Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?

A day in the life of a bookworm.

I’ve been travelling a bit further to work the last few weeks, doing a few classes in the next county.  There’s a bit of a drive involved, but it’s not too far, and it’s a route I don’t otherwise see very often.

Malmesbury TownThe only downside to having a more distant destination is that I pass by so many intriguing places.  Sometimes I catch glimpses of them, and make wild promises to myself that I’ll allow time to stop off, on my next journey.  There’s always a strong reason why that doesn’t happen.

This week though, I had posters to deliver, so I needed to call in at Cirencester.  The way I worked it out, was that if I had to make the effort to find a parking space, and walk to the museum, I might as well drop in on the charity bookshops at the same time.

This, I pointed out to my busy, scheduling-obsessed alter-ego, would mean I could look for the collection of Pritchett stories I need for a future class. It would take an hour, no more.  I would count it as my lunch-time, and get straight to my desk when I got back. Who knows, I might find two copies.

The things I think of.  You’d expect by now, that I might recognise my own tricks.

I managed to resist the museum, though it’s gone up a couple more notches on my list since that glimpse from the foyer.  So I stepped briskly back onto Park Street with a feeling of efficiency.  Office workers were drifting, tapping at their phones, but I was on a mission. I threaded through them, conscious of myself as a woman with a purpose.

Actually, my knowledge of Cirencester is sketchy, to say the least.  Had anyone noticed my smug speed they would have grinned to see me brought up short, in the middle of the pedestrianized road, as the shops ran out, and I had to retrace my route.

oxfam bookshopFinally though, I made it to the Oxfam bookshop. The door pinged behind me and that calm biblio-ambiance enveloped me.  I stepped up to the nearest bookshelf.  Time dropped onto a slower cog. Names slipped past me, titles leap-frogged over each other, vying for attention.

None of them were Pritchett.  I resisted.  Kept browsing, drifting around the walls seeing titles I knew I’d never get round to reading.  That’s how I arrived at the bargain table, the last stop before the door.

There, I found a name that I’d been discussing that morning, Rosamond Lehmann.  Not a virago reprint, but a 1944 hardback from The Reprint Society. It was ninety-nine pence.  Lack of a dust jacket didn’t bother me, I grabbed it before anyone else recognised its value.

Yet again, I had followed the rule that always applies to my second-hand book browsing, and went home with a different book to the one I set out to buy.  At least, this time it was only one.

DSCF8126I knew for sure that this one was meant to be, when I found that it perfectly fitted the last bit of space on my shelf (after my Christmas reading binge).  I suppose I’ll just have to keep looking for that Pritchett.

Perhaps I’ll try one of those little towns that punctuate my route home from the last class in Wiltshire, later this week.

It’s a hard, hard life, isn’t it?

Who does own the words?

A commonly repeated quote, or misquote, for writers is either: ‘Good writers borrow, great writer’s steal’ or ‘Mediocre writer’s borrow, great writer’s steal’.  I like both, because they remind me that writers have been continually and consistently ‘borrowing’ for centuries.

If Chaucer and Shakespeare didn’t quibble to re-use plots and ideas, why should we?  I know, you’re about to scream out, ‘plagiarism,’ and that word steal does seem to imply a danger.

For the aware writer though, this is a variation on theft: a kind of homage to literary predecessors or contemporaries.  Fielding, Thackeray, the Brontes, Eliot, Tolstoy, Sayers, Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence plus lots of others in-between, before and after, loved to drop literary hints on sources into their novels – and the writing they did about their novels.

Over time, some of those allusions have lost vigour – when the original has fallen out of fashion, for instance.  Often we read past references without recognising the relevance.  Or when the story is so entertaining we don’t stop for something that seems a little familiar…  Other connections might be so subtle that we absorb them without consciously understanding the colour they’ve added to our enjoyment.

Getting back to my quotes, though, you can find either of them ascribed, variously, to T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and more recently the screen-writer, Aaron Sorkin.  My immediate response to this has always been a pedantic one.  I wanted the origin pinned down definitely, none of this ‘reputed’ business, who said it?

