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Archive for the ‘2018’ Category

There are not a lot of books I find worth staying up for on a weeknight.  Sleep is a wonderful thing and I take it seriously.  But last night I foolishly started reading just before (what should have been) my bedtime and ending up reading until almost midnight, caught up in the joyfully comic fantasy of Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon.

Adapted many, many times for the stage and screen, this tale from 1903 will already be familiar to many of you.  When his grandfather dies and leaves him a million dollars on his twenty-fifth birthday, Monty Brewster knows his life will change.  No longer does he need to work for a salary – good though he was at his work – or leave anxious tailors and tradespeople waiting for bills to be settled.  No, he can live as he likes and begin to help the people he loves live a little better too.  And he can pursue the girl he loves, knowing he has fortune enough to give her a life of luxury and ease.  Yes, the future is bright.  But only days after his first inheritance Monty learns of another: an eccentric uncle has left him seven million dollars – but only if Monty is penniless by his twenty-sixth birthday.  And penniless with conditions – the money must not be thrown away in excessive gestures of charity or idiocy – it must be spent wisely and reasonably and he may tell no one about the second inheritance.  With only a year to do it, Monty sets methodically to work.

I found the entire thing delightful.  Monty is, as we are told at the beginning, entirely admirable.  He has “a decent respect for himself and no great aversion to work”, the ability to stay calm in a crisis, to mix with all sorts of people, and to view things in perspective and with humour.  He is warm and friendly and trusting, yet with a solid business sense and no nonsense about him.  He is, in fact, a rather perfect hero and I loved reading about his successes in carefully spending his fortune – and his failures when his attempts to invest poorly or gamble away bits of his fortune backfire and find him with more rather than less riches.  It is no small thing to spend a great fortune but he sets about it methodically and sensibly, enjoying himself along the way.

Enjoying themselves far less are his friends and loved ones.  At first delighted by Monty’s well-deserved wealth, they are pained to see him frittering it away and constantly on the look out for ways to curb his spending and save him from himself.  The first flush of spending – lavishly decorating a new apartment, throwing extravagant dinner parties – was fun for everyone but as the year goes on and Monty’s excesses grow more and more extreme both his friends and society at large can’t help but lament his extravagance and judge him harshly for it.  And when you are being judged extravagant by New Yorkers at the turn of the century, in the most gilded city of the gilded age, you really must be an extreme case.

I think McCutcheon must have had fun dreaming up all the ways to spend a million – and carefully accounting for them in the ledger Monty keeps.  Silly parties can only help so much.  It’s when he hits on the idea of taking a party of friends to Europe that the money really starts disappearing.  First with the hire of a yacht.  Yachts will always be a wonderful way to spend money very quickly and get very little return.  True then, true now, true always.  And once in Europe Monty is wildly successful at spending.  He buys cars, hires a villa, rents out hotels, and hires an opera company and opera house for not just one night but two.  But the joyful spending of the early days in gone and as his birthday draws near it becomes a chore to rid himself of all his funds, made painful by the taunts of society and the disapproval of his friends.

There is, of course, a romance, though not the one Monty himself dreamed of when the year began.  It is obvious from her first introduction who his real love interest will be – a girl who knows him well, who can tease and speak freely with him – and it’s satisfying to watch them both realise their true feelings over the course of the year.  A little less satisfying when the girl is abducted off the yacht by an Arab sheik in the middle of the night and a daring rescue is then enacted but, oh well, McCutcheon was clearly getting bored with all the accounting Monty was doing and felt the urge to liven things up.

It’s all a bit of whimsy but whimsy is wonderful.  The second half is weaker than the first but it matters not.  It’s a quick book to read and the overall effect is so fun and sprightly that the odd weakness can be overlooked.  Definitely a book worth staying up late with.

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I love fairy tales and I love A.A. Milne.  When you put them together, I’m a happy woman.  And thankfully Milne used fairy tales – or at least fairy-tale-esque settings – in a number of his writings.  I’d already encountered this happy combination in his early novel, Once on a Time, in his one-act play, Portrait of a Gentleman in Slippers, and in his uproariously funny play, The Ugly Duckling, so I was delighted to find it again in The Ivory Door, a play from 1928. 

