This winter has been a disappointment: it’s bloody cold, but with no snow. It’s impossible to keep our house warm, even with extra loft insulation and new double-glazed windows (home ownership is boring and overrated), so I’m ready for signs of spring. Maybe by the time I review a second batch of seasonal reads in February, winter will truly be on its way out.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)
This was our January book club read. We’d had good luck with Gale before: his Notes from an Exhibition received our joint highest rating ever. As he’s often done in his fiction, he took inspiration from family history: here, the story of his great-grandfather Harry Cane, who emigrated to the Canadian prairies to farm in the most challenging of conditions. Because there is some uncertainty as to what precipitated his ancestor’s resettlement, Gale has chosen to imagine that Harry, though married and the father of a daughter, was in fact gay and left England to escape blackmailing and disgrace after his affair with a man was discovered.
There are very evocative descriptions of the pioneer life, lightened for Harry by his relationship with his closest neighbours, siblings Petra and Paul. The novel covers the First World War and the start of the Spanish flu epidemic, which provide much fodder for melodrama, but somehow I don’t mind it from Gale. Harry himself is so diffident as to seem blank, but that means he is free to become someone else in a new land. My other main criticism would be that the villain is implausibly evil. Some of our book club members also thought there were too many coincidences. Gale really makes you feel for these characters and their suffering, though. Sexuality and mental health, both so misunderstood at that time, are the two main themes and he explores them beautifully. In that both are historical fiction where homosexuality is simply a fact of life, not a titillating novelty, this reminded me a lot of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. (Free from mall bookshop)
A Winter Book: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson (2006)
[Translated from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart]
A brief second review for Nordic FINDS. It’s the third time I’ve encountered some of these autofiction stories: this was a reread for me, and 13 of the pieces are also in Sculptor’s Daughter, which I skimmed from the library a few years ago. And yet I remembered nothing; not a single one was memorable. Most of the pieces are impressionistic first-person fragments of childhood, with family photographs interspersed. In later sections, the protagonist is an older woman, Jansson herself or a stand-in. I most enjoyed “Messages” and “Correspondence,” round-ups of bizarre comments and requests she received from readers. Of the proper stories, “The Iceberg” was the best. It’s a literal object the speaker alternately covets and fears, and no doubt a metaphor for much else. This one had the kind of profound lines Jansson slips into her children’s fiction: “Now I had to make up my mind. And that’s an awful thing to have to do” and “if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.” A shame this wasn’t a patch on The Summer Book. (Free from a neighbour)
Original rating in 2012:
And a DNF:
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin (1983)
Laila (Big Reading Life) and I attempted this as a buddy read, but we both gave up on it. I got as far as page 53 (in the 600+-page pocket paperback). The premise was alluring, with a magical white horse swooping in to rescue Peter Lake from a violent gang. I also appreciated the NYC immigration backstory, but not the adjective-heavy wordiness, the anachronistic exclamations (“Crap!” and “Outta my way, you crazy midget” – this is presumably set some time between the 1900s and 1920s) or the meandering plot. It was also disturbing to hear about Peter’s sex life when he was 12. From a Little Free Library (at Philadelphia airport) it came, and to a LFL (at the Bar Convent in York) it returned. Laila read a little further than me, enough to tell the library patron who recommended it to her that she’d given it a fair try.
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
I’m sneaking in under the wire here with a couple more reviews for the literature in translation week of Novellas in November. These both happen to be translated from the French, and attracted me for their medical themes: the one ponders the Ebola crisis in Africa, and the other presents a soldier who returns from war with disfiguring facial injuries.
In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales by Véronique Tadjo (2017; 2021)
[Translated from the French by the author and John Cullen; Small Axes Press; 133 pages]
This creative and compassionate work takes on various personae to plot the course of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–16: a doctor, a nurse, a morgue worker, bereaved family members and browbeaten survivors. The suffering is immense, and there are ironic situations that only compound the tragedy: the funeral of a traditional medicine woman became a super-spreader event; those who survive are shunned by their family members. Tadjo flows freely between all the first-person voices, even including non-human narrators such as baobab trees and the fruit bat in which the virus likely originated (then spreading to humans via the consumption of the so-called bush meat). Local legends and songs, along with a few of her own poems, also enter into the text.