Call me slow, but I had no idea I’d missed a joke.

Then yesterday, I metaphorically tripped over this piece of artistry:

banksy+-+steal

It took a second look, and a moment, but having finally got there, I just had to share this with you.

I wonder, is this visual flash-fiction?

What I was taught, when I listened…

an inspector calls‘Hey, Cath, I’ve got to tell you about this,’ said Kay, as I stepped into the kitchen last night. ‘We’ve been reading An Inspector Calls, and half-way through our teacher stopped us and made us watch a video of the ending, and she completely spoiled it, because it made the ending rubbish.  I was SO disappointed: I was really looking forward to finding out what happened, and she gave us a stupid version. Can you believe it?  We actually get to read something I like, and then she has to ruin it.’

I hung my coat on the back of a chair and took my place at the table.  ‘That’s rough.’

‘I know.  But I’m still going to read it to the end, because they completely got it wrong, and I know what should have happened.  Besides, it’s a set book, so we have to.’

‘Good.  It is a great play, isn’t it?  Perhaps you should go and see a theatre version now, and get another perspective.’

‘That’s what I want to do.’

It’s lovely getting an unexpected gift.

Throughout the last three years Kay has been responding to my hopeful questions about how she’s finding her English classes with a range of negatives, dismissing some of my long-term favourites as ‘boring’ or ‘silly’. In combination with similar reports from some of my other nieces, I’d begun to wonder if my old favourites were going to become part of a specialist reading list rather than a pleasurable one.

As my gran used to say, every dog has it’s day. Maybe it is harder for children of the digital age to relate to descriptions of lives lived in the early industrial age, and classic literature will move forwards to the 1940s or later.

I’ve frequently thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t grow up with the same reading lists that earlier generations had. Authors fall out of fashion, but they rarely disappear completely.  There have been a lot of pre-Victorian novels I’ve failed to complete, and I can’t think of one that I regret, so far – I’m always prepared to be persuaded on that, of course.

In a previous post I’ve worried whether the latest methods for teaching literature in secondary schools are damaging reading patterns, but Kay’s joy in the Priestly text came from an immediate engagement with the story.  Her disappointment was because someone else had imposed their interpretation on her.  She wanted to understand the character developments and motivations on her own terms.

That’s what reading is about, isn’t it?

Stories that matter

 

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness.

left hand of darknessIf you’re not a science fiction reader you may not have heard of this author, and maybe those of you who aren’t are already preparing to skip past this post.  Indulge me for a moment though, step into another world of writing.  Why? For all the usual reasons we have for reading.

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

So says Genly Ai, at the start of The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is an envoy for Ekumenical Scope, an alliance of eighty-three habitable planets, trying to invite the world of Winter to join them in interplanetary trade.

Is it other worlds that bother non-science fiction readers? If so, think of Le Guin as your holiday guide to Winter. She’ll provide you with views of the local customs and some of the most interesting characters, explain the history and culture through a variety of voices, leaving you to read between the lines – if you choose.

The drawing of comparisons, the tracing of a ‘proper…equivalent’, is what strangers in strange lands do.  So, we mostly follow Genly, yet Genly is not quite us either: his Earth, we gradually realise, is not our Earth. It sounds utopian, with its ability to deal honestly, and it’s codes of conduct.  He seems a sophisticated contrast to the suspicions and fears of Winter.

Winter is in an ice-age.

Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh.  The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during those thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity and other principles, but they do not install them in their houses.  Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept warm in tents, who being released get frostbitten feet.  I, however, a tropical bird, was cold; cold one way outdoors and cold another way indoors, ceaselessly and more or less thoroughly cold.

If the story were told only by Genly, it would be a simple tale.  Instead it’s threaded through with reports from earlier visitors; fragments of Winter history and the events experienced by Estraven, a seasoned politician, ‘one of the most powerful men in the country’.

