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2013 in review – some info from WordPress!

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 20,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Recent Reads: Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

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“People think that because a novel’s invented it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it’s true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that … A novelist may inescapably create all his characters in his own image, but the reader can believe in them, without necessarily accepting their creator’s judgement on them.”

Well, after a year of reading “Dance to the Music of Time”, I finally finished the last book, “Hearing Secret Harmonies” on Boxing Day morning – and to paraphrase, what a long, crazy trip it’s been! And a hippie style phrase is not wholly inappropriate when considering Nick Jenkins’ final outing – but more of that as we go on!

The opening of a Powell is always disconcerting, but the opening of “Hearing Secret Harmonies” is so unsettling that you might be forgiven for thinking that you were in a different sequence of books altogether! Nick and Isobel are crayfishing in the country – an odd enough beginning to start with – but they are in strange company. A group of young people have stopped by for a visit, including the Jenkins’ niece Fiona, and a very strange young man called Scorpio Murtlock. A self-styled hippie cult leader, Scorp will be a recurring factor in the book. Nick and Isobel are now living in the country, in an area which is threatened by quarrying and which also is near some ancient standing stones known as the Devil’s Fingers. Is this *really* “A Dance to the Music of Time”???

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Fortunately, the familiar soon rears its head, in Nick’s reminiscences, and Fiona is of course the daughter of Susan and Roddy Cutts – so we are soon back on track. Unlike the previous volumes, which usually had three or four long chapters, HSH has several short ones, in which a lot of things happen, including:

* Widmerpool is appointed chancellor of a new university after spending much time in the USA
* the Quiggin twins attack him with paint, and then promptly become his acolytes
* our Ken goes a bit weird and becomes a hippie
* Nick visits Matilda Donners, who shows him photos of the Seven Deadly Sins tableaux from the pat
* Nick re-encounters Gwinnett while he is part of the panel for the Donners Memorial Prize – Russell has finally written a biography of X. Trapnel
* at the prize dinner, Widmerpool washes up with the Quiggin Twins, starts to make a speech and then the whole thing is disrupted by the Quiggins letting off a stink bomb
* Scorp Murtlock dips in and out of the story and eventually Widmerpool joins forces with him
* there are numerous pagan rituals going on, some quite dodgy sounding
*Fiona marries Gwinnett and turns up at the reception of another wedding being held at Stourwater
* she is quickly followed by the arrival of Widmerpool, leading a cult run in bizarre clothing, who is then removed by Murtlock

And the final chapter deals with many endings – this *is* a packed book!

So where to start? HSH is quite a difficult book to discuss and I think has had a mixed reception. Certainly, it stands apart from the others in many ways – the subject matter is really quite dark (pagan sex rituals, necrophilia, psychological control) and initially these subjects might seem a little out of keeping with others in the sequence. I can understand that HSH would polarize opinion, as when initially read it seems anachronistic, but reflecting on it a few days later, I feel that there is a consistency with Nick’s earlier experiences. There are hints of perversion (for example, with Donners) all the way through the series, mysticism and the darker underbelly of life. The strange cult in HSH has parallels with the mysticism of Trelawney and Erdleigh, only in a modern setting, and in fact Powell makes several comparisons of Scorp’s cult and Dr. Trelawney’s earlier group. Initially I was unsure about the modern aspects of the novel; I tend to feel the same way when reading latter-day Agatha Christies – contemporary elements are allowed to creep in and they can be discordant. However, reflecting on the book I think I can see what Powell was trying to do by putting his themes and characters in an updated setting. Because although the external trappings may change, human being remain the same whatever the setting, Powell’s sense of the theatrical sees life as a performance or play:

“In any case, it was impossible to disregard the fact that, while a dismantling process steadily curtains members of the cast, items of scenery, airs played by the orchestra, in the performance that has included one’s own walk-on part for more than a few decades, simultaneous derequisitionings are also observed.”  

