Recent Reads: The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell


And so to July’s Anthony Powell – “The Valley of Bones”, book 7 in the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, and the first volume in my collection titled “Autumn”. It’s perhaps a little scary to realise that Nick is being considered in the autumn of his life while still so young, but I suppose we need to remind ourselves that life expectation has changed somewhat! Or maybe it is just the autumn section of the stories – whatever!

First edition

First edition

I’ve now begun to expect that the start of any new Powell will throw me straight in at the deep end, into an unfamiliar situation with a set of new characters. However, the beginning of VOB does this with a vengeance, as Nick is in the army and posted to a regiment who it quickly becomes clear are Welsh!  The first two chapters are darkly humourous as we meet Nick’s CO, Gwatkin, prone to quite dramatic mood swings, plus a number of other officers and ordinary soldiers. There is also Blithel, whose (false) reputation precedes him and who turns out to be a bit of a strange alcoholic. The regiment get shipped off to Ireland and there is much fumbling about with orders and military exercises going wrong. Gwatkin proves to be very erratic, and prone to take out his failures on others.

“Romantic ideas about the way life is lived are often to be found in persons themselves fairly coarse-grained. This was to some extent true of Gwatkin. His coarseness of texture took the form of having to find a scapegoat after he himself had been in trouble.”

Before long, Nick becomes the scapegoat on one the troop’s first military exercises, although Gwatkin tries to make it up later.

Nick is then shipped off from Wales to Aldershot to some kind of pointless-sounding training course where he befriends David Pennistone (whom he had run into a long time ago at a party). And then, after the  two excellent chapters of Nick in the army, Powell hits us with a cracker of a chapter with the weekend gathering from hell as our hero visits his sister-in-law’s, where Isobel his wife is staying. He’s met with old faces, new faces, characters we’ve only heard mentioned before, sworn enemies, sexual undertones – it really has it all and ends with Nick having to go back to camp while Isobel faces labour!

Back in Ireland, Gwatkin is going to pieces, having fallen in love with a local barmaid, and drifting off into dreams at inappropriate moments. Things continue to crumble in the regiment until Gwatkin is replaced and Nick is hauled off to HQ to meet the DAAG (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General apparently!) who turns out to be an old friend….

This is quite a switch in style and material for Powell, as we are dealing with war which is obviously a serious matter. However, this doesn’t stop him taking his usual humourous look at things and I did find myself laughing out loud at several points. He is particularly good on pointing out the boringness and futility of much of army life, and this evident from the beginning when it is revealed that many of the men in charge in the regiment were once bankers – obviously a profession that well prepared them for fighting! (ahem!). He also captures brilliantly the gulf between the remote, somewhat dippy officers and the lower ranks of the soldiers, particularly in the sequence where the General makes a spot inspection and seems more concerned about the troops’ breakfast habits than anything else:

“… the General stood in silence, as if in great distress of mind, holding his long staff at arm’s length from him, while he ground it deep into the earthy surface of the barnhouse floor. He appeared to be trying to contemplate as objectively as possible the concept of being so totally excluded from the human family as to dislike porridge.”

I have to say that I did find myself having recourse to Wikipedia at times, though, to sort out some of the more complex military ranks!

The writing is superb as always, and Powell’s normally labyrinthine sentences are often reduced to shorter, almost staccato phrases in places, reflecting the change in the world around him and the necessity for often quick-fire decisions and actions. In particular, he shows a genius for reproducing dialect, and the lilting, sing-song intonations of the Welsh language are beautifully reflected in the speech of the soldiers.

“Now, see it you must, Gareth… In time of peace, in the mine, you are above me, Gareth, and above Sergeant Pendry. Here, that is not. No longer is it the mine.”

Having visited Wales almost annually for many years, I can testify to the accuracy!

An interesting underlying theme in VOB was the effect of the war and army life on relationships between men and women, and also the changing attitudes of women. From early on, it seems that it is ok for soldiers, even married ones, to lust after, and liaise with, any women they come across; but when Sgt Pendry’s wife is reported to be having an affair he falls to pieces, and has to go home to try to sort things out. So should she wait faithfully at home while the soldiers take their chances with local girls where they can? Powell’s (and his characters’) attitude to women are ambivalent – some of the soldiers seem happy with a quick shag under a hedge, others envisage much more noble affairs and Nick in places seems to defend the fact that women are being just as promiscuous as men – he is slightly more open-minded than many of his colleagues. The War caused a large shift in attitudes to women, and indeed of women’s expectations and this is reflected a little here, though is to be found much more in women’s writing of the period (many of the reprinted Persephone books come to mind).

But always in the background is the knowledge that War *is* a matter of life and death. There are casualties here – Sgt. Pendry is one of them, although not through seeing action, and Nick loses a family member, albeit a remote one. We are aware that there are likely to be more.