Like I said about The Appointment, this would make a really interesting play because it is so voice-driven and each character epitomizes a different facet of a collective experience. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with Covid – “you have to keep your distance from other people, stay at home, and wash your hands with disinfectant before entering a public space” – none of which could have been in the author’s mind when this was first composed. Let’s hope we’ll soon be able to join in cries similar to “It’s over! It’s over! … Death has brushed past us, but we have survived! Bye-bye, Ebola!” (Secondhand purchase)
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (2014; 2021)
[Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter; 172 pages]
With Remembrance Day not long past, it’s been the perfect time to read this story of a family reunited at the close of the First World War. Jeanne Caillet makes paper flowers to adorn ladies’ hats – pinpricks of colour to brighten up harsh winters. Since her husband Toussaint left for the war, it’s been her and their daughter Léonie in their little Paris room. Luckily, Jeanne’s best friend Sidonie, an older seamstress, lives just across the hall. When Toussaint returns in October 1918, it isn’t the rapturous homecoming they expected. He’s been in the facial injuries department at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, and wrote to Jeanne, “I want you not to come.” He wears a white mask over his face, hasn’t regained the power of speech, and isn’t ready for his wife to see his new appearance. Their journey back to each other is at the heart of the novella, the first of Villeneuve’s works to appear in English.
I loved the chapters that zero in on Jeanne’s handiwork and on Toussaint’s injury and recovery (Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art, is currently writing a book on early plastic surgery; I’ve heard it also plays a major role in Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You – both nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize), and the two gorgeous “Word is…” litanies – one pictured below – but found the book as a whole somewhat meandering and quiet. If you’re keen on the time period and have enjoyed novels like Birdsong and The Winter Soldier, it would be a safe bet. (Cathy’s reviewed this one, too.)
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
(In a nice connection with a previous week’s buddy read, Villeneuve’s most recent novel is about Helen Keller’s mother and is called La Belle Lumière (“The Beautiful Light”). I hope it will also be made available in English translation.)
I announced a few new TBR reading projects back in May 2020, including a Four in a Row Challenge (see the ‘rules’, such as they are, in my opening post). It only took me, um, nearly 11 months to complete a first set! The problem was that I kept changing my mind on which four to include and acquiring more that technically should go into the sequence, e.g. McCracken, McGregor; also, I stalled on the Maupin for ages. But here we are at last. Debbie, meanwhile, took up the challenge and ran with it, completing a set of four novels – also by M authors, clearly a numerous and tempting bunch – back in October. Here’s hers.
I’m on my way to completing a few more sets: I’ve read one G, one and a bit H, and I selected a group of four L. I’ve not chosen a nonfiction quartet yet, but that could be an interesting exercise: I file by author surname even within categories like science/nature and travel, so this could throw up interesting combinations of topics. Do feel free to join in this challenge if, like me, you could use a push to get through more of the books on your shelves.
Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)
[Translated from the Hungarian by Carol Brown Janeway]
My first work of Hungarian literature.* This was a random charity shop purchase, simply because I’m always trying to read more international literature and had enjoyed translations by Carol Brown Janeway before. In 1940, two old men are reunited for the first time in 41 years at a gloomy castle, where they will dine by candlelight and, over the course of a long conversation, face up to the secret that nearly destroyed their friendship. This is the residence of 75-year-old Henrik, usually referred to as “the General,” who lives alone apart from Nini, his 91-year-old wet nurse. His wife, Krisztina, died 33 years ago.
Henrik was 10 when he met Konrad at an academy school. They were soon the best of friends, but two things came between them: first was the difference in their backgrounds (“each forgave the other’s original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other”); second was their love for the same woman.
I appreciated the different setup to this one – a male friendship, just a few very old characters, the probing of the past through memory and dialogue – but it was so languid that I struggled to stay engaged with the plot.
*My next will be Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, another charity shop find.
“My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded.”
“Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world.”
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978)
I’d picked this up from the free bookshop we used to have in the local mall (the source of my next two as well) and started it during Lockdown #1 because in The Novel Cure it is given as a prescription for Loneliness. Berthoud and Elderkin suggest it can make you feel like part of a gang of old friends, and it’s “as close to watching television as literature gets” due to the episodic format – the first four Tales books were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle.
How I love a perfect book and bookmark combination!