When this novel was published in 1969, it became part of the feminist debate about gender, sex, culture and society. Forty-eight years later the central premise, of a race that is androgynous, and remain that way ‘when kept alone’, and that ‘normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role….do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter’, seems to fit with contemporary debates around gender definitions and identities.

Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.

There’s more though.  This novel investigates displacement and asylum issues.  On some levels, it examines atrocities of the past, but in doing so, it shines a light on what is happening now.

Le Guin’s use of two narrators forces us to think about what divides or unites them.

Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible.  How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space?  It was all nonsense…my own explanations were preposterous.  I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.

Reading back through this post, I notice that I’ve been so busy presenting the subtleties that I’ve failed to tell you it is a story of incident, of movement and conflicts.  Worthy as all of the above arguments are, the real reason for reading this book is because it hooks you.  I hope it might, science fiction fan or not.

The Greatest Books You’ll Never Read.

greatest books you'll never readAlongside all of the millions of stories that I haven’t yet read, and the millions more still to be published, here’s a book that offers a tantalising glimpse of what I’ll never be able to read. This collection of essays describes literature that exists only as fragments, or even as rumour.

Imagine that – texts with such an impact that readers have described them in their writing.  Then, future generations, having failed to trace the originals, have also described what they know.  Are these myths about myths?

So, I’ve been reading a book about books I’ll never be able to read, instead of writing my own stories?   Put that way, it seems like I’ve discovered a new level in displacement activities.

But, these aren’t any old lost texts.  The compiler of these forty-four essays, Professor Bernard Richards, sub-titles them, ‘Unpublished Masterpieces by the World’s Greatest Writers‘.  According to his index, the Greatest Writers start with Virgil, and finish at Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I might be inclined to argue for a few additions, but that’s another blog-post.

When they’re done well, stories about stories are a fantastic resource for the creative writer.  Learning the background to author and text, and putting writing into its historical context, can reveal fresh layers of meaning.

Might Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales be complete?  Put aside the traditional speculations about why he never finished them, tantalising as they are, and what happens to the way we understand them?

Helen Barr, proposes that, thinking about the way the characters arrange and conduct themselves offers another, ‘more plausible explanation’ for the way the Tales abruptly end.

While the Parson’s Tale and The Retractions provide a decorous holy close to the storytelling, the preceding unruliness, purposefully or not, casts doubt on their sincerity.  In a perfect world The Canterbury Tales could be “finished”.  With its interleaving of play and devotional earnest, Chaucer’s narrative delivers a world that is fallen.

This alternative interpretation makes Chaucer’s text seem remarkably, even excitingly, modern.

Is nothing new?

Where an author’s reflections survive, we can learn more.  Italo Calvino said of his unfinished manuscript, Il bianco veliero.:

‘…the heat of inspiration – too thin anyway – with which I’d started out writing it cooled along the way, and I decided to finish the book more out of the pig-headedness of not wanting to leave anything unfinished than because I was really keen on it.

I can identify with that.  But, does all that writing have to go to waste, then?

Well, consider Stephen King.  His fourth novel got out of hand.  He’d started writing about the abduction of Patty Hearst, in 1974, but kept flowing off that plot.

…from the piles of screwed-up typescript pages in King’s waste bin emerged one of his most memorable recurrent characters, Randall Flagg – also known as the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, and the Ageless Stranger, among other names…

ChristineDePisanWriting

Christine de Pisan

So, part of my joy with these essays is the way they offer multiple views on how writers work, and why they work.

 

The other thing, is that dipping into this collection, and I do find it’s a dipping-in kind of book, I learn how many more classic/great writers I still have to read – probably starting with some of their completed texts, now that I’ve had the spoilers.

Or should I say, now that I’ve been given the key to reading them?

 

The value of a good introduction.

penguin british short story coverFor the last month I’ve been  discussing two stories a week from Volume One of The Penguin Book of The British Short Story edited by Phillip Hensher, (phew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it) with one of my creative-reading groups.  It’s been a revelation, and I speak as the owner of a long shelf of some excellent short story anthologies.