“The potential biographies of those who die young possess the mystical dignity of a headless statue, the poetry of enigmatic passages in an unfinished or mutilated manuscript, unburdened with contrived or banal ending.”

Once again, this is a marvellous piece of writing by Powell. Although much of the book takes place in camps around the country, we are not completely cut off from Nick’s former life and contacts; and in fact, Isobel does have her baby although remotely, at a distance, which is how Powell deals with Nick’s marriage! He brilliantly captures the boredom and banality of the army and as Nick says:

“A French writer who’d been a regular office said the whole point of soldiering was its bloody boring side. The glamour, such as it was, was just a bit of exceptional luck if it came your way.”

I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the next book, as I’m not sure what the DAAG has in store for Nick, and I am afraid that there will be more casualties…

(NB – Yes, the appalling Widmerpool does make a fleeting appearance – but I’m not saying where….!)

The Best Laid Plans…..


Well – we all know what happens to them, don’t we?! I am notoriously bad about making reading plans and resolutions and not sticking to them, ending up following my muse. The more I think about it, the more I regard reading as an organic thing – it grows as you read, and each new volume changes your perspective on books, so inevitably you will change what you want to tackle at the moment.

Despite that, I am going to try to focus on a few particular books over the summer and *at the moment* (I say that advisedly!) this is the plan:

august reading

I have a modest four books there, and the observant amongst you might notice one is a Virago, “The Solitary Summer” by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Having recently loved her “Mr. Skeffington”, I decided this would be appropriate for the LibraryThing Virago Group‘s “All Virago, All August” event. I shan’t be doing all Virago, but I shall do as many as I can. “The Brothers Karamazov” is rather a chunkster but I will see if I can summon up the courage to attack it, as it’s Dostoevsky and rated so highly by many. I started “The Fortunes of War” a little while ago, and felt the call back to it recently, so will try to get onto the second book in the sequence, “The Spoilt City”.

And then there is Anna Kavan… I first stumbled across her work in the late 1970s/early 1980s (hard to be more precise than this after such a long time….) when I read “Ice” and “Sleep Has His House” in lovely Picador editions.”Julia and the Bazooka” is a posthumous collection of short stories, published by her loyal publishers Peter Owen, who’ve done so much to support her work. So I hope to dip into this one too.

Just to confuse things, I’m currently not reading any of those books, but these two:

current reading

I have sneakily started AV/AA early with Rebecca West – “The Harsh Voice” is a collection of four long short stories/short novellas, which I intend to read alongside the other volume. This is the lovely edition of “She” by H. Rider Haggard, kindly sent to me by Hesperus Press – for which much thanks! I am currently well into this and really, really enjoying it!

So – that’s the plan at the moment, though I’ve no doubt it will change – watch this space!

(and of course – there’s also the August Anthony Powell!)

Recent Reads: An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

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After several fiction reads, I decided it really *was* time to branch out a little into something more factual. And this is an odd trend, all this fiction reading, as I’ve always been a keen reader of non-fiction. It may be that blogging has affected my viewpoint a little as so many factual books are denser and longer, and I may have been feeling the need to keep regular reviews here. No matter – this is a slim NYRB volume (always a joy) and didn’t take me very long at all!


Vasily Grossman is best known for his novel “Life and Fate” and Wikipedia has this to say about him:

“Vasily Semyonovich Grossman (December 12, 1905 – September 14, 1964) was a Soviet writer and journalist. Grossman trained as an engineer and worked in the Donets Basin, but changed career in the 1930s and published short stories and several novels. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, writing firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin. Grossman’s eyewitness accounts of conditions in a Nazi extermination camp, following the liberation of Treblinka, were among the earliest. Grossman also translated Armenian literature into Russian, despite the fact that (as he writes in ‘Dobro Vam!’, – the account of a sojourn in Armenia in the early 1960s, during which he worked at the translation of a book by a local writer called Martirosjan) he lacked the ability to read Armenian, and worked on an interlinear translation made for him by a third person.

After World War II, Grossman’s faith in the Soviet state was shaken by Joseph Stalin’s turn towards antisemitism in the final years before his death in 1953. While Grossman was never arrested by the Soviet authorities, his two major literary works (Life and Fate and Everything Flows) were censored during the ensuing Nikita Khrushchev period as unacceptably anti-Soviet, and Grossman himself became in effect a nonperson. The KGB raided Grossman’s flat after he had completed Life and Fate, seizing manuscripts, notes and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written. Grossman was told by the Communist Party’s chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years. At the time of Grossman’s death from stomach cancer in 1964, these books were unreleased. Copies were eventually smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a network of dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich, and first published in the West, before appearing in the Soviet Union in 1988.

