Can you believe it’s the last week of Novellas in November?! I’m hosting our final theme, short classics, and my first review is of a strange, mesmerizing 1950s novella.
We hope some of you will join in with our last buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). I’m looking forward to rereading it – in one sitting, if I can manage it – on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning and will review it on Thursday. This list of 10 favourite classic novellas I put together last year might give you some more ideas of what to read this week.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954)
I’d heard about this via its recent Daunt Books reissue and was attracted to the plague theme. The spark for the story was a real-life event in France in 1951, but Comyns takes imaginative liberties. In 1911, a Warwickshire village is overtaken by calamity: first a flood and then a mysterious sickness. The first line – “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window” – sets up a jolly, fable-like atmosphere as the Willoweed family go rowing through their garden. And yet there’s death all over the place. The multitude of drowned animals soon cedes to a roll call of human casualties. Some deaths are self-inflicted and others result from rapid illness, but all are gruesome. The general pattern of the sickness seems to be stomach pains, fits, bleeding and death, all within a few days. At first, we don’t know if what we’re looking at is a medical phenomenon or a case of mass hysteria. Either is rich fodder for fiction.
Ebin Willoweed writes it all up for the newspapers, leaving his motherless daughters to do the hard work of cleaning up from the flood damage and looking after their little brother. Meanwhile, Ebin’s brutal, selfish mother presides over the household like some ogre in a fairy tale. The title (which comes from Longfellow) makes it clear that even those who survive this epidemic will not escape totally unscathed.
Comyns is entirely unsentimental in this, her third novel; those characters who are not horrible are typically passive, and the humour is very black indeed. It’s illuminating to observe how each figure responds to tragedy and what their priorities are. In general, though, it’s not a rosy picture of human nature. While I was initially reminded of H.E. Bates’s The Darling Buds of May and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, this feels darker. There is some casual racism and the morbidness probably won’t be for everyone, but I remained gripped, wondering how on earth this would conclude. I liked it enough to try more by Comyns – my library has a copy of the brilliantly titled Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but I’m also open to other suggestions. (Secondhand purchase)
Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.
Any short classics on your reading pile?
This year the Be/Ask/Become the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Veronica of The Thousand Book Project. (In previous years I’ve contributed lists of women’s religious memoirs (twice), accounts of postpartum depression, and books on “care”.)
I’ve been devouring nonfiction responses to COVID-19 for over a year now. Even memoirs that are not specifically structured as diaries take pains to give a sense of what life was like from day to day during the early months of the pandemic, including the fear of infection and the experience of lockdown. Covid is mentioned in lots of new releases these days, fiction or nonfiction, even if just via an introduction or epilogue, but I’ve focused on books where it’s a major element. At the end of the post I list others I’ve read on the theme, but first I feature four recent releases that I was sent for review.
Year of Plagues: A Memoir of 2020 by Fred D’Aguiar
The plague for D’Aguiar was dual: not just Covid, but cancer. Specifically, stage 4 prostate cancer. A hospital was the last place he wanted to spend time during a pandemic, yet his treatment required frequent visits. Current events, including a curfew in his adopted home of Los Angeles and the protests following George Floyd’s murder, form a distant background to an allegorized medical struggle. D’Aguiar personifies his illness as a force intent on harming him; his hope is that he can be like Anansi and outwit the Brer Rabbit of cancer. He imagines dialogues between himself and his illness as they spar through a turbulent year.
Cancer needs a song: tambourine and cymbals and a choir, not to raise it from the dead but [to] lay it to rest finally.
Tracing the effects of his cancer on his wife and children as well as on his own body, he wonders if the treatment will disrupt his sense of his own masculinity. I thought the narrative would hit home given that I have a family member going through the same thing, but it struck me as a jumble, full of repetition and TMI moments. Expecting concision from a poet, I wanted the highlights reel instead of 323 rambling pages.
(Carcanet Press, August 26.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
100 Days by Gabriel Josipovici
Beginning in March 2020, Josipovici challenged himself to write a diary entry and mini-essay each day for 100 days – which happened to correspond almost exactly to the length of the UK’s first lockdown. Approaching age 80, he felt the virus had offered “the unexpected gift of a bracket round life” that he “mustn’t fritter away.” He chose an alphabetical framework, stretching from Aachen to Zoos and covering everything from his upbringing in Egypt to his love of walking in the Sussex Downs. I had the feeling that I should have read some of his fiction first so that I could spot how his ideas and experiences had infiltrated it; I’m now rectifying this by reading his novella The Cemetery in Barnes, in which I recognize a late-life remarriage and London versus countryside settings.
Still, I appreciated Josipovici’s thoughts on literature and his own aims for his work (more so than the rehashing of Covid statistics and official briefings from Boris Johnson et al., almost unbearable to encounter again):
In my writing I have always eschewed visual descriptions, perhaps because I don’t have a strong visual memory myself, but actually it is because reading such descriptions in other people’s novels I am instantly bored and feel it is so much dead wood.
nearly all my books and stories try to force the reader (and, I suppose, as I wrote, to force me) to face the strange phenomenon that everything does indeed pass, and that one day, perhaps sooner than most people think, humanity will pass and, eventually, the universe, but that most of the time we live as though all was permanent, including ourselves. What rich soil for the artist!