This book takes such an historic view of the form, that we’ve only just reached the point where the term ‘short story’ is beginning to be used. The anthology opens with  Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet, A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal, written and published in 1706.  Yet Hensher says:

The term ‘short story’ only occurs towards the end of the nineteenth century, although it is difficult to be quite sure when: the OED‘s first citations, which are from 1877 and (Trollope’s autobiography) 1882, seem to use the phrase as an established usage.  To a surprising degree, authors of the time do seem to regard it as a much newer form than the novel.

His twenty-six page discussion on the reasoning behind this anthology, is one of the texts that I would recommend the collection for.  It covers a lot of ground, and for the writer or the reader, provides some interesting ideas about, for instance, how short stories can work:

One of the very striking aspects of the British short story, as revealed by the experience of reading through weekly news-orientated journals, was its capacity to react immediately to events of the most public order.  Novels seem to take a few years to ruminate over the news, to develop the impact of social changes or dramatic public events on lives.

I’m a late convert to introductions, and like any transformed personality, I’ll grab any opportunity to share the results of my epiphany.

So, let me start by suggesting something radical: despite its title, you don’t have to read an ‘introduction’ first.  For novels, I generally leave them until later, and then find myself dipping back through the pages to track down the intriguing references and compare the writer’s conclusions with my impressions.

And that brings me to my next point.  We don’t have to agree with the introduction.  It’s all too easy to feel that because someone’s ideas are printed in the front of the book, they’ve got the definitive view on what the main text says, or does.  Not so.  In the same way that two people looking out of the same window (or three, four or more, come to that) will observe the view in distinctively individual ways, no two readers will understand a piece of writing in precisely the same light.

Our tastes and histories colour the way we understand stories.  This becomes clearer to me with every creative-reading session that I share. Even when we’re discussing a text that I’ve covered with another group, or groups, I discover new responses to the readings.  That’s exciting: it’s challenging.  I like the idea that stories speak to a wide audience on a variety of levels, and that they don’t have to be short-lived, disposable artefacts.

Some, though, are.  That’s fine, I read and enjoy those too.  What an introduction can do, is provide me with a little guidance, if I want to look deeper.  If someone else is giving hints about hidden depths, I’ll go back to stories that I might otherwise have passed by just the once, and opening one of those up is my idea of a treasure hunt.

From all of which thoughts, I’m lead to the interesting conclusion that introductions to story anthologies are the opposite of spoilers.

Tom-Gauld-Penguin-Book-of-the-British-Short-Story-cartoon-650x391

Tom Gauld Cartoon.

Domestic details in fiction.

Oh the subtle wickedness of Elizabeth Taylor.  Could anyone who classifies her as cosily domestic have really read her, I wonder?  Nothing much happens, some say.

This week, I began to feel that I’d been written by her.

It started after I’d been discussing one of her short stories, The Blush, with my current reading group.  We up-turned a few ideas, and by reading between the lines, set some subversive ripples into play.  I confess she’s near the top of my crowded list of favourite writers, so I like to feel I’ve made fresh readers go back to her for another look.

Returning home, I shifted some of the books smothering the kitchen table to my office.  The tidying impulse infected me, and I put some effort into the heaps that had formed around my desk.  That was when I finally found At Mrs Lippincote’s, the Christmas present I’ve been searching for since the beginning of January.  It was in the useful, large, lidded box that I’d temporarily stashed under my desk.

It is now the first week of February, and that box has been blocking access to my workspace since around boxing day…have I an excuse for this implied absence from my writing place?  Well, it was warmer in the kitchen, and seemed more economical to heat a shared space.  So can I mitigate with some green credentials?  I probably shouldn’t.

