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Murder, Regency-style!

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The Cheltenham Square Murder – John Bude

One of the most successful publishing stories of recent years is that of the British Library Crime Classics imprint. The early titles appeared in 2012, although the series really took off in 2014 when the books began appearing in striking and beautiful covers featuring vintage images. With introductions by crime writer and guru Martin Edwards, the imprint reprints lost British crime classics from the 20th century and the books seem to have been enthusiastically received, not only by crime aficionados, but also by the general public.

chelt square

One of the stars of the range is John Bude; I’ve read three of his novels so far (reviews here, here and here), and it’s something of a mystery as to why this prolific and talented author fell out of favour. His stories always feature a specific location and I was really keen to read the latest reissue, “The Cheltenham Square Murder” (first published in 1937) as I lived in the Spa Town in my teens! Superintendent Meredith, Bude’s protagonist, is still based in Sussex (as he was in the last Bude I read) but is spending time with his friend, the author Aldous Barnet. The latter is staying in his sister’s house in Cheltenham, while the lady is away – No. 8 Regency Square, to be precise. As Barnet and Meredith are collaborating on a book, this seems the ideal time to visit – but this turns out to be no holiday for Meredith as shortly after his arrival one of the residents of the square is murdered in a most unusual way – by an arrow fired through an open window and straight into his head!

Regency Square is tenanted by an interesting bunch of characters, all marked out on a neat map at the front of the book (I do *love* a crime novel with a map in it!) There is Miss Boon, a single lady with a booming voice and a collection of dogs; the Wests, who have a troubled marriage; Rev. Matthews and his sister; another young couple, the Fitzgeralds, who are plagued by their neighbour, Captain Cotton, whom nobody likes. Then there is Mr. Buller, a slightly shady character, the spinster Misses Watts, Dr. Pratt (handily placed for when there are dead bodies to be inspected) and in the poshest house Sir William Whitcomb. And of course there are neighbourly conflicts, a rivalry about the felling of an elm tree in the square, problems with Miss Boon’s dogs and all the little irritations you’d expect in a closely packed residential area.

Fortunately for the residents, Meredith is on hand when the murder is discovered and even more fortunately the local inspector, Long, had heard of Meredith and is very keen on collaborating with him in solving the mystery. So the two sleuths set to investigating, and it seems as though there will be a limited field of enquiry as about half of the square’s residents are members of a local archery club. But there are alibis, and initially lack of motives. Although the detectives have their suspicions there’s no obvious, clear-cut answer. And then a second murder takes place which muddies the waters even more. Will Meredith and Long succeed in tracking down the killer, or is the Regency Square killer just too clever for them?

Photo from http://www.gloucestershirepolicemuseum.co.uk

Cheltenham Promenade Gardens – Photo from http://www.gloucestershirepolicemuseum.co.uk

I’ve loved all the Bude books I’ve read so far (I really must catch up with “Death on the Riviera”, the only BL reissue of his I’ve not read); and this book is no exception. In fact, I may have liked it the most of them all, but that could be because of a certain familiarity with the location! I did enjoy the mentions of the local landmarks like the Promenade and the Pittville Pump Room and the Rotunda, and I recall being very fond of Agatha Christie’s “The ABC Murders” because the first killing took place in Andover (where I grew up). However, putting that aside, this is a deeply enjoyable read – classic crime at its best. The murder is very clever, the twists expertly placed and although I had a slight glimmer of the solution, it was only slight and I hadn’t worked out most of the mystery. Bude is an engaging writer, and Meredith a well-rounded character; the latter is a straightforward policeman, thorough in his detecting but with flashes of brilliance, and Barnet and Long make excellent foils. I was particularly fond of Long, with his slightly countrified accent and down to earth attitude, and even he was allowed a fair share of the detecting, as well as providing a certain amount of levity in places – Bude’s happy to slip in a little wry humour now and then (as in this wonderful description of a boarding house sitting room and the landlady):

“This way, sir,” said Mrs. Black, deferentially piloting the Superintendent into the room with the aspidistra and bay-window, a room which smelt of soot, camphor and hair-rugs. Meredith was waved into a rigid, springless armchair draped with a large antimacassar. Mrs. Black edged herself primly onto a black horse-hair sofa, carefully avoiding the silk-covered cushions which adorned it.

I’ve deliberately been vague about the specifics of the murders and plots, because so much of the enjoyment here comes from each development and revelation as it comes – and I would hate to spoil this for anyone who’s going to read it (and I think you all should if you love classic crime). Really, I can’t fault this book; it was exactly what it sets out to be, a wonderful Golden Age police procedural in a lovely setting and with an engrossing and enjoyable mystery. If the BL series had done nothing else but bring John Bude’s work back into print, it would deserve plaudits; as it is, Bude is one of many successes of the British Library Crime Classics series; they make perfect comfort reading in a nasty world, and I really can’t wait to read another!

