Month: October 2007

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

This is one of those books which was under the ‘personal recommendations’ sign at my local bookstore.  The cover and title were so interesting I couldn’t resist picking it up, and then the blurb was so teasing (no synopsis or reviews, just a couple of extracts) that I couldn’t quite put it down.  It’s a Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition – a bit misleading, as there isn’t as far as I’m aware a non-deluxe edition – published in the USA, but easily available etc etc.

I had never heard of Shirley Jackson, but Jonathan Lethem in his introduction assures us that we will have read several of her stories, including her most famous, “The Lottery”.  Well, I hadn’t; but I have now read “The Lottery” and thought it pretty silly and predictable.  Fortunately the same cannot be said for We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), which was Jackson’s last published novel before her death in 1965.

The cover gives a pretty good impression of the book.  Two sisters, Mary Catherine (known as Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, live in a tired old house with their cat and their Uncle Julian.  “Everyone else in my family is dead,” Merricat tells us. And “Everyone in the village has always hated us.”  The connection between these two facts leads us through the tangled story at the heart of the book.

In some ways the Blackwood sisters are normal, or at least part of a tradition:

There were jars of jam made by great-grandmothers, with labels in thin pale writing, almost unreadable by now, and pickles made by great-aunts and vegetables put up by our grandmother, and even our mother had left behind her six jars of apple jelly.  …  All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women.

In other ways they reveal unusual traits: “I can’t help it when people are frightened,” says Merricat.  “I always want to frighten them more.”

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for them when Merricat braves the village to buy provisions or makes a token attempt to mix by having a coffee in Stella’s cafe (“If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave”).  When she does withstand the company of her neighbours, the atmosphere thickens:

“They tell me,” he said, swinging to sit sideways on his stool and look at me directly, “they tell me you’re moving away.”

“No,” I said, because he was waiting.

“Funny,” he said, looking from me to Stella and then back.  “I could have sworn someone told me you’d be going soon.”

Jackson brings out slowly a Magnus Mills-ish sense of being an outsider (perhaps inspired by her crippling agoraphobia, which left her housebound for the last years of her life), and we empathise with the Blackwood girls even when Merricat is losing patience with a visiting cousin (“I was thinking of Charles.  I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly … I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth”).  And the questions – why do the villagers hate them, why is everyone else in the family dead – are answered, though the answers are not always surprising and one putative revelation is visible a mile off.

More than that, when we do discover what has happened, we are not offered any explanation or reasoning, and there is not quite enough built in to make it satisfying anyway.  However the ending is almost swooningly elegiac, which makes up for a lot.  The Blackwood sisters too – obsessive and fearful, persecuted and dangerous, apparently sexually frozen – are characters one could spend a lot of time on, if not with.

Anne Enright: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

Readers of – or failing that, readers of reviews of – Anne Enright’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering may recall that this Irish family saga was almost indecently steeped in sex, and the male member in particular. The mixed reactions (including my own) to The Gathering made me want to read something else of Enright’s, so I plumped for her previous novel, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002). And it opens with this: “Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854.” Anne, really: is there something you’re trying to tell us?

The opening section doesn’t let up after that attention-seeking start, as Lopez and Eliza push and pull against one another, “twenty times in all.”

Paco and Liz, laughing on the bed. Mme Lynch silently looking at the silently looking Senor Lopez. The tart from County Cork turning towards the turquoise, as the little mestizo handles it into her. It was a moment that garnered the blame of nations, as if everything started here. Something did start here – there are such things as beginnings – but what? But what?

What indeed? By the end of their congress, Eliza is unknowingly changed (“a future had dug itself into her, and was now holding on. A tiny fish, a presence urgent and despotic”), and then the book changes too. We set sail with Eliza and Lopez for Paraguay, where he is the heir to wealth and she is now his … what again? Wife, lover, whore? We know that Enright’s Eliza was not above lying back and thinking of Ireland, but like so much else in this book, we are never quite sure what she is.

The rest of the novel then is made up of Eliza’s account of their journey to and arrival in Paraguay, alternating with accounts of her later life there told from the years ahead by a Doctor Stewart. “I do not know what we are talking about, now,” says Eliza halfway through the book, and by that stage I was only too happy to nod a frantic agreement. The intricate mess of language, which on the one hand is so rich and delightful in almost every paragraph, a living thing all contours and melodies, also goes to block understanding of the story.