I’ve quoted at length because much of this is relevant to any reading of Grossman’s work – context is all, sometimes. I confess to having L&F on Mount TBR but not yet having read it, so this is a new writer for me! My edition is a lovely NYRB paperback, beautifully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and with excellent notes plus photographs to illustrate.

“An Armenian Sketchbook” (in Russian ‘Dobro Vam!’) is mentioned above, and came into being because of the rejection of L&F. As translator Robert Chandler and scholar Yury Bit-Yunan relate in their excellent introduction, it seems that Grossman was offered the opportunity to translate the Armenian novel and travel to that region as a kind of compensation for the lack of income he would experience from L&F not being published. So because of this we are fortunate to have this little volume, part travelogue, part cultural study, part memoir and part philosophy of life!

“The young Lermontov was mistaken when he wrote: ‘Then the anguish of my soul is stilled….” The anguish of the human soul is terrible and unquenchable. It is impossible to calm it or escape from it. Quiet country sunsets, the lapping of the eternal sea… are all equally powerless before it.”

These may sound like rather grandiose claims, but this slim book is packed with so much thought-provoking writing. Grossman travels to Armenia and his first (and recurring) impression of the area is of stone – an arid world, grey and solid, in which it seems impossible that humanity can survive. He spends some time in the capital Yerevan before moving onto a village, where he learns to know the Armenian people and countryside, creating bonds with them he did not expect and finding sympathy too.

The writing is very immediate and spontaneous – “sketchbook” is the right word to use in the title – which makes this book very readable and transports you right into the heart of Armenia. Interestingly, I read an interview with translator Robert Chandler recently here where he stated “on first reading, Grossman can seem somewhat plodding”. Because of this, I wasn’t expecting such lively, sparkling and beautiful language, but it may be that his fiction is a little more prosaically written:

“After yet another twist in the road, our car seemed to be soaring over the lake: We saw the snowy crests of mountains lit by the sun. They were pale blue, as if the snow had absorbed both the blue of the sky and the blue of the lake. And there on a rough stone dish – a dish that was black and brown and the colour of rust – lay Lake Sevan, deep blue, almost boundless.”

Grossman visits religious patriarchs; goes for picnics in the country; meditates on life and death and how human beings can co-exist:

“What matters is the need to move from the rigidity of national stereotypes towards something more truly human; what matters is to discover the riches of human hearts and souls; what matters is the human content of poetry and science, the universal charm and beauty of architecture; what matters is human courage and nobility; what matters is the magnanimity of a nation’s leaders and historical figures. Only by exalting what is truly human, only by fusing the national with what is universally human, can true dignity – and true freedom –  be achieved.”

But there is always the underlying theme of human mortality. Grossman was in the early stages of cancer when he visited Armenia, and in one vivid passage he fears he is dying.

“… this world of contradictions, of typing errors, of passages that are too long and wordy, of arid deserts, of fools, of camp commandants, of mountain peaks colored by the evening sun is a beautiful world. If the world were not so beautiful, the anguish of a dying man would not be so terrible, so incomparably more terrible than any other experience.”

“An Armenian Sketchbook” ends with a lively portrait of a peasant wedding, a mixture of joy and sadness, all the time against the backdrop of the eternal Armenian stone landscape. Grossman meditates on churches and belief, and the image of nearby Mount Ararat reappears often – which oddly enough featured in my recent read of “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey”, so author Fred Basnett obviously passed by the same area. The Jewish Grossman finds unexpected sympathy from the Armenians for the plight of his fellows, and it is worth remembering how recent the horrors of the Second World War still were when this book was written.


I was really impressed by my first reading of Grossman – beautiful prose, evocative description and some deep thinking from a book which really sticks in the mind. Maybe it’s time for “Life and Fate” soon?

Recent Reads: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr


And so I follow up a couple of short works with another short one – “A Month in the Country” by J.L. Carr, which clocks in at just 93 pages! I picked this up at the local Oxfam bookshop a while back, after hearing it highly recommended by Alex – and she wasn’t wrong!

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

My Penguin Decades edition with lovely rose cover

“A Month in the Country” is probably J.L. Carr’s most famous work and it is set just after the First World War. Tom Birkin is a survivor – shell-shocked, with a twitchy face, but still alive. His marriage has collapsed and the book opens with his arriving in the northern town of Oxgodby by train in the pouring rain to work for a month restoring a church wall reputed to have hidden piece of religious art. Also working locally is another veteran, Moon, who is digging for a lost excommunicated ancestor of the same local dignitary who has left instructions in her Will for both of these searches to take place. After initial strangeness, Tom starts to fit in with the locals, working at his restoration, attending chapel meetings and falling in love. As the book goes on, the English summer and the countryside have a healing effect on him – but how will the archaeology end?