All Virago, All August : You can’t go home again…

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Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

I confess to feeling a little smugger than usual this August, as I’ve managed to read several Viragos – more than I normally manage, as there are so many bookish distractions around. Particularly pleasing is that this book is a large (over 500 pages!) and epic tale by Edith Wharton, who I haven’t read enough of – and I absolutely loved it! I read it while I was on my travels, visiting my mum and my offspring, and it was the perfect companion for train journeys and reading whilst away.

hudson river
“Hudson River Bracketed” (the titled refers to a style of architecture) was published in 1929, and it tells the story of Vance Weston. Born in the American mid-west, the son of a successful real estate developer, Vance is used to a modern, comfortable, forward-looking life. The family have gradually moved upmarket, from smaller houses to larger, even more modern ones and Vance has had a college education. But instead of taking the obvious course and going into the family business, he wants something different; some of the spark of his grandmother is in him, something that sees more in the world than just the quotidian, and Vance wants to be a writer. After an illness, he leaves the family home in the town of Euphoria and goes to board with a distant cousin, Mrs. Tracy, who has a ramshackle house in Paul’s Landing, up the Hudson River from New York. Basing himself here, he plans to make an assault on the Big Apple and make it as an author. However, the culture shock he experiences when he arrives on the Hudson is immense; for the first time in his life he comes across a way of life unlike his, with long roots to early American settlers. And the sight of his first old house has a dramatic effect on Vance, so much so that it changes his course mid-stream.

As they left the house he realized that, instead of seizing the opportunity to explore every nook of it, he had sat all the afternoon in one room, and merely dreamed of what he might have seen in the others. But that was always his way: the least little fragment of fact was enough for him to transform into a palace of dreamss, whereas if he tried to grasp more of it at a time it remained on his hands as so much unusable reality.

The Tracy family are related to the Spear family (I could have done with a family tree here) but the latter are of a different class. Cultured and refined, their only contact with the Tracys is to employ them to clean and keep an eye on The Willows, an old house owned by a cousin in the Lorburn branch of the family.

Whilst helping his cousins Laura Lou and Upton, Vance stumbles on the library and it is here that his real education begins. A college education has not prepared him for the splendours of classic literature; neither is he prepared for his meeting with Heloise “Halo” Spear, another distant cousin who will become his muse and obsession, as well as guiding him through the books at The Willows..

“Don’t shake the books as if they were carpets, Vance; they’re not. At least they’re only magic carpets, some of them, to carry one to the other side of the moon. But they won’t stand banging and beating. You see, books have souls, like people: that is, like a few people…”

But Vance’s life is going to be anything but straightforward. As he begins to explore literature and try to find his voice as a writer, he’s pulled between the draw of his art and the need to live so as to feed that art. Halo, despite his adoration of her, seems as far from him as a goddess; however, Laura Lou is human and loves him, and they will eventually make an ill-judged marriage. Vance struggles to write, to make a living so as to support the sickly Laura Lou and soon realises the mistake he’s made by marrying her. Despite the success of an initial novel, Vance’s naivety and immaturity means that he finds it impossible to find a balance in his life, torn between his loyalty for Laura Lou and need for companionship, as against his desperate urge to write. The struggle will prove to be too much for some…

wharton
“Hudson River Bracketed” could really be subtitled “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” because that’s most definitely what it is; and how unusual to have that portrait painted by a female author! Vance is a remarkable creation – complex, nuanced and perhaps more finely drawn than might be the case by a male writer. Interestingly, in the afterword by Marilyn French, the latter states that she regards the book as flawed because of the fact that Vance, as hero, is flawed, which I personally found an odd judgement. Vance is certainly no perfect hero – he has talent, but he’s weak, and his compassion and need for companionship overtake any logical thinking at times in the story. His treatment of women is often unthinking, but he’s driven by the need to write and struggles to do this while he’s burdened with a wife who has no comprehension of his needs and also has no money to support her.

I chose the title of this post deliberately, as it also spotlights another strong trend in the book, the clash between Vance’s two lives. He pretty much abandons his family in Euphoria to follow his muse, rejecting their values and way of life. At one point in the story he’s forced to return because of lack of finances, but the situation is impossible as he’s moved away from his family and their beliefs. He stands it for a while until he’s impelled to leave once more for New York. However, there’s a saying that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” and this kind of applies here; Vance is somehow caught between two worlds, neither of which he really fits into, and in the end you wish someone would give him some money to go off and write his masterpiece. The title of this post is also relevant because Wharton apparently based her story on the early life of American author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote a book of that name, and his books (like this one) reflect the culture of the time. In Wharton’s book in particular New York’s literary elite of the 1920s come in for quite a lot of sly criticism and it’s obvious the author had no love for faddish writing (though she does allow Vance to discover and be entranced by “The Russians”!)

