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Virago Author of the Month – but which book to read??

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I seem to be suffering from a plague of indecisiveness at the moment – I’m finding it hard to make up my mind which particular book I want to read! Having eschewed most challenges this year, I am of course reading from 1951 for our forthcoming #1951club, but I’m also trying to keep up with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s author of the month – it’s a good way to read books already on my shelves and as I have a *lot* of unread Viragos this has to be something positive!

This month’s author is Elizabeth von Arnim, and I’m pleased that I have plenty of her works to select from:

As you can see, there are plenty of her well-known works here and of the seven lovelies I own, I have read three:

Of the three, I read “German Garden” a long time ago pre-blog and remember loving it; “The Solitary Summer”, which is a kind of follow-up, was equally wonderful; and “Mr. Skeffington” was unexpectedly deep, as I came to it with memories of the Bette Davies film.

These are the four I haven’t yet read:

The obvious title to choose would be “The Enchanted April”, of course, and I have read good things about it; however, the others look appealing too. “Vera” I think is a little darker, and I don’t know anything about “Love” or “Fräulein Schmidt…” So – any recommendations? Has anyone read any of these four titles and if so, which would you suggest? I really do need to get out of this indecisive phase! 🙂

Setting sail for a final voyage – Virago Author of the Month

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No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

One of my favourite online things is belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; definitely the nicest and friendliest of the LT groups I’ve come across, and always supportive and good fun for a challenge or readalong. The group often has some kind of project going on (a chronological read of Viragos, for example) but as some of us were a little stretched by challenges, this year’s has been kept simple after one of the members came up with the wonderful idea of having an author featured each month whom we could choose to read from or about as our whim took us. After a little voting, Vita Sackville-West was settled upon, which was a good choice for me as I have so many of her books lurking on the TBR, and have read so few! (Please note how much reading from the stacks I’m doing just now!) I decided to pick the slim volume “No Signposts in the Sea” as it’s a book I started once before then got distracted from, so now was the ideal time to read it.

signposts

Published in 1961, NSITS was Vita’s last novel, and it’s narrated by Edmund Carr; a middle-aged, cynical political journalist, he has been given a short time to live and decides he will spend it taking a sea voyage. This is no ordinary trip, however, as Carr has chosen to travel on a ship carrying Laura Drysdale, a widow with whom he’s in love, in the hope that he can spend his last months in her company. The decision to make the trip had been a spur of the moment thing, as on the day he received his medical sentence of death, he visited Laura and learned of the journey she was making.

Laura seems pleased to see him, and the two spend much time together on the journey. The ship sets off for southern, warmer climes and although there are islands and natives, we really have no idea where the cruise is going; Carr has no real interest in specifics, only thinking of Laura, and as he says, there are no signposts in the sea. As the journey continues, he reflects on his past, the change that has come over him since receiving the news of his demise, and the bittersweet pleasure of being in the company of someone he loves, but unable to tell her because of his impending death and his fear of disturbing what relationship they have.

An extra element is thrown into the mix in the form of Colonel Dalrymple; initially, Carr befriends the man and likes him very much, until he perceives that Dalrymple is attracted to Laura – and it seems to Carr that Laura is attracted back. However, the voyage is coming to a close for Carr, and a final revelation proves just how little we know or understand about our fellow humans.

I take it that any creative work, as opposed to my own hack effort, must be intensely private, not to be mentioned, least of all discussed. No doubt the actual process is comparable. One lives in a little world of one’s own, and nothing else seems to matter. The most egotistical of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts. To see the pages piling up, and to live in the persuasion that one is doing something worthwhile. Because of course one must hold on to that conviction, or one wouldn’t go on. Luckily a writer’s powers of self-delusion are limitless, and oh the smugness of feeling that one has done a good day’s work!

NSITS is a short novel (less than 150 pages in my Virago edition, although the type is fairly large so I’d be more inclined to call it a novella) but it contains much food for thought. It’s impossible to read this book without speculating how much it draws on Vita’s own life, and indeed the excellent introduction by Victoria Glendinning sets out the events in the author’s life that informed the book. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson had been on a number of cruises, which Vita drew on for the book, and she also used the story to discuss her thoughts on life, love and writing through Edmund’s musings. She was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill her, and there is a bittersweet element running through the book that presumably reflects her state of mind at the time. Edmund Carr has gone from being cynical to sentimental, regretting his single life and considering what makes a good marriage and a meeting of minds; and I can’t help speculating that this latter must have been much on Vita’s mind as she looked back at her life and her unconventional union with Nicolson. The book also contains a direct discussion of lesbianism which I’m not sure that Vita had ever tackled in her work before.

vita-and-harold

However, the book is certainly not perfect. It reflects some very outdated and unpleasant attitudes to race which I would perhaps expected to start to be filtered out; certainly I wouldn’t have guessed the book was from the 1960s with these viewpoints on show. And there is a class element showing too; as Glendinning points out, although Carr is meant to be from a lower class than Laura, his thoughts, behaviour and attitudes are those of the author rather than someone who has worked his way up from humbler beginnings.