For a short book, this is amazingly packed and just proves that you don’t have to write an epic the length of “War and Peace” to tell a memorable tale and make a few points while you’re doing so! It’s an odd book, in a way. The writing begins prosaically enough, and some of the sections verge on the educational, when Birkin/Carr is telling  us about some ecclesiastical aspect. Yet as the book progresses, and Tom begins to settle and heal, the writing becomes more beautiful and evocative, conjuring up visions of long, hot days in the English countryside.

“Am I making too much of this? Perhaps. But there are times when man and earth are one, when the pulse of living beats strong, when life is brimming with promise and the future stretches confidently ahead like that road to the hills. Well, I was young…”

And the writing is remarkably clever too. Despite this being such a compressed book, it never feels short or as if anything is missing. We learn about Tom’s wife, her unfaithfulness, the War, Moon’s real nature, and many other things all in very short paragraphs and phrases, but this is so skilfully done that we feel we know the whole story. Instead of a blow-by-blow account, we get what you might call the bullet points, but so beautifully presented that it doesn’t feel like it. There is a delicacy in the storytelling, as if it is enough to just hint about things and we will know all we need to. This is particularly effective when Tom is thinking of the War – less is more, as they say.

The romance, such as it is, is subtly suggested and we discreetly consider the state of Alice Keach’s married life – as cold and strange and empty as the house she inhabits with her vicar husband. There is a sense of the long-gone past in the researches of Birkin and Moon, and also a real sense of the horror through which they’ve lived. And Birkin’s relationship with the unknown artist who created the lost work is intriguingly suggested, and has something to do with his healing process.


They say comparisons are odious, but I could help but constantly thinking back to my re-read of “Hotel du Lac” and thinking how much more depth there was in this book of much the same length. “A Month in the Country” is an elegiac masterpiece, with characters who are masterfully sketched and jump off the page, a location and landscape which is fully alive, and a tale told which gives away much more than appears at first sight. This was a remarkable, moving and lovely book and I’m glad Alex’s review pointed me in its direction!

Recent Reads: About Love and other stories by Chekhov


I’ve got a little behind with my reviews here – life has definitely been getting in the way of blogging 😦 – but I have managed to keep up with the reading and so will try to round things up! I’ve been going for shorter works, although after Hotel du Lac I did feel the need of something with depth, and so turned to the Russians again – this time Chekhov’s “About Love and other stories”. My volume is an Oxford Classics one, fairly recently translated by Rosamund Bartlett (who I believe is also a biographer of Chekhov). The selection of tales stretches from “The Huntsman” (1885) to “The Bishop” (1902) and takes in some of his most famous works, including “The Lady with the Little Dog” and the title story.

chek ab

In some ways, I find reading short stories difficult: I’m quite a fast reader and to leap from one story to the next, without allowing time for each to really settle in the brain, somehow seems wrong. So I tried to space these out a little around Brookner – and the fact that Real Life has been hectic helped a little!

First off, the mechanics of the book. There is an excellent introduction by Bartlett that gives excellent background and context for the stories, looking at them from a number of angles including literary and biographical. The notes are also useful, not obtrusive and get the balance just right. As for the translation – well, the stories read beautifully and have a consistency of tone and an elegiac quality.

Chekhov is often satirised as a fin-de-siecle man, with his characters moping around in a mood of ennui bemoaning the state of things. This is a cliché which seems to have grown up from his plays, which I don’t know well enough to comment on. However, the stories are not like that. Bartlett makes a strong case in her introduction for viewing Chekhov as a modernist, which I hadn’t really thought of before, but she seems to have hit the nail on the head. There *is* a start and a finish to these stories, but not necessarily a beginning and an end. We often get thrown into a story which appears to be halfway through the action, with no real introduction, but the writing is so beautiful, the characters so alive, that we are happy to just follow them on the short part of their journey we join them in. As Bartlett points out, the stories often raise questions but leave the reader to answer them, which was a very modern way of writing.

Do I have favourites? Difficult to say! Some of them are desperately tragic, like “Rothschild’s Violin” which touches on anti-Semitism; some are achingly sad and evocative, like “About Love”. “The House with the Mezzanine” tells a story of love’s lost opportunity, while also considering the opposing viewpoints of activity vs. idleness. Chekhov gets very quickly to the heart of the matter in what he is trying to say, and deals with the huge topics of life, death and existence, peeling back the layers we put between ourselves and reality.

“And he judged them to be like himself, not believing what he saw, and always supposing that each person’s real and most interesting life took place beneath a shroud of secrecy, as  if under the veil of night. Every individual existence is a mystery, and it is maybe partly for this reason that cultured people take such pains for their secrets to be respected.”
                            (The Lady with the Little Dog)

But this doesn’t stop him telling a funny story like “Fish Love”; or a very creepy one like “The Black Monk” which has some very profound things to say about art and madness, while also being very scary – truly the man was talented!


