Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Publisher/Series’ Category

When I find myself in times of trouble, my remedy is slightly different than The Beatles’.  I inevitably reach for a book and, more often than not when things are too dark or stressful or scary, that book is the delightful Little G by E.M. Channon.  In the not-quite seven years I have owned a copy, I have read it at least five times and – no surprise – it was one of the first books I read during the lockdown of spring 2020.  It is no less comforting this spring, with the dual motivation of reading it for the 1936 Club and to provide comfort amidst the dire Covid third wave we are experiencing here.

John Furnival is a pre-maturely stuffy, antisocial Cambridge mathematician who is ordered by his doctor on a long country stay to recover his health, which, his doctor chides him, has suffered due to:

Too much to eat: too much port and too much tea: too much work for your head, and not enough for your body.

Because the world of 1930s academia is forgiving of the need to do work – especially by dons with private incomes – Furnival is soon installed in a cottage in the village of Challingley.  The village, from the doctor’s perspective, is ideal.  It’s hilly enough to force Furnival to discomfort on his walks, quiet but full of sociable neighbours, and the cottage offers a large garden to rest or putter in.  Furnival is less convinced, disgusted by his new neighbours’ obsessions with their gardens, tennis parties, and, most horrifyingly of all, the pretty young widow at the center of the village’s social life.  But he is firmly drawn into the social whirl and realises – slowly and to his horror – what an unattractive foil he serves against this healthy, vigorous set.  Surely he – once a champion rower and tennis player – isn’t the sweaty old man set next to the village’s quick vicar or dashing doctor?  And at only thirty-seven!

While adult society may terrify or bore him in equal measure, Furnival finds himself much more at home with the cottage’s cat – the only creature he was immediately delighted to encounter in his new surroundings – and his next-door neighbours, three children living with their terrifying Aunt Agatha.  Rather to his surprise, the children are pleasant companions and it isn’t long before the three are slipping from their yard to his, eager for his stories and spoiling.  Furnival, for the first time in years, is giving thought and attention to something other than his equations (though his versions of children’s stories are very physics-focused).  But there is yet another resident next door, the children’s aunt Grace, who is that most terrifying of things – a young woman.  Thankfully she is not so terrifying as most of her species, being rather small and quiet, but also very capable and quick-witted and rather pretty…

Over the course of his time in the village, Furnival is forced out of his almost monastic mindset and learns once again how to be human.  He relearns how to care for others and to take care of himself and questions his long-held and unquestioned visions of a solitary, scholarly future.

This sounds very sweet, which it is, but Channon is a clever, funny writer and it’s that spark of humour that makes this book so memorable.  She is more than happy to skewer Furnival, but always affectionately, and the neighbours who most concern him (the female ones) aren’t nearly as one dimensional as his initial imaginings of them.  That’s not to stay this is a novel of great characterization and depth – it decidedly is not – but it’s far better than the sentimental drivel it could have been in another writer’s hands and I love it desperately.  The only sad thing about it is how difficult it is now to find copies.  It was reissued by Greyladies Books in 2012 but it’s almost impossible to find second-hand copies.  I’m not surprised – I certainly wouldn’t give mine up!    

Read Full Post »

I can think of no better way to start off February than by taking part in Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month.  Independent publishers should always be celebrated – and thankfully often are in our corner of the blogging world – and I’m looking forward to seeing what others choose this month.

To start off the month a little early, I settled down yesterday afternoon with A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins from Slightly Foxed (now sadly marked as “permanent sold out” on their website).  In addition to their peerless literary quarterly, Slightly Foxed reissues wonderful memoirs in gorgeous small hardback editions.  They have superb taste and have introduced me to new favourites as well as providing me with beautiful editions of old ones.  To me, a Slightly Foxed title is always an indication of quality, both in the writing and in the production of the physical book.  I will doubtlessly return to celebrate them further this month and it felt only reasonable to start with them.

At the beginning of the summer of 1951, fourteen-year-old Michael was sent by his parents in England to spend several months with “the aunts in Flanders.”  Despite not being actual relations – or having been seen by his parents since they visited on their honeymoon in the 1930s – the aunts are delighted to welcome this young man into their rural chateau, where Michael is quickly infatuated by the close-knit family:

…as I passed through the brick gateway perched on the front seat of an ancient black Citroen beside Joseph, the gardener who doubled as chauffer, and saw behind the trees the long façade of the house, I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold.  And if after only a day the world I had left behind seemed already remote, within weeks I no longer knew which was reality, the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England, or the dense fabric of extended family by which I was embraced, and within whose lives I had become entwined.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, beginning and ending with the formidable Tante Yvonne.  Then in her eighties, Tante Yvonne had taken charge of her five siblings when their parents died of typhoid when she was a young woman of twenty.  More than sixty years later, she remained at the heart of the family and of the village, always able to provide order where needed and deft counsel to those in need.  She never married and the story behind that is how Michael comes to understand his family’s link to the aunts.