The text is interspersed with unattributed quotations and poems reflecting Edmund’s thoughts on particular topics, and I must confess I rather wished for an annotated edition giving background to these excerpts. Although Glendinning points out that the reader can have fun tracking them down (and they might have been more widely known at the time the book was published), I was too involved in the narrative to want to stop reading and do some research.

And involved I was. Despite my minor criticisms, the book is beautifully written and very evocative; the sense of the removal from reality and everyday life that occurs on a cruise is captured in Vita’s clear prose, and I felt as if I was at sea with Edmund, Laura and Dalrymple. NSITS is a poignant little book, full of thoughtful discussions of the important things in life, and a fitting addition to Vita’s oeuvre. This is only the second of Vita Sackville-West’s books I can be sure I’ve read (I loved her “The Heir” which I reviewed here), but on the evidence of these I can highly recommend her.

The aftermath of Switzerland

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Dawn’s Left Hand by Dorothy Richardson

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to realise that I have slipped just a little behind with my read of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence of novels. I seem to be struggling to fit in reading at the moment, in the aftermath of the intensity of the 1947 Club; however, the recent excellent BBC4 Virago documentary spurred me on to pick up volume 4 recently and tackle the next book in the sequence – “Dawn’s Left Hand”.

pilg-4

The book picks up pretty much where the previous one had left off, with Miriam travelling home from Oberland. She seems to be finding leaving Switzerland a wrench, and in fact the place and its effects permeate much of the early section of the book. As usual, Miriam finds it hard to relate to fellow travellers en route, but is often too kind to shun them.

Back in her familiar London she takes up her old life, in more ways than one. Early in the book she visits an old acquaintance, Dr. Densley, an old beau who seems to still hanker after Miriam. She’s still working at the dentist practice, and she makes a break with Selina, her co-tenant, to return to her old boarding house. The relationship between the two women, always vaguely defined at best, seems to have completely broken down and given the chance to up sticks Miriam takes it.

Into Miriam’s life comes a new friend in the form of a French woman, Amabel, who develops quite a passion for our heroine. They meet at Miriam’s club and it is clear that she is still mixing with the Lycurgans. However, Miriam is distracted by her affair with Hypo, which appears to come to some kind of fruition, resulting oddly enough in a gulf seeming to develop between her and the Wilsons. The book ends on a strange note, with a meeting on the steps of Mrs. Bailey’s that may or may not be a major one – perhaps the next book will reveal all!

“Dawn’s Left Hand” is another short entry in the Pilgrimage sequence, and I wondered if it was almost too short to stand on its own and that maybe it would have been better attached to “Oberland” (or may “Clear Horizon”, which comes next, but that remains to be seen). Again, so much of the book is Miriam’s emotions and reactions to things, her contemplating the distance between men and women, and her relishing her solitude once more. As usual, Richardson does her trick of dropping huge events (deaths, dramatic adventures of relatives) into the narrative as passing comments, so as to retain the focus on the narrator’s state of mind. We are treated to Miriam dipping into the first person now and then, and the affair with Hypo is so discreetly written that if you didn’t read carefully you might miss it. Miriam in many ways seems torn between Hypo and Amabel, and I presume the latter was based on her friend Veronica.

I wondered a little about the title and when I did some research online, came up with this quote from Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald):

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry
‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry

It made me think if this was a little reference to Miriam deciding to take life on and embark on the affair with Hypo before she became older and love might pass her by – certainly, as I may have said before, there is the risk with her rigidity that she cuts herself off slightly from human interaction and the sacrifice that entails and it will be intriguing to see where the story goes next.

As always, the descriptions of London were lovely and atmospheric, and I enjoyed much of the time I spent in Miriam’s company. However, I got the feeling this was something of a bridging book, taking Miriam into a new phase of her life with the Hypo affair and the introduction of Amabel. I’ll be interested to see where the story takes me next!

The joys of chance finds!

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You might have noticed that there have been fewer book haul posts on the Ramblings lately. I *have* been trying very hard to be judicious about the books that come into the house, and a quick glance down the little spreadsheet I keep of acquisitions *does* show a lesser amount last month – and of those that came in, several were review copies and gifts from kind people. However, I was popping into the charity shops to donate yesterday, and it would have been rude not to look at the books – and by chance I came across these!

ambler-oliphant

Weirdly enough, “The Mask of Dimitrios” came from the same charity shop where I found my first Ambler title, “Epitaph for a Spy” – and for £1 is an absolute bargain – so pleased!

The beautiful Virago came from the same shop, also for £1, and it’s in absolutely lovely condition. I have another of Mrs. Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford, I think, so they can sit together on the shelves until I get a moment to read them…..

And the collected Peake poems came from the Samaritans – I wasn’t sure if I had a copy or not (I have his selected poems from many years ago), but I don’t appear to have it. Well, you can never be sure with my bookshelves, but I couldn’t turn it down.

And if I hadn’t been so laden down with goodies from Poundland, and stuff I’d been buying there for work, I might have come home with some other titles – but that’s another story…

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!

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

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