HRB is a long book yet immensely readable, and beautifully written. There are vivid scenes of Vance and Halo watching a sunrise over the Hudson River; Vance and Laura Lou exploring in the snow; the countryside around The Willows and the house itself; and all of these are stunning and memorable, as were the characters. In particular, the troubled and intelligent Halo Spear is a wonderful creation. Married to a man she doesn’t love because of the fact that her family owe him money, she struggles to maintain an intellectual life and sees the genius in Vance Weston. Trying to help him draw this out, she becomes his muse and eventually the pair fall in love. This is always handled sensitively and convincingly by Wharton, and though they can’t be together out of loyalty to their spouses, I couldn’t help wishing they were as Halo seemed to be the only person able to help Vance attain his potential.

Despite its length HRB finished too soon for me; I had become completely absorbed in the story of Vance and Halo, and so it was a real delight to find out that there’s a follow-up book, “The Gods Arrive”. I’ve read little Wharton up until now, but I’ll certainly be looking out for “Gods…” and also checking out the other books by the author that are lurking on my shelves! 🙂

A few lovely finds in Leicester!

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So, I’m just back from a little trip – my Summer journey to visit mum and then the Offspring for a few days. The latter always involves visiting the various bookshops and charity shops of Leicester, but this time I was surprisingly restrained and only came home with these:

leics finds aug 2016

The Leskov was a gift from Youngest Child who found it in one of the charity shops a while back and nabbed it for me. I’ve wanted this particular edition for some time so was very pleased!

The Lawrence is because, I have to confess, I’ve never read anything by him…! Middle Child is regularly scandalised by this, and persuaded me I should read “The Rainbow”. She found a pretty old Penguin in one of the shops so who knows – maybe this will be the year I read Lawrence.

Middle Child also spotted the “Daughters of Decadence” Virago collection of Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle, which sounds excellent.

And “The Emperor of The Amazon” sounded – unusual – so I thought I would give it a try.

Now I need to take a few more titles to the charity shops to compensate…. :s

All Virago/All August – Catching up with Dorothy!

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Behind her closed door she stood alone.

I have indeed let my reading of Dorothy Richardson’s great series of books, “Pilgrimage”, slip behind a little and I need to catch up with June’s book (“Revolving Lights”), July’s book (“The Trap”) and also that for the current month (“Oberland”). I have finally found the time and space to read them, so I thought I would do a composite type of post, covering them all!

Revolving Lights

revolving lights

“Revolving Lights” opens with a long stream-of-consciousness chapter with Miriam mixing with Mr. Leyton’s female cousins, debating with herself deeply about her relationship with Michael Shatov. She’s acutely conscious of the differences of attitude between men and women, and frustrated by his inability to understand the problems they would face if they married. Despite meeting a Russian couple, the Lintoffs, who have a ‘mixed marriage’, Miriam is still unconvinced and makes the break with Michael – her need to be alone is one of the strongest things in her psyche. There is a weight lifted from her by this break, but she’s exhausted and goes to spend a month with the Wilsons in the country. Here, she mixes with literary types, particularly Edna Prout, and grows closer to Hypo – interestingly enough, she seems to be developing a writing career of sorts, writing reviews. The book ends on a further note of change, with her dentist boss Mr. Hancock going it alone and taking Miriam with him.

The Trap

pilg 3

“The Trap” heralds more changes, as it opens with Miriam moving to new lodgings, sharing with a Miss Holland. In the same area of London, it appears, the rooms are not particularly inspiring and involve actually sharing a bedroom, with a curtain down the middle – not something I’d expect Miriam to be particularly keen on, as she likes her own space, but she appears cheerful enough about it. It’s not clear straight away why she’s made the move, though a later sentence would suggest for reasons of economy – but then there is always much that isn’t clear with Richardson. So Miriam settles in, attend Lycurgan meetings and dances, socialises with Miss Holland and Dr. Densley (is he a suitor as well as  her doctor?), copes with exhaustion and takes great joy in being a member of a women’s club. Michael Shatov makes fleeting appearances, as does the poet Yeats (who apparently lives just over the road!) and all the while Miriam continues her interior dialogue with herself. Densley is of the opinion that her exhaustion could be cured by marriage and settling down, which Miriam dismisses. However, there is a sense that she’s becoming set in her ways and certainly her outlook is often inflexible. Inevitably, there’s a falling out with Miss Holland and the book ends with the hint that Miriam may be moving on again.

Oberland

oberland

“Oberland” brings a change of scene as it opens with Miriam setting off on for a holiday in Switzerland, a trip that had been mentioned in passing while she was at the Wilsons’ as her ideal visit. And here we see the real strength of Richardson’s writing as she captures brilliantly the feeling of travelling and the effect of the landscape on Miriam as she arrives in Oberland. Switzerland comes vividly arrive and Miriam obvious loves the place; she toboggans and walks in the mountains; makes tentative friends with other residents; and spends quite a lot of time attracting men! In fact, she’s something of a flirt, drawn to a brooding Italian whose views are very much opposite to hers, and also to a young American whose free and easy New World manners are more in touch with her personality. However, it does seem as if she’s toying with them a little, and there are hints of Hypo in back in London “waiting for her decision” – on what we don’t know, but presumably it will be a love affair of some sort.

