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Exploring my Library: George Eliot

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Perhaps it’s a little arrogant of me to regard my collection of books as a library; nevertheless, I do have quite a lot and I don’t spend enough time with those I already own, instead getting distracted by shiny new tomes that appear. However, there was some talk of George Eliot on the LibraryThing Virago group recently, and she’s also turned up on some blogs I follow. This set me thinking about the Eliot books I own, which I’ve mainly had for decades, and I was inspired to dig them out.

eliots

As you can see, I do own quite a few by this classic British author, but as I browsed I found myself wondering how many I’d actually read…

silas

Perhaps the oddest looking one is this rather strange American edition of “Silas Marner”. I had a few of these cheap classics which I picked up in the early 1980s, but I’ve replaced most of them over the years because they’re not particularly easy to read and they don’t look that nice. Obviously this one slipped through the net…

penguins

Penguins, however, are usually much nicer! These three are part of the Penguin English Library and date from around the same time. A bit bedraggled but more easily read than the American one.

pans

I also have a number of Pan classics from the time (definitely some Brontes) – they’re quite attractive, although the paper (like the Penguins) doesn’t age particularly well.

amos barton

This is a more recent acquisition – a slim Hesperus Press volume I obviously picked up at some point and then just slipped onto the shelves with the rest of the Eliots without reading…

eliot viragos

And finally, two slim Viragos. “The Lifted Veil” gets some real stick on the LibraryThing group – not a popular title!

So – which of these *have* I read? The answer is that I’m not really sure. I think I might have read “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner” – but this would have been back in the early 1980s and I kept no kind of record of what I was reading at the time. I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never read “Middlemarch” which is a failing on my part, as it’s so highly recommended by so many people (including Virginia Woolf).

Digging about on the shelves to find these was fun – I reconnected with books I tend to take for granted as they’ve been around for so long. I’m trying to read from the stacks more (and I think all of the books I’ll be tackling for The 1947 Club and the Jean Rhys Reading Week are ones I already own) – so it’s a useful exercise to go back to shelves and go through what you actually own. I may well share more of the collections in my library here soon  (if you’d care to see pictures of my books…) – and I really should read more George Eliot!

When does a collection *become* a collection?

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A vexing subject for booklovers, I fear! I’m currently skirting round the issue because of having picked up a Penguin poetry anthology or two recently, and I’m a little worried that I might be in danger of starting to collect them. And the problem’s exacerbated by the fact that I already own a few…

When I dug about in my stacks I found I already had three Penguin Poetry anthologies:

older collections
The Russian one and the Sick Verse have been with me for decades, but the Imagist Poetry is a more recent one. I *do* love old Penguins and these are very stylish!

russian

sick

 

imagist

But as I reported recently, I found the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse in the charity shop:

socialist

And “Poetry of the Thirties”, a more recent anthology, came through the post last month.

thirties

So there are five books in all! Does that constitute a collection? Is there a danger I shall start sniffing out other Penguin poetry compilations? And where does that leave *this* particular volume, which has connections to these anthologies, but also to another set of Penguin poets, which will become clearer in forthcoming days…. 🙂

new poetry

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

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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.

sittingcarr

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!

A Slight Loss of Control in the Samaritans Book Cave

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Which is probably a slightly strange heading I should explain!

The short version is that it’s been a bit of a week as OH had to be taken into hospital as an emergency (all is fine now and he is home and healing), plus I was attending two concerts at the local Regent in the Big Town (OMD/John Foxx on Thursday, Simple Minds last night – both of which were excellent) and there was a major amount of running around to hospitals, chemists and concert halls! So when Youngest Child and I dashed into town yesterday it was mainly to collect meds and get last-minute birthday gifts for Eldest Child.

However…

The Samaritans Charity Shop have now christened their book basement as a Book Cave and as I haven’t been in for a couple of weeks this was too good to resist – I felt the need of some book therapy after the last few days. And the four rather lovely Viragos I found were certainly worth it:

viragos

I was particularly pleased with another Bawden, and also with the Macaulay as I have this in vintage Penguin but not Virago. The Fugard is not a VMC but sounded interesting nevertheless.

However, things did not stop here. On a little display in the middle of the Cave they always place interesting volumes, and there was a hardback NYRB called “Alone! Alone!”:

alone

For £1.75 how could I refuse? It seems to consist of short pieces on outsider women (from Stevie Smith to Katherine Mansfield plus a number of very interesting diversions in between. It certainly came in handy whilst hanging around Boots waiting for prescriptions….

