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On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

The Ultimate Sacrifice – Virago Author of the Month

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Following on from the LibraryThing Virago group’s choice of Vita Sackville-West for January, our author of the month for February was the great Rebecca West. I struggled to get onto reading one of her books last month, finally picking it up right near the end; so a little belatedly, here is my review of her first  (and probably most well-known) work of fiction, “The Return of the Soldier”. Billed as a novel, at 160 pages with big type it’s a book you can read quickly; however, it gives much food for thought and I can see why it’s so highly regarded.

return-of-the-soldier

West is an author I’ve only read a little of (my review of her “The Harsh Voice” is here) but I have a large number of her books on the shelves. Had time been on my side I would have liked to spend time with one of her more substantial works – but then, this book has more substance to it than you might expect. “The Return of the Soldier” was written while the Great War was still taking place and published in 1918; narrated by a woman called Jenny, it tells the story of the return of her cousin Chris Baldry from the Front, back to his beautiful home on ‘the crest of Harrow-weald’ and the welcoming arms of his beautiful wife Kitty and of course Jenny (who appears to live with them).

As the book opens, the women are living in their gilded cage, relatively untouched by the War but surrounded by absence. As well as the fact that Chris is away fighting, they are also haunted by the loss of Chris and Kitty’s young son; the nursery has been left untouched and Kitty is often to be found in the room as if seeking comfort. The women have prepared an immaculate nest for their man and themselves, one that he was apparently sad to leave; it seems perfect, idyllic and slightly unreal, given what is happening in other parts of the world.

Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time.

Crashing into this glittering facade comes a woman from the nearby town of Wealdstone; the place is described in stark terms as something of a blot on the picturesque local landscape, and Mrs. Grey is set forth in a cruel and patronising way. In fact, the reaction of Jenny and Kitty quite shocked me until I realised I was seeing her through the filter of their eyes; the descriptions of a working woman are harsh, representing her as a stereotype with cheap clothes and accessories, and worn face and hands, and I found their reaction hard to take.

Mrs. Grey has, somewhat surprisingly, come with news that Chris is ill. Why she should know and not his wife and cousin is not revealed at first, but as we read on we find that Margaret Grey, when she was a young innkeeper’s daughter, knew Chris Baldry very well. In fact, unlikely as it seems to Kitty and Jenny now, she was his first love and as he’s suffering from shell-shock and has blotted out the past 15 years, he’s pining to return to Margaret and the affection of his youth.

So Chris is brought home and despite the evidence before his eyes is unable to accept the reality of where and who he is. He cannot remember Kitty; Jenny is a childhood playmate; and to the astonishment of these sophisticated women, he has an instant bond with Margaret despite the coarsening effects upon her of age and a hard life. Chris is happy with Margaret and his life in the past; but can he be allowed to stay there or will the doctors brought in to treat him be able to bring him back to the present and the prospect of the return to battle?

For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life, the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.

“The Return of the Soldier” is a powerful first novel, and surprisingly complex for such a short work. West brilliantly builds up the initial setting, painting a picture of the lovely world created (mainly by Kitty) for Chris and initially as I read I accepted (with Jenny) that the house and location was wonderful and that all three were happy there. However, as I read on, the appalling snobbery of the women made it clear that this was a shallow, stale and worthless environment to live in, and the contrast of the superficial falsity of the controlled life Kitty had created, cold and barren, was made with the real, deep emotional life of Margaret. Jenny finds out the back-story from Margaret, and the relationship between her and Chris is touchingly revealed. The latter only seems to come properly alive when he’s with his first love, his attitude to Kitty (and all other beautiful women) seeming more as that of a man being very careful with a piece of fragile china. Little details, such as the fact that Chris had not even given his home address to the authorities when he enlisted, reveal how little attachment he had to his wife and home, and it’s clear that his life with them was meaningless.

The young Rebecca West

The young Rebecca West

Kitty herself is a clever and unpleasant creation; self-absorbed, controlling and ultimately selfish, she would rather Chris was made well to return to the battlefield and possible death, than stay in his happy world of 15 years ago with Margaret. As for the latter, she’s a fascinating creation; Jenny manages to recognise her worth, despite her prejudices, and she’s obviously a person of much more substance than the rich women. Her lot in life shows the difference that circumstances can make to a person because had she had the money and comforts Kitty and Jenny had, they would not have been able to make such harsh and hideous judgements about her.