All this makes The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch on the one hand a more seductive read than The Gathering – Technicolor where that was more monochrome – and yet harder to follow as a story. Nonetheless there are elements which any reader of The Gathering will find familiar, such as lines like, “Because that is what women are for. For leaving, and loving from a distance, very like the way we love the dead,” or, “Ask any wife – there is always a moment when necessity turns to love.”  You make of those what you will.
At its best The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch reminded me of early Jeanette Winterson, particularly The Passion. Yet where Winterson, sometimes to a fault, sets out her themes on the surface of the page, Enright shrouds them so well in the thickets of the prose that finding them can be an exhausting process. I was relieved to look back at some newspaper reviews from the time of publication, and find that I was not alone: “there is a point,” said one, “at which breathtaking becomes, quite simply, suffocating.” And also: “the novel leaps mischievously on with barely a backward glance to check you’re still on board. In fact, if I’m honest, I wasn’t quite.” I’ll drink to that.

The Booker Prize jury, in awarding the prize to The Gathering, considered that it was a book which rewarded re-reading and improved on closer acquaintance. I can only, in my inadequate response to Enright’s earlier novel, presume the same is true of Eliza Lynch. The best things in life are rarely reached without effort. But how likely are we to make the return journey, when the first path was so difficult to navigate?

Tim Dowling: Suspicious Packages and Extendable Arms

Tim Dowling’s novel The Giles Wareing Haters’ Club reminded me earlier this year how much I enjoy his journalism in The Guardian, so when I saw this collection-of-pieces-in-time-for-Christmas on Amazon, I didn’t hold back. After all, it exactly fills a gap in the basket of reading matter on top of our cistern, and a whole bookful of Dowling is guaranteed to be less repetitive than Charlie Brooker, less annoying than John O’Farrell, and less smug than Craig Brown. So much was I convinced that this was the ideal early present for myself that, when it took seven weeks after placing the order to arrive, I realised they had published it specially for me.

Dowling is at his best – ie funniest – when exhibiting self-deprecation bordering on loathing, as in the excellent introduction, where he tells us what he was doing on September 11, 2001; or in this piece on life coaching:

If I complete the course, I will receive a short sentence that gives my reason for being on earth, something like “I show the way” or “I explore in wonder.” My current one, “Pay off the mortgage and die”, is not even listed, so I’m hopeful. After a day or so my first exercise arrives. I am to compile a list of my positive qualities, headed “My Qualities”. This vaguely reminds me of the sort of primary school assignment that would have caused me to burst into tears. The answers must subscribe to the format “I am [quality]”, which I find very constraining. I can’t put “I am play the guitar a bit.” I ignore the exercise for a week.

Typically this is combined with a Giles Wareing-esque pathetic willingness to undergo self-abasement in the name of a decent comic vignette for the newspaper, such as tasting dog food to see if it really is fit for human consumption, ‘traducing’ David Blaine’s London stunt by spending 24 hours in a perspex box (“I am woken two or three times by sharp pains, which I think might be pressure sores, but it turns out I am sleeping on my keys”), or indulging in parent-and-child yoga sessions:

Yoga, in my limited understanding of the discipline, seems destined to fix things that kids, by and large, don’t have wrong with them. … My children rarely complain about how stiff they are or how much stress they’re under, and if they did I’d say: “Trust me. It gets much worse.”

At the risk of overstating the importance of what is, after all, just jokes, there’s an almost literary self-reflexive quality in the alternative home life of ‘Tim Dowling’ that he has created in his work here. (Part of me, of course, hopes it’s not created and is pure fly-on-the-wall.) He also has a seemingly effortless facility for list-gags which would fall flat under a lesser comic talent, where he can adapt the voices of media and consumer society, such as proposed new healthy-eating brands for children:

Poker Chips: A great-tasting, extra-salty way for kids to learn the maths behind Britain’s fastest-growing indoor sport. Each 500g bag contains an assortment of £1-, £2-, £5-, £10- and £20-denomination oven chips, plus a free deck of cards, strategy leaflet and helpline number (calls cost 50p a minute, so make sure your parents don’t find out).