The titled chapters are each about three pages long, which made it an ideal bedside book – I would read a chapter per night before sleep. The issue with this piecemeal reading strategy, though, was that I never got to know any of the characters; because I’d often only pick up the book once a week or so, I forgot who people were and what was going on. That didn’t stop individual vignettes from being entertaining, but meant it didn’t all come together for me.
Maupin opens on Mary Ann Singleton, a 25-year-old secretary who goes to San Francisco on vacation and impulsively decides to stay. She rooms at Anna Madrigal’s place on Barbary Lane and meets a kooky assortment of folks, many of them gay – including her new best friend, Michael Tolliver, aka “Mouse.” There are parties and affairs, a pregnancy and a death, all told with a light touch and a clear love for the characters; dialogue predominates. While it’s very much of its time, it manages not to feel too dated overall. I can see why many have taken the series to heart, but don’t think I’ll go further with Maupin’s work.
Note: Long before I tried the book, I knew about it through one of my favourite Bookshop Band songs, “Cleveland,” which picks up on Mary Ann’s sense of displacement as she ponders whether she’d be better off back in Ohio after all. Selected lyrics:
Quaaludes and cocktails
A story book lane
A girl with three names
A place, post-Watergate
Freed from its bird cage
Where the unafraid parade
Perhaps, we should all
Go back to Cleveland
Where we know what’s around the bend
Citizens of Atlantis
The Madrigal Enchantress cries
And we decide, to stay and bide our time
On this far-out, far-flung peninsula.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)
Although it’s good to see McEwan take on a female perspective – a rarer choice for him, though it has shown up in Atonement and On Chesil Beach – this is a lesser novel from him, only interesting insomuch as it combines elements from two of his previous works, The Child in Time (legislation around child welfare) and Enduring Love (a religious stalker). Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, has to decide whether 17-year-old Adam, a bright and musical young man with acute leukaemia, should be treated with blood transfusions despite his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ objection.
She rules that the doctors should go ahead with the treatment. “He must be protected from his religion and from himself.” Adam, now better but adrift from the religion he was raised in, starts stalking Fiona and sending her letters and poems. Estranged from her husband, who wants her to condone his affair with a young colleague, and fond of Adam, Fiona spontaneously kisses the young man while traveling for work near Newcastle. But thereafter she ignores his communications, and when he doesn’t seek treatment for his recurring cancer and dies, she blames herself.
[END OF SPOILERS]
It’s worth noting that the AI in McEwan’s most recent full-length novel, Machines Like Me, is also named Adam, and in both books there’s uncertainty about whether the Adam character is supposed to be a child substitute.
The Birth House by Ami McKay (2006)
Dora is the only daughter to be born into the Rare family of Nova Scotia’s Scots Bay in five generations. At age 17, she becomes an apprentice to Marie Babineau, a Cajun midwife and healer who relies on ancient wisdom and appeals to the Virgin Mary to keep women safe and grant them what they want, whether that’s a baby or a miscarriage. As the 1910s advance and the men of the village start leaving for the war, the old ways represented by Miss B. and Dora come to be seen as a threat. Dr. Thomas wants women to take out motherhood insurance and commit to delivering their babies at the new Canning Maternity Home with the help of chloroform and forceps. “Why should you ladies continue to suffer, most notably the trials of childbirth, when there are safe, modern alternatives available to you?” he asks.
Encouraged into marriage at an early age, Dora has to put her vocation on hold to be a wife to Archer Bigelow, a drunkard with big plans for how he’s going to transform the area with windmills that generate electricity. Dora’s narration is interspersed with journal entries, letters, faux newspaper articles, what look like genuine period advertisements, and a glossary of herbal remedies – creating what McKay, in her Author’s Note, calls a “literary scrapbook.” I love epistolary formats, and there are so many interesting themes and appealing secondary characters here. Early obstetrics is not the only aspect of medicine included; there is also an exploration of “hysteria” and its treatment, and the Spanish flu makes a late appearance. Dora, away in Boston at the time, urges her friends from the Occasional Knitters’ Society to block the road to the Bay, make gauze masks, and wash their hands with hot water and soap.
There are a few places where the narrative is almost overwhelmed by all the (admittedly, fascinating) facts McKay, a debut author, turned up in her research, and where the science versus superstition dichotomy seems too simplistic, but for the most part this was just the sort of absorbing, atmospheric historical fiction that I like best. McKay took inspiration from her own home, an old birthing house in the Bay of Fundy.
