ones: Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy and Radclyffe Hall. There were also plenty that I’d never heard of: Stacy Aumonier, ‘Sapper’ (Herman Cyril McNeile), C.E. Montague…

With one eye on my watch, I paused to skim through the introduction. The traffic wardens at Tewkesbury have a fearsome reputation for diligence, let me tell you.

These were mostly historic authors, should I bother? Then my eye was caught:

While high-street booksellers offer a wide selection of material for the general reader, and academic interest in the war and its literature is also high, the short story is curiously overlooked.’

Curiously overlooked is exactly the way I feel about short stories.

Barbara Korte’s introduction is the kind of writing that I hope to find opening up an anthology. It is beautifully concise. Her description of how the First World War impacted on short fiction is backed up by quotes like this one from Edmund Blunden, in 1930: ‘The mind of the soldier on active service was continually beginning a new short story, which had almost always to be broken off without a conclusion.’

I’d read enough to convince me. I booked out the book and high-tailed it down the stairs and across the road. As always, when returning to the car park in the-nick-of-time, there was no sign of a traffic warden. How is it they always seem to be in the area when I’m a minute or two late?

Over the next four weeks I kept dipping into those four sections, and finding story-gems. As Korte says:

Few stories written during the war and its aftermath were radically experimental or self-consciously modern, but many depart from conventional plot-orientated narration, resist closure and use forms like the impressionistic sketch, the dramatic monologue or the dialogue scene.

I bought my own copy and returned the library one. Since then I’ve shared this anthology with one or two reading groups.

The subject of war is not to the taste of everyone, but the range and comment of this selection is diverse, and far from predictable, and instigates some fascinating discussions. At their heart, most of these stories are subtle and complex studies in character, and draw me back to re-read again and again.

Thoughts about my reading.

After an accident with the bookcase in the hall, this week, we spent several days walking round hastily stacked heaps (note to self: it’s about time you stopped living in a hazardous muddle!), and wondering if visitors would assume my hording was heading for the kind of proportions that appear on reality tv shows. On Sunday, what began as tidying my main TBR (aka overflow) area, became a stocktaking revelation.

For a start, the collections I had been making of Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, and Iris Murdoch novels, were much more extensive than I’d realised. Luckily, I’d only doubled up on one Heyer.

But hey, wasn’t this an ideal opportunity to make spaces for future bargains, or miraculous ‘finds’? After all, I’ve got at least six tatty old dictionaries.

Why so many?

Well, the first was an eighteenth birthday gift from a family friend, the second is the ‘Midget’ dictionary mum gave me when I started secondary school. It was designed to fit inside an average sized pencil case, alongside the pencils.

The third was dad’s old school dictionary, complete with ink stains and blots; the fourth was my aunt Judith’s school dictionary; the fifth was a 1932 Christmas present given by my Great Uncle Bill to my Great Aunty Jo, which means all of them are family heirlooms.

Damn it, I’m sentimental. How am I ever going to achieve minimalism?

As for dictionary number six, it’s a Collins Westminster Dictionary with illustrations. I couldn’t possibly ditch a resource that not only lists motor-cars, bi-planes and airships as if they’re the latest technological development, but also has this wonderful illustration for the Robot entry.

There’s no date, but it’s got to belong to the 1920s or 1930s. Imagine if it ended up pulped, or in landfill… I’ve put it back beside my 1901 copy of A History Of Police in England. These, I tell myself, will be invaluable writing resources, at some point.

Then, yippee, I’d forgotten about those two scandi detective novels I picked up. Ditto the Dorothy Whipple novel, Someone at a Distance. She’s been high up on my reading-radar for a while now. As has Gore Vidal, so I’m glad to find I’ve bought Messiah, at some point.

The surprises kept coming. I did distantly remember buying the two William Trevor novels, and Helen Dunmore’s short story collection Love of Fat Men. I’d regretted getting rid of my original copy almost as soon as I gave it away.

John Cowper Powys? Brilliant, and Marina Warner’s, Murderers I Have Known. I’m looking forward to trying her short stories. My copies of her books on myths, fairy-tales and legends have been useful for research as well as entertaining reads.

After such a reluctant start, I was finding the dusting and replacing not only rewarding, but uplifting. There was, it turned out, nothing on those shelves but promises of time-to-be-spent-profitably.

Will this comprise a reading list for this year? No.

Though it has encouraged me to face up to the two large dusty bookcases in my office.

It’s also made me think about some of the blogging discussions I’ve been reading on whether to plan, or not plan, a TBR list.

Sorting books has reminded me that part of the pleasure I get from reading, is picking out a title or author because it resonates with what I’m feeling. I might be influenced by the way sunlight is slanting on the cover, or the style and size of the font, it may be that I’m reminded of something else. The tactile elements are part of it too: the weight of the volume, the texture of the paper, and the smell of the pages, old or new.

The best simile I can come up with, is that it’s like walking past a restaurant where the wonderful aromas cause you to turn, and step back to gaze through the window, and read the menu, and check your purse, and then your watch, to see if this might be a good moment to treat yourself.

Discovering: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

What I liked first about this novel, was the opening paragraph.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

This is the voice of Briseis, a captured Queen, who ‘heard him before I saw him’, because she and the rest of the women from Lyrnessus were shut in the citadel as Achilles attacked their city.