Throughout the summer, Michael learns much of life.  He sees how the family cares for the mentally disabled illegitimate son of a brother who died in the First World War, he passes messages between an unhappily married nephew and his kind lover, and he lives amidst the tensions of a house containing six adult women who have somehow – mostly – learned to live with one another.  For him, coming from a chilly home with parents who have drifted apart without choosing to seek happiness elsewhere, it is an irresistible world and one he can’t imagine wanting to leave.  But there are those who want to, like the beautiful young Madeleine, who lives with her mother and aunts and is engaged to a handsome neighbour but is nonetheless unsettled and longs for something more.

Michael lives closely with two generations and it is fascinating to see how different events have shaped their lives.  For Tante Yvonne and her siblings, the First World War was the defining event.  Brothers and lovers were killed and maimed and nothing was ever the same for them after that.  For those born after that war, like Madeleine and her brothers, it was the more recent German occupation.  The wounds of that conflict hadn’t fully healed for anyone – the entire village remembers who collaborated and who was in the Resistance, and German tourists are far from welcomed when they appear.

Jenkins wrote the book fifty years after that first summer, looking back on a time and place that had remained vivid in his memories – as the best moments of our youths tend to do.  He conjures up an idyllic summer where he found a whole world of complicated people to care about and family histories – his own included – to unravel.  When, come September, he must return to England, the reader can easily understand his reluctance to leave.

Read Full Post »

The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

Read Full Post »

At this stage in my reading career, how many types of wartime memoirs have I read?  Serious and humorous, military and political, front lines and home front, Allies and Axis, I’ve made a pretty good survey of the Second World War but I’m not sure I’ve ever read one that managed life on the home front as lightheartedly as Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson.

Anderson was in her mid-twenties when the war began, single and working in the F.A.N.Y.s, though not very devotedly.  When we meet her on the first page she is just about to go AWOL and get married, with no plan of returning.  This, as we learn, doesn’t seem wildly out of character given the number of jobs she cycled through before the war.  She has spent time as a “nursery-maid, a governess, a chaffeuse, a scene-shifter, a ballet-dancer’s dresser, and then I tried to emigrate to Canada […] as a mobile Sunday school teacher”.  She also found time to illustrate wrappers for toffees while living in a studio flat with three bohemian friends.  It is an incongruous and intriguing life for the daughter of a country parson but a good indicator of the adventurous and indomitable spirit that makes her so interesting to read about.

Anderson hadn’t enjoyed her time in the F.A.N.Y.s but she had found some peace there.  When she takes the time to analyse her reasons it with her usual humour and self-knowledge:

Walking home to the rectory, I tried to analyse my reasons for wanting to go back.  My heart had never been in the F.A.N.Y.s until Dunkirk.  The community life did not suit me.  Discipline did not appeal.  I was not a good F.A.N.Y., either technically or socially.  Could it be patriotism?  Knowing myself, I felt there must be some more selfish motive behind it.  Then I remembered telling Lucy I should feel safer right in the war.

That was it.  Anything might happen now, not only to my brothers and friends in the navy, the army, the air force, but to my parents, to Rhalou [a sister] with her little family, and to Lorema [another sister] still at school.  In the F.A.N.Y.s I should be safe from the impact.  Somebody else does your thinking for you in the army, and even your feeling.  And if I were killed, well, in the F.A.N.Y.s life was that much less interesting to want to cling on to.

Even though the F.A.N.Y. portion of her life is over with quickly, I did love hearing about it.  Her sketch of her commanding officer delighted me and seems like something from a Joyce Grenfell sketch:

We were commanded by a bubbly-haired old actress who, as the niece of a senior army officer, took her position very seriously.  In her talk she mingled a certain amount of army jargon, picked up at her uncle’s breakfast table, with the normal chatter we understood of hats and actors and horses.  Sometimes, judging by her modes of addressing us, she saw us as Mayfair Debutantes and sometimes as Men Going Over The Top.