The full-circle element of the books is very clear, with the book ending with images of a bonfire and workmen, much as it opened. If I had to be picky I would say there was perhaps a little *too* much of loose end tying up so that it began to look a little forced, as another demise was dropped into the narrative in passing. Yes, we want to find out what happens to a lot of the characters, but the constant reporting of deaths almost as asides was slightly awkward.

You will notice that I haven’t yet got to the one big subject of this book – what happens to Kenneth Widmerpool. He *has* been the dominant character throughout the series (and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since he was there at the very outset); and I did wonder how Powell would deal with his character after his decline during the previous book. He was always an odd character, but he’s become more and more weird as the books went on. He was always supremely prone to humiliation (from his school days, through the sugar-on-the-head incident and all the horrors of his marriage to Pamela) so in many ways his behaviour in HSH is not entirely unexpected. Ken has spent his life exerting his willpower to overcome circumstance and get what he wants – which seems ultimately to be power – but with the death of Pamela things turn against him; he embraces the new culture in a rather ridiculous way, makes an idiot of himself and loses a struggle for power with Scorp.

There is much emphasis on nudity in this (and the previous) book and I’m not altogether sure why. Certainly, there have always been hints of masochistic strangeness attaching to Widmerpool; a mother complex and a tendency for voyeurism. There is talk of the indignities which Ken has experienced at the hands of Scorp but fortunately these are not given in detail – as Powell so astutely observes:

“One’s capacity for hearing about ghastly doings lessens with age.”

I did feel at first that Powell might have stretched Ken’s character out of shape a little here, but thinking about it now I can see that the seeds for his rather sad demise had been sown quite early on in the books. I was sad to see him decline and end the way he did, but I suppose in many ways he got his just deserts, bearing in mind how badly he had behaved in the past and how many people he had damaged or destroyed.

The writing in this volume is lyrical and elegiac – giving a real sense of something momentous coming to an end, which in many ways it is, and HSH wraps things up very well!

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So, my final thoughts on the series!

It has been a real joy reading these books. It took a little while to adjust to Powell’s way of telling a story – the detachment of his narrator was unusual but understandable once I realised that Nick is the ultimate observer; and this was hardest thing to get used to (apart from style of his writing) This doesn’t rob his work of depth or poignancy, though, and following the sequence from beginning to end gave me the wonderful experience of feeling that I had lived through a large part of the 20th century. Although Nick is an observer, his character was allowed to change and his voice as an older character is different from that as a younger man, although still the same person – much as we change our views and attitudes as we age but still retain our individual personality.

Powell can be an astonishingly perceptive writer, but with Pamela Flitton he did seem to have a blind spot. He *is* very much a male writer at the end of the day, although there are plenty of women in the stories; and mostly they are well portrayed and avoid cliché, but I feel he failed with Pamela. We needed to know what motivated her, what had damaged her so, why she was so bitter and twisted; it is not enough to create a monster, we have to know the cause.

But despite this one small caveat, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with Nick Jenkins this year. I’m sure “Dance” would benefit from a second reading and I have no doubt that I will revisit this wonderful series again in the future!

Christmas Lovelies – and Wonderful Secret Santa Gifts!

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(Actually a slightly misleading title, as there are birthday gifts included here too!!)

Christmas this year was full of lovely treats, the best of which was having Eldest Child, Middle Child and Youngest Child all together under one roof with us! As they get older, I often think they may soon want to spend the festive season with partners etc, so we make the most of this while it still happens.

However, there was still plenty of time for bookish joys, and I have been unbelievably spoiled with readable treats this year and first up are some birthday treats:

The fun thing was that I shared my Amazon wish list for the first time with my family and they responded rather beautifully with a varied selection of books covering Paris, Russia and the Cairngorms!

These were birthday treats too – I was pretty sure someone would get me the Morrissey book, the Neil Young one was a pleasant surprise as I didn’t know it existed, and the Laurens van der Post “Journey Into Russia” is a lovely first edition – as it’s a journey into Iron Curtain Russia, it’s going to be right up my street!