Surely she must see that this was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers…

The title of the book obviously has a double meaning; initially there is the physical return of Chris to his home, but there is also the eventual mental return from his place of safety to normality so he can tragically return to the fighting. Although the women are somewhat cut off from the War, they have their own kind of battle for Chris and it’s painful to watch. All of this is conveyed in beautiful, evocative prose and West’s writing is magnificent. To get so much into such a short book is a remarkable achievement, and reading “The Return of the Soldier” has really convinced me that I need to pick up more of those West books languishing on Mount TBR.

Exploring my Library – the Viragos!

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I thought it was about time I shared a few more pictures of my very lovely library of books and this time I’ve decided on taking a look at my fairly extensive Virago collection! These have had to be photographed on the shelves and the picture quality isn’t going to be that brilliant as they were taken at a bit of an awkward angle and the lighting is not that great – so apologies for any fuzziness!

shelves-middle

As you can see, the Viragos *do* take up quite a lot of space in my library – spreading over several shelves and double stacked. And that’s after I had a little bit of a cull!

shelves-left

When I last had a bit of a tidy, I put all the books neatly in alphabetical order. That’s rather gone by-the-by thanks to the books that have come in since. And as you can see, the occasional non-Virago has slipped in when I had the book in a different edition or it’s a Virago author.

shelves-rights

More books from the right of the shelves – again plenty of overflow where new volumes have arrived, and all double stacked.

shelves-west-and-whartonThere are quite a few titles by Rebecca West and Edith Wharton, two wonderful and prolific writers. Needless to say, I’ve not read as many of these as I’d like to!

more-west-and-comps

The Wests have overflowed onto another shelf, where they’re joined by some Virago compilations.

taylorsAnd behind the Wests are some Rosamond Lehmanns and all my Elizabeth Taylors. I rather wish I had enough space to have all my books shelved in single rows because you do tend to forget what you have when it’s tucked behind other books.

I first started reading the Virago titles when the Modern Classics range began to take off in the late 1970s and possibly the first one I owned was Antonia White’s “Frost in May”, the very first VMC. Picking favourites is hard, but some of the earliest ones I read were these Steve Smiths:

smith

I loved these to bits but I haven’t read them for so long – the beautiful covers seem to really capture what’s best and most striking about VMC jacket design and I do wish they were still produced like this.

litvinov

Some more recent favourites are these books by Ivy Litvinov, a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married an exiled Russian revolutionary who ended up as a prominent Soviet diplomat. This collection of short stories and crime novel are marvellous!

peepshowAnd finally one of my favourite Viragos, a book that I read fairly recently when I started to rediscover the imprint after a bit of a gap – F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to see the Peepshow”. A fictionalised retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, it’s a wonderfully written piece of fiction which packs a huge emotional punch and brilliantly evokes the time and place it’s set in. If for nothing else than bringing back into to print this and other wonderful women’s writing, Virago would deserve a place in history. I’ve no doubt I shall always read Viragos and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing some of my collection!

Memo to self……

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….. don’t forget to check out the Pound shops for books – yes, really!

£1 books

I’ve tended to not bother in recent years, especially as I’m trying to be selective about the books coming into the house (and I’ve been donating weekly too). However, Grant at 1stReading mentioned a while back a find he’d had in Poundworld of all places, and I thought it was worth checking out – and there in the midst of celebrity memoirs and tales of footballers, was the Lessing! Bizarre, but to be snapped up instantly.

lessing

And whilst idling through Poundland (one of the three we now have locally……!!) I spotted the West biography, which was unexpected to say the least – plus there was only the one copy.

west

I’ve loads of Rebecca West on my shelves, but no biography so this sounded like an ideal place to start. And I read the introduction over a nice soy latte in Costa and it does read very well – what an intriguing woman West was.

So – two lovely hardbacks, albeit in not quite crisp condition, for £1 each. The moral of this tale is that bookish finds can happen in the most unlikely of places….