I started my reading for Novellas in November early with these three review books, one nonfiction and two fiction. They have in common the fact that they are published today –although I believe two were released early to beat the lockdown. Don’t worry, though; there are still plenty of ways of getting hold of new books: most publishers and bookshops are still filling orders, or you can use the UK’s newly launched Bookshop.org site and support your local indie.
Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell
Cheerfully colored and sized to fit into a Christmas stocking, this is a fun follow-up to Bythell’s accounts of life at The Bookshop in Wigtown, The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names as if naming species. When I saw him chat with Lee Randall at the opening event of the Wigtown Book Festival, he introduced a few, such as the autodidact who knows more than you and will tell you all about their pet subject (the Homo odiosus, or bore). This is not the same, though, as the expert who shares genuinely useful knowledge – of a rare cover version on a crime paperback, for instance (Homo utilis, a helpful person).
There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians, the self-published authors, the bearded pensioners (Senex cum barba) holidaying in their caravans, and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant. Setting aside the good-natured complaints, who are his favorite customers? Those who revel in the love of books and don’t quibble about the cost. Generally, these are not antiquarian book experts looking for a bargain, but everyday shoppers who keep a low-key collection of fiction or maybe specifically sci-fi and graphic novels, which fly off the shelves for good prices.
So which type am I? Well, occasionally I’m a farter (Crepans), but you won’t hold that against me, will you? I’d like to think I fit squarely into the normal people category (Homines normales) when I visited Wigtown in April 2018: we went in not knowing what we wanted but ended up purchasing a decent stack and even had a pleasant conversation with the man himself at the till – he’s much less of a curmudgeon in person than in his books. I do recommend this to those who have read and loved his other work.
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey
Carey’s historical novel Little was one of my highlights of 2018, so I jumped at the chance to read his new book. Interestingly, this riff on the Pinocchio story, narrated by Geppetto from the belly of a giant shark, originally appeared in Italian to accompany an exhibition hosted by the Fondazione Nazionale Carlo Collodi at the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi. Geppetto came from a pottery-painting family but turned to wood when creating a little companion for his loneliness, the wooden boy who astounded him by coming to life. Now a son rather than a mere block of wood, Pinocchio sets off for school but never comes home. When he gets word that a troublesome automaton has been thrown into the sea, Geppetto sets out in a dinghy to find his son but is swallowed by the enormous fish that has been seen off the coast.
The picture of this new world-within-a-world is enthralling. Geppetto finds himself inside a swallowed ship, the Danish schooner Maria. Within the vessel is all he needs to occupy himself, at least for now: wood on which to paint the women he has loved; candle wax and hardtack for sculpting figures. Seaweed to cover his bald spot. Squid ink for his pen so he can write this notebook. A crab that lives in his beard. Relics of the captain’s life to intrigue him.
As a narrator, Geppetto is funny and gifted at wordplay (“This tome is my tomb”; “I unobjected him. Can you object to that?”), yet haunted by his decisions. Carey deftly traces Geppetto’s state of mind as he muses on his loss and imprisonment. The Afterword adds a sly pseudohistorical note to the fantasy. There are black-and-white illustrations throughout, as well as photos of the objects described in the text (and, presumably, featured in the exhibition). For me this didn’t live up to Little, but it would be a great introduction to Carey’s work.
With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.
At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop
[145 pages; translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis]
I had no idea that Africans (“Chocolat soldiers”) fought for France in World War I. Diop’s second novel, which has already won several major European prizes, is about two Senegalese brothers-in-arms caught up in trench warfare. Alfa Ndaiye, aged 20, considers Mademba Diop his blood brother or “more-than-brother” (the novel’s French title is “Soul Brother”). From the start we know that Mademba has died. Gravely injured in battle, entrails spilling out, he begged Alfa to end his misery; three times Alfa refused. Having watched his friend die in agony, he knows he did the wrong thing. Slitting the man’s throat would have been the compassionate choice. From now on, Alfa will atone by brutally wreaking Mademba’s method of death on Germans. “The captain’s France needs our savagery, and because we are obedient, myself and the others, we play the savage.” Alas, I thought this bleak exploration of (in)humanity was marred by the repetitive language and unpleasantly sexualized metaphors.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.
Do any of these novellas take your fancy?
What November releases can you recommend?