Once Anderson dashes away from the F.A.N.Y.s to marry Donald Anderson, who is much older than her and whom she has been in love with for several years to the disapproval of her family, the focus becomes exceedingly domestic.  But for once in a wartime memoir we do not have to hear ad nauseum about the prices of things or about ingenious cooking on the ration (I’ve taken about as much of that as I can handle).  What we do hear a lot about is housing and, thankfully, I find that endlessly entertaining.  The Andersons bounce around frequently through the short war years, setting up homes in London, in the suburbs, and in the country.  As housing shortages and stretched finances make shared living both practical and necessary, Anderson takes on a variety of housemates and eventually latches on the brilliant plan of letting rooms to holidaymakers.  This turns out to be not so brilliant for someone with no hospitality training but is very funny.

During the war years Anderson had her first two children (she would eventually have five in total) and of all the domestic details I’ve read in diaries and memoirs I’m fairly certain I’ve never come across so many pages devoted to life in a maternity hospital.  The birth of Anderson’s first child was rather dramatic so she spent plenty of time at the hospital and I was fascinated by the details of it.

With her ever-changing accommodations, Anderson spends a fair amount of time bouncing around to friends and family as well.  Any time her mother appeared I was delighted as she seems a redoubtable sort of woman, equal to anything put before her (whether it be reconciling herself to her daughter’s elopement or living under the German flightpath to London):

My mother was very sceptical about the German raiders getting across the Channel at all.

‘Once,’ she said, ‘one got across and dropped some tiny little bombs on Eastbourne and then landed and gave himself up.  He was hardly out of the sixth form.’

There was a fifteen-mile-from-the-coast ban on non-residents and my mother was determined to keep all the secrets behind it.

‘Then what’s that whacking great crater down in the field over there?’ I asked.

‘One of ours,’ she assured me.  ‘They dropped it by mistake on their way out.’

‘Just as uncomfortable all the same to be hit by it.’

‘Anyways that was ages ago.  They’re much more practised now.’

As she spoke there was an enormous explosion on the marshes.

‘Marsh gas, I suppose?’ I teased her.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable book, sure to make you smile and even giggle throughout – a rare enough thing for a wartime memoir.

But what delighted me most was discovering facts about the rest of Anderson’s life.  I was tickled to learn that her fourth child is Janie Hampton, author of How the Girl Guides Won the War, a book I read and loved years ago.  But most impressive of all for me was the discovery that Anderson’s father had been the clergyman at All Saints’ Herstmonceux in East Sussex.  The last book Anderson wrote was about Herstmonceux Castle, including her memories of playing on the grounds through the 1920s and 1930s.  The castle is now owned by Queen’s University, the Canadian school where I studied, and serves as its international study centre.  I spent a term studying there in 2007 and it was the happiest part of my university years.  It’s a small, small world.

The Castle

Read Full Post »

Searching about for something quick to read for this weekend’s mini Persephone readathon, I settled on How to Keep Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw.  It’s been sitting unread on my shelves since late 2011 so this was the perfect excuse to delve into it.

Published in 1949, this detailed housekeeping guide is targeted at the young housewife so I couldn’t help but think of my grandmothers as I was reading it.  Born in 1920 and 1921, they were both married at the time this book was released, running their own homes, and carrying for small daughters (and presumably a little bit for large husbands).  And I can confidently say that if they had read this book they would have a) laughed heartily at it and then b) throw it against a wall.

In terms of actual cleaning tips, the book has plenty of helpful suggestions that still stand.  It assumes complete idiocy so if you grew up in a hovel and never saw someone vacuum a room you would be well served by it.  However, idiots from hovels are not actually the target audience.  Smallshaw has a very clear idea of her readers’ upbringing, as she makes clear with assumptions throughout the book as to how her readers grew up:

Mother was not so far wrong when she insisted that all the rooms must be “turned out” every week.  Mother, however, had regular help.  She did the cooking herself and she had a washer-woman in weekly so that she could concentrate on housework alone.

This, clearly, is where she would have lost my grandmothers (actually, the upholstery whisk mentioned as a key piece of equipment might have done that.  But if they’d made it past that, this would have done it).  My Canadian grandmother grew up on a dairy farm.  Her mother decidedly did not have regular help and the cleanliness of the house was secondary to the cleanliness of the dairy.  My Czech grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in middle class comfort, with a governess, a chauffeur, a cook, and a cleaner.  She was never taught to cook, never mind clean, on the assumption that she would always have staff to do it for her.  You needed to know how to set a menu, not cook it.   More importantly, she grew up with the assumption that she’d be going to university and then getting a job – something that clearly never troubled the mind of Smallshaw’s ideal reader.

Both my grandmothers ended up having very different lives than their mothers but both were united in one attitude: to be houseproud is a sin when there are so many more important things in life.  Whereas for Smallshaw, it seems that being houseproud is a woman’s entire raison d’etre.  (See Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virgina Nicholson for a full portrait of this claustrophobic mindset.)