We begin with King Hilary and his son, young Prince Perivale, in the throne room having a friendly chat about life.  Perivale is eight- or nine-years old and starting to make sense of the world and his place in it.  His father, however, is making things a bit difficult by throwing in his king-ly perspective:

PERIVALE. […] Kings are the wisest men, aren’t they?

HILARY .It is commonly said so.

PERIVALE. And the handsomest, and the best swordsmen, and the cleverest painters, and the greatest generals, and – and everything.

HILARY. It is well that the people should think so.

PERIVALE. Shall I be when I grow up?

HILARY. So it will be said.

PERIVALE. But shan’t I be?

HILARY. It is almost too much to expect of one man, Perivale.

PERIVALE. Even if he is the King?

HILARY. The more so if he be the King.

And here we have our theme, ladies and gentleman: the gap between perception and reality, what people desire to be true and what is actually so.  It’s hard on a king to try and live up to romantic expectations and legends, as Perivale will discover.

But he will not discover it quite yet.  For now, he moves on to questioning his father about the mysterious ivory door in the throne room.  He’s been told it leads to hell or at the very least that to enter it means certain death.  And his father, wise as he might be (for all kings are wise), cannot tell him differently.  He can only tell him that what lies on the other side is unknown but the kings who have passed through the door have never been seen again.  It’s a legend that looms large in their kingdom – the Ivory Door that leads to certain death – and for Perivale the need to know the truth is intense.  But the key is lost so the door – and what lies on the other side – remains a mystery.

Years pass, good King Hilary dies, and Perivale becomes king.  But he has never lost his inquisitive nature and now he finally has the key to the Ivory Door.  And on the eve of his wedding, he decides he cannot live with the uncertainty any longer.  So he opens the door and goes through.

The legend of the Ivory Door, as one of the characters says, “…is our own; something which joins us together.  We talk of it often.  We tell each other stories.  We could not lose it.”  So when Perivale emerges unscathed and alive, having discovered the door merely leads to a passage that ends outside the palace walls, it is deemed impossible.  Perivale must be an impostor or some wicked soul switched in hell with the true, good King Perivale.  The arrival of his fiancée, Princess Lilia, only complicates matters.  After all, everyone in the kingdom knows their great secret: that the two met while in disguise as peasants and fell in love only to then discover one another’s true identities.  It is always thus for kings and princesses.  Except Perivale and Lilia had never set eyes on one another and the lack of recognition only serves to further condemn Perivale.  He may look like their king but King Perivale passed through the Ivory Door and therefore gone forever.  It is inconceivable, despite all the evidence, that Perivale could have lived.

On the Milne spectrum of silliness, The Ivory Door should be classed on the more serious side.  It has its moments of levity thanks to Milne’s typically snappy dialogue but is primarily a cautionary tale.  Perivale’s people had lived for generations with the legend of the Ivory Door.  It formed part of their identity.  And, as Perivale says, “when I came safely through the Door, I was telling each one of my people that he was a fool and a coward.  A fool to believe, a coward to fear.”  It is never safe to be the person who makes other feels like fools and cowards.  Only bad things can come from that.    

Bad things for Perivale, yes, but good things for the reader.  I really enjoyed this (as I always enjoy Milne) and loved that it was of a more serious bent than some of his other plays of the era.  I love a good comedy of errors about bigamy but a change is nice.

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Today marks the start of a Mini Persephone Readathon, hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Jessie, and I’m delighted to be taking part.  It’s just until Sunday – hence its “mini” status – so I thought I’d get started right away.

First published in 1946, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski was published while the war was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  And that memory is important because already routines were beginning to be re-established and conventions once again adhered to, things that had briefly loosened during the topsy-turvy war years and provided undreamt-of freedom for so many.  Sometimes that freedom was productive – as for the men and women whose wartime experiences gave them careers their education or gender never prepared them for – and sometimes it was merely license to misbehave.  And wartime misbehaviour is Laski’s focus.

We meet Deborah Robertson just as her husband, Graham, is about to depart for Cairo.  Married for several years and parents to a young son, they are both upset at the idea of parting, trying to reassure one another of the strength of their passion.  Passion, rather than affection, is certainly the correct word and the shallowness of their relationship is made clear as Graham reassures his wife that he will “be missing you every hour of every day, thinking how bloody attractive you are.”  This is not a marriage of two minds, safe to say.