Christmas brought more treats – the French Market Cookbook was actually for my birthday, the Dylan book should be a fun read, and the third volume is from my old friend V who always surprises me every year with a book I haven’t got!

The Wainwright fellwalking books have been on my wish list for a *long* time – not that I’m likely to go fellwalking any time in the near future, as I live nowhere near the Lake District, alas. But they’re such beautiful books that I shall sit and read and gaze at them for hours!

 

And obviously my children have been paying attention to the wish list, as I’ve been wanting these three gems for a while – “Metropole” sounds fascinating, the condensed Dickens (!) should come in useful if I forget any of the plots and the Everyman Book of Russian Poets is just lovely.

These came from OH, who knows of my love of Poirot. I think David Suchet is the quintessential Hercule and I can’t wait to read his recollections. The other book is about Andover in Hampshire, where I grew up – should be a fascinating read!

And last (but definitely not least!), my very generous Virago Secret Santa, Liz at Libroediting, sent me such wonderful gifts:

This is the ‘before’ picture as the lovely packages sit under the tree.

 

Notice all the little notes? Liz sent messages about why she chose particular books which made the gifts even more special!

There were a couple more items not pictured, because I shall be writing about them soon. However, I feel thoroughly spoiled and very lucky to have family and friends who know what I love – thanks to all!

Happy Christmas from Kaggsysbookishramblings!

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Books at Christmas – what more could you want? Have a wonderful festive day!

2013 – A Year of Reading, and plans for 2014

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And actually, this was my first full calendar year of blogging – I can’t quite believe I’ve been doing this for 18 months now! I did wonder when I started if I would have the impetus to keep going, but I *have* enjoyed very much rambling away here, and sharing my thoughts on books and book-related thingies. Roll on 2014!

In the meantime, a few thoughts on the highlights of 2013. It has been on a personal basis a bit up and down, with various family illnesses and crises, so in many ways books have been what they always have for me, something of a coping mechanism. And I have read some wonderful volumes this year, and interacted with some really lovely people – fellow bloggers, readers, publishers – which has made the blogging journey even more special.

I’ve also learned things about myself as a reader, which is odd after all these years! The main thing I’ve discovered is that I’m absolutely rubbish at challenges! In 2012 I caught up late with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s works, and managed to keep pace. However, this year I only committed myself to one Barbara Pym and one volume of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” a month and even that small challenge has proved impossible: I abandoned the Pyms halfway through the year, and am struggling with the last two volumes of Powell this month! I am definitely a wayward reader, influenced by whims and moods and what’s happening around me bookwise, so the only formal challenge I’m setting myself next year is the LibraryThing Great War Reading Event. This weighs in with a very reasonably one book per two months, and even with a choice of books, so I ought to be able to cope with that! Apart from this, I am really going to try to read as many books as I possible can which are already on my shelves – if for no other reason than to try to clear a few out and stop the house falling down under the weight of books!

So – highlights of 2013? In no particular order:

The Russians – I’ve spent time in the pages of a *lot* of Russians this year, having a particular binge on Dostoevsky. I finally read “The Brother Karamazov” which knocked me out – and I’d like to return to more of his books in the new year, as I do have a shelf full…. I also at last experienced the wonder that is “Anna Karenina”, a long and absorbing read which was just great to sink into. And then there’s Bulgakov – 2014 needs to see a revisit to “The Master and Margarita”!

Beverley Nichols – a recent discovery, and such a wonderful writer. His wit, his passion, his wearing of his emotions on his sleeve, his wonderful writing – in 2013 he became one of my favourites and I have the joy of several volumes waiting on my shelves for next year.

The Hopkins Manuscript – a lovely Persephone volume which I read fairly recently and which was unexpectedly compulsive. My unforeseen hit of the year!

Small presses and independent publishers – some of the best books I’ve come across are from publishers like Hesperus, Persephone and Alma Classics; and I’ve discovered new presses like Michael Walmer and Valancourt. Long live the independents!

Italo Calvino – I continued my reading of one of my favourite writers with a new collection of his essays – and I’m hoping that the volume of his letters will find its way to me soon…

Lost books – there’s nothing I like more than rediscovering an obscure volume and there were two stand-outs for me this year – Andrew Garve’s “Murder in Moscow” and the very wonderful Fred Basnett’s “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey”. I came across the Basnett book by chance in a charity shop and it ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year!

Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence – I set myself the challenge at the start of the year to read the 12 books in this series, one a month. I haven’t quite kept to the schedule (though I do hope to finish by the end of December), and I’ve struggled at times – but this has been a really rewarding reading experience, and I’m so glad to have spent time with Nick Jenkins and the fantastic (in all senses of the word) set of characters that Powell peopled his books with!

The LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group – one of the most important things of my reading year has been my involvement in this group, surely the nicest and friendliest place on the ‘Net! The Virago group are responsible for introducing me to so many blogs, bloggers, books and authors; we share secret santa, companionship, views on books, recommendations and support each other in the highs and lows of life. I do feel blessed to have been part of the group this year and look forward to another year of reading Viragos (and other books!) alongside them.

So – Plans for 2014?

As I said above, I’ve realised I function best as a reader if I don’t restrict or tie myself down. So there are a small number of books I plan for the Great War Reading Event and here they are:

Not too many when spread out over 12 months and with a commitment to only one every 2 months even I should be able to manage to keep up!

I’ve also decided that in 2014 I’d like to read the Raj Quartet and so I’ve allowed myself the indulgence of picking up the first two volumes in a couple of local charity shops – not bad for £1.75 and £1 each! But I won’t give myself deadlines, I’ve decided – I shall just read them when the mood takes me.

There are also a couple of review books I need to get on to:

Apart from this, I need to take some serious action about Mount TBR. I actually have so many books that I haven’t read that I don’t even have a separate TBR shelf (or two) – if I tried this the books would end up in chaos, so everything is shelved roughly by category/author. The danger in this is not only that I can’t find things, but also that I forget what I’ve read and what I haven’t read, and also forget what I had intended to read next. Therefore, I’d like 2014 to see a process of reading what I already own, then deciding if I want to keep it or not, and perhaps gradually slimming down the shelves a little. If I had an infinite amount of space I wouldn’t worry about it – but I haven’t, so I need to reduce the collection a bit.

I think this is a workable plan and gives me a *lot* of freedom in my reading – after all, whatever whim takes me, I’ll probably have *something* to fit it in my library! So that’s my plan – what’s yours?

Recent Reads: Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell

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Yes, the end is in sight as I finally edge towards the completion of my year-long read of the “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence. I’m still slightly behind but determined to finish the last two books before the end of December, and I’ve just finished the penultimate book, “Temporary Kings” – a very intriguing volume indeed!

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The action has flashed forward to the late 1950s and in typical Powellesque style we are thrown into a new situation with new characters – namely a literary conference in Venice which Nick is attending, and spending time with Dr Emily Brightman. However, it is not long before the tentacles of the past start to insinuate themselves into the narrative of the present and we learn much about the death of X. Trapnel and the end of the days of “Fission”. Brightman introduces Nick to one of her fellow Americans, a strange young man called Russell Gwinnett, who wants to write a biography of Trapnel and is happy to meet someone who knew him and can perhaps introduce him to other Trappy contacts – particularly, of course, the infamous Pamela Widmerpool.

Yes, it doesn’t take long for the terrible twosome to rear their heads! Pamela has been linked to the death of a famous French author, Ferrand-Sénéschal, and in fairly dubious-sounding circumstances. And while the conference visits a local palace, the dreaded Lady Widmerpool turns up, in the company of an American film director, Louis Glober, known to Nick from a party many, many years ago. Kenneth soon turns up and the couple are rowing again!

The action continues in Venice, with Nick visiting an old colleague Tokenhouse, who has moved from publishing to painting. Also in Venice is Ada Leintwardine and initially Glober has designs on her, but soon turns his attentions to Pamela. Mysteriously, Widmerpool turns up at Tokenhouse’s, looking for a Dr. Belkin, who many people seem to be trying to track down. Our Kenneth is behaving even more strangely than usual, though that could be as a result of being married to Pamela! There are certainly complications brewing, with Gwinnett initially pursuing Pamela, and then the roles reversing; Glober also pursuing her; and the presence in Venice of one of her old lovers, Odo Stevens who is now married to Rosie Manasch.

The action shifts back to England, and the past is still informing the present. “Books” Bagshaw is now living in domestic ‘bliss’ in a very dysfunctional sounding household, which gets even more so when Gwinnett lodges with them for a while and Pamela is spotted naked there one night. Nick attends an army reunion and runs into old colleagues – he finds out more about Stringham’s death, and there is much discussion of the Widmerpool affair – it isn’t enough that Pamela has created a scandal by being present at Ferrand-Sénéschal’s death, but now Widmerpool is accused of spying and there are rumours of his arrest. What a couple!

There is then a remarkable chapter centred around a charity concert party given by Odo and Rosie Stevens, where the orchestra is conducted by Moreland. Poor Hugh is in declining health, and this is not helped by the shenanigans at the party. In attendance are a wide variety of character; Glober; Polly Duport, Jean’s daughter, who is now an actress; Mrs. Erdleigh (however old must she be now!); Jimmy Stripling, Audrey Maclintick and of course the Widmerpools. Matilda Donners, Moreland’s ex-wife is also present, and her (and Audrey’s) ex-lover Carolo appears as a stand-in violinist! But it is after the concert, as various attendees await for transport home, that the most dramatic scenes take place. Glober ends up punching Widmerpool, Mrs. Erdleigh gives Pamela various mystical warnings of impending disaster and high emotions are evident everywhere. The aftermath, in the final short chapter which covers Moreland’s last months, is oblique, to say the least…

TK was certainly some read! It’s packed with characters and events, and in some ways I felt that Powell’s style had reverted a little – from becoming clearer and a bit more transparent, he’s moved back into a denser and more elliptical way of telling his tale. Some things I’m still unsure about and some things I had to go back and read over again. However, on to specifics!

Firstly, what a wonderful array of characters, old and new. Gwinnett is fascinating – apparently descended from one of American’s founding fathers, awkward and difficult to deal with, yet obviously driven by deep emotions – I wonder whether he will reappear in the final book or if this is all we will see of him? Dr. Brightman and Glober are also great fun, and it was lovely to see so many old favourites turning up – Audrey, Matilda, Moreland and especially the wonderful Mrs. Erdleigh. And how clever of Powell to do this –  the past interspersing with the present and so many characters dancing back in to the story, which perhaps is a way of reflecting what happens as you age and the various elements of your life start to bleed into each other and connections not noticed before become clear.

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TK is full of fascinating developments and there are several unanswered questions in the book: *who* is the mysterious and Godot-like Dr. Belkin, whom everybody is waiting for but no-one (including ourselves) ever meets? What exactly has Widmerpool been up to? *What* on earth motivates Pamela – is it just a lot of unspecified deviance? I suppose this reflects the fact that life is full of things that are never resolved.

It was lovely to see a little more of Isobel featuring in this book (albeit still fleetingly) and I wish that Powell had felt able to develop her character a little more. There are poignant echoes of the war, and hints of the horrors of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps from Cheeseman, when we learn a little more about the fate of Stringham:

“Cheeseman gave that answer perfectly composedly, but for a brief second, something scarcely measurable in time, there shot, like forked lightning, across his serious unornamental features that awful look, common to those who speak of that experience. I had seen it before.”

And then of course there are the Widmerpools, that ghastly but fascinating pair. We’ve watched Kenneth develop gradually from the first story, and it seems that in TK his bull-headedness and arrogance is finally catching up with him. He’s over-reached himself, dabbling in espionage and a trial is narrowly averted. His marriage to Pamela, based on goodness knows what, seems to be a sham, with both parties leading independent lives and Pamela leaving a trail of broken men behind her. Again, I wondered why they stayed together, but it is possible that Nick’s ruminations on his father may shed some light on the matter:

“People put up surprisingly well with irascibility, some even finding in it a spice to life otherwise humdrum. There is little evidence that the irascible, as a class, are friendless, and my father’s bursts of temper may, for certain acquaintances, have added to the excitement of knowing him.”

Perhaps Kenneth *likes* Pamela’s anger, or maybe their marriage thrives on something more deviant.Their relationship is bizarre, the events that surround them unbelievable, but as Nick comments:

“After passing the half-century, one unavoidable conclusion is that many things seeming incredible on starting out are, in fact, by no means to be located in an area beyond belief. The “Widmerpool Case” fell into that category.”

And here is a SPOILER ALERT – any discussion of Pamela inevitably leads on to her demise in the last chapter, which I shall have to try to read again to see what it is I missed! Pamela overdoses in circumstances that are hinted at so obscurely as to be almost indistinct. I *think* she may have died in bed with Gwinnett, but the motivation is clouded. If I had a criticism to make, it would be that I ended this book (and the sequence of books which featured her) not really understanding her character. The others in the book develop throughout, we get to grips with their peculiarities and idiosyncracies, and end up with a real sense of their personalities. But Pamela is a mystery, and remains so to the end. There is much hinting and discussion of perversity and voyeurism – a running theme through the book, from the ceiling in the palace to Magnus Donner’s old tendencies and possibly Widmerpool’s current ones – but not enough depth or motivation for my liking. I *wanted* to understand Pamela, to know what made her such an angry, bitter and damaged person, but I never felt I learned this. Powell is a writer of some subtlety, which means his work can sometimes be difficult and that he requires close reading, but I feel here that he is too oblique.

If this sounds a little negative, it shouldn’t – I was gripped by Powell’s narrative again, and the chapter where he gradually unfolds the post-party fall-out with its attendant revelations was masterly, like watching a train wreck about to happen which you couldn’t stop. I loved the clever way he intertwined past and present, reflecting the way real life is. And the Venice sequences where great fun – I know some people on the LT read-along weren’t so keen on Nick being away from England, but I thought it was a hoot the way that Nick couldn’t get away from his past or his acquaintances even when he was abroad! This was a great read, full of marvellous events and set pieces, and I can’t wait for the final volume!

Happiness is…

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finding a copy of the David McDuff translation of “Crime and Punishment” in a charity shop for 95p….

….. particularly when you’ve been putting off sending for a copy for ages!!

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at 170

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Excellent post about the most wonderful Dickens book “A Christmas Carol” from the always intriguing Interesting Literature blog!

Interesting Literature

The surprising story behind Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’s classic Christmas tale A Christmas Carol was published over 170 years ago, in 1843. Since then, there have been countless stage, screen, and radio adaptations of the classic story. The first film adaptation was a short silent movie version in 1901, titled Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost. There have been opera and ballet versions, an all-black musical called Comin’ Uptown (1979), and even a 1973 mime adaptation for the BBC starring Marcel Marceau. The Muppets, Mickey Mouse, and Mr Magoo have all featured in adaptations of the book.

It wasn’t the first Christmas story Dickens wrote. It wasn’t even the first Christmas ghost story Dickens wrote. He’d already written ‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’, featuring miserly Gabriel Grub, an inset tale in Dickens’s first ever published novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7). The tale shares many…

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Monday Music

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A little final Monday Moodies Magic – a playlist of their wonderful 1968 Colour Me Pop BBC appearance – wallow in nostalgia and enjoy!

#DorisInDecember – The Grass is Singing: A Review

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It’s at times when I’m faced with reviewing a book like this that I do wonder why I took up blogging! What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? Can I do the book justice or will I end up just saying something silly? Mind you, I did feel the same when approaching classics like “Anna Karenina” and “Brothers Karamazov”, but then I reminded myself that in the end I’m simply recording my personal response to a book – and hoping the odd reader or two will find that interesting! So, time to approach “The Grass is Singing”.

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As I mentioned previously, Simon at SavidgeReads came up with the lovely idea of #DorisInDecember and I imagine a lot of tweeting has been going on about this! However, as a non-tweeter my comments are going to be here, and so on with the great Doris’s first novel. TGIS was published in 1950 and Lessing apparently brought it with her to England when she left South Africa. The novel opens with a newspaper report on the murder of white farmer’s wife Mary Turner, who has been killed by the black houseboy Moses, and goes on to explore the immediate aftermath of the murder. We meet Mary’s husband Dick, now completely mad (as a result of the murder maybe?) plus neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter plus Tony Marston, a young man who has come from England to manage the Turners’ farm. But it is immediately clear that all is not as straightforward as it seems. Slatter and Marston in particular respond strangely to the murder, seemingly angry with the victim. It appears that nobody is particularly surprised that tragedy has struck the Turners as they did not fit in with the divided society which existed in South Africa and didn’t ‘play the game’. Something unspeakable has been going on at the Turners’ farm and nobody wants to say what it was.

We then flash back to the start of Mary’s life and it is clear this is not so much a whodunnit as an exploration of the whys of the case, and a psychological study of the effects of living in such conditions on sensitive people. Mary grows up in the bush, hating the land and escaping from her family as soon as she can to work in the nearby city. She builds herself a happy enough life, socialising, working as a secretary, living independently and enjoying her freedom. But Mary is a troubled, undeveloped woman – scarred by her childhood, disliking sex and attempting to maintain some kind of eternal youth.

“If she had been left alone she would have gone on, in her own way, enjoying herself thoroughly, until people found one day that she had turned imperceptibly into one of those women who have become old without ever having been middle-aged: a little withered, a little acid, hard as nails, sentimentally kindhearted, and addicted to religion or small dogs.”

She is shocked out of her tranquillity when she overhears friends talking about her and is panicked into looking for a husband. However, Mary is temperamentally unsuited for marriage and becomes quite desperate to find a mate – so that when she encounters farmer Dick Turner, on one of his occasional visits to the city, and he is captivated by a false image he gains of her, she rushes into a partnership that is doomed. Her experiences as a child, where she witnessed something unspecified, have given her an aversion to the physical, so that her wedding night is never going to be a success:

“It was not so bad, she thought, when it was all over: not as bad as that. It meant nothing to her, nothing at all. Expecting outrage and imposition, she was relieved to find she felt nothing. She was able maternally to bestow the gift of herself on this humble stranger, and remain untouched. Women have an extraordinary ability fo withdraw from the sexual relationship, to immunize themselves against it, in such a way that their men can be left feeling let down and insulted without having anything tangible to complain of.”

Dick Turner is one of life’s failures, nicknamed “Jonah” by those who know him. His farm scrapes by, just about making a living, but he is beset by constant disasters – rainy or sunny periods at the wrong time, crops that fail, workers that don’t work properly, an inability to plan properly and make the farm succeed. He dreams of a successful farm, wife and child, but the reality is a harsh and extreme climate, a wife who really doesn’t want to be there and grinding poverty. A constant trial to Mary is the heat, and the fact that they live in a shack with a tin lid which exacerbates this. Nothing Dick can do brings success and Mary is bored out of her mind (literally). They do not fit in with the local white community and of course the black community is beyond the pale – to even acknowledge any of their workers as a living human being is unthinkable.