Along with the novel were several other oddments I’d half-forgotten, but would have been looking for shortly.  Beneath them was the detritus that seems always to manifest in corners, those inexplicable drifts of dirt and fluff.  Where does it come from?

spring-cleaningMore to the point, is it only me who doesn’t manage to control it?  I’ve always marvelled at those fictional characters who inhabit huge immaculate houses.  In classical fiction, of course, the space is maintained by servants.  But in modern fiction, all to often the houses seem to maintain themselves.

My office is minute, yet I don’t seem to have the skills or interests to keep on top of the debris.  As I read of Julia’s struggles to manage the house she and her family are renting from Mrs Lippencote, I caught mirrored glimpses of myself.

The disintegration of the house resulted from neglect, from the accumulation of jobs to be done to-morrow.  Cupboards and dark corners there were which Julia avoided, which she felt she never could clear out.

How can a reader not recognise the importance of describing someone who is forced into the woman’s traditional role when they are so clearly not a natural domestic?

Written in 1945, at a point when women were about to be directed back to their homes, after many had tasted the freedoms of the workplace, At Mrs Lippincote’s is beautifully, subtly, subversive.

Discussing the schooling of his daughter with Julia, the Wing Commander says, ‘They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.’

‘All Greek verbs are irregular,’ Julia murmured.

‘I think it nonsense.  What use will it be to her when she leaves school?  Will it cook her husband’s dinner?’

‘No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps.  If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards.  And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.’

‘But what use is it?’ he persisted.

‘Men can be educated; women must be trained,’ she said sorrowfully.

How can anyone not feel the tiny crack that Taylor creates here?  I wish I’d learned Greek.

Valerie Martin, describes Taylor as ‘the thinking person’s dangerous housewife,‘ and I can’t think of a better way to think about her writing.

 

Fat-Free-Literature, the quick way to kill a reading habit.

This week a statistic was given claiming that 10% of people in the UK have no books.   Really?  Not even something technical, about cooking, or a car manual?

Well, so the Aviva insurance company say.

I have friends who don’t own books, but most of them have kindles.  Some other friends keep their books under the stairs, or tidied away in cupboards.  There’s no reason why we should all be the same, and yet…stories.

bookshelfWe can’t live without them, can we?  Do you know anyone who will not tell you the story of what they did, an hour, day, week, month or year ago?

To not own a book does not necessarily mean an absence of fiction.  Stories come in so many media that we are surrounded by them.  85% of 8 – 15 year-olds own a game console.  Most games are interactive stories.

On Sunday morning I was listening to Will Self’s,A Point of View, broadcast on Radio 4.  He was talking about ‘Teaching to the Test’.  Amongst other worries he had about how education works, he discussed the teaching of literature.  Children are no longer expected to read whole texts – so they, the children, claim.  Teachers give them summaries of a novel and tell them which sections will contain the best quotes.

One of my nieces did this with Wuthering Heights, a few years ago, and recently another niece did the same with Jane Eyre.  I tried to persuade both that it was worth reading the whole novel from beginning to end.  ‘There’s no need,’ they said. Both were/are attending good schools, one a comprehensive and one a grammar, so I can’t blame a single teacher.  Which means this must be the system.

Somewhere though, if we trace this system back, was there a teacher with simmering resentments against books?  I can’t think that anyone with a love of literature would have created a system that seems designed to belittle the joys of immersing one’s self in a fictional world.  We don’t have to love all books, but surely we need to be exposed to full novels when we are young.

To be taught that all we ever need is a summary, is to reduce story.  Wuthering Heights unfolds through a series of questionable narrators, leading us to form judgements about actions and consequences. We get to know and understand what, how and why they respond to their situations as they do.  I didn’t ‘love’ Jane Eyre, but by the end of the novel, I understood her world, and I believe my world was a little broader for having done so.

Show us how to read whole books, and we’ll go on to read more, and more widely.  We’ll read with and against the flow of society.

Dumb the reading process down, and you reduce our ability to explore.  If the Bronte’s seem too out-dated for modern minds, why not set some texts that young adults can identify with?  Don’t, for goodness sake, spoil the immersive experience of discovering the gothic and other wonders of our past.  Leave them alone.  Eventually a keen reader will stumble upon them somehow.