Short enough to be classed as a novella, “Oberland” was probably the easiest of these three books to read – shorter chapter, shorter paragraphs, less inner musings and more outward looking. We still experience Miriam’s way of thinking and her view of the world, but in a form that’s easier for the reader to assimilate.

****

So, having read three Pilgrimage novels in quick succession, I’ve had a concentrated dose of Miriam and I have to say that it did cross my mind that she’s a person who seriously overthinks things! Accepting that we all have random thought processes, constantly picking up subtleties around us and analysing motives and the like, Miriam takes this to an extreme degree, so much so that I did wonder how much it was interfering with her life. However, putting this aside, there are great riches to be found in the books.

For a start, some passages are quite beautiful, and in particular Richardson vividly brings alive the summer stay at the Wilsons. The landscape and the garden and the sleeping out on a summer night are wonderfully painted scenes, with Miriam contemplating the large things of life. And as always, Miriam/Richardson celebrates London and the life there in some wonderful sequences – Miriam’s refuge is often the streets of the capital, where she is at home and very much at one with herself. Switzerland too had a strong presence and Miriam always responds to landscape.

Dorothy Richardson in 1932

Dorothy Richardson in 1932

Bizarrely, in places Richardson starts to switch from the third person to the first person, and towards the end of “The Trap” a whole sequence is done in first person – which rather unsettles the reader. Another oddity is her constant way of dropping important bombshells into the narrative as passing comments; I’m thinking of one particular huge life-changing event in “The Trap” which happens so much in metaphorical parenthesis that you might actually miss it… There are also the ongoing frustrations of references to past events we know nothing about – for example, as Liz pointed out, the mention of Miriam having spent time with cousins in Cambridge is the first we hear of it, and this kind of sudden detail can be disconcerting.

On a slightly negative point, I found the constant emphasis on race in the first of these three books a little frustrating. I suppose that nowadays we’re used to people of all races and faiths and creeds marrying without a second thought, but Richardson seems to define, and often condemn, people, particularly ones of Jewish origin, because of that heritage. Granted that it’s a way of life and belief that is alien to her, nevertheless I felt slightly uncomfortable with her categorisations here. And in “Oberland” in particular, her consciousness of class differences comes to the fore. I ended up perceiving a real danger that Miriam’s outlook and character can be too rigid – she obviously is looking for a life companion of some kind, or else why would she spend so much time pursuing the various menfolk, but any relationship has to completely on her terms. There is no room for any kind of compromise in her outlook and that could well have a detrimental effect on her life long-term.

So a fascinating series of three books – and I’m keen to see where Miriam’s journey takes her next, as “The Trap” ended on a note of ambiguity as far as her future sharing digs with Miss Holland is concerned. I’m glad I used All Virago/All August to catch up, and as the final four volumes are really quite short, hopefully I’ll have no problem completing this challenge…

(Liz’s review of “Oberland” is here and you can find the rest of her reviews on her blog too)

Exploring My Library – Colette (#WIT Month)

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As it’s Women in Translation Month, I thought it might be a nice idea to share a part of my library which features works from someone who qualifies; and there are lots of candidates but I’m going for an author who was probably one of the earliest translated women I read, and is still among my favourites – Colette.

I’ve written about Colette here before, and she was a gutsy, fascinating woman who lived an incredible life. Her writing is just wonderful and so let’s got onto the books – and I own quite a few… In fact, they go two rows deep on the shelves and here they are:

front shelf

This is what the front looks like – a mixed selection of biographies and fiction.

back shelfAnd this is the back row – mainly my original Penguins from the early 1980s when I first read Colette, stored in chronological order together with other editions – because there wasn’t a complete set in Penguin, which was one of my bugbears, and still annoys me.

matching penguinsAs you can see, the Penguins at that time were quite lovely, with beautiful covers featuring a vintage photograph and very pretty design around it, in varying colours. I bought and read my way through all of these that were available, absolutely loving Colette, and I do wish Penguin had brought out all of her books in this style. Alas, not all were in Penguin and so the gaps were filled by different publishers.

unusual ones

These are some of my more unusual ones – two copies of “Mitsou” (which I only read recently), a very odd “Earthly Paradise” apparently featuring a flapper, a pretty older Penguin of “Ripening Seed” and an old hardback of “The Blue Lantern”. The latter is one of my favourite Colettes and yet not very easily obtained – I can’t imagine why…

animalsAnother more obscure title in a couple of variants – Colette’s “Dialogues des Betes” is another lesser-known title which I’ve only just picked up. She was known for her love of animals and it’s a shame this work isn’t easier to come by.