If I had to pick just one story out, it would probably be the atmospheric “The House with the Mezzanine”. But all of these stories will stay with me, and this is an excellent selection of Chekhov’s work – highly recommended, particularly if you are coming to him for the first time.

Happy Birthday Mayakovsky!


Today is the 120th birthday of one of my favourite poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky. In honour of the day here are a some quotes and photos:



I want to be understood by my country,
but if I fail to be understood –
what then?,
I shall pass through my native land
to one side,
like a shower
of slanting rain.

“Back Home!”, first version (1926); translation from Patricia Blake (ed.) The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 36


Mayakovsky Monument in Moscow

Mayakovsky Monument in Moscow

for us
is no paradise of arbors —
to us
love tells us, humming,
that the stalled motor
of the heart
has started to work

“Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostorov on the Nature of Love” (1928); translation from Patricia Blake (ed.) The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975) p. 213

Mayakovsky’s tragedy was to be a passionate misfit in a society that was becoming increasingly intolerant of individualism. His attitude and his work are still relevant today, and I would highly recommend his prose work “My Discovery of America” which is published by Hesperus Press. One of his silent films, “The Lady and the Hooligan” still survives – as does his memory.

Happy birthday Vladimir Vladimirovich!


Recent Reads: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner


HeavenAli has been hosting a month of reading Brookner in July, and I decided to join in with a re-read of “Hotel du Lac”. This is probably Brookner’s best-known novel and I read it just after it won the Booker in 1984. However, I could remember very little about it apart from the fact I found it bleak – so a good time to revisit it!


Edith Hope, who writes romantic novels under a pseudonym, arrives late in the season at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland. She has been dispatched here by friends and colleagues to recover from some initially undisclosed indiscretion, considered so bad that she has been medicated and forced abroad. The hotel is an exclusive one, quiet and with only a few guests still remaining this late in the year: Mrs. Pusey and  her daughter Jennifer; the slender Monica and her dog Kiki; deaf Mme de Donneuil, put out to grass by her family; and an assortment of passing businessmen, including Mr. Neville (Phillip).

As the story progresses, we come to learn more about Edith’s fellow guests, and also why Edith herself is here in Switzerland. Initially, we think it is because of an affair with David, a married man, but a later twist reveals that this is in fact not so. The book ends with Edith actually appearing to become a little decisive – which is unexpected, to say the least!

So what did I make of “Hotel du Lac” nearly 30 years on? My reactions are inevitably different – I didn’t find it particularly depressing or bleak, but it feels underdeveloped in many ways. Brookner’s prose can be exquisite, and the book is beautifully written – but in the end, hollow. The problem I feel is with the central character – Edith is undefined, almost transparent whereas the other characters are vividly painted and alive. Brookner really makes the Puseys and Monica stand out, so much that Edith is almost incidental. It may be that this, with the hint of tranquillisers and vagueness, is what Brookner intended, but it creates a heroine who has no substance and who it is impossible to care for.

“Edith reflected, with some humility, that she was not good at human nature. She could make up characters but she could not decipher those in real life. For the conduct of her life she required an interpreter.”

Likewise with David – we learn very little about him, and to be honest get no real sense of what he is like or why Enid loves him so (apart from the fact he has a healthy appetite!)


There is a similar problem with Neville – again a very imprecise character who never takes shape properly, exhibits unpleasant traits and whose proposal to Edith is just unrealistic. There is a sense of absence emanating from Edith: she drifts from situation to situation, with no real control of her life, and had she not witnessed Neville coming out of Jennifer’s room, would have made a dreadful marriage to him. Her final decision to take some kind of control and return to her home and to a David who may or may not care for her is no kind of victory, simply a decision made by default.

This is all very frustrating as some of the writing is quite lovely:

“The beautiful day had within it the seeds of its own fragility: it was the last day of summer. Sun burned out of a cloudless blue sky: asters and dahlias stood immobile in the clear light, a light without glare, without brilliance. Trees had already lost the dark heavy foliage of what had been an exceptional August and early September and was all the more poignant for the dryness of their yellowing leaves which floated noiselessly down from time to time.”

However, the inconsistent characterisation and the lack of a good plot structure undermines this and I ended up really not bothered about any of it. I didn’t hate the book, but it just didn’t come together for me. The narrative is too fragmented; the revelation of Edith’s indiscretion just thrown in at the end, which actually came as something of an anti-climax. I’m not sorry I revisited “Hotel du Lac”, but it’s not a book for me – I ended up feeling it was thin and underdone, and now I just want to pick up something I can get my teeth into!



So, I *have* been trying very hard not to buy any more books recently – Mount TBR is teetering and definitely doesn’t need anything else piled onto it. However, a few volumes have slipped through the next, mainly because they were just irresistable (although one was a gift, so I guess that’s ok!)