Before he leaves, Graham idiotically explains to his wife that the affairs he will have out East will only be with women he does not respect and so won’t mean anything and asks her to promise the same for her own affairs.  Deborah, claiming the moral high ground, asserts that she will be comforted by her love for him, will spend her time caring for their son, and will remain completely unchanged by their separation.

Subtlety is not Laski’s strong point (to be fair, she never attempts it) so, unsurprisingly, the rest of the book is about how unfaithful Deborah is and how much she changes.

Bored with her son and country life, Deborah soon seizes the chance to move to London on her own (leaving her son in the loving and much more capable hands of the housekeeper).  And even before she completes her move, she has her first affair.  It is a meaningless thing, done more out of a sense of inevitability than anything, but it sets her on a path that she soon finds impossible to give up.  Her attempts to abstain make her sour and petulant so, she decides, why not have fun.  To be twenty-four, beautiful and free in wartime London is a heady thing indeed.

One man leads to another, then another, and so on.  At first she can pretend love is involved but she soon realises that is not it.  Her relationships have nothing to do with her feelings about the men, except perhaps for what they can give her – beginning with nice meals out, stockings, perfume, small things.  But as she learns her new craft, her ambitions grow.  She looks at her friend Madeleine, far more used to this lifestyle than Deborah and able to attract what Deborah thinks of as “grown-ups”, and “longed to graduate into a class genuinely competitive with her, and yet had no notion of what qualities she lacked that consistently prevented her from doing so.”

Deborah figures out those qualities – with the not altogether willing assistance of a Frenchman whom she has poached from Madeleine – and from there her career as a tart is assured.  The men she sleeps with are barely people to her, only stepping stones on her path of self-improvement.  Her moral qualms disappear alarmingly quickly; it is much nicer to have a new bag or hat or piece of jewellery than anxieties.  And why shouldn’t she be happy rather than anxious or ashamed?  As she says:

“I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well.  I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski is extremely popular with Persephone readers and one of their best represented authors – they have reprinted five of her books now: Little Boy Lost, The Village, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, To Bed with Grand Music, and Tory Heaven.  And I can completely understand why.  She epitomizes the middle brow, writing about seemingly-serious topics in a titillating way with basic, extremely readable prose (Little Boy Lost is particularly difficult to put down).  Would I consider this a significant psychological portrait of a woman experiencing a moral crisis amidst a chaotic, collapsing social structure?  Hardly.  But, despite lacking nuance or depth, it is great fun.  Laski knew what people wanted: a bit of excitement and a touch of the taboo to keep them glued to the pages, confidently smug that they could never be as morally inept as Deborah.  It’s true but that is a very, very low bar to clear.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). 

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After reading 37 books by a single author, there comes the point when you think, “Surely to God I have read everything she wrote that was actually worth reading – and then some.”  At least, that was how I felt about D.E. Stevenson.  I read the good, I read the middling, and I read the bad (and I managed to review 20-odd of them).  And, after 37 books, I was pretty much done.  Until I wasn’t.  Knowing absolutely nothing about it, I decided on a whim to read Green Money and discovered that DES had basically decided to write a contemporary (for 1939) Georgette Heyer novel.  I was, understandably, delighted.

We meet our protagonist, George Ferrier, celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday with a little shopping on Bond Street.  After ten days of living it up in London and having his head turned by one pretty girl after another, he is heading home to the country but not before he has a fitting for a new pair of riding boots – hence Bond Street.  And it is in this Bond Street establishment that the fateful encounter occurs: George meets Mr. John Green, an old army friend of his father’s and now a very wealthy man.  The Ferriers live in rural obscurity – his scholarly father caught up in his studies, his horsey-mother caught up in the stables – so the families had not been in touch but it makes no matter.  A son of Ferrier senior must be a good sort.

Mr. Green quickly identified George – young, honest, good with people, and not overburdened with brains – as just the man he wants.  Mr. Green, though expecting to live for many years, wants to name a youthful trustee for his daughter in case anything should happen to him, his wife having died many years before.  There are three trustees already, middle-aged men like himself, but Green doesn’t think they’ll be of much use by the time he plans to die, many, many years from now.  So, he reasons, George is just the right man.  And the role of trustee is vital, he explains to George, since his beloved daughter is, like all women, “delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened.”  George, after a lifetime with his straight-talking Irish mother and decidedly capable female friends, tries to remain open minded but can’t quite square his new friend’s statement with the world as he knows it:

George had not thought of women in this light before, but he was always willing to consider a fresh point of view.  He thought of the various girls he knew: were they like flowers?  Not noticeably.  Were they delicate, virginal, easily shocked and frightened?  No, no, no.  He thought of his mother and smiled involuntarily.  “Oh, well!” he said.  “I dare say some girls may be like that.  I’ve always found them fairly hard boiled.”