letters storiesCollected Stories is a wonderful volume, and I’d recommend it without hesitation – her shorter fictions are presented chronologically here, covering her time in music hall to the later stages of her life, and she’s as good at short stories as longer fictions. Her Letters are a delight too, and both of these books are overseen by Robert Phelps, something of a Colette scholar I believe.

some biogsThere’s a lot of biographical material on Colette as well, and these are just some of the books I have. The Thurman book is an excellent read, and probably a good place to start if you’re new to Colette and want a good biog.

claudines

Evidence, if  you ever needed it, that I really do buy too many books. I have a lovely set of the Claudine books in the original Penguin pastel type covers, so I don’t need an omnibus or a set of the older Penguins. But they’re so pretty………

break of day

Last, but certainly not least, “Break of Day”, my first and possibly favourite Colette. The Women’s Press edition on the left is the one I read back in about 1981 and it completely sold me on Colette. I then went on to read all of the books I could get in chronological order. Recently I picked up the Capuchin edition in a charity shop, just because I could – I did have another edition, a Heron hardback with a nasty cover, so I donated that as it was taking up a lot of space. I love “Break of Day” – I’ve read it more than any other Colette and can’t help thinking I’d like to pick it up again soon!

So there you have some of my Colette collection – I could have made this post a lot longer by showing you the inside of some of the picture books I have about her, reminiscences of her third husband, etc etc but I’d risk boring you to death. Colette was a wonderful woman and a marvellous writer, and is certainly a good choice if you’re looking for a translated woman to read this month!

 

#Woolfalong Phase 4 – Dazzling flights of fancy

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I hadn’t intended to read more than one book for the current phase of the Woolfalong, as there are so many other books and challenges I need to get through this month. But when I reached the end of “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” I couldn’t help myself – I just had to pick up the other book I’d been considering reading, and that’s her love letter in a novel to Vita Sackville West, the faux biography “Orlando”.

orlando panther

Woolf’s love life was always a complex one, and she had had affairs of the heart with women before. Vita was of course very different from Virginia – a successful popular novelist with two sons, she was also a member of the landed gentry with a long heritage. Virginia was fascinated by this history and used Vita and her past as the springboard of her wild, dazzling story.

“Orlando” opens in the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1; the titular character is a young man of noble birth living in a huge mansion in a country estate. Dreamy and somewhat clumsy, Orlando has a pivotal encounter in the early pages of the book, espying a small, scruffy man sat at the kitchen table – could this be the great English bard? This vision runs through the book as Orlando struggled continually with his life and art.

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Orlando is taken up by queen Elizabeth, who admires the youth’s beauty (and also his shapely legs – another recurring motif!) London in Elizabethan times is a fascinating place, and we watch Orlando experiencing all that lively and ribald world can offer. Love of all sorts comes his way freely until he is smitten with a visiting Russian princess, Sasha. Against the background of the Great Frost the affair is played out and Orlando betrayed, with the flood that follows the thaw sweeping away Sasha along with much else of London at the time.

Vita as Orlando

Vita as Orlando

But Orlando has several strange capabilities. For one thing, he gets to a certain age and then seems to stop ageing. So we follow him through decades and then centuries and as the world changes, and Orlando goes through a number of escapades, he doesn’t change. Well, that isn’t quite right – he in fact changes quite dramatically at one point, suddenly becoming a she! So the lady Orlando continues her life – ambassador in Constantinople, poet, hostess of a literary salon, always a landowner in love with the soil and eternal seeker of the truth about art and life.

In fact, putting aside the sparkling tale and the dazzling portrait of a changing England, the struggle between art and life is the crux of this tale. Orlando cannot help but write, though he/she spends much of the time wondering whether this is the right thing to do and if simply living for the day and the experience is better. Encounters with Pope and Dryden and Addison do not help matters; nor does the poet and critic Nicholas Greene; and it is not until the modern age that Orlando is able to write her great work and see it published and recognised. But even here Woolf is a little ambivalent about whether success is worth it and why one writes.

From the foregoing passage, however, it must not be supposed that genius (but the disease is now stamped out in the British Isles, the late Lord Tennyson, it is said, being the last person to suffer from it) is constantly alight, for then we should see everything plain and perhaps should be scorched to death in the process. Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations and may flash six or seven beams in quick succession (as Mr Pope did that night) and then lapse into darkness for a year or for ever. To steer by its beams is therefore impossible, and when the dark spell is on them men of genius are, it is said, much like other people.

It must be 35 years since I read “Orlando”, on my first great chronological read of Woolf’s works, and yet much still seemed familiar. In particular, the sequences on the frozen Thames during the Great Frost are one of the best things I’ve ever read, bringing to life a vivid impression of London at the time. In fact, the portrait of a changing land over several centuries is masterfully painted, bringing a novelist’s sensibilities to a historical tale and making that history stunning. Woolf really captures the effect the changing times had in a way a dull textbook can’t and the book is all the more wonderful because of it. The sheer brilliance of her prose takes your breath away, and her flights of imagination are exhilarating. At one point, where the eighteenth century turns into the nineteenth and heralds the Victorian era, she audaciously characterises that century of darkness and dullness and gloom (so the Bloomsberries thought of it) as being defined by damp! So the ivy creeps, everyone is cold and wears huge layers of clothes and even Orlando becomes feeble in a crinoline.