But Dick starts to have periods of illness and Mary has to take control of the farm for a while. She temporarily comes to life here, intelligent enough to see exactly where her husband is going wrong. She has the knowledge to run the farm but is unable to deal with the workers in the appropriate way – in fact, her responses to them are complex; while trying to assert her control, she actually has a mortal terror of them. When Dick is well, she attempts to change the way the farm is run, to save them from ruin – but only so she can escape from the bush and the farm and her husband. Things deteriorate between the two of them, and then events spiral further out of control with the arrival of the houseboy Moses, who has a strange influence over Mary….

I wasn’t sure how I would respond to TGIS, as it’s not necessarily about the sort of subject matter I would choose to read. However, Lessing’s writing is remarkable; she quickly establishes a wonderfully vivid landscape with believable characters and draws you in completely. The portrayal of the South African society under Apartheid is chilling – it’s quite horrific to observe how one race can behave in such a vile way that it completely dominates another to the extent that it doesn’t even recognise them as human. Much of this is personified by Charlie Slatter, the hardened farmer who pretty much represents the white race in the book – cold, callous and uncaring, he is intent on maintaining the status quo at all times, the delicate balance that allows the system to continue and where any deviance from the norm is frowned upon. Lessing shines a very bright light on apartheid, and what she shows is not pretty.

As for the relationship between Mary and Moses, I admit I’m still trying to work this out in my mind. It does seem initially odd that a women like Mary, hating and terrified of the natives, would form any sort of friendship with her houseboy (and I certainly wouldn’t have described it as her turning to him for comfort as the blurb on the back of my edition states). However, there’s an old song that says “There’s a thin line between love and hate” and maybe it could be applied here; certainly, the one incident of tenderness we see between Mary and Moses, witnessed through the eyes of Marston, is shocking simply because it is so unexpected. Lessing hints that relationships between black and white South Africans are more common than we might think, but seems to be deliberately vague about this one and its extent. What we do glean is that Dick is aware of it, though refusing to acknowledge it, and maybe this contributes to his final madness. And certainly Mary has become extremely unhinged at this point and their relationship has reversed, so that Moses has become master and Mary servant. Charlie Slatter, on a rare visit to the Turners’ farm, is perceptive enough to realise that the dynamic is wrong somewhere, and tries to take action to avert disaster. However, he is too late to do this, and Mary almost seems to be sleepwalking towards her destiny…

South African farmhouse by Brett Harvey http://www.panoramio.com/photo/6825422

South African farmhouse by Brett Harvey
http://www.panoramio.com/photo/6825422

If for nothing else, TGIS would be memorable because of its striking images – the bush, the farm, the little tin-roofed shack, the great blue dome of the sky that Lessing refers to more than once.

“In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvellous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers… The sunshine dazzled and glittered, but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within.”

But what comes back to the fore time and again is isolation. Dick and Mary are isolated within their marriage; they are cut off from the local white landowning society; Mary is separated from the town life she loves, and she is ultimately detached from reality. Over and over Lessing reiterates her loneliness and isolation and it was this element that surprised me a little, in that I found many echoes of the only other book of hers that I’ve read, “The Golden Notebook” (if you can have echoes of the future). It’s a while since I read the latter, but I recall it focusing very much on the inner psychology of the main character and her detachment from reality. Mary is ostensibly in a very different setting from 1950s London, but her character seems to be suffering from the same fracturing as Anna Wulf in TGN – and as this was Lessing’s second novel it could be seen as a continuation. As I’ve said before, it’s often easy to conflate a writer and their character without justification. However, I was lucky enough to catch on the BBC this week the repeat of the “Imagine” documentary on Lessing from a few years ago; and it seems clear to me from this that she drew on her own life for material, particularly her childhood in the landscape of South Africa and the relationship with her mother. (The documentary may still be available for a little while on the iPlayer for those in the UK).

09/08/97_16.29_09/14 bks KERMO
I ended up absorbed and loving this book. Lessing’s writing is of a rare quality; her portraits of inner life are exceptional; her descriptions of the landscape of South Africa are stunning and her characters memorable. I definitely want to read more of her work – thanks Simon for setting up this readalong!

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