George, as the story will bear out, has excellent people sense.  Mr. Green does not.

Unsurprisingly for the purposes of our story, Mr. Green soon dies and George comes into his duties several decades before he had expected to.  And this is where our Heyer-esque plot takes over.  George assumes partial guardianship of the teenaged Elma Green, who turns out to be breathtakingly beautiful but woefully ignorant of the real world.  Her governess, Miss Wilson (an exquisite creation), has raised her on 19th Century romantic novels and Elma has quite naturally turned into an outwardly docile creature, who meanwhile is longing for some sort of excitement.  Delightfully, her main ambition is to visit London and to see Vauxhall Gardens and the vulgar excesses she has read so much about (little knowing that Vauxhall closed 80 years before).  George is repelled rather than attracted by these antiquated manners and introduces his ward to the idea that men and women can be friends and that it’s not shame for a girl to have a bit of life in her.  It takes Elma a while to catch on but when she does…well, she’s a fast learner and, unfortunately for George, he isn’t her only instructor.

The complications are fast and furious.  George, confused by his sense of responsibility, wonders if he can possibly be in love with Elma when he spends most of his time wanting to escape her attentions.  George’s best friend, Peter Seeley, having fallen in love with Elma at first sight, is silently feuding with George, though George remains oblivious to this (as is common when you choose to feud silently).  George, his brain moving slowly but surely, begins to have his doubts about how Mr. Green’s estate is being handled.  Another trustee, concerned on a number of fronts, invites Elma and her governess to stay with his family at a seaside hotel frequented by some rather fast people where Elma, predictably, finds lots of trouble to get into.  And there is, as is only suitable in such a Heyer-esque novel, a updated 20th Century sort of elopement (headed for a hotel rather than Gretna Green).

I do love an exasperated hero running around trying to rescue an idiotic girl who has cheerfully dashed off to be ruined but I love it most when a) I am confident there is no possibility of romance between said hero and said idiotic girl, b) where there is a wonderfully capable heroine waiting patiently for our hero to realise he’s in love with her, and c) when I can be entertained along the way by entertaining supporting characters.  Green Money has it all.  Also, magic tricks.  But let us focus for a moment on the supporting characters.

Paddy, George’s mother, is Irish.  That’s basically it.  You can tell because she is obsessed with horses and speaks like Maureen O’Hara’s character from The Quiet Man every single time she opens her mouth.  She is wonderful though, a winning combination of loving and blunt, and is adored by her husband, son, and friends.  The Seeley family, the Ferriers’ neighbours and close friends, are a large family with lazy, rarely involved parents.  Of the children, adolescent daughter Dan is a particular favourite of George’s, eldest son Peter, a newly qualified doctor, is his best friend, and eldest daughter Cathy is…something.  Something very calming and certain and sensible and…well, you see where that is going.  And then, freshly introduced into George’s life, thanks to Elma, there is the magnificent Miss Wilson.  A governess at least one hundred years out of date, she is Elma’s prim and exasperated companion, who becomes utterly overwhelmed by her charge’s behaviour once they reach the resort.  She writes out her tale of woe to George and it causes confusion to him (and his parents, trying gamely to follow along as this farce progresses) and delight to the reader.  Miss Wilson, clearly, learned capitalization from Jane Austen (and D.E. Stevenson picked up a thing or two herself about comic old maids):

In the midst of my Anxiety and Trouble, I remembered Your Cryptic Words to which I was so misguided as to take exception.  You remarked that I should be well advised to keep my eye upon Elma!  I ask myself now, in the light of all that has happened, whether this remark was made with a Fuller Knowledge of the Pitfalls before me than I myself possessed.  At the time, of course, I was Confident of my Ability to watch my charge and to Guard and Guide her, no matter what Dangers or Difficulties should lie before us…

All ends well, naturally.  Those who are in love declare their love.  Those who want a quiet life return to the quiet life.  Those who want a horse, get a horse (that would be George’s mother, Paddy – remember, she is Irish.  As though you would ever be allowed to forget).  And I, happily, discovered that there was at least one D.E. Stevenson book left worth reading.