When Smallshaw sticks to cleaning basics, it’s not too contentious (except for her bold statement that it doesn’t matter if you dust or do the floors first.  This is madness – always dust first.  No arguments).  Her standards are insane and clearly meant to occupy a bored housewife by finding as many unnecessary things as possible for her to fill her day with.  Your home would in fact be sparkling but your mind would be screaming out for stimulation if you allowed yourself to be held captive by your possessions in this way.  She has helpful and deeply condescending tips to save yourself from the heavy work, such as “A clever wife induces the husband to regard the boiler as his special province!”  The exclamation point is a dagger to the heart.

While I trust her cleaning tips (but not the deranged schedule she recommends), I am less confident that following her cooking tips would yield good results.  Her idea to make efficient use of the steamers seems particularly unappetizing:

Use the bottom of the steamer for a light sponge pudding or batter.  The next compartment will take potatoes, and on the top, fillets of fish between two plates.

If my grandmothers had made it through the upholstery whisk, and miraculously through the assumptions about what their mothers had done, I know their contempt for Smallshaw would finally have peaked in the chapter on budgeting.  In “helpfully” guiding her simpleminded readers, Smallshaw advises:  You’ll be remarkably lucky if your estimated expenditure comes within your income!  At this stage, you and your husband will probably agree on the housekeeping allowance you can have…The idea that they would have let their husbands be involved in managing the money is the laughable one.  My Canadian grandmother broke free of the farm after high school and worked in a bank, where she eventually became assistant manager during the war.  Even without such formal training, it was the norm in many farming families for the wife to manage the money.  They usually had more education than their husbands (who often left school at the start of their teen years) and were more confident with numbers.  My other grandmother ended up in a dual-income house where, aside from doing the shopping and sometimes cooking Sunday lunch, households duties were pretty evenly shared.  The idea of him “letting” her have a portion of their shared income would not have gone over well – and I presume it would never even occurred to him.

Smallshaw concludes the book with a bit of an about face.  After extolling the virtues of obsessive cleaning, she then concedes that her readers may eventually have children, at which point standards collapse entirely.  If the reader had made it through to the end, perhaps this would have given them some hope.  It is a welcome acknowledgement of reality after many pages of fantasy.

Read Full Post »

The greatest pleasure of feeling a bit under the weather is picking reading material to match your frail state.  No weighty tomes or complex sentence structure here please!  Just straightforward storytelling that will capture an invalid’s attention without wearing them out.

Enter Ten Way Street by Susan Scarlett.

Scarlett (the penname under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light romances – see previous reviews of Under the Rainbow, Babbacombe’s, and Pirouette) is always reliable in these circumstances and Ten Way Street fitted my mood perfectly.  Wrapped up with blankets and with a constant stream of tea to keep me hydrated, I fell into the undemanding story with pleasure.

Ten Way Street is the London address of Mrs Cardew.  Better known by her stage name of Miss Margot Dale, Mrs Cardew is a genius in the theatre but a tyrant at home where her three children (Meggie, age 12; Betsy, age 10; and David, age 7) are at the mercy of her self-obsessed whims.  Having pulled the children out of their day schools after clashing with teachers, Mrs Cardew has engaged newly qualified governess Beverley Shaw to take care of them.

For Beverley, used to the pleasant but austere orphanage where she grew up, the Cardew household is  a shock.  The children have been brought up as accessories to their mother and are dressed up and trotted out to show off in a way that boggles her mind.  They are used to fur accessories, exquisite clothing, and caviar.  What they are not used to is an adult who cares about them.  Beverley, of course, is that adult.

Streatfeild wrote often about actors and their world, inspired by her own decade-long acting career, and she was rarely kind.  Mrs Cardew is all things horrible but, for most of the book, seems at least plausible.  It seems sad but realistic that she would prefer to spend her time lavishing attention on male callers rather than her children, or that she would have little patience with childish ailments and insecurities.  The household exists in a state of nervous exhaustion, ever sensitive to Mrs Cardew’s unpredictable moods, and the strain shows on everyone – especially the children.  But they are all quick to excuse her for she is, when the mood strikes her, a Genius on stage.

Beverley, however, doesn’t think Genius excuses Mrs Cardew’s behaviour towards her children.  In best governess-school style, Beverley sets out to get the children on a proper diet (no more gorging on caviar) and on a proper school schedule (no more jetting off to dress fittings if she can help it).  She gives them what they need – attention and discipline – and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, they slowly turn from obnoxious brats into completely normal, lovable children.

