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.
I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for Stanley and Elsie. See below for details of where other reviews will be appearing soon.
*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.