A Year in Books ~ Some you win and some you lose

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500I have been an avid theatregoer for well over fifty years and if there is one thing I have learnt in that time it is that where theatre productions are concerned some you win and some you lose.  It’s very often the case that if you want tickets for a show that is going to be particularly popular you have to book weeks, if not months, before the show even opens. At the beginning of next week I shall be reserving tickets for productions at Stratford for this time next year, while on Saturday I’ll be using a ticket bought twelve months ago.

Given that this is the case you are in for a lifetime of disappointments if you don’t accept right from the start that where some of the productions are concerned they are simply not going to cut the mustard.  On the other hand, there will be shows that you booked just on the off chance that turn out to be simply brilliant.  I was very dubious about the RSC’s decision to stage Wolf Hall, which is what I am going to see on Saturday, but it’s taken five star reviews across the board and I certainly wouldn’t have got tickets for it now had I decided to wait until after it had opened.

Well, the same is true of books and especially of books that you let other people choose for you.  I was really pleased when I received the January parcel from Heywood Hill because so many people whose opinions I value had enjoyed Javier Marías’s novel All Souls.  Well, maybe I would enjoy All Souls too, but I’m sorry to say that I got absolutely nowhere with A Heart So White.

In fact, I suspect that I wouldn’t appreciate any of Marías’ novels because the real stumbling block was his prose style.  I think the politest thing I can say about it is that it rambles.  And when, round about page 55, it rambled on and on over paragraph after paragraph, page after page, about the difference between translators and interpreters I quite simply lost the will to live and bailed out.  I like a book with plot and by that stage I pretty much convinced that Marías had lost his.

The advantage of a book over the theatre, of course, is that it is so much easier to bail out if you decide your time could be better spent.  You don’t have to navigate your way through a forest of legs before stumbling up badly lit stairs in a desperate search for an exit sign.  Nevertheless, I still felt a certain amount of embarrassment as I admitted to Lisa that I was never going to be a Marías fan and could we try something with a bit more story to it next time, please.

4324105So, February’s parcel arrived and in it was a novel by an author of whom I have never heard and a note from Lisa saying that she thought this was one of the most underrated books she had ever read.  The Dawning by Milka Bajić Poderegin was first published in 1987 and the translated version appeared in the UK the following year.  According to the publisher’s information it is

a family saga evolving against the turbulent background of the problems in Southern Yugoslavia as it emerges from five centuries of slavement in the wake of the collapse of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires. The dramatic outline of the novel, in which romance and tragedy, intrigue, melancholy and iridescent vitality create a penetrating portrait of a family, reflects subtly the old customs and way of life, the fight for national identity and the historical events resulting in the First World War.

Well, this sounds much more my sort of thing.  Definitely some plot in there I would have thought.  I’m hoping to be able to start it this coming weekend so look out for a progress report next week.  In the meantime, can any of you who enjoyed All Souls enlighten me as to what it is I am missing in Marías writing and perhaps persuade me that it would be worth giving his work a second chance through another novel?

A Year In Books ~ The Second Parcel

default_1_1As I waited for the second novel in my Year of Books’ series to arrive I was worried about several things.  On a practical level, I really didn’t want it to turn up while I was in hospital.  Not that it would have made any difference I suppose, I just wanted to be here when the package dropped through the door.  More importantly, I was concerned that after the tremendous success Lisa had with her first choice she couldn’t possibly be expected to match that a second time.  I was really expecting not to be so excited about the second book as I had been about the first.  I’m great at building myself up for disappointment – you might have noticed!  Well, I had no need to worry on either count.

IMG_0176Two days after I came home this arrived and when I finally plucked up the courage to remove the carefully folded brown paper inside was a novel by an author so many of you have written about over the past twelve months that it was as if Lisa had a direct line into my blog feed.  Javier Marías was one of the writers I had already determined I was going to read this year, not only because people I respect have been so enthusiastic about his work, but also because he would help me to read more widely among authors in translation something I have been determined to do for some time.  Now I have no excuse not to follow through on my resolve.

a-heart-so-whiteI don’t know if A Heart So White is amongst the novels you have been reading.  I’m hoping you will tell me when you read this post.  This edition, from the Penguin Modern Classics series, is introduced by Jonathan Coe and has the blurb

In the middle of a family lunch Teresa, just married, goes to the bathroom, unbuttons her blouse and shoots herself in the heart. What made her kill herself immediately after her honeymoon? Years later, this mystery fascinates the young newlywed Juan, whose father was married to Teresa before he married Juan’s mother. As Juan edges closer to the truth, he begins to question his own relationships, and whether he really wants to know what happened. Haunting and unsettling, A Heart So White is a breathtaking portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.

I have to say it doesn’t sound as though it is going to be the easiest of reads but then easy is not what I’m searching for.

Looking at the back cover I notice also that the novel, which was originally published in 1992, won the Impac Award.  I’ve often thought that if you were to read your way through the hundred plus books that are chosen for the Impac long list each year you would have a really comprehensive understanding of the literary scene for any particular twelve months.  I don’t suppose that something that I will every actually achieve but at least I’m going to be making a start with Lisa’s second excellent selection.

A Year In Books ~ The Great Fire ~ Shirley Hazzard

imagesThe Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard was the first book I received from Heywood Hill as part of my Year in Books.  You will remember the ‘to do’ when it arrived back in the early part of the month.  I opened the parcel with tremendous trepidation.  What if it was a book I already had?  What if it was by a writer who wasn’t on my list not because I’d already read them but because I didn’t enjoy their work?  What if I simply didn’t like it?  Opening the package answered the first two questions but other commitments meant that it was a couple of weeks before I could do more than just pick the novel up every now and then and speculate about the third.  Now I can tell you that I loved it.

It has actually been a very slow read.  I’ve seen Hazzard likened to Henry James.  I certainly wouldn’t be tempted to do that myself.  Often with James you can get so tied up in a sentence that you have to go back and have a second run at it.  While Hazzard is a remarkable stylist, I’ve rarely had that problem.  Rather it is that not only every word has been weighted before being selected but also every syntactic structure.  The novel was twenty years in the writing and such detail and precision deserves, even demands, an equal precision in the reading.

Set in 1947, The Great Fire is concerned with those people who have survived World War II only to find that peace does not come as the relief that they had hoped for, expected and felt that they deserved.  Aldred Leith, at 32 a decorated war hero, arrives in Japan after walking through China documenting that country as it stands on the brink of Maoism. Disembarking at Kure, just a few miles from Hiroshima, Leith is brought up short by the devastation still apparent after the explosion of the first atomic bomb.  It is an early reminder both to him and to the reader that the aftermath of war does not vanish over night simply because a peace treaty has been signed and that for many the consequences will continue to be felt not simply for a number of years, but for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.

In Kure, Leith meets the Driscolls, an Antipodean family comprising the parents from hell and three post adolescent children.  The eldest of these we never meet and are told by several characters we’re lucky that that is the case.  The two younger siblings, however, have escaped their parents influence and become Aldred’s close companions.  They have been educated mainly by intelligent and humane tutors because Ben, who is twenty, is suffering from Friedreich’s ataxia, a condition that both he and his younger sister, Helen, know will kill him within a very short time. Despite the fifteen year gap in their ages, Aldred and Helen are immediately attracted to each other and in many respects The Great Fire is the story of their courtship.  However, to see it just as a love story would be to completely misunderstand and undervalue this novel.  Their love may be central but it is also simply another factor of post war life that is threatened by and may well crumble under the pressure of the hardships and deprivations experienced by those who are attempting to rebuild a world shocked by the discovery of its own destructive powers.

Interlaced with this, at least in the early part of the book, is the story of Peter Exley, an Australian friend of Leith’s with whom he meets up in Hong Kong.  Exley, though longing to become an art historian, finds himself working for the War Crimes Tribunal, and at odds not only with his surroundings and his companions but also with himself.  Lacking purpose and any real motivation he is drifting and he knows it.  Aldred says of him of all my friends from the war, Peter has least impetus to remake his life and this sums him up perfectly.  Initially, I assumed that we were going to be asked to make comparison between Exley and Leith and to some extent that is possible, however, if the book has a weak point it is the way in which Hazzard treats Peter’s story.  At first it appears that it is going to carry a similar weight to that of Aldred but as the book progresses the Hong Kong sections begin to take on very much of a secondary role until they almost evaporate completely. While this may be an accurate reflection of the way in which many of those who survive war never find their way back to anything like a full life, it doesn’t work satisfactorily as a narrative devise and the book falters as a result.

This is, however, the only way in which this remarkable novel stumbles. Without in any way labouring the point, Hazzard explores a multiplicity of situations which illustrate the devastation brought about by the international conflict and the continued hardships, both physical and psychological that still persist and for some will endure for a life time.  In Kure, so close to the seat of nuclear destruction, this focus is not surprising, but what brings it home most forcibly to Aldred is his homecoming after his time in the Far East.  Immediately after his return from the European Front in 1945 the ravages of war torn London shock but do not surprise him. Three years on, however, the prolonged distress of both the city’s fabric and its people are less easy to come to terms with.  Born in 1949, I just caught the tag end of this slow crawl back to a life approaching normality. Nothing has made me appreciate so acutely just how difficult those years were for my parents and those like them who had thought that the armistice would bring comfort as well as peace and found that it brought neither.

Given its subject matter The Great Fire could have been a disturbing book to read.  However, the magnificence of the writing means that this is never the case.  Hazzard not only selects every word with enviable precision but she matches that care with the syntactic structures she creates.  Just one example will provide a flavour.

The room into which he glanced was mostly occupied by a wide bed, leaving space for a chair and tiny table and chest of brownish drawers. The table, by the bed, held a book, a lamp, and a bottle of pinkish liquid. Underclothes were spilt on top of the chest, and a pair of small shoes aligned below – sparse details build over by the fine wire netting that gave them the significance of a composition, a context for the girl on the bed.

Who lay on her side, sheet pushed back over raised hip, body reaching forward as if to follow her free arm, extended beyond the mattress. A thin shift disclosed her shoulder. Innocence, of youth and sleep, were entire and defenceless but the attitude prefigured knowledge. So would she lie, one morning in some imminent year, in the abandon now simulated here.

The whole passage, which describes Aldred’s first sight of Helen, is masterful, but the use of the word Who at the beginning of the second paragraph, raising as it does the spectre of a question which remains unspoken but is central to the relationship that will grow between the two characters, is peerless.  This is a novel that will remain with me long after the actual act of reading and that, surely, is the ultimate accolade that can be bestowed on any book.

Quite what I was expecting when I travelled down to London last November and signed up for Heywood Hill’s Year of Books I’m not sure, but one thing is certain, if all the choices Lisa makes for me are of this standard it is a journey and a decision I am unlikely to regret.

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street

imagesWhen I first blogged about my visit to Heywood Hill and the launch of my Year in Books project, Ali was kind enough to point me in the direction of a book of the collected letters exchanged between Nancy Mitford and the original proprietor of the shop, Heywood Hill.  Mitford had worked in the shop from 1942, although by the time this correspondence begins she is, for the most part, living and working abroad.  However, that doesn’t bring a halt to her interest in the shop and in the politics (actually some might say petty bickering) rife amongst the staff who are still employed there.

The collection includes letters that take the reader right up to the point of Mitford’s death from cancer in June 1973 and by that time Hill, himself, had retired and left the shop behind him.  However, as both were so immersed in the literary world, their correspondence is still full of anecdotes about writers and their works as well as, occasionally, news of the shop itself.

Nevertheless, it is the letters sent while Hill was still working regularly in the shop that fascinate me the most, and especially those that include titbits about some of their more interesting customers. Here, for example, on January 22nd 1958:

A man has just been in to ask if we will tear 3 illustrations out of a new art book in the window for him.

Well, why wouldn’t you?

Or my particular favourite from March 26th the previous year:

Mrs Hammersley has just been in with just a gold shell hatpin gleaming from under the layers of veils. She was here, she said because of her 80th birthday and could she borrow a book so of course I gave her one…

I am hoping that when I reach my eightieth birthday and want to borrow a book they will give me one as well although if I’m still living in the Midlands it might be quite a way to go just on the off-chance!

Before reading this I had had very little literary contact with Nancy Mitford.  I’ve read her sister Jessica’s letters and I used to see Deborah walking around the estate at Chatsworth sometimes when I was visiting friends in the area but other than that I know very little at all about the Redesdale family.  Having now made her acquaintance, however, I would rather like to deepen it.  I suspect that The Pursuit of Love is probably the best place to start with her fiction but I would also like to read a biography of the family as a whole, if such a thing exists.  I know that many of you are Mitford fans so if you have any suggestions as to what I should be looking for then I would be very grateful.

There is a second book of letters concerning Number 10 Curzon Street, a Spy in the Bookshop, which is now sitting on my bedside table waiting to be begun.  If there are any more anecdotes worth the sharing, then look out for a second post.

A Year in Books ~ The First Parcel

default_1_1So, I came in yesterday to find The Bears all of a twitter.  This was most unusual because whatever they may really have been up to while I’ve been out they normally at least pretend that butter wouldn’t melt as soon as they hear my key in the lock.      But not yesterday.  Yesterday something was afoot.  The cause of all this excitement?  There on the hall floor was a book shaped parcel, a book shaped parcel with my name on it!  The first Heywood Hill selection had arrived.

I brought it into the living room, sat down on The Bears’ sofa and together we looked at it.  After all the anticipation opening it seemed an almost impossible act.  I decided a cup of tea was in order, no scrub that, a pot of tea – and possibly a scone as well.

Into the kitchen, on with the kettle and all the time wondering what I would feel like if it was a book I’d already read, a book by an author I knew I didn’t like, a book I was sure I wouldn’t be able to warm to.  By the time the tea was made I had just about convinced myself that the best thing would be to give it back to the postman and tell him I didn’t live here.  (Given the amount of junk mail with my name on that he delivers I suspect he might not have believed me but anything’s worth a try.)  However, The Bears were not having any of that nonsense and so I finally began to dismantle the parcel.

I realise now that I should have taken pictures of every stage so that I could show you just how much care Lisa had taken. Next month I’ll try and remember to do that and then you can share the anticipation with me. The book wasn’t just thrust inside a jiffy bag.  It was hand wrapped in crisp brown paper, held together by a beautifully tied length of blue ribbon and then placed inside a proper cardboard book carrier.  So, like a game of pass the parcel, once I’d got the first layer off there was still further to go. 

imagesAnd the book?  Had I read it?  Was it by an author I couldn’t stand?  Did the very subject matter repel me?  Fortunately, no, no and no. What Lisa has sent is a book that I remember looking at when it came out in 2002, probably because it was on the Orange shortlist, Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire.  Here is what Amazon says about it:

The Great Fire is Shirley Hazzard’s first novel since The Transit of Venus, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981. The conflagration of her title is the Second World War. In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the centre of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier finds that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in Occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.

In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed, and of Asia’s coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity.

What Lisa couldn’t have known is that my father was a Far East POW during World War II and so I will find the Japanese element of the book extremely interesting.

Although the book didn’t win the award that year, there are recommendations for it from several authors whose work I automatically read as soon after publication as possible, writers such as Ann Patchett and Michael Cunningham. What is more, it is published by Virago, which is as good a seal of approval as you could ask for. Of course, if any of you can recommend it then that would be an even better omen that when I come to sit down and read it I am going to be in for a treat.

It has gone straight onto the top of the tbr pile and I shall turn to it as soon as I have finished clawing my way through Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh.  I don’t enjoy magic realism at the best of times and I find Rushdie particularly hard to engage with.  Every day I am dutifully reading a set number of pages to ensure that I’ve finished the novel in time for the next book group but the words are just passing through my mind like so much water and how much I will have retained when we come to the discussion goodness only knows.  Still, I’m sure the rest of the group will be only too glad to have me silenced for once and it certainly means that any book which follows it is going to seem like manna from heaven.  Expect a report in the near future.