“Orlando” was a brave book to publish at a time when sapphic relationships were very much frowned upon; and the original edition had pictures of Vita posing as Orlando so there could not be much doubt who the book was about. Add in the fact that Vita was notorious for having run off to the continent with Violet Trefusis and you can see that Virginia was taking a bit of a risk.

However, “Orlando” is much more than just a frivolous love letter to Vita; in fact, I would argue that much of its value comes from the discussions of art and writing. I couldn’t help feeling the Woolf was putting her own thoughts and beliefs on the subject into the book, and I wondered if the conflicts she has Orlando enduring reflected those she felt in her own writing life.

As I’ve said, the vision of an evolving England is a vivid and wonderful one; but there’s also the joy of Woolf’s sparkling and wonderful prose which is unparalleled here. Never has her writing been so humorous and playful, and the book was a joy to read from start to finish. In fact, if you’re new to Woolf, “Orlando” might well be a decent place to start as it’s quite accessible and I think gives a real insight into Woolf herself. Re-reading “Orlando” was a truly wonderful experience, and one that will be a highlight of my reading year. I actually can’t wait for the next phase of the Woolfalong and I think I may well end up reading more than one title…..

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three orlandos

As an aside, my original read of Orlando all those decades ago was in the form of a little Panther edition (as were all of my Woolfs at the time). However, as I later discovered, the illustrations from the original book were left out and so I recently picked up what was billed as the definitive edition for this reread which included the illustrations. However, when I went to get my copies off the shelves for a photo I found that I already had one of these – truly I need to pay more attention to what’s already on the stacks…..

A Final Shiny Link!

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Just time to give you a link to my final piece for Shiny New Books this issue!

I was very flattered to be approached to offer thoughts on books that had had a profound effect on me for a piece called “A Novel Calling”. This took some hard thinking about, and I ended up with books ranging from Dr. Seuss to Camus! It’s an interesting idea to try yourself, but if you’re at all interested in reading about the books that changed my life, head over to Shiny New Books here!

The Book-Finding Fairy makes a reappearance…

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I’ve been purposely ignoring the charity shops lately, as it’s not as if the TBR mountain isn’t teetering; plus my reading speed has been surprisingly slow, and I keep getting distracted by cheap crafting supplies (that’s another story…) However, for some reason I felt the call of the Sense charity shop as I passed by it yesterday, and as I hadn’t visited it for a while I decided to drop in – which I was obviously meant to do…

pet dovlatov

The first two finds are particularly exciting as they’re both books that have been on my mental wishlist for a while – so to find them in excellent condition for only £1 each was a treat. They’re really not the usual type of thing that turns up in the Sense shop, so I can’t help thinking they were meant for me…

wandererI took a punt on the Hamsun, as I couldn’t remember if I had this one or not (I have several of his titles) but fortunately I didn’t – so I’m really glad I did pick it up!

The Oxfam hasn’t had quite such brilliant stock recently, and their literature section really isn’t very well curated or organised. Everything is in the wrong category or order (though they haven’t got the howlers Sense has – Anna Karenina shelved by author under K…..) However, this caught my eye:

the russian girl

I’m keen to explore more of Amis senior’s work and so I thought I’d give this a try. I already have a couple of recent postal arrivals by Amis too, it’s just finding the time to read them:

amis x 2

I’ve read good things about both of them, and so I have high hopes!

Finally, I thought I’d share a couple of incoming volumes via my dear friend J. who, noting my interest in Soviet sci-fi, procured them from a book dealer friend of hers.

more soviet sci fi

Since both feature the Strugatsky brothers, I’m rather excited! Now I just need to focus myself on *actually reading*!!!!

#Woolfalong Phase 4 – an emotional response…

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Recollections of Virginia Woolf – edited by Joan Russell Noble

recollections

I should confess up front that I do tend to get very emotional about Virginia Woolf; in fact, when I visited the National Portrait Gallery Bloomsbury exhibition a couple of years ago, J. and Middle Child had to be standing by with the tissues and sympathy when we got to the end and encountered VW’s original final letter to Leonard. So I can’t promise a rational review of this book because I got very emotional while I was reading it; this will instead be a deeply personal response. Back in the 1980s my first discovery of Woolf’s writing it was a revelation; and I think I’d forgotten what a huge effect she had on me until I read this book and it brought back all my emotions about the woman and her work, and also helped clarify for me some of the reasons why Virginia Woolf means so much to me.