Or in his ‘vision’ for British Responsibilities to balance the Human Rights Act, one of the sections where the content veers nicely toward the political:

  • The Responsibility to Remain Silent: This would mainly apply to young people, especially the ones hanging around outside shops, but also to cinema-goers, rail passengers, library-users and anyone who hinders the fight against terrorism by going on and on about how much it hurts to be accidentally shot by the police
  • The Responsibility to Shoot Intruders: “Intruders” in this case means anyone who is in your house and should not be there (or, if you are the police, anyone who is in a house). Obviously it doesn’t apply to the babysitter’s boyfriend, for example. Although one less babysitter’s boyfriend in the world isn’t going to cause too much hand-wringing, and in the end it’s your word against hers. Just use your common sense.
  • The Responsibility to Look Innocent: It used to be held that if you had nothing to hide, you had nothing to fear, but in these challenging times unfounded suspicions are sometimes all the police have to go on.
  • The Responsibility to Leave the Country When It Becomes Apparent that You Are No Longer Wanted: When a cricketer is dismissed he does not sit sullenly in a detention centre awaiting a verdict from some court in Strasbourg. He takes his bat and he walks. This is the British way, although it doesn’t apply to British people because they don’t have anywhere else to go.

Of course in any collection like this there will be misses contaminating the hits, and Dowling has a weakness for his regular PermaChat and PermaBlog columns, where the joke is repeatedly that chatrooms and blogs are full of useless jabber (ahum). He or his editors have included too many of these which he must turn out in his sleep, as well as a couple of longer, mostly straight pieces about penguins and donkey sanctuaries where, much to my disgust, Dowling appears almost entirely without misanthropy. Boring!

Anyway, consider this ample notice that this is the ideal seasonal gift which might even survive for further thumbing into 2008. You never can be too early for Christmas, can you?

Everything about Christmas seems to be happening earlier this year. My wife’s annual Christmas lecture, in which she posits an alternative holiday season where I don’t ruin everything by being so unpleasant, arrived ten days early. The traditional episode where my debit card is declined at an off-licence by someone wearing a jolly Santa hat happened right at the beginning of the month. On Saturday evening I placed a phone call that, in retrospect, clearly constituted a cry for help. “Thank you,” said the voice at the other end. “Your vote for Andy has been registered.”

And I can’t believe I’ve written almost as many words about this book as I did about Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. I think I’ve found my level.

Gerard Woodward: I’ll Go to Bed at Noon

Perhaps on this blog there should be some system to tell people immediately which books I’m really enthusiastic about, a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s technique in Galapagos, where he placed an asterisk before the name of any character who would shortly die. If I did, there would be one on this post, because Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004) is one of those rare books which leaves no regrets whatsoever: except that I didn’t read it sooner. In my defence, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year as big hitters like Colm Toibin, David Mitchell and Alan Hollinghurst: how was I to know that Woodward was a match for any of them?

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is the middle book in a trilogy, but can be fully appreciated (at least I think I did) on its own. It brings us in full colour into the lives of the Jones family in north London from 1974 to 1979. It’s a saga squeezed into 440 pages, but the small type and the precise prose make it breathe as deeply as any epic.

The book opens with a funeral, where Janus Brian, the widower of the deceased, says:

You know, dear, all my life I have been scared of death, but since Mary died I have come to the conclusion that it is life that’s the really frightening thing. … Religion is supposed to make us cope with death, but we need something to make life bearable…

Janus Brian’s opium of choice, as for his brother Lesley (sic), his sister Colette and her son Janus, is alcohol. Colette, making progress from her days – presumably explored in the first Jones novel, August – as a glue-sniffer, favours a tipple of barley wine (“One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning”). Her son Janus is a beer man (“They would hear, from downstairs, the metallic retching of beer cans being opened. Four or five in quick succession”). Janus Brian himself will make alcohol when he cannot find it (“Cucumber Wine, Cauliflower Champagne, Brussel Sprout Whiskey. That was where all the fruit and vegetables from this extensive kitchen garden went – into the fermentation bins of Janus Brian’s home brewing kits”). Lesley we only see once in detail, and it’s a cruel, squirm-inducing portrait of the retired teacher among his former pupils:

Lesley leant back in his chair so far that he fell backwards onto the floor, arms outstretched, still singing, his mouth gaping with song. The locals poured Old Roger down Lesley’s gaping throat laughing as they did so, ‘Feed me till I want no more.’ They rejoined as Lesley ecstatically gargled and spumed on the cascading beer. The manner in which this event occurred suggested to Colette and Aldous that it was a regular occurrence on Lesley’s visits to the Bricklayers. The reason for his popularity here was his willingness, their former English master, to debase himself so abjectly on the floor of their pub.

They react to it differently too: Colette on the surface seems as functional and well-adjusted as her husband Aldous; Janus is violent; and Janus Brian likely to be found by Colette on a regular visit “semi-naked and semi-conscious on the bed.” Colette and Aldous’s other children, and their partners, must work their way through the behaviours that result.