First up *is* the gift:


OH and I were watching a fascinating documentary on “All the President’s Men” recently, revisiting the film and the book all these years later. I saw the film on its first release and love both it and Woodward/Bernstein’s books, so I was most impressed when OH presented me with the book of Watergate written by John Dean, the White House Lawyer who featured prominently in the scandal – what a treat!

The next couple of finds are from the lovely local shops – this Philip Larkin biog is something I’ve been after for a long time, so finding it as a £3 bargain was great! Looking forward to sinking my teeth into it….


The next two were impossible to resist:


I’ve never heard of The Vanguard Library but the cover of this copy of “Brave New World” is lovely – so I brought it home with me, despite already having a paperback copy…. And the “Ultramarine” is the only Lowry I don’t have so it was essential!

However, this last one was a bit of an indulgence:

new master

Yes, I know I already have several copies of “The Master and Margarita” and yes I *know* this is a translation I already have (Burgin/O’Connor) – but it comes with extensive annotations and an afterword by Ellendea Proffer and it was only £2, so there you go – basically I have no willpower! Time for a quick charity donation or two I think, to make a little space…..


Virago Volumes: Mr. Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim


I have to confess that I’ve not been doing awfully well with Virago reads recently – I didn’t even start the first of June’s two Barbara Pym titles, “No Fond Return of Love”, until July and have basically abandoned it as it failed to gel so much for me that I actually didn’t care what happened. Maybe I was in the wrong mood and I’ll return to Pym later – we shall see.

virago skeff
In the meantime, I was browsing online for Viragos, and discovered that Elizabeth von Arnim, most famous for “Elizabeth and her German Garden” had also written the book “Mr. Skeffington”. That brought a load of memories flooding back for me, because in my teens I had a bit of an obsession with Bette Davis (and classic Hollywood movies in general) – and of course, “Mr. Skeffington” was one of her most famous films which I remember watching in my youth. I was fascinated to find that the original book was a Virago, so I sent off for a copy and luckily this turned out to be in excellent condition. Buying second-hand from the two largest online sources is always a bit of a lottery, isn’t it?

Anyway – as I remember the film, it featured Claude Rains in the title role and was extremely melodramatic, as were most Davis films. I wondered how the book would be by comparison?

Bette Davis and Claude Rains

Bette Davis and Claude Rains

“Mr. Skeffington” was the last book Elizabeth von Arnim wrote, and it was published in 1940, shortly before her death. It tells the story of Lady Frances Skeffington, known as Fanny, as she approaches her 50th birthday. What is initially shocking is how she, and every other character in the book, regards this as old – she is treated as if she is practically on her death-bed! Fanny is recovering from being seriously ill, and this illness has caused her to lose her looks completely. All of her life she has been a great beauty, worshipped and adored by many men, and this is something of a shock to her system. Fanny was married to Job Skeffington, a rich Jewish business man, but divorced him over 20 years ago following a series of infidelities. Since then, she has amused herself with a series of admirers, casting one off when bored and moving onto another one. This is a life seemingly without substance, but since her illness Fanny has been haunted – despite not having thought of her ex-husband since the divorce, she now starts seeing his shade everywhere. This affects her so much that she has to move into Claridges temporarily, and thereby sets in motion a chain of events by which she revisits past lovers and tries to discover what she should do with the rest of her life.

“Beauty; beauty. What was the good of beauty, once it was over? It left nothing behind it but acid regrets, and no heart at all to start fresh. Nearly everything else left something.”

The bones of the plot do bear relation to the film (as I remember it), but the book is told in a much less straightforward way – the film became a linear tale, laden with melodrama and Davis’s histrionics, whereas the book is subtler than that. For a start, it’s very amusing – Arnim writes beautifully, her prose sprinkled with black humour as Fanny starts to realise from others’ reactions just how much she depended on her looks and how much they have now deserted her. She is at heart a sensible woman, but the setbacks and rejections she receives would knock the stuffing out of any woman. As she journeys through her past, re-encountering her admirers, she one by one rejects them – they have changed as much as she has, age taking its toll on them too, and she sees them clearly for what they were. Each lover wanted something from her in return for their devotion, whether it be that she would marry them and be the perfect wife, or bring them status and position – in some cases even money (as Mr. Skeffington had left her very comfortable off after the divorce). The bitter pill this brings is very hard to swallow, and as we follow Fanny through her odyssey we do wonder where it will all end.

The ex-lovers are a mixed bunch, too – from her cousin George, to elderly Jim, to young Dwight the most recent (who is still at Oxford!) and taking in the man of God Miles.  As the story develops Fanny sees these former admirers as they really are, rather than through the prism of her own ego, and the changed viewpoint is shocking. We learn how loving Fanny changed them, too, and in the case of Miles this is illustrated quite dramatically – after being cast off by Fanny, he threw himself into the priesthood, preaching in the East End and living in penury with his downtrodden sister. The sequences in Bethnal Green are some of the funniest and also most tragic, as Fanny is mistaken for a high-class prostitute (which some might argue she actually is).

“If ever a women was adrift, he was afraid poor Fanny was. And she had always been adrift, he now saw, refusing to have anything to do with the innumerable anchors offered her, including – and with what entreaties! – his own. But there came a moment when an anchor was essential to a woman’s comfort; he wouldn’t say happiness, because he wasn’t sure happiness existed, except for children, but comfort.”

Job Skeffington himself spends most of the story off-camera though we do learn much about him. We get into somewhat murky territory here, as his Jewishness is the subject of some slightly dodgy commentary (and there is another section with some unfortunate racial judgement too). Fanny basically only ever loved her brother Trippy, and married Job to save him from poverty. But Trippy died in the First World War, and Fanny was left with a marriage she didn’t want and divorced Job after the 7th infidelity. Job had worshipped her, like all the others, so one wonders why he was unfaithful although the obvious conclusion is that he found a warmth here missing in his marriage.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

I have seen this book and Fanny savaged in reviews, criticised for being self-centred and unpleasant. Well, I’d argue with that. Fanny is a product of the society she was born into, a culture which celebrated women for their looks and not their brains. The men are just as at fault as Fanny for putting her on such a high pedestal – if society will make it so easy for a woman to survive on just her looks, what it she expected to do? Fanny makes practical use of her assets, like so many women have had to do through the centuries, and if the men are dumb enough to worship her that’s their lookout. And there are hints in places, like mention of her war work, that she has not had a completely superficial existence.

But this is not as trivial a book as it might sound. There is an undercurrent of darkness in several places: the story of Miles the preacher and his poor sister Muriel is quite chilling, as she is totally in thrall to her brother, living unhappily in guilt and poverty; when Fanny tries to rescue her and take her away to stay with her in the country, she receives a cold and frightening response from Miles that his sister does not go out.

And there is further darkness to come with the return of Job in the flesh in the final pages of the book. Job, with his background, has been working in Austria and has come to harm under the Nazis. The war has been obliquely referred to all the way through the book and the implicit horrors burst through at the end:

“This, then, was life beneath the smiles. While she, in the sun of its surface, was wasting months in shamefully selfish, childish misery over the loss of her beauty, Job was being broken up into a sort of frightened animal. How could one live, while such things were going on?”

The book’s end sequences are very similar to how I remember the movie’s finale, and just as moving and tear-jerking. I won’t say too much in case you don’t know – I would hate to spoil the impact – but Fanny does find her way in the end and a path for the rest of the life.

When I referred to Fanny’s odyssey earlier, this might perhaps be the way to regard “Mr. Skeffington”. Fanny has to journey through her past and come to terms with it so that she can move on. Each of the former admirers she meets represent a different aspect of her life – older man, man of learning, man of religion, young man etc. And surprisingly enough, none of these men would have been any good for her long-term.

In a culture which regards female beauty as the highest point to which a woman should aspire, they are ill-equipped to deal with the loss of their looks and Fanny does well to hold herself together. She’s a surprisingly appealing heroine despite her ego and vanity, and although the view that women need a man and marriage may be outmoded, a culture which judges women by their looks is still a remarkably current one… I loved reading this book for its dark wit, the quality of its writing, the wide range of characters and the vivid picture of Fanny’s life. Highly recommended!

The Beats of Summer: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac


To carry on with the Beat theme, I decided to follow up my failure with “The Sea is My Brother” by returning to “The Dharma Bums” as it was the first Beat book I ever read. I rather hoped that I would have a better experience with this read!

When I was in college, in the late 1970s, I had quite an obsession going with the 1960s and hippie culture. One of my fellow students, Joan Swain if I recall correctly, handed me a copy of DB with the instruction that I should read it because the Beats came first, before the hippies, and she was sure I would love it. Well, Joan was right and she had set me off on a lifetime of reading the works of Kerouac and co.


But it’s an awful long time since I’d read DB, so I did approach it a little nervously. Although I read and loved the scroll version of “On The Road”, DB has always been special so I was worried my view would have changed.

The book opens with our narrator, Ray Smith (based on Kerouac himself of course), hopping a train to San Francisco to meet up with the book’s other protagonist, Japhy Ryder (a thinly disguised Gary Snyder). Ray arrives in SFO just in time for a pivotal poetry reading, populated by other notables such as Alvah Goldberg (Allan Ginsberg) – Kerouac certainly used his life in his art!

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

Japhy has introduced Ray to Buddhist ideals and much of the book is concerned with the two men working through their beliefs. However, there’s plenty of action alongside, with wild parties, mountain climbing hikes, Ray’s hitching home to his mother for Christmas, and a final sequence of Ray working for the summer as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak (later expanded in “Desolation Angels”).

Thankfully, I found the book had the same effect on me as the first time around, swallowing me up and transporting me into the world of 1950s California. This is the prose I remember from reading Kerouac initially, which seduced me then and still does.  I just *love* Kerouac’s beautiful, long-winded, poetic sentences which have an almost hypnotic effect. However, inevitably my response towards the content, although I still love it, has changed – because books don’t change, only our perception of them. As we grow and mature, our views develop, so our response to a book will be very different, particularly when the context has changed.

There is firstly the inevitable sexism. I noticed it more this time round because I’m so much less tolerant of that type of thing nowadays. The Beats were a bit of a boys’ club, and their view of women was frankly Neanderthal. It’s not the casual sex that strikes me, though, as that works both ways frankly. My main changed reaction was to the character of Rosie Buchanan, who kills herself while Ray is supposed to be keeping an eye on her so Cody (Neal Cassady) can go out to work. Rosie, based on Natalie Jackson, is yet another one of Cody/Neal’s women, messed around, cheated on and in some cases beaten up. When I first read the book I would have accepted her story at face value as it’s painted by Kerouac, a tragic character who was lost and doomed. But now any reading is coloured by what I’ve learned about Kerouac and Cassady and I can see what’s behind Rosie’s tale, and recognise the fault in the men, which Kerouac tries to smooth over, romaticising her and therefore distancing her, so that the men aren’t regarded as culpable. To be honest, Cody/Cassady has never been my favourite Beat, and this rather reinforced my view.

My reactions now are inevitably different for another reason: I came to DB in 1977 with no knowledge of Kerouac at all as he was something of a neglected figure at that time. The only biography available was the Ann Charters one, and so this was pure reading of a type only really available in pre-Internet days. I came to the book with no preconceptions, whereas when I read it now I have so much knowledge about Kerouac and his circle which informs my reading. It’s impossible to approach the Beats unknowingly, without all the baggage that goes with it.

But there is so much to love in this book, apart from just the wonderful prose. JK can conjure up wonderful atmospheres, painting pictures of lively gatherings, beautiful solitude and wanderings through the great land of America. There are fantastic images from the book which stay with you, from Japhy leaping down the mountain like a goat to the jumping, jiving beat get-togethers.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

And there is a real sense of Ray/Jack trying to find enlightenment. Kerouac’s was a deeply divided nature and this is very much on show here – the mixture of his natural Catholicism with various types of Buddhism as he searches for satori. The book is set in 1956, just before “On the Road” hit the bigtime and changed Kerouac’s life forever; although he was already a published author, he was only a minor one and this was his last time for wandering before he became too well-known.

Kerouac was always searching – for meaning, revelation, some kind of solution to why we are here. His restless nature was incapable of settling for one system of belief, one place to rest, and he would alternate bouts of hobo wandering with periods living comfortably at home with his relatives – neither completely satisfying him. JK is very critical of everyday life:

“…colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.”


“But there was wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.”

And yet, contrast those passages with his attitude as he returns to his mother’s home for Christmas, and spends the time (when he isn’t meditating in the woods) watching TV and living off his family (to the annoyance of his brother-in-law). As he arrives at the house he sees his mother through the window and wonders what’s wrong with white tile kitchens anyway – a perfect demonstration of the duality of his nature.

Although the Beats were adopted by the hippies, Kerouac often tried to deny the connection. But his peaceful, Buddhist beliefs, trying to fight against the temptations of the flesh (particularly alcohol) were in time with their thoughts in many ways. As he says:

“I recalled with a twinge of sadness how Japhy was always so dead serious about food, and I wished the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody’s food money to blow their heads off anyway”

Early Ban-the-Bomb rhetoric no less! But in his constant battle against his own nature, he encapsulates the fractured psyche of post-War USA. The 1950s were in many ways a safe decade, with the post-War consumerist boom and the perfect nuclear family portrayed in advertising and media. But the downside of this was McCarthyism and intolerance of anyone who didn’t fit the mould. On his own personal level, it is a great shame he didn’t win the battle against alcohol because that was what killed him in the end.

Kerouac’s work was condemned by Truman Capote as just “typing” which completely overlooks the lyrical quality of his prose and denies that any work has gone into it. The differences between the scroll version of “On The Road” and the final published version give lie to that statement!  “The Dharma Bums” still works on several levels: as an eminently readable tale of two young men in the 1950s searching for enlightenment; as a fascinating (fictionalised) view of Kerouac’s life at that time; and as a luminous and refreshing antidote to our shallow, gadget-driven world. I loved revisiting it, and it’s very much restored my faith in my early book judgements!

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