…Virginia was exactly my idea of what one means by a genius. For me, a genius means somebody who sees the world and is able to make other people see it in a different light to anyone else. Geniuses are what I’ve heard somebody else describe as before-and-after writers. Life is not the same after reading them as it has been before. I think she was in the most intense sense a genius. (David Cecil)

But first, about the book, which I picked up as part of Phase 4 of HeavenAli’s admirable Woolfalong. First published in 1972 by the estimable Peter Owen, and in paperback by Penguin in 1975, the book collects together a wide range of reminiscences of Woolf by people who knew her. Edited by Joan Russell Noble (well done, that woman!) and with an introduction by Michael Holroyd which gives a potted biography, it’s worth trying to put ourselves mentally back into the era in which it was published. And yes, I know many of you will be too young to grasp what that means, but I’m old enough to remember the 1970s!

Her life was one long inquiry into the nature of personality and of what one may as well call reality or truth. And surely a nature more given to asking than to dogmatizing is chiefly ‘superior’ in its refusal to take for granted what other people do take for granted. (William Plomer)

In 1972 the Bloomsbury Group were not quite the cultural phenomenon we know nowadays. Several members were still alive or only relatively recently deceased, the younger and later extended members of the group were still about, and there was a faint air of dismissal generally expressed towards their achievements and arts. Certainly, they were viewed as out of keeping with the modern world and cultural realism of the 1950s and 1960s, and Woolf herself was viewed as somewhat anachronistic, snobbish and nasty. Extracts from her diaries had been published in 1953, in the form of “A Writer’s Diary”, but the full publication of her diaries, letters and essays was still to come. So the way Woolf was viewed at the time was very different to how we would view her today.

virginia reading

Into the breach sprang Noble, collecting together a mass of memories of Virginia, and what a service she performed. The pieces come from a wide range of figures, from T.S. Eliot to Rebecca West to Christopher Isherwood to George Rylands to Elizabeth Bowen to Raymond Mortimer to John Lehmann to Vita Sackville West – well, I could go on. Some of the most touching pieces are those by Louie Mayer, cook and general factotum for the Woolves for many years, and from Leonard himself. The stated aim is to replace a negative image of Woolf with something more “human” and the book certainly does that, bringing her to life in a nuanced way which no bare biography could do.

The artist is engaged in a constant effort to create order out of the haphazard, singleness out of multiplicity, to trace a pattern that can be seen in the universal pattern of life, which is too vast and various to comprehend. Virginia’s extraordinary consciousness of the complexity of things and her ability to come to terms with that complexity made her value people who could do likewise, and if there was one thing more than another which her friends had in common, it was their power of being articulate, like herself, in a new way. (William Plomer)

Each contributor has a different angle and a different insight into what Virginia was like, her personality, her foibles and her genius. And reading all these personal reminiscences certainly *does* give you a sense of the real woman, her struggles with her art, her hooting laugh and her love for life. Because it’s clear from these pieces that Woolf was no frail, ethereal invalid; despite the difficulties with her health she enjoyed herself to the full as much as she could (and as much as Leonard would let her!), showing an enduring curiosity and interest in her fellow creatures. Leonard himself emerges from the book as someone who was Virginia’s rock; without his caring for her all those years, his sacrifices and his dragon-like protection of her at times, she most likely would not have lived as long as she did and have produced the wonderful books that she did.

vw
Since “Recollections…” first came out there have of course been myriad books about Woolf, as well as the diaries and letters I mentioned above, all of which have expanded our view of Woolf. However, this is still a valuable book; reading the pure, unadulterated reminiscences of those who knew her in one way or another has an immediacy you don’t get from a more formal biography. Many of the pieces are incredibly moving, particularly that of Louie Mayer, who recalls her life with the Woolves, the day of Virginia’s death and how she looked after Leonard till his later passing in 1969. Leonard’s memories come last, in the form of a transcript from a BBC interview, and this leads me on to the one thing I would do to improve the book.

Several of the pieces are sourced from a 1970 BBC documentary, “A Night’s Darkness, A Day’s Sail”; some are stated as being lectures or extracts from other publications in the acknowledgements at the front of the book. But despite there being a list of contributors at the back there is no information about how Noble gathered her material and whether she approached the interviewees etc. I would have liked a short list of sources at the back – and I suppose it’s possible that a later edition might have this – but that’s a minor quibble.

Her genius was intensely feminine and personal – private, almost. To read one of her books was (if you liked it) to receive a letter from her, addressed specially to you. But this, perhaps, was just the secret of her appeal. (Christopher Isherwood)

So “Recollections of Virginia Woolf” had the effect of sucking me back into my personal obsession with Woolf and Bloomsbury, reminding me what I love about her writing and making me want to just sink myself back into Woolf books and read nothing else (which could be detrimental to the TBR piles….) I make no apologies for the amount of quotes in this post (and I could have pulled out so many more), because really this is a book which brings insight and understanding, and stands as a testament to Virginia Woolf as a person and an author. If you have any interest in, or love of, Virginia Woolf I really can’t recommend the book highly enough, and thanks have to go to Ali for the Woolfalong initiative – I don’t know if I would have otherwise picked the book up at this particular time, and I’m really glad that I did.