For women, one or the other of the Bronte novels usually seems to speak to us: only to us.  How can that be possible with a book that was written in 1840s?  You’d have to read the whole thing to work that out.

upside-down-bookshelf

Designbuzz.com

 

 

 

A second visit to the Cheltenham Booker debate

It seems like the Cheltenham Literary festival has some special deal with someone when it comes to weather.  Once again, the event was bathed in such warm sunlight that I wondered if I shouldn’t be calling in to the Lido.

I was there for a fantasy event: if there had been a Booker award in 1945, which book might have won it.  The festival invited a panel of five writers to debate this in public, each author being set to champion one of the titles.  The line up was:

  • AS Byatt for Elizabeth Taylor’s  At Mrs Lippencote’s
  • Rafaella Barker for  Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept,
  • Akalla for George Orwell’s Animal Farm
  • Rachel Johnson for Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love
  • Alexei Sayle for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

chelt-booker-2016I thought that this year the choice was trickier than the one I watched last year, when two of the contenders had seemed rank outsiders.  Or perhaps, because then I’d gone along anticipating The Good Soldier was the only possible winner, I had more of a commitment to the debate.

This year, I had not done all of my homework.  A couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reading Brideshead Revisited, but there were two on the list that I hadn’t read, or tracked down as second hand copies.

I know, I should have gone out and bought them new.  The Taylor, at any rate, would have been a useful addition to the shelf I’m gradually giving over to her writings.  But the last few weeks have been busy, and I kept putting that trip to town off.  So I read the little that was available free of each of them on-line and had my preconceptions confirmed.

Taylor’s opening intrigued, and drew me in…

‘Did the old man die here?  What do you think?’ Julia asked, as her husband began to come up stairs.

‘Old man?  What old man?’

She stood on the shadowy landing with its six white doors.

‘What old man,’ asked Roddy once more, coming up and putting his arm along her shoulders.

‘The husband.  Mr Lippincote.  Oh how I wish we needn’t live in other people’s houses.’

‘What if he did?’

Yes, what indeed?  The dead cannot communicate with the living, or do harm to them.

If there had been more available than the tantalising first ten pages I would have read on.  Note to self: must put this on my Christmas list.

Note 2: no ditto on Elizabeth Smart’s novel.

It’s taken me a long time to reach the point where I know when to give up on a book, and this one will go on that fairly short list.  Even the rather passionate advocacy of Rafaella Barker could not move me to go back and read more of this:

I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.  Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten-minute intervals all through the five hour wait.

On stage, there was some debate about the merits of poetic prose, but the agreement of the whole panel seemed to be that the novel has no narrative line.

I had it in mind that this one should be the first to fall, and it was offered up for the first round of votes, along with Mrs Lippincote’s, but it was Taylor’s novel that went out at the first round, while Elizabeth Smart’s made it through to the last.  Two days later and I’m still not clear how this could have happened.

I hadn’t enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, it seemed lacking in heart.  But, if I had to choose between Smart’s description of a love affair or Waugh’s, I’d opt for the latter, despite its slow start, and off-key ending.  Not so the panel, who dropped him.

As they did,  The Pursuit of Love.  Well, it’s a nice book, a funny book, but I would have been surprised to see it win.  So, the last two books standing were Animal Farm and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. 

Interestingly, these were the books whose advocates had given the most passionate opening arguments, and perhaps that’s why the rest of the panel fell away.  All had offered literary accounts of their chosen novels, but the first three had lacked the engagement with their texts that Akalla had for Animal Farm, or Rafaella Barker for By Grand Central Station…

It was obvious that their books had touched them.  They did not just admire the writing, they loved it.  And for that reason, I’m thinking that though Smart’s novel did not, in the end win, I ought to give it a second chance, and read it through to the end.

After all, I could borrow it from the library, I don’t have to put it on a Christmas list.