I’m sneaking in a couple of quick reviews on the final day to join in with Simon and Karen’s latest reading week, The 1920 Club. Speaking of books that were published a century ago, I happened to review Chéri by Colette as one of my monthly classics last year, and I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton in advance of our May book club meeting.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
I don’t think I’ve read an Agatha Christie mystery since I was about … 13? (It was And Then There Were None.) But over the years I’ve watched countless Poirot and Miss Marple cases on TV with my mother. This was Poirot’s first outing, and it’s narrated by Hastings, the slightly dim Watson to the Belgian detective’s Sherlock Holmes.
One July, invalided home from the war at age 30, Hastings goes to visit old family friends at Styles, their Essex manor house: brothers John and Lawrence Cavendish and their elderly stepmother, who has recently (and somewhat shockingly) remarried. When old Mrs. Cavendish is found dead of strychnine poisoning, Poirot is brought in to sort through the potential suspects. Coffee and cocoa cups, a fragment of a charred will, a fake beard, a candle wax stain and a bolted door will be among his major clues.
Like Hastings, we as readers are quick to point to the obvious: hey, that foreigner who happens to be an expert on poisons, it’s him, right?! But as Poirot carefully explains, again and again, “If the fact will not fit the theory, let the theory go. … Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined, sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried.”
I rarely pick up a mystery novel, though when I can get stuck in I do tend to enjoy them. This was a super-quick read and I found myself turning to it more often than to other books on my stack that felt weightier in subject matter. In the end I find crime novels inconsequential, so can’t imagine needing to try another Poirot or Marple for another 20 years or so. But if you’re struggling to read in a time of anxiety, you could certainly do worse than a Christie novel.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald has long been one of my literary blind spots. The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece, sure: I studied it in school and have read it another couple of times since, as well as lots of background nonfiction and some contemporary novels that riff on the story line. But everything else of his that I’ve tried (Tender Is the Night was the other one) has felt aimless and more stylish than substantive.
Amory Blaine is a wealthy Midwesterner who goes from boarding school to Princeton and has literary ambitions and various love affairs. He’s convinced he’s a “boy marked for glory.” But Monsignor Darcy, his guru, encourages the young man to focus on developing his character more than his dashing personality.
Hugely popular at its first release, this debut novel won Fitzgerald his literary reputation – as well as Zelda Sayre’s hand in marriage. What with the slang (“Oh my Lord, I’m going to cast a kitten”), it felt very much like a period piece to me, most impressive for its experimentation with structure: parts are written like a film script or Q&A, and there are also some poems and lists. This novelty may well be a result of the author cobbling together drafts and unpublished odds and ends, but still struck me as daring.
In a strange way, though, the novel is deliberately ahistorical in that it glosses over world events with a flippancy that I find typical of Fitzgerald. Even though Amory is called up to serve, his general reaction to the First World War is dispatched in a paragraph; Prohibition doesn’t get much more of a look-in.
I understand that the book is fairly autobiographical and in its original form was written in the first person, which I might have preferred if it led to greater sincerity. I could admire some of the witty banter and the general coming-of-age arc, but mostly felt indifferent to this one.
I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.
I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”
Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.
The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?
Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.
This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.
Some favorite lines:
“I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.”
“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”
It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:
“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”
“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”
“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.
Though I’m often wary of war fiction – can anything new still be written about World War I? – I was drawn to The Winter Soldier by the enthusiastic American reviews and the medical theme. The protagonist of psychiatrist Daniel Mason’s third novel, Lucius Krzelewski, comes from southern Polish nobility. In the 1910s medicine was a path for those seeking social mobility, but for Lucius neurology study is a way out of his stifling aristocratic household. Under Herr Doktor Zimmer’s tutelage in Vienna, he experiments on ways to make blood vessels visible. Dismayed to learn that Zimmer believes the “mermaid” in the medical school’s anatomical museum is real, he hurries to enlist when war begins in 1914.
As a 22-year-old medical lieutenant he’s stationed at a church turned into a regimental hospital at Lemnowice. Here Sister Margarete has been making do without a doctor in charge for two months. She’s been performing amputations and setting fractures in a lice-ridden building where hunger and typhoid are never far away. Lucius is ashamed of his ignorance compared to this skilled nurse; though he has textbook knowledge, he has no practical experience and has to learn on the job.