Leicester Comes Up Trumps Again!

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Last weekend was a bit of a busy one, as we had to take Youngest Child back to Leicester for her final year at the university there. It’s always a bit of a dash, taking up most of Saturday (and weekends are precious when I’m back at work); but we knew we would see Eldest and Middle Child too, so that would be nice! I didn’t expect to be doing any bookshop haunting as time was so tight, and it was frustrating to know that the lovely Lorus Charity shop is not far away…

However, en route I got a call from Middle Child who was in the very same shop, and who proceeded to fire off a load of Virago titles at me to see if they were ones I wanted – and three of them were!

lorus

Left to right, we have a Mary Hocking (Indifferent Heroes), a Victoria Glendinning non-fiction Virago (A Suppressed Cry) and very excitingly, Infinite Riches, a collection of short stories. The latter is very existing and timely, as I was only reading about it on Buried In Print’s lovely blog the other day, and this particular copy is in amazingly good condition.  So huge thanks go to Middle Child, Ace Virago-Finder!

It was lovely to see all three offspring together, and we made such good time on the journey home that I had time to pop into town for some errands. And as I was dropped at the far end of town where I don’t normally venture, I decided to visit the Mind charity shop which I don’t often frequent (although they do have good books – I picked up a Slightly Foxed hardback last time!) Surprisingly enough, there were treats to be found here too:

mind

Yes, I *know* there are already two copies of “The Return of the Soldier” in the house; but this is a beautiful, first generation Virago in again amazingly good condition, and well worth 90p of anyone’s money. The Solzhenitsyn sounds fascinating – ’nuff said.

I guess going to the Oxfam was reckless – and when I got inside to find that they were having a 49p sale and that the sale table was plastered with old orange Penguins, green crime Penguins and blue Pelicans (amongst others), I did rather have the vapours. But I exercised strict restraint and only came home with these:

oxfam 49p

Well, you hardly ever see Aldiss in second hand shops. And I know something about Constant Lambert but I can’t remember what it is – no doubt all will become clear eventually.

So today’s Viragos are rather wonderful:

3 viragos

And the last couple of weeks has brought me 7 lovely Viragos in total:

7 viragos

The question is – what to read next???

Larkin About – plus the books just keep on coming….

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I have been trying very, *very* hard to restrict the incoming books recently – and I’m still weeding out and donating – but alas there have been new arrivals recently…

The weekend before last I deliberately only went to the Oxfam bookshop, and thought I was going to get away safely until I spotted a collection of Philip Larkin’s prose tucked away on a lower shelf:

larkin 1

Needless to say, it was quite essential that this came home with me and got added to the nice little pile of Larkins you can see behind it. In fact, here is the pile with the new Larkin integrated. Well, let’s face it, you can never have too much Larkin, can you?

larkin 2

The week’s post brought some nice new arrivals, too, mostly in the form of a big parcel from Middle Child containing the following:

middle child

What a sweetie she is! I was particularly pleased with the “Pepita” as it’s not a Virago I have, and the West is an upgrade. The two Raving Beauties poem collections look fascinating and the final book sounds very intriguing. I’ve heard of Nicole Ward Jouve before, I think in connection with a book about Colette, so that bodes well.

The postie also brought these two lovelies via RISI:

jims end

I have a fairly gnarled copy of “Howard’s End” and so was happy to upgrade. As for “Lucky Jim” – well, as there’s such a big Larkin connection I do feel I should read it!

Finally post-wise is this:

mew

I read about Mew recently in a little book called “Bloomsbury and the Poets” (review to follow) and thought she sounded a fascinating author and that her work definitely warranted investigation, so I sent off for a copy. The Virago volume collects together all her poetry and prose and having dipped in I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, to the most recent weekend’s finds. Again, I went to donate at the Samaritans, and I came out with this:

chateau

I’ve read a *lot* about Maxwell but never seen one of his books turn up before, and this one does sound good. And on to the Oxfam, where again I thought I would get out unscathed, until I thought I’d see on the off-chance if there was any Brian Aldiss – which there was….

aldiss interpreter

I very rarely see his books in the charity shops so I snapped up this one, with its wonderfully dated cover!