Why have I always had such an aversion to first person narratives? I think precisely because of their dishonesty – they start from a falsehood and can never recover. The falsehood that ‘I’ can talk in such detail and so smoothly about what has ‘happened’ to ‘me’, or even, sometimes, what is actually happening as ‘I’ write.
You never know till you’ve plunged in just what it is you really want to write. When I started writing The Inventory I had no idea repetition would play such an important role in it. And so it has been all through, right up to The Cemetery in Barnes. If I was a poet I would no doubt use refrains – I love the way the same thing becomes different the second time round
To write a novel in which nothing happens and yet everything happens: a secret dream of mine ever since I began to write
I did sense some misogyny, though, as it’s generally female writers he singles out for criticism: Iris Murdoch is his prime example of the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, he mentions a “dreadful novel” he’s reading by Elizabeth Bowen, and he describes Jean Rhys and Dorothy Whipple as women “who, raised on a diet of the classic English novel, howled with anguish when life did not, for them, turn out as they felt it should.”
While this was enjoyable to flip through, it’s probably more for existing fans than for readers new to the author’s work, and the Covid connection isn’t integral to the writing experiment.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
A stanza from the below collection to link the first two books to this next one:
Have they found him yet, I wonder,
whoever it is strolling
about as a plague doctor, outlandish
beak and all?
The Crash Wake and Other Poems by Owen Lowery
Lowery was a tetraplegic poet – wheelchair-bound and on a ventilator – who also survived a serious car crash in February 2020 before his death in May 2021. It’s astonishing how much his body withstood, leaving his mind not just intact but capable of generating dozens of seemingly effortless poems. Most of the first half of this posthumous collection, his third overall, is taken up by a long, multipart poem entitled “The Crash Wake” (it’s composed of 104 12-line poems, to be precise), in which his complicated recovery gets bound up with wider anxiety about the pandemic: “It will take time and / more to find our way / back to who we were before the shimmer / and promise of our snapped day.”
As the seventh anniversary of his wedding to Jayne nears, Lowery reflects on how love has kept him going despite flashbacks to the accident and feeling written off by his doctors. In the second section of the book, the subjects vary from the arts (Paula Rego’s photographs, Stanley Spencer’s paintings, R.S. Thomas’s theology) to sport. There is also a lovely “Remembrance Day Sequence” imagining what various soldiers, including Edward Thomas and his own grandfather, lived through. The final piece is a prose horror story about a magpie. Like a magpie, I found many sparkly gems in this wide-ranging collection.
(Carcanet Press, October 28.) With thanks to the publisher for the free e-copy for review.
Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter by Kate Walter
[135 pages, so I’m counting this one towards #NovNov, too]
For Walter, a freelance journalist and longtime Manhattan resident, coronavirus turned life upside down. Retired from college teaching and living in Westbeth Artists Housing, she’d relied on activities outside the home for socializing. To a single extrovert, lockdown offered no benefits; she spent holidays alone instead of with her large Irish Catholic family. Even one of the world’s great cities could be a site of boredom and isolation. Still, she gamely moved her hobbies onto Zoom as much as possible, and welcomed an escape to Jersey Shore.
In short essays, she proceeds month by month through the pandemic: what changed, what kept her sane, and what she was missing. Walter considers herself a “gay elder” and was particularly sad the Pride March didn’t go ahead in 2020. She also found herself ‘coming out again’, at age 71, when she was asked by her alma mater to encapsulate the 50 years since graduation in 100 words.
There’s a lot here to relate to – being glued to the news, anxiety over Trump’s possible re-election, looking forward to vaccination appointments – and the book is also revealing on the special challenges for older people and those who don’t live with family. However, I found the whole fairly repetitive (perhaps as a result of some pieces originally appearing in The Village Sun and then being tweaked and inserted here).
Before an appendix of four short pre-Covid essays, there’s a section of pandemic writing prompts: 12 sets of questions to use to think through the last year and a half and what it’s meant. E.g. “Did living through this extraordinary experience change your outlook on life?” If you’ve been meaning to leave a written record of this time for posterity, this list would be a great place to start.
(Heliotrope Books, November 16.) With thanks to the publicist for the free e-copy for review.
Other Covid-themed nonfiction I have read:
- Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
- Intensive Care by Gavin Francis
- Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer and Dan Koeppel (reviewed for Shelf Awareness)
- Duty of Care by Dominic Pimenta
- Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen
+ I have a proof copy of Everything Is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki, coming out in January.
- Goshawk Summer by James Aldred
- The Heeding by Rob Cowen (in poetry form)
- Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
- The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
- Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss
- Hold Still (a National Portrait Gallery commission of 100 photographs taken in the UK in 2020)
- The Rome Plague Diaries by Matthew Kneale
- Quarantine Comix by Rachael Smith (in graphic novel form; reviewed for Foreword Reviews)
- UnPresidented by Jon Sopel
+ on my Kindle: Alone Together, an anthology of personal essays
+ on my TBR: What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year by Charles Finch
If you read just one… Make it Intensive Care by Gavin Francis. (And, if you love nature books, follow that up with The Consolation of Nature.)
Can you see yourself reading any of these?
“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.