We all knew the men were being pushed back – the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields…

The story of the battle for Troy has been told many times. I can’t remember whether I first met Helen, Paris, Agamemnon and the rest of them in a book or a film, or when. Maybe it was textual references in different genres… So many writers have used Helen, Hector or Paris as a reference point for their characters that it’s probable I first heard of them intertextually.

A gauge I use for judging the popularity of an icon is when it turns up in comedy. In his 1948 novel, Uncle Dynamite, PG Wodehouse gave us Lord Ickenham. At one point, he tells his niece, Sally, ‘You look like Helen of Troy after a really good facial.

Perhaps I’ve always known these characters. They could be part of that collective unconscious identified by Carl Jung. It would explain why they feel so familiar, and it excuses me for having lazily accepting the romantic version of what the characters stood for, and therefore, who they were.

On the other hand, the story has too often been served up in segments that present the point of view of a single key character, or event. In those tellings, secondary characters like Briseis were necessary, but disposable components: moments of pathos interspersed between the big dramatic scenes. When the atrocities happened, the focus was too often on the emotions and actions of the key witnesses, rather than the victims.

After all, the women of this time were passive. Values were different. To judge the events around Troy as a love story (as we understand the meaning) is to apply alien motives to the way society was structured.

In presenting this novel largely from a female perspective, Barker re-sets the story.

We women – children too, of course – had been told to go to the citadel… Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house – though admittedly in my case the house was a palace…

The blood and confusion of battles are not ignored, or reduced. They’re vivid and bloody, but either off-stage, or witnessed from a distance.

…hearing the crash and splinter of wood breaking, I ran up on to the roof, leant over the parapet and saw Greek fighters spilling through a breach in the gates. directly below me, a knot of writhing arms and shoulders advanced an then retreated…

The main part of this story is set in the Greek camp, after Lyrnessus has been sacked. Briseis, restricted by her gender and her tenuous position as the ‘prize’ of the fight, awarded to Achilles, puts a fresh slant on the Greek heroes, even as she accepts her role.

What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it – expected it, even… Something in me died that night.

I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. that’s what he did to me. He tried me out.

Nineteen year old Briseis had been married, at fourteen, to a man she had never met. This is not a story of love. It is about necessity, and survival. Her gender may have placed her in a passive role, but she is an impressively active narrator.

For me, the heart of this story is about levels and layers of bravery. The women of Lyrnessus are slaves, without autonomy. Their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons have been slaughtered. How do they cope? Take Tecmessa, has lived with Ajax for four years.

Ajax had killed her father and her brothers and that same night raped her, and yet she’d grow to love him – or so she said. I wasn’t sure I believed her. Admittedly, I didn’t want to believe her. I found her adjustment to life in the camp threatening – and shameful. But then, she did have a son, and her whole life revolved around the child.

In passages like this, Briseis foregrounds the parts of the Troy story that have fleetingly unsettled me, and made me think about the significance of just who gets to tell any story. No wonder I’ve found myself thinking back and back to it in the four weeks since I read it.

Fragment of a tapestry probably produced through Jean or Pasquier Grenier of Tournai

Date: ca. 1470–90 (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

It seems that I should begin a new blogging category called, Things I’ve only just caught up on. Am I the last person to discover this on-line dictionary, that attempts to ‘fill a hole in the language‘? Maybe not, there are an awful lot of ideas getting threaded into the web.

According to Wikipedia, John Koenig began his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows in 2006, when he was trying to write poetry, and couldn’t find a precise word for the emotion he wanted to convey. I’ve been there, convinced that there should be a single, perfect word for some feeling or idea I’ve got, if only I could figure out the correct search terms for the Thesaurus.

Eventually I generally conclude that there are two solutions to my problem:

  1. I’m in the early stages of dementia.
  2. There never was such a word and the truth is:
    1. I’ve confused another word with it that sounds like it might mean what I want, but actually conveys something opposite, or lateral. This means that:
      1. I don’t read enough
      2. I don’t think about what I read, often enough
  3. Which leads me to realise that I can’t count, even when I use the alphabet in more than one form, so:
    1. It is possible I’m experiencing the early stages of dementia.
    2. I’m obsessing about a common phenomena that I’ve experienced throughout my life and I should ‘get over it’ and move on.

All of which doesn’t stop me from being haunted by the existence of that word I was looking for in the first place, and that’s where John Koenig’s dictionary comes into play. By the simple fact of it’s existence, it offers reassurance.

Firstly, because clearly I’m not alone.

Secondly, because a lexicographer is busy creating some of the words that I might need. For instance I think this comes close to my lost-vocabulary problem:

fitzcarraldo an image that somehow becomes lodged deep in your brain—maybe washed there by a dream, or smuggled inside a book, or planted during a casual conversation—which then grows into a wild and impractical vision that keeps scrambling back and forth in your head like a dog stuck in a car that’s about to arrive home, just itching for a chance to leap headlong into reality.

In case this seems too wordy, Koenig has also created some visual definitions that could be used to fill in the gaps in my vocabulary.

Why do I love words? Because they’re playful, like us, and continually evolving.