The following winter a Hungarian soldier suffering from “nervous shock” but no visible wounds is brought in, a sheaf of accomplished drawings padding his coat. For Lucius and Margarete, Sergeant József Horváth poses a particular challenge, which makes his recovery seem more like a resurrection: “they were both falling a little bit in love with their silent visitor or, more, with the cure that they had wrought.” Even as Lucius and Margarete fall in love and steal moments alone, they regret they couldn’t do more for Horváth. When Lucius and Margarete are separated, he vows to find her again – and make things right with Horváth.
I loved the novel’s first half, with its gallows humor, memorable scenes of gruesome medical procedures, and bleak conditions so convincing you’ll find yourself itching right along with the lice-plagued patients. But at about the halfway point the pace changes dramatically. Years pass and Lucius has various deployments and hospital positions. Curiously, although so much is happening to him outwardly, he’s stalled internally – haunted by thoughts of Margarete and Horváth. Perhaps this is why I felt the narrative slowed to a crawl. I could barely force myself to read more than five or 10 pages in a sitting, and the novel as a whole took me much longer to read than normal. Or maybe I was just missing Margarete, the most vibrant character.
Early on I was reminded of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, lesser-known war novels in which the stark beauty of the writing tempers the somber subject matter. Partway through I started thinking of Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, in which an unqualified female outshines a male in medical knowledge. By the end I was recalling epic separation-filled romances like The English Patient and Birdsong.
Though the novel’s second half never matched the strength of the first, I was at least pleased that Mason avoided a clichéd, Hollywood-ready ending in favor of a more fitting one that, while still somewhat far-fetched, makes sense of the title’s emphasis. This is a moving story of the physical and psychological effects of war, and I would certainly read more by Mason.
The Winter Soldier was published in the UK by Mantle on October 18th. With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
I was a veritable social butterfly this past week: I went out two evenings in a row! (Believe me, that’s rare.) On Tuesday I met up with bloggers Annabel, Eric and Kim at the Faber Spring Party held at Crypt on the Green in London, and on Wednesday my husband and I attended a performance at the University of Reading of Michael Mears’s one-man play on the plight of Britain’s conscientious objectors during World War I, This Evil Thing.
Faber Spring Party
I’ve never been to an event quite like this. Publisher Faber & Faber, which will be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019, previewed its major releases through to September. Most of the attendees seemed to be booksellers and publishing insiders. Drinks were on a buffet table at the back; books were on a buffet table along the side. Glass of champagne in hand, it was time to plunder the free books on offer. I ended up taking one of everything, with the exception of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy: I couldn’t make it through Outline and am not keen enough on her writing to get an advanced copy of Kudos, but figured I might give her another try with the middle book, Transit.
For the evening’s presentation, each featured author had a few minutes to introduce their new book and/or give a short reading.
Rachel Cusk opened the evening with a reading from Kudos. If you’re familiar with her recent work, you won’t be surprised at this synopsis: a man on a plane recounts having his dog put to sleep. (Out on May 3rd.)
William Atkins’s book on deserts, The Immeasurable World, is based on three years of travel and is, he is not ashamed to say, in the old-fashioned travel writing tradition. (Out on June 7th.)
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a hybrid work of poem-essays. #2 is more philosophical, she said; #3 is about her father’s death and her son’s birth. She read sonnet 3.21. (Out now.)
Clémentine Beauvais’s In Paris with You is a YA romance in free verse, loosely based on Eugene Onegin. I don’t know the source text but started this on the train ride home and it’s enjoyable thus far. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry. (Out on June 7th.)
Chris Power’s Mothers is a book of linked short stories, three of which are about a character named Eva. He read a portion of a story about her having an encounter with an unpleasant man in Innsbruck. (Out on March 1st.)
Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, set in 1923–50, is a saga that resembles “an Italian Mother Courage,” she says. She read a scene in which a character comes across a madwoman. (Out on April 5th.)
Zaffar Kunial read the poem “Spark Hill” from his forthcoming collection Us. It’s about a childhood fight in the area of Birmingham where he grew up. He had a folder open in front of him but, impressively, recited the long poem completely from memory. (Out on July 5th.)
American novelist Benjamin Markovits was a professional basketball player in Germany for six months. Like the tennis-playing protagonist of his upcoming book, A Weekend in New York, he got tired of being measured. After 15 years, his hero is eager to escape a life of being constantly ranked. This is the first in a quartet of novels that inevitably invites comparison with John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. (Out on June 7th.)