Needless to say, I’m not reading any of these at the moment. I’ve just finished a re-read of “Dead Souls” (oh my! what an amazing book) and I have a massive book hangover….

Margery Sharp Day – plus other bookish ramblings!

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margery-sharp-day

Today is the 110th birthday of author Margery Sharp, and Jane at Fleur in her World has declared it “Margery Sharp Day” in celebration. Sharp is an author much-beloved in blogging circles, particularly those of us who congregate around the LibraryThing Virago group – and in fact the imprint has brought her book “The Eye of Love” back into the public eye, though sadly most of her adult work seems to be out of print.

A number of bloggers are featuring her work today, including Jane herself, as well as HeavenAli and Kirsty at the Literary Sisters. I’m sure there are going to be many, many more posts today, so keep an eye on Fleur in Her World to see what’s happening. Hopefully the following that Sharp has might interest a publisher enough to make them consider some reprints – we can but hope!

As for me, I own two Margery Sharp titles and here they are:

sharp

I had a minor crisis recently when I couldn’t find “The Nutmeg Tree” (not an uncommon occurrence, with the piles of books lying about the house) but it did turn up – a lovely old paperback I picked up from Claude Cox Books a while back. Alas, I am currently submerged in review books so I haven’t been able to read either of these titles – but I’m sure I will get to them eventually! In the meantime, happy birthday Margery!

*********

stack

Meanwhile, I almost felt like declaring yesterday Rebecca West day, thanks to some new arrivals!  A lovely LibraryThinger from Canada, Cathy, had sent me a copy of West’s “The Thinking Reed” some time ago; it’s one of her titles I’ve been keen to read and Cathy had a spare. It popped through the door yesterday and I’m very excited – and the cover, as with most original green Viragoes, is just lovely. The West theme continued when I discovered a pristine copy of “Cousin Rosamund” for £1 in the Sue Ryder Charity Shop. I already have quite a good version but was happy to upgrade!

west

Other new arrivals shown in the stack of books came from the Oxfam:

parade madrid

“Parade’s End” was there two weeks ago when I was last in, and I was strong and didn’t buy it, and then instantly regretted it. Fortunately, it was still there yesterday…. And the Mendoza title is from MacLehose/Quercus and so picking it up was a no-brainer.

The final books in the pile are from the library:

library

Both the Fitzgerald and the Modiano are books I want to read – but whether I shall get round to them is another matter! 🙂

1-virginia-woolf-1882-1941-granger

And last, but not least (as they say) – today is also the birthday of the wonderful Virginia Woolf, one of my favourite writers ever. Nobody uses words like Woolf.

Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title.
Happy birthday Virginia!

A book-buying Jaunt to Leicester!

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It has been a little manic here lately at the Ramblings – in fact, it’s been a bit of year with family ill-health and changes in personal life, culminating in the tension waiting for Youngest Child’s A level results to see if she has got a university place. So it was rather lovely to take a few days out recently to visit Middle Child in Leicester – which obviously involved a little book hunting also, as the city does seem to be spoiled with charity shops! We also got the opportunity to visit the Aged Parents, who live half an hour from Leicester by train, so that was rather nice too. I took Eldest Child and Youngest Child with me so it was quite a reunion!

Another fun extra from this trip was visiting the local art gallery in New Walk and seeing some amazing Lyonel Feininger paintings. And the Richard III dig was close by so we had a quick look at this and the exhibition about the excavations – fascinating!

Oddly enough, I noticed this visit how lacking Leicester is in traditional bookshops – or indeed dedicated second-hand bookstores. This seems a little strange, as it’s a university city, yet it has one Waterstones (not that big a branch although the staff were very helpful and knowledgeable). Apart from that, I found one actual second-hand book shop in The Lanes, and that was it apart from the charity shops. Middle Child reckons that people mainly order online because students can’t afford new stuff – a sad tendency but one I can identify with :s

While in Leicester I did have a little bit of a reading crisis, as I had foolishly only taken one book with me to read – Olivia Manning’s “The Spoilt City”, which I finished quite early in the visit (review to follow). I had reckoned on finding a new book or two in Leicester – which I did, but for reasons below, I couldn’t read any of them! This caused much angst as there was nothing on Middle Child’s shelves I hadn’t already read, so I ended up with Christie’s “The ABC Murders” (which I love very much, but didn’t take me long to get through) and then survived on an anniversary edition of New Statesman and Sherlock Holmes stories on MC’s K****e! I was *very* glad to get back to my books!