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I seem to make a habit of reading memoirs by famous authors before I ever read any of the books that made them famous.  And you know what?  I like it.  It’s an interesting way to approach a new author, learning first about them and then their works.  And it can make you so, so much more eager to read their other books than you would otherwise have been.  At least, that was the case for me when I read When I Was a Little Boy by Erich Kästner.  Kästner won fame for his many successful children’s novels (most notably, Emil and the Detectives and Lottie and Lisa, the inspiration for The Parent Trap) and it is for children that he wrote this beautiful memoir of his own childhood in Dresden.  Recently reissued as a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, it is now readily available in English for the first time since the 1950s.

Kästner was born in 1899 into a humble family.  His father, Emil, was trained as a saddlemaker but worked for a luggage maker in Dresden while his mother, Ida, had worked as a maid but retrained as a hairdresser when Erich was small so she could work independently.  It was not an affectionate marriage but nor was it a hostile one; it was simply a mismatch.  Ida had never been in love with her husband but had agreed to the match on the urging of her sisters, whose logic seemed pretty solid:

What did a young girl know about love, anyway?  Moreover, love came with marriage.  And even if it did not come, it didn’t matter all that much; for married life really consisted in working, saving, cooking and bearing children.  Love was no more important than a Sunday hat.

In this case, love didn’t come but, as the sisters had advised, it didn’t really matter.  Because there was Erich, her one child, and Ida loved him totally and completely.  Amid the darkness of her internal life (Erich came home to suicide notes several times, which would send him frantic out into the streets to search for her, terrified he might be too late this time), she had a son who lit up her world.  Emil is fondly mentioned but it was Ida who dominated young Erich’s childhood.  He was her life and it was a responsibility he took seriously, trying to live up to all her hopes and dreams for him:

Ida Kästner wanted to be a perfect mother to her boy.  And because she so much wanted to be that, she had no consideration for anyone, not even for herself, and she became the perfect mother.  All her love and imagination, all her industry, every moment of her time, her every thought – in fact her whole existence she staked, like a frenzied gambler, on one single card – on me!  Her stake was her whole life to its last breath.

I was the card, so I simply had to win.  I dared not disappoint her.  That was why I became the best pupil in the school and the best-behaved son possible at home.  I could not have borne it if she had lost her great game.  Since she wanted to be and was the perfect mother, for me, her trump card, there seemed no choice but to become the perfect son.  Did I become this?  I certainly tried to.  I had inherited her talents – her energy, her ambition and her intelligence.  That was at least something to begin with.  And when I, her sole capital and stake, sometimes felt really tired of always winning and of only winning, one thing and one things only kept me going: I truly loved that perfect mother.  I loved her very much indeed.

Ida wasn’t as overwhelming as that may make her sound.  She and Erich were also the best of friends, taking hiking holidays together throughout the country, and Erich had his freedom, indeed a shocking amount of freedom compared to children these days.  At seven, he was extraordinarily proud to be allowed to walk to school all alone.  Except he wasn’t entirely alone.  Years later, Ida admitted that she would see Erich off from home and then surreptitiously trail him all the way to school, ducking behind other pedestrians if it looked at all like Erich might turn around and spot her.  He had his freedom and she had her reassurance.  Everyone was happy.

With a mother like Ida, it is no surprise that Erich had a carefully planned life: he studied hard and was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers who had boarded with the Kästner family.  But when he actually stood in front of a class for the first time in his mid-teens, he (and they) realised he had no aptitude for it.  And so a new and rather extraordinary plan was hatched: he, the son of a saddlemaker and a maid, would go to the university.  And, after serving in the First World War, he did.  To his mother’s extreme pride, naturally.

But a memoir of childhood is not really about planning and career plotting.  It is snapshots of nostalgia-tinged moments: of walks through the beautiful city with his father, of visits to his rich but mean maternal uncle, of hiking holidays with his mother, of the sad demise of his zuckertüten (sugar cone – a traditional gift for students on their first day of school), in short, of all the really important but insignificant moments that make up a childhood, the memory of which never seems to dull:

‘More than fifty years have passed since then,’ declares the calendar, that horny old bookkepper in the office of history, who controls chronology and with ink and ruler marks the leap years in blue and draws a red line at the beginning of each century. ‘No!’ cries memory, shaking her curly locks. ‘It was only yesterday.  Or at most the day before,’ she adds softly with a little laugh.  Which of them is wrong?