I confess I didn’t previously know the name Viv Albertine; she was the guitarist for the female punk band The Slits, and To Throw Away Unopened is her second memoir. Albertine realized that it was her mother who had made her an angry rebel; the title is the label on a bag she found in her mother’s room after her death. (Out on April 5th.)
Sophie Collins incorporates hybrid forms in her poetry – what she calls “lyric essays.” The theme of her book Who Is Mary Sue? is perceptions of women’s writing (with “Mary Sue” as a metonym for the stereotypical good girl). She read from “Engine.” (Out now.)
Katharine Kilalea’s debut novel Ok, Mr Field is about an injured concert pianist who becomes obsessed with a house he buys in South Africa. (Out on June 7th.)
Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates are the authors of two Homework for Grown-Ups books. Their new book, What Would Boudicca Do?, is about lessons we can draw from the women of history. For instance, the sampler booklet has pieces called “Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks” and “Frida Kahlo and Finding Your Style.” There’s a heck of a lot of books like this out this year, though, and I’m not so sure this one will stand out. (Out on September 6th.)
Richard Scott read two amazingly intimate poems from his upcoming collection, Soho. One, “cover-boys,” was about top-shelf gay porn; the other was about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum. If you appreciated Andrew McMillan’s Physical, you need to get hold of this the second it comes out. I went back and read “cover-boys” in the sampler booklet and it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it was aloud; Scott’s reading really brought it to life, in contrast to some other authors’ dull delivery. (Out on April 5th.)
Sue Prideaux’s forthcoming biography of Friedrich Nietzsche is entitled I Am Dynamite! She encountered her subject when she wrote her first biography, of Edvard Munch. Although Nietzsche has been embraced by far-right groups in America, he was in fact against racism, nationalism, and anti-semitism, so he has important messages for us today. I’ll be keen to get hold of this one. (Out on September 6th.)
Guitar in hand, Willy Vlautin closed the evening with a performance of the title track from the soundtrack album to his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me – he was the singer in Portland, Oregon alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, which has recently stopped touring. He said the novel asks, “can you make the scars of broken people bearable?” (Out now.)
Now that I’ve got this terrific stack of books, wherever do I start?! I’m currently reading the Beauvais; from there I’ll focus on ones that have already been released, starting with Vlautin and the two poetry collections. The titles that aren’t out until June can probably wait – though it’s tempting to be one of the privileged few who get to read them nearly four months early. One Faber book per week should see me getting through all these by the final release date.
This Evil Thing
Michael Mears plays about 50 different characters in this one-man production. He’s an actor and pacifist who has written a number of solo pieces over 20 years. In this commemorative year of the end of the First World War, he knew we would hear a lot about battles, soldiers, and their families back home. But conscientious objectors weren’t likely to be remembered: theirs is a “story that’s rarely told,” he realized. This Evil Thing sets out to correct that omission. The title phrase refers not to war in general but specifically to conscription.
The two main characters Mears keeps coming back to in the course of the play are Bert Brocklesby, a Yorkshire preacher, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brocklesby refused to fight and, when he and other COs were shipped off to France anyway, resisted doing any work that supported the war effort, even peeling the potatoes that would be fed to soldiers. He and his fellow COs were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and threatened with execution. Meanwhile, Russell and others in the No-Conscription Fellowship fought for their rights back in London. There’s a wonderful scene in the play where Russell, clad in nothing but a towel after a skinny dip, pleads with Prime Minister Asquith.
As in solo shows I’ve seen before (e.g. A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart), Mears had to find subtle ways to distinguish between characters: he used a myriad different voices, including regional accents; he quickly donned a jacket, hat, or pair of glasses. Russell was identified by his ever-present pipe. The most challenging scene, Mears said in the Q&A at the end, was one with four characters in a French street café.
Mears reveals during the play that his grandfather fought in WWI and his father in WWII, but he has never had to put his own pacifist views to the test. What about Hitler? people always ask. Mears is honest and humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know what he would have done had he been called on to fight Hitler, or had he faced persecution as a CO in WWI. Ultimately, what Mears hopes audiences take from his play, which won acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is that “this is not an irrelevant piece of history.” Standing up for what you believe in, especially if it goes against the spirit of the times, is always valuable.