(As a side note, all the references to “A Night’s Darkness, A Day’s Sail” sent me off to the Internet and the result is here:

https://youtu.be/fnN_Gik7or4

Prepare to weep…)

#WIT Month – The dark side of Weimar Berlin

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The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

For last year’s Women In Translation Month I read “Child of All Nations” by Irmgard Keun; this was the second of her titles I’d enjoyed, the first being “After Midnight” which I’d stumbled across in Foyles in 2013. Keun was a fascinating woman with a fascinating life, surviving WW2 in Germany despite having been condemned for her degenerate tendencies, and also spending time with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostend – in fact, she had an affair with the latter. I enjoyed both of her books so much that I decided to pick up another for #WIT Month – her second novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl”. Published in 1931, the book caused an immediate stir and was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and all remaining copies burned. Keun was apparently inspired by Anita Loos’ celebrated novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, although having read the latter I think that Keun’s book is something very, very different.

artificial

The book is narrated in the form of a diary by Doris, a young woman living in small-town Germany. Her family life is unhappy: despite loving her mother, she doesn’t get on with her father who drinks all the time, and work is in an office where she’s subject to the whims and attentions of an older boss. Doris is obsessed with the idea of glamour and fame, of getting into the cinema and becoming a star; however, that seems less than likely bearing in mind where she lives, and despite getting a small part as an extra in a local theatre, things are not going well for her. She loses her job, her father is demanding she pay for her keep, and the love of her life Hubert is marrying for money. So what’s a girl to do? Tell a lot of lies about the theatre boss, lock a rival in the toilet, steal a fur coat and head off to the bright lights of Berlin – well at least, that’s what Doris does, and her diary is intended to share all this with us and to record her rise to fame.

Berlin, however, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The glamour is superficial, the streets are full of people on the make and Doris finds it impossible to get an entry into any kind of show business as she’s sort of on the run without papers because of the fur coat. So she stays in a succession of temporary homes, hooking up occasionally with a man who always turns out to have a wife, and slowly running out of money and food and hope. Just as she’s about to starve to death, rescue comes in the form of Ernst, nicknamed Green Moss, who regards her as pure and feeds her up. But Ernst is also married, abandoned by his wife – so how will things turn out for the Artificial Silk Girl?

Once again, I was utterly hooked by Keun’s immediate and involving writing. A first person narrative is so often hard to get just right, particularly when it’s a younger person telling the tale. However, Keun succeeded admirably with Kully in “Child of All Nations” and once again gets it spot on here. Doris’s voice is just the right mixture of naivety and arrogance, her vulnerability hidden under a mask of bravado, when all she actually wants is a real home. In several sections Doris lapses into a slightly drunken stream of consciousness, recalling her past life in fragments, and as the truth about her family is actually revealed you can see why she’s ended up the way she has. In fact, I can’t help wondering about Keun’s own childhood as there are fractured families featured in so many of her works.

irmgard

However, what made this book so fresh was the contrasts Doris sees between those who have and those who have not, something still very relevant today. Once again, if you have money you can grab hold of life to the full – without it, life is simply a dull trudge through the quotidian. I was reminded very much of “Grand Hotel”, a recent read, and one of its characters Flammchen who has the same understanding. The women in these books are dependent on their looks to get them a man and a secure life if they don’t want to spend their years scratching out a living at an underpaid job. And Keun is not averse to pointing out the ridiculous hypocrisy in their position:

If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.

Keun was also very much ahead of her time. Christopher Isherwood may have claimed in 1939 that he was a camera, but Doris was there before him. She records the sights, sounds and people of Berlin brilliantly, relaying the city in all its seediness and glory to a blind neighbour, Brunner, in a marvellous series of impressionistic paragraphs. The problem is, when they actually take a walk in the real metropolis they realise that the glamour and the glitter is false and Berlin is a sad place to be. There is perhaps less focus on politics in “Artificial…” when compared with, say, “After Midnight”, but the reader is still aware of the increasing racial tension even if much of this flows past Doris. However, she is astute enough to say at one point, whilst winding up an anti-Semite, “Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it.”

My version of “Artificial…” was published by the Other Press and translated by Kathie von Ankum. The blurb seems anxious to stress the connections between the book and such modern heroines as Bridget Jones and the ladies from “Sex and the City” – which I’m afraid would have actually put me off, had I not already been a Keun convert. And I did have slight reservations about the translation; I guess they went for the modern vernacular to appeal to today’s audiences, but I really can’t imagine Doris saying “grosses me out”…

However, these small reservations aside, “The Artificial Silk Girl” is highly recommended; as a piece of groundbreaking women’s writing it’s essential, as a portrait of Weimar Germany from the point of view of an impoverished woman it’s unparalleled, and in Doris, Irmgard Keun created an unforgettable heroine – eat your heart out, Sally Bowles! 🙂

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