They are both right, for there are two kinds of time.  The one kind can be measured with instruments and calculations, just like streets or plots of ground.  But the other chronology, our memory, has nothing to do with metres and months, decades or acres.  What we have forgotten is old.  The unforgettable was yesterday.  The measure here is not the time but the value.  And the most precious of all things, whether happy or sad, is our childhood.  Do not forget the unforgettable.  I believe that this advice cannot be given early enough.

Isn’t that nicely put?  I loved the writing in this book.  I loved Kästner’s optimistic view of the world, despite the difficult elements of life (which he does not shy away from discussing), and his frequent asides to his readers, his earnest desire to pass on what he knows.  He is writing for you, whoever you are.  This story is meant to be shared with you.

By the time Kästner was writing in 1957, he was living in Munich.  He’d gone to university in Leipzig, spent almost twenty years in Berlin, and had settled in Munich after his Berlin home was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.  And yet the city that retained all his love and affection was the Dresden of his childhood, a city of beauty and history and one he knew intimately from years of wanderings – a city whose death he was still mourning:

Dresden was a wonderful city, full of art and history, yet with none of the atmosphere of a museum which happened to house, along with its treasures, six hundred and fifty thousand Dresdeners.  Past and present lived in perfect unity, or rather duality, and blended and harmonized with the landscape – the Elbe, the bridges, the slopes of the surrounding hills, the woods, the mountains which fringed the horizon – to form a perfect trinity.  From Meissen Cathedral to the Castle Park of Groszsedlitz, history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord which seemed as though bewitched by its own perfect harmony.

[…]

Yes, Dresden was a wonderful city.  You may take my word for it.  And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, however rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right.  For the city of Dresden is no more.  It has vanished, except for a few fragments.  In one single night and with a single movement of its hand the Second World War wiped it off the map.  It had taken centuries to create its incomparable beauty.  A few hours sufficed to spirit it off the face of the earth.

The Frauenkirche today, rebuilt and much brighter than the pollution-stained black church Kästner was used to from his childhood

I wonder what Kästner would make of Dresden today, with the Old Town skyline now restored to its pre-war image.  Would he find the Frauenkirche, with its painted “marble” columns, unbearably tacky or reassuringly familiar?  What would he make of the modern additions?  I suspect he would find it disconcerting – elements of the familiar in juxtaposed with the new.  And even if it looks the same, you can’t get rid of the memory that it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed in those few days but also 25,000 people.  In all the ways that mattered, the city of his childhood was gone.

I loved this book.  I loved reading about Dresden, a city I dearly love, as it was more than a hundred years ago; I loved reading about how young Erich spent his days, learning about the norms of boyhood in a time and place long gone; I loved the simple sketches throughout, illustrating Erich’s various adventures; and I truly loved old Erich’s fondness for it all.  Another really wonderful choice from Slightly Foxed.

 

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Washing on the Line by Percy Harland Fisher

It’s a drizzly spring day here, making it perfect for getting all the indoors tasks that I’ve been avoiding while the weather has been fine off my checklist.  I’ve baked, done laundry, tidied up, and now with the house ready to tick along for another week I’ve turned to online things.  I managed to update my travel blog (with a piece about a Czech spa town I visited last autumn, if you’re interested) and, finally, I sat down and caught up with my reviews for A Century of Books.

Part of what I love about A Century of Books is the variety of things you get to read for it.  The actual writing of 100 reviews I love less, which is how we end up with short little notes instead.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock (1910) – Leacock is so dependably funny and never more so than in this polished collection of sketches.  They were all so good it was impossible to pick a favourite, though I might lean towards the first two stories: “My Financial Career”, about feeling uncomfortable in banks, and “Lord Oxhead’s Secret”, a melodramatic spoof about a bankrupt earl.  Simon liked it so much it made his list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.”

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton (1930) – Definitely one to skip.  This badly done portrait of a very bad marriage between two equally self-absorbed young people was a chore to get through and worth reading only for the insights it gives into women’s working lives (hours, pay, etc) during the 1920s.  Wife Elizabeth spends her days working hard in a dress shop so her husband Gilbert can focus on his writing and so she can feel martyr-like.  As her doctor points out:

“You’ve been bullying that young husband of yours till he can’t call his soul his own, and rubbing it into him all the time how much more efficient you are than he is.  You’ve been trying to do his job as well as your own, and encouraging him to be lazy, and spoiling your own health and nerves and temper in the process.”

The impact of this behaviour on their relationship is predictably awful.  And Gilbert is no better, going off and having an affair right under her nose and expecting to receive no criticism whatsoever about it.  The most hopeful moments are when it seems like their marriage will break up.  Which it doesn’t, frustratingly.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp (1935) – After a wonderful encounter with Sharp earlier this year (when I read The Flowering Thorn), I was keen to read more by her and Barb, my favourite Sharp expert, recommended this (one of her own favourites).  And it was absolutely lovely, telling the story of Caroline Smith from young adulthood to widowhood traced through the gardens she has made.  It is much quieter and gentler than I’ve come to expect from Sharp but no less excellent for that.  If only it were in print and readily available!

Pistols for Two by Georgette Heyer (1960) – a mildly enjoyable but extraordinarily repetitive collection of short stories from Heyer, featuring far too many people wanting to run off to Gretna Green (it’s mentioned 25 times in less than 200 pages).  It is also sadly short on Heyer’s trademark humour – and Heyer without humour is frankly pointless.  The title story, about two life-long best friends preparing to duel each other over a pointless jealousy, was my favourite in the collection while the rest have quickly faded from memory.  There was a surplus of nineteen-year old heroines with big eyes and bouncing curls so the few exceptions – a debutante’s mother oblivious to her own suitor and a thirty-something spinster chasing after a runaway niece (bound for Gretna, naturally) in the company of her one-time fiancé – stand out.  I’ll keep my copy as part of my larger Heyer collection but it’s clear the short story was not her form.  (FYI, this collection was reissued recently as Snowdrift with three additional stories added to the original collection.)

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby (1962) – after returning from a German POW camp at the end of WWII, Eric Newby was at loose ends when his parents decided he should join the family wholesale clothing business:

“It’s only a temporary measure,” they said, “until you find your feet.”  They had a touching and totally unfounded belief that I was destined for better things.  It was a temporary measure that was to last ten years.

Newby would eventually go on to become a great travel writer – perhaps not quite the “better things” his parents had planned – but learned much during his decade dealing with buyers, models, and others up, down and around the British Isles.  With a great sense of humour and obvious affection he recounts those days in this wonderful and highly enjoyable memoir.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) – Such joy!  Such fun!  Such political incorrectness!  I knew from the very first lines that I was going to enjoy this:

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

Taking the villain of Tom Brown’s School Days for his (anti-)hero, Fraser sets about to show “how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process…” and does it with great style and an even greater sense of humour.  We follow Flashman from school to the army, which tosses him from Scotland to India to the dangerous Afghan frontier.  His unapologetic selfishness and cowardice bother him not at all and, more often than not, are taken for the reverse by his obtuse comrades.  With quick wits and flexible morals, he not only survives his early adventures in Afghanistan but comes away a hero.  And so the legend and fame of Flashman begins.  His further adventures are chronicled in great detail in 11 further books and I can’t wait to read them.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively (1980) – A difficult book to review.  On the one hand, this story of people in a small village is beautifully written and full of the clear-sighted observations I love about Lively’s work.  On the other hand, I felt remote from everyone and everything in it.  But I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.  Indeed, it echoed the way the main character views everything, including herself:

She observes herself with a certain cynicism: a woman of thirty-five, handsome in her way, charged with undirected energy, a fatalist and insufficiently charitable.  In another age, she thinks, there would have been a vocation for a woman like me; I could have been a saint, or a prostitute.

Even months after finishing it, I’m still working out my reaction to this one.

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You know what book you probably didn’t realise you needed in your life?  An ungossipy, undramatic collection of musings from an octogenarian movie star, that’s what.  And, more specifically, one with excellent tastes in books.  Does such a thing even exist?  Thankfully, it does in the form of A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness.

Published in 1999 and covering the period from 1996 to 1998, this was Guinness’ third collection of his diaries but the first I’ve read.  And how happy I am that I did!  Guinness is never an actor I’ve been particularly interested in, despite him being the star of my very favourite film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.  I’ve seen much of his work – he stared in David Lean’s most iconic films, before, of course, taking on the two roles he is best remembered for: Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and George Smiley in the television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – without ever feeling much interest in him personally.  Which, I get the impression reading this, is very much as he would have liked it.  But then Michael Dirda mentioned this in Browsings (which is the book that keeps on giving thanks to all the wonderful recommendations I got from it) and I had to give it a try.

The book is focused on Guinness’ observations as he moves through the years.  It is not a celebrity memoir where the focus is anecdotes about the famous and infamous (go to David Niven if that’s what you’re looking for); instead, we hear mostly about Guinness’ family (wife, son, grandchildren, and great-grandchild), his thoughts on current events (the 1997 election and Princess Diana’s death are both remarked on), and, best of all, his reading.  Because it turns out that Guinness was a reader and a proper one who formed attachments to authors, read widely and eclectically, and, if he had still be around by the time it was published, would almost certainly have loved Slightly Foxed and probably wanted to write for it.

And what does he read?  He loves Shakespeare, suitable enough for an actor who got his start on the stage, and has a particular fondness for Trollope, calling him “the most English of great Englishmen” and admiring his ability to capture men and women as they are and always will be in his books:

The pleasure lies in recognizing, today, habits which were to be found among us a hundred and twenty years ago however much the mores and manners have changed; and a hundred years before that, and before that as well.  The sense of continuity, going both backwards and forwards, I find entirely rewarding.

From there his reading wanders.  He mentions James Lee-Milne’s diaries, Dickens, Patrick O’Brien, Iris Origo, Henry James, and, much to my delight, From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple – the book I’d bought just before I started reading this.  I always take it as a good sign when my reading aligns like that.

Unlike the average aged celebrity diary, Guinness focuses on his life at the time, not on past glories.  He relishes visits from his family and close friends, and enjoys spending time with his wife, Merula.  I particularly loved hearing how he commemorated their 60th wedding anniversary: rather than buying jewellery, he bought his wife a painting and masses of gardenias, the flower he used to bring her every Friday evening when they were engaged.

I also, it must be said, loved hearing his views on the 1997 election, which feel especially poignant these days:

If only one party had a bold, enthusiastic pro-European line I would be genuinely behind it.  Without Europe I have a gut feeling we are lost.

But every life involves reminiscing too and Guinness chooses anecdotes from his career wisely.  I enjoyed this one from an ill-fated run as Romeo in 1939:

The first night was memorable.  I lept the garden wall for the balcony scene – ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’ – whereupon the wall fell flat.  With professional sang-froid I ignored the whole thing and struck a romantic pose of extreme yearning.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun.

At which moment the balcony fell off, to reveal, gasping with astonishment, Miss Stanley in her nightie.  Another foot forward and she would have tumbled to her eternal rest.  The curtain was lowered.  After ten minutes of hammering we started again, to tumultuous applause.  The audience was thoroughly enjoying the mishaps, as they always do, but they also wanted, I think, to show their admiration for Miss Stanley not succumbing to the vapours.

But the most horrifyingly memorable story comes not from the world of stage or film but from a society party where he was seated with Cyril Connolly, Frederick Ashton, Hugh Trevor-Roper, a young Princess Margaret, and an intoxicated and uninhibited Lady Diana Cooper:

‘Can’t go out unless I take a little fortification,’ [Lady Diana] said to me.  ‘Too nervous.  Stage fright.  Tonight I fortified myself twice, which was foolish.’

She eyed her fellow diners.  ‘Who’s that little man?’ she asked me in a loud whisper.

‘Cyril Connolly.’

‘I can’t bear him,’ she said, full voice, and picked up a roll and flung it at him.  It was a good shot and struck him on the forehead.  Connolly flushed but otherwise didn’t react.

Not quite the polished society matron that evening!  I can’t imagine what that would have been like to witness.  It does remind me that I want to read Lady Diana’s memoirs though (all three volumes of which – The Rainbow Comes and Goes, The Light of Common Day, and Trumpets from the Steep – are being reissued next month by Vintage).

In the end, I was left with the impression of Guinness as a kind, thoughtful person, a loving friend and husband, and an interested reader.  And that is the kind of epitaph we should all aim for.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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