Though steeped in ethanol, the story seems to be as much about the messiness that accompanies all family life, the unrequited love of parents for their children or “our sorrows that our children are slipping away from us,” and the fine line between cause and effect (“Janus, why couldn’t you just be a normal child, a normal man, why did you have to turn out like this?” “How could I be normal with a mother like you?”).

Woodward has a neat observation for every action, down to daily ablutions (“Aldous shaved, observing the familiar faces he made to make the process easier (the sceptical philosopher, the affronted duchess, the smirking connoisseur)”), but the pace builds as the book goes on, and by the last hundred pages – when the story has just about caught up with the back cover blurb – it’s practically a page-turner. He has a dispassionate, deadpan style which makes the moments of humour and tragedy all the more intense.  He also has a Gordon Burn-style interest in the buildings and structure of cities and the relationship they have with the people who live in them.

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is also rich in literary references, from the character names to the title, which comes from King Lear and suggests early death. One thing that Woodward shows in this magnificent, beautiful book is that if there’s one thing for a chronic alcoholic and their loved ones that’s worse than dying early, it’s continuing to live through it.

Stephen Benatar: Wish Her Safe at Home

This book came to my attention through a brief review in the Guardian recently. It’s a reissue of a 1982 novel, and though the publisher is Welbeck Modern Classics, that review suggests it’s the author himself who’s behind this facade. And what caught my eye was not just the promise of an unreliable narrator – I’m such a pushover – but the cover design. Well, now that Penguin don’t want their classy Modern Classics cover design any more, why shouldn’t someone else borrow it?

It’s difficult to know how much I can say about Wish Her Safe at Home without spoiling it, but as the reviews on the back and inside of the book make aspects of it pretty clear, I can at least go that far. It’s narrated by Rachel Waring, a forty-something woman who has inherited a house in Bristol. For those sensitive to the strains of the unreliable narrator, our ears prick up when we hear on page 2 that “actually your father did once mention a strain of insanity in his family.” And then there are the previous inhabitants of the house, Rachel’s great aunt and her companion Bridget:

When Bridget had committed suicide at the age of eighty-four, Aunt Alicia, ten years her senior, had gone on living in the same house with Bridget’s body: a state of affairs which had come to light only after two weeks…

Oh. Ah. And did I mention how much she identifies with Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire? So it comes as both a shock, and no surprise at all, when Rachel decides on visiting the rundown house that she intends to live there herself (“I felt as if I’d never had a real home”). And as she inhabits it, so it begins to inhabit her. In particular she becomes fascinated by a former occupant of the house, a minor 18th century abolitionist called Horatio Gavin. As her interest swerves toward obsession, and she begins writing his life, simultaneously her relations with other people – dare one say, real people – are increasingly irregular: “These days I didn’t appear to like anybody very much. Everywhere, it seemed, I sensed ulterior motives.”

Her dealings with her gardener (“nicely tanned and muscular”), chemist (“it came as no surprise that he should be the strong and silent type. That was the kind of man I often found attractive”) and vicar (“He’d almost surely have a hairy chest”) are not always, well, regular, but now I really have reached the point where I can’t go any further for fear of spoiling it. The progression of the story in any event is not that surprising, but what Benatar has done which is remarkable is in the creation of Rachel’s voice and character. Eccentric, flaky, dotty, she is never unsympathetic or tiresome, and the skittishness of her movement from present to past is not just in keeping with the workings of her mind, but positively touching in its slow revelation of how the past infects the present. She is so alive and real that for a moment I was about to refer to the author as she.

Rachel’s need for a home and her sense of dislocation is beautifully done, and the book – to slip into reviewerly cliche – really is by turns funny, affecting and unnerving. If the outcome and storyline do not overwhelm by surprise, nonetheless the journey is increasingly pleasurable while it lasts. Benatar has given self-publishing a boon by bringing Wish Her Safe at Home back into print, and it might even show that one character’s faith in an unfair world is misplaced: “He must have thought that nothing could get any worse. But he should have listened to William Shakespeare, shouldn’t he? Things can always get worse.”

W. Somerset Maugham: The Painted Veil

I suppose it counts as serendipity when you’ve been meaning to read more books by an author after liking one years ago, and then a trusted source recommends the film of another book, and then another trusted source gives you a copy of the book… And so it is with W. Somerset Maugham, whose The Razor’s Edge I had enjoyed, and whose The Painted Veil (1925) has recently been in cinemas and even more recently on my reading pile.