The last two finds here were a little self-indulgent and I confess I mainly bought them because the covers were so pretty:

book clubs

Well, they were only £1.25 each and the “Mr. Fairweather” book has this wonderful illustration inside:

peggy

These three old Pan paperbacks came from a bin outside one of the charity shops that is always filled with odd things for 15p each. I confess I’m not quite sure why I bought them, apart from the fact that my mother used to read these when I was a teenager, I’m sure I probably borrowed them from her and read them too and I loved the 1960s/1970s style covers! What I’ll actually do with them remains to be seen…..

plaidy

Final find of the day was a vintage Penguin I’ve been looking at online for a long time – this didn’t come from the Samaritans but from a charity shop on the outskirts I don’t usually look at, and was in a basket of “vintage” books individually priced. The lady volunteer was astonished when she saw it was priced at £2.50 as she thought it was from the 10p basket. I paid up the proper price and she was still bemused when I left.

provincial

So a slightly self-indulgent day – but I did feel the need after the week I’d had!!

Happy George Orwell Day!

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Unlike my attempt last year at a Bulgakov Day, this is not something I have unilaterally declared! Instead, it is an official George Orwell day decreed for 21st January to commemorate the date of his death in 1950, by Penguin/The Orwell Estate/The Orwell Prize! I can’t say I’m sorry – Orwell has always been one of my favourite authors and I’m wholly in agreement with those who think he is one of the most important – if not *the* most important – writers of the 20th century.

I was lucky enough to study Orwell’s works at school – we covered “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “Animal Farm” and “1984” – so I’m forever grateful to my educators for introducing me to the great man’s works.

By BBC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are apparently going to be lots of BBC Radio progs too which I shall have to track down!

I shall be celebrating today by reading the little 99p pamphlet of his essay “Politics and the English Language” – about which more thoughts here later!

politics

Recent Reads: What’s become of Waring? by Anthony Powell

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Yes – I *know* I’m meant to be reading “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell, and I *know* this isn’t one of the books from the series – but it got a lot of referencing in “Bright Young People” and sounded quite fun, so I figured it might be a good way to get to know Powell’s style (well, that’s my excuse for buying another old Penguin and I’m sticking to it!)

Wikipedia describes the book thus:

“What’s Become of Waring” is set in large part in the publishing firm of Judkins and Judkins, and informed by Powell’s experiences with both Duckworth and Warner Brothers. Dinner parties and seances abound, featuring unusual and uncomfortable mixtures of guests. Coincidence, often noted as a significant feature of “Dance to the Music of Time”, here plays a larger role than in any of Powell’s other early fiction.

The novel is narrated by an anonymous publishing firm employee, who is himself working on a book about Stendhal and violence. At a séance, an apparent warning is received that something is wrong with bestselling travel writer, T.T. Waring. Waring, anticipating Thomas Pynchon in his insistence on privacy and anonymity, is soon confirmed dead. Through various efforts to bring out an official life of Waring, many secrets are slowly revealed, especially concerning Waring’s identity and the sources of his travel literature.”

This was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 and was the first to feature a first-person narrator. We first encounter our unnamed guide (shall we call him Tony, just for the hell of it?!) as a disinterested wedding guest, where he runs into an old acquaintance, Eustace Bromwich. He knows Eustace through another mutual friend, Roberta Payne, who flits in and out of the story but is one of the pivotal characters, strongly influencing and affecting the other players in the book. Judkins and Judkins is run by the two brothers Bernard and Hugh, who are very amusingly at permanent loggerheads about the type of book they should publish (and just about everything else too!). We also meet Tiger Hudson, currently with the TA, and persuaded into researching the life of T.T. Waring; and the Pimley family of Camberley, including daughters Beryl (engaged to Tiger) and Winifred, plus ga-ga grandfather Captain Plimley who knows more than it seems.

The plot is surprisingly complex, with rapid shifts of location. With its deadpan, matter-of-fact narration, it initially reminded very much of “The Rock Pool” by Cyril Connolly, which I read recently – and this is interesting, because Connolly and Powell were of course contemporaries and ‘Bright Young People’. However, “Waring” is by far the better book, much wider in its scope and brilliantly constructed. It is, in fact, a marvel of assembly – there are a large number of characters and plot strands woven together very cleverly which are all drawn together by the author by the end of the book. ‘Tony’ is an impassive observer in many ways, often seemingly to be a still point in the middle of the tale, while a wonderful supporting cast of authors, spiritualists, army men and general hangers-on swirl around him. Somehow it turns out that all of these disparate figures are linked in very unexpected ways and towards the end of the book the coincidences are fast and furious and very funny.

The book is very cleverly written so that the reader often feels he or she can see what’s coming before the narrator. I was trying to analyse this and then found a wonderful piece of description of the effect on the emilybooks blog:
“….the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

That nails Powell’s effect beautifully! But it isn’t just a clever-clever piece of literature – it’s humourous and very readable and I found myself enjoying it hugely. The style, once you get used to it, is really easy to read and I got really absorbed in the plot, wanting to know what wonderful surprises were in store next!

‘Tony’ concludes at the end that all most people are looking for is power. Whether this is the message of the book or not is debatable. It’s a lively and entertaining portrait of the publishing world, with the firm of Judkins based on Duckworths, where Powell was working in the 1930s (and helping a lot of his friends get into print). But it also considers the nature of books and their authors, and whether any work can be original and whether this matters to the general reading public. The subject of fictions in life is covered too – the characters deceive themselves and each other on a regular basis, with one crucial protagonist leading a double life. The novel also reflects the strangeness of the 1930s – there are seances, religious cults and a general feeling of unease and uncertainty. Is everything in life coincidence or design? Whichever it is, this novel presents an enjoyable example of the intersections and complex links of modern society.

I ended up loving this book – it’s witty, clever, brilliantly written and compellingly readable. As an introduction to Powell it’s got me well hooked and I’m now very much looking forward to embarking on “A Dance to the Music of Time”!

Recent Reads: An Oxford Tragedy by J.C. Masterman

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One of the lovely green Penguins I picked up at the weekend was this slim volume. I’ve been coming across it on eBay a lot recently at quite high prices and was pleased that my copy was only £1. This probably has something to do with the fragile state of the book – the cover is coming away from the contents! – but as it is only 150 odd pages it was easy enough to read carefully without it completely collapsing.

“An Oxford Tragedy” was published in 1933 and is one of only two crime books by J.C. Masterman. Our narrator is an ageing don, Francis Wheatley Winn, who is the Senior Tutor at St. Thomas’ (not a real Oxford college, obviously). Winn states straight from the start of the book that we will see the story through his eyes, and this is the vision of a slightly querulous, fussy old gent who has his comfortable bachelor college life disrupted by a violent death.

The murder in question is of Shirley, an unpopular tutor at the college, and this takes place during the visit of Brendel, a Viennese lawyer. The dons had been discussing murder after dinner shortly before the murder had been discovered, and as Brendel inspires confidence and has shown an aptitude for the subject, Winn asks him to find out the truth. The local inspector, Cotter, declares himself baffled and it is down to Brendel to track down the murderer.

This is a satisfying little mystery, and not entirely predictable. Brendel is an engaging detective, and Winn is effectively cast in the role of his Watson, befuddled and unable to disentangle the strands of the plot. It is left to Brendel to resolve matters largely off-screen while Winn worries away about who-dunnit. There are a lively set of characters, including the President’s two beautiful daughters, and the plot is very involving. There are also plans of the murder rooms so this is truly ‘Golden Age’!

But the book is about more than just the murder mystery. The ‘tragedy’ of the title seems to me to refer to a number of plot strands – the murder itself; the effect of the death on those closest to Shirley; the disappointments and set-backs in the life of the murderer which have caused him to take the action he did; and the disruption and change to Winn’s cosy little life, which will never be the same again.

I didn’t guess the murderer, which is always a pleasure in these books, and it was a cosy and enjoyable read. Looking up JCM on Wikipedia, I found this interesting quote:

“The novel itself was quite unusual for its time in providing an account of how murder affects the tranquil existence of Oxford dons. While it was a variation of the old theme of evil deeds done in a tranquil setting, it did establish the tradition of Oxford-based crime fiction, notably in the works of Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.”

So that’s why I liked it so much!

Unfortunately, JCM only wrote one other crime novel (which also featured Brendel), but he seems to have had quite an exciting and varied career in academia and in spying! So Winn is presumably not a projection of the author but is still a very entertaining narrator!

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