On to newbies! I was hoping for Viragos as I usually find them in the Loros Charity Bookshop but in fact MC found the first for me in the Age Concern shop for £1.25:

nymphMargaret Kennedy has passed across my radar quite a bit lately so I was delighted to find a copy of her most famous book. It’s been previously well-loved, obviously, but is all intact so I’m happy to give it a new home!

whiteObviously I am a bit of a Virago collector, and for a long time I’ve been trying to get the three Antonia White books that follow on from Frost in May, the first ever Virago. These were the last two I needed and so coming across them in the Age Concern bookshop for £1.75 each in great nick was a delight! I’ve had to update my wish list on LibraryThing following this trip to Leicester…

westThese were my last finds – “The Edwardians” and “Cousin Rosamund” in wonderful condition, for £2 each in the actual secondhand bookshop (which worryingly had a lot less stock than my last visit) I enjoyed my recent read of West a lot so this was a great find!

The observant among you might wonder why I couldn’t read one of these when I was having my book crisis – well the Whites and West are later books in a series, and I just didn’t fancy starting one of the others because in truth I was in the mood to read some Graham Greene for SavidgeReads‘ Greene for Gran event. I have now started “No Man’s Land”, a lovely little Hesperus Greene which I am enjoying immensely.

As a postscript, on my return a package was awaiting me with a new (old) book via the wonderful ReadItSwapIt – another one from my wish list:

strickenSo August has proved to be a good month for Virago hunting!

(and as another postscript, Youngest Child passed with flying colours and has got the university place she wanted – yay!)

All Virago/All August – The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West

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Over on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, many of us are taking part in a month-long celebratory read of Virago books which seems to be an annual event (and is always a good excuse to reduce the size of Mount TBR a little…..) I can’t promise to only read Viragos, but I’m certainly going to be doing my best to read several!

harsg

Rebecca West is an author I’ve felt I wanted to read for some time, and there are certainly several on the pile, so I thought I would start with “The Harsh Voice” – a lovely green volume which collects together four long short stories/short novellas themed around the harsh voice of the title – that heard when money talks.

I thought I would run through the four stories – all set in the late 1920s/early 1930s – separately first, because I’m not personally convinced they’re all focusing on the same theme – but we shall see.

Life Sentence

The first story in the book is set in American and tells the grim tale of Corrie and Josephine, whose relationship is ruined by her grasping financial acumen and his weakness. The story opens with Corrie trying to pluck  up the courage to tell Josephine he cannot marry her as he doesn’t love her enough. But through sheer force of personality she wins him over and they set off on their life sentence. Josie is a modern American woman, financially astute and with an aptitude as a property developer. She buys the old estate Corrie loved to play on as a child, and turns it into luxury houses, destroying the only happy times he had. Eventually the differences become too much and the couple divorce. Both remarry, but never entirely shake off the influence of the other. When the financial crash comes, both are concerned that the other will need money and meet again. Despite their emnity, they are still locked together in a life sentence proving what a thin line there is between love and hate.

There is No Conversation

This story is set in Paris and American and is narrated by an unnamed English woman. She encounters in France the an old acquaintance, Etienne de Sevenac, a lightweight aristocrat, whom she does not really like spending time with. However, he accosts her and insists on taking her back to his flat to tell her how he has been ruined by an American woman, Nancy Sarle. Etienne’s narrative tells of how he took a plain, unworldly woman under his wing, dressed her, taught her how to behave, introduced her to good Parisian society and basically taught her the rules of the game. However, he tells how she fell in love with him and it became a bore, so when he threw her over, she ruined him financially.

The female narrator is intrigued by Nancy and so when she returns to American, where she lives with her husband and children, she searches Nancy out and befriends her. However, she finds herself liking Nancy very much and when she finally gains her confidence, the story Nancy tells of what happens in Paris is very different….

Salt of the Earth

“Salt of the Earth” is set in England and opens with Alice Pemberton preparing to return home to her husband and her extended family after staying with her mother following an illness. Initially Alice appears to be a good sort, kind and caring and willing to do anything to help – the salt of the earth in fact. However, it doesn’t take long for warning bells to sound as her mother seems very anxious to get rid of her… And when she returns to her town, visiting brother and sister and their families, all she seems to encounter is strain and conflict. It soon becomes clear that Alice is an interfering do-gooder of the worst sort, convinced that she knows what is best for everyone, unable to see what pain she causes them by the things she says, and capable of causing real damage in the world by her behaviour.

Her beloved husband Jimmy is under a terrible strain – he makes one last-ditch effort to make Alice see the huge damage she is causing, but she is completely blinkered, unshakable in her belief that what she thinks is right and unable to accept what he says. What will Jimmy do to avert catastrophe?

The Abiding Vision

The final story in the book is again set in America and opens with Sam Hartley, an American businessman who has crawled up from rags to riches, moving with his loyal wife Lulah into a fancy new apartment. They are both from humble beginnings and Lulah has helped make Sam what he is. However, she has aged and despite his love for her and her faithfulness, he is haunted by the thought of youth and falls in with a young actress, Lily.

Lily soon becomes a big part of Sam’s life: he ‘keeps’ her for 8 or 9 years while living his life with Lulah, who never knows, and their relationship becomes something more than business. However, the big crash strikes here too, and the business gradually goes downhill. Poor Lulah cannot cope and has a kind of stroke, so while using his last funds to care for her, Sam relies on Lily to support him. Just as he is at his lowest ebb, he finds work and the prospect of building himself back up again. But Lily has now become old from caring for him through the troubles, and once again Sam’s vision of youth returns…

rebecca
These remarkable stories certainly show what a great writer Rebecca West was. All are beautifully written and absorbing, though some I think are stronger than others. The descriptions are lovely and West can pinpoint someone in just a few words – this description of the Master of the old estate Corrie is so happy on springs to mind:

“He looked at the boy with the bewildered eyes of those whose saner parts have died first, and spoke to him in soft ceremonial accents that seemed to clothe too fully a shrunken will, like the fine white suit that flapped about his emaciated limbs.”

And I would rather hesitantly disagree with the assertion that they are all about the influence of money, which speaks with the harsh voice (not that I want to argue with an author about her own work!) It seems to me that the first and last story are very much about the financial influence, as Josie and Sam are pure business people, concerned with getting on and making something of themselves in what is perceived as a very American way. But “There is No Conversation”, which I think is the best story in the book, is much more about how different people’s perceptions are and how it is impossible for humans to really communicate or understand each other.

“There is no such thing as conversation. It is an illusion. There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

In the same way, there are intersecting lives but no real empathy. And “Salt of the Earth” is again concerned with perception – Alice’s image of herself is completely at odds with reality and she is utterly unable to recognise this. Corrie and Josie also fundamentally miscommunicate and Sam is unable to see the cycle of betrayal which perpetuates itself in his behaviour. I would also disagree strongly with the introduction to the volume which states that the last story is the most optimistic because in “The Abiding Vision”, the last lines are almost the same as the first – Sam has come full circle and is about to deceive another woman who loves him because of an obsession with youth. So I felt that the joining thread of these stories was not entirely money (as this is somewhat incidental to the central two stories) but more the inability of humans to reach any kind of real communion with each other.

As I said above, “There is No Conversation” was certainly my favourite of the four tales. It’s wonderfully written, a masterful story from two perspectives with a very distinctive voice for the mysterious female narrator. She’s intriguing in her own right and we wonder who is this cold and somewhat strange woman who gradually reveals more of her life temperament as she goes along. And the story has a few almighty kicks at the end so I won’t say anything her but urge you to read this!

I’ve really enjoyed my first AV/AA book and also my first Rebecca West – I can’t wait to read more of her work!

The Best Laid Plans…..

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

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

august reading

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

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

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

current reading

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

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

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

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