This is a character-driven book – though Maugham in the introduction says it is the only novel he has written starting from a story rather than a character – and the central player is Kitty Fane, unfaithful wife of dull government bacteriologist Walter (“with his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking.  But surprisingly enough he was not”).  He is stationed in Hong Kong and Kitty finds that heat and boredom drive her into the arms – or thereabouts – of Charles Townsend, Assistant Colonial Secretary in the colony.

Kitty is described in the blurb as “shallow” but I had more sympathy for her than that.  After all, “within three months of her marriage she knew that she had made a mistake; but it had been her mother’s fault even more than hers.”  And the icy portrait Maugham paints of Kittys’ mother, Mrs Garstin, puts her on a par with the great family villains of literature, a sort of frustrated Lady Macbeth, “hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid.”  Her intentions for Kitty are crisp and clear:

It was not a good marriage she aimed at for her daughter, but a brilliant one.  … Still no one whose position and income were satisfactory asked [Kitty] to marry him. Mrs Garstin began to grow uneasy.  She noticed that Kitty was beginning to attract men of forty and over.  She reminded her that she would not be any longer so pretty in a year or two and that young girls were coming out all the time.  Mrs Garstin did not mince words in the domestic circle and she warned her daughter tartly that she would miss her market. …

Kitty flushed: she knew that her mother did not care now whom she married so long as somehow she got her off her hands.

All this goes to prove that a good storyteller can breach the old rule of show, don’t tell as much as he likes: besides which, all this is by way of background and if Maugham gave us these scenes in full detail the book would be four times the length.

There are several turning points in the story, some foreseeable and others not, and scenes of breathtaking force, such as the stretch of chapters 22 to 26, where Walter confronts Kitty, who then delivers an ultimatum to her lover Charles.  Reading these it is easy to see why a film producer lit up at the prospect: no actor could fail to do justice to the naturalistic but gripping exchanges.

The Painted Veil is one of those books which feels old-fashioned even for its time, yet which satisfies in more or less every way.  It brings to us thoughts not only of faithfulness but faith in a wider sense, and of the purpose of life with or without love.  All I need to do now is be disappointed by the film adaptation, and the experience will be complete.

Elizabeth Taylor: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor had the unenviable role of sounding very well known but in fact being almost entirely obscured by her namesake. But the massed ranks of the literati are out to correct that. In the Virago Modern Classics edition of the last novel published in Taylor’s lifetime, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), Paul Bailey distracts us from the awful movie tie-in cover by saying in his introduction: “I envy those readers who are coming to her work for the first time.” Elizabeth Jane Howard on the back cover adds: “How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!” There is also praise from writers as diverse as Jilly Cooper and Sarah Waters, though they don’t say how they feel about readers coming to her books for the first time.

Mrs Palfrey is a recently widowed lady who decides to move into a London hotel to see her days out. As the book opens she is in a taxi, apprehensive about what the Claremont (“Reduced winter rates. Excellent cuisine”) is like: “she leaned forward in the taxi, looking from side to side of the wide, frightening road, almost dreading to read the name Claremont over one of those porches.”  Once inside, she discovers that the Claremont is less gentlewoman’s hotel than residential home:

At other tables sat a few other elderly ladies looking, to Mrs Palfrey, as if they had been sitting there for years.  They were waiting patiently for celery soup, hands folded in laps and eyes dreamy.  There were one or two married couples who occasionally made observations across the table for appearance’s sake, recalled to one another momentarily from a vague staring around or nibbling at bread.  These seemed more in transit than the old ladies.  The waitresses moved silently about, as if assisting at a ritual.  Many tables were empty.

Taylor’s setting and cruel eye (even her heroine Mrs Palfrey “would have made a distinguished looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag”) bring to mind Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori and Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, but in the end she lacks the iciness of either of those, and the book becomes an altogether gentler comedy.

The comedy comes from her encounter with Ludo, a penniless writer who helps up Mrs Palfrey in the street after a fall, and then agrees to masquerade as her grandson, so that the other denizens of the Claremont will believe she has a family member willing to visit her.  But Ludo has his own motivations.

Taylor captures well a particular sort of futility in retirement: “The morning was to be filled in quite nicely, but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch.  I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she had thought it would be.   When she was young, it had always been later.”  I could have done though with a harder edge through the later parts of the book, and less concentration on Ludo’s point of view.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is enjoyable and felt more of a comfort read than the opening chapters suggested, with some farcical elements thrown in.  If you haven’t read any of her books yet, then you can feel proud that so many established writers envy you.  But don’t feel too smug.