Roundup: Nigel Balchin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Gerard Woodward

I read – consecutively – three books recently which didn’t thrill me enough to devote a whole post to each, but I wanted to cover them briefly nonetheless.

Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room

Nigel Balchin: The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room
(1943) is best known as the source of a film by the great Powell & Pressburger, though one of their minor works. I picked up a cheap copy of the recently reissued (and even more recently remaindered) Cassell Military Paperbacks edition, the cover of which is less handsome than that shown above. It is not as good in my opinion as Darkness Falls from the Air, which I enjoyed last year. The narrator, Sammy Rice, has the same sort of brittle wit as Bill Sarratt in Darkness, and there’s a cracking opening line:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

What’s interesting is that this is rarely mentioned in the rest of the book, other than an occasional reference to Sammy’s limping gait. Similarly, his alcoholism, a major thread in the film (there is an – unintentionally, I think – hilarious visual metaphor of him being crushed against the wall by a giant whisky bottle), is only explicitly addressed once or twice. This is thoroughly admirable, as someone with ongoing problems doesn’t necessarily dwell on them all the time, though it did leave the book with a lopsided feel for those, like me, who saw the film first.

The content of the book is mostly Sammy’s struggles with the bureaucracy of the government department he works for, developing scientific ideas which might help in the war effort. There’s a good deal of office politics and the trouble with politicians (as there was in Darkness). This has the ambiguous effect of faithfully representing the nausea-inducing boredom of committees, demarcation and internal power struggles while being occasionally boring itself.

The book ends with a tense bomb-defusing scene, which is less tense than the filmed version