An admiring witness to this transformation is Peter Crewdson.  Invalided back to England after contracting black-water fever in Deepest, Darkest Africa, Peter is a young biochemist who has inadvertently become the object of Mrs Cardew’s very determined affections.  Originally a friend of the children, Mrs Cardew “stole” him from them (something they are resigned to – this is not the first time their mother has stolen one of their male friends) but he still manages to break away to the nursery to visit them.  Which is where he meets Beverley.  Naturally enough, the two sensible young people fall in love but all is not well.  How will Mrs Cardew react when she discovers the governess has stolen the man she loves?  And how can Bevelery even think of leaving the children who are just beginning to blossom under her care?

The ending is extraordinarily melodramatic but, after a few scuffles and a runaway attempt, all is resolved in a neat happy ending.  It’s not great literature but it is exactly right for a reader with a head cold.

Read Full Post »

For anyone already thinking about their Christmas shopping (or their own Christmas wishlist), may I direct you to Slightly Foxed?  On December 1st they are issuing two very wonderful childhood memoirs from the illustrator E.H. Shepard: Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life.

Shepard, best known for his classic illustrations for A.A. Milne’s children’s books and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, grew up in a close-knit middle class family in Victorian London.  Drawn from Memory looks fondly back at the year he was seven while Drawn from Life covers a much longer period, picking up later on in Shepard’s youth and following him through the end of childhood, into art school, and right up until his marriage.  Both books are lovingly told, beautifully illustrated, and unexpectedly moving.  I love them dearly.

I read both books back in 2014 and lamented at the time that they were out of print, saying of Drawn from Memory that “this book is begging to be reissued and Slightly Foxed, who after all first alerted me to it in their Winter 2010 issue, would seem a natural publisher.”  I’m delighted they thought so, too!  I can’t wait to add these to my beloved collection of Slightly Foxed editions.

Read Full Post »

I love A Century of Books, I really do.  But I hate the feeling of doom that encroaches as I slack off and my list of books to review grows ever longer.  (On the plus side, this means I am reading from years that are part of my Century and not going entirely off piste again.  Hurrah for me!)  The only way to silence this dread is with action and so I give you three very brief reviews of three very different and not entirely memorable books.  They vary from not at all good to absolutely delightful but all three are guaranteed to disappear from your memory relatively fast.

Let’s start in 1948 with the instantly forgettable Pirouette by Susan Scarlett.  Scarlett was the pen name under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light and extraordinary gentle romances.  They are all formulaic and trite but generally enjoyable.  Unfortunately, this one was just trite and formulaic.  It’s the story of Judith Nell, a young ballerina (and young means very young – only 18), who has just been offered a big professional break.  At the same time, her boyfriend accepts a job in Rhodesia and asks her to marry and go with him.  In the background are discontented ballerinas – one of whom is more than happy to go out dancing and drinking (and who knows what else’ing) with Paul while Judith struggles with her decision – and young men who see no future in England, only in Africa.  As we know, that’s not going to end at all well for anyone.  There are class struggles, career struggles, and familial struggles and yet it all manages to be quite dull.  The only good thing about it is the portrait of Judith’s family and how all its members struggle because of Mrs Nell’s stage mother ways.  It’s a bit overwrought but essentially good, especially the conspiracies that spring up between the other members of the family as they try to out manoeuvre Mrs Nell.


Much better but still forgettable was Meet Mr Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse from 1927.  Mr Mulliner is a slight variation on The Oldest Member, here to regale unwilling listeners with stories of his family’s comic exploits (rather than The Oldest Member’s golf-focused yarns).  While I was delighted by the career of Mr Mulliner’s nephew Augustine, a once meek curate whose entire life is changed thanks to an extraordinarily effective potion created by his relative Wilfred Mulliner (whose tale is also told), the rest of the stories were a bit too repetitive and never truly caught my attention.  That said, a little Wodehouse is better than none.

And in the entirely satisfactory category of “frothy and forgettable but enjoyable” we have Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland.  First published in 1961 and recently reissued, this is a very amusing little book of de Havilland’s observations as an American among the French.  Shortly after divorcing her first husband, de Havilland met a charming Frenchman while attending the Cannes film festival.  Soon enough she was moving to France with her small son and marrying her Frenchman, taking on both a new spouse, a new country, and an entirely new culture.  Her stumbles as she finds her way are recounted with an impressively light touch and it’s delightful to see her enjoyment of the country.  And it’s one an enjoyment that hasn’t faded – she moved there in the mid-1950s and is there still at age 102.

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).  

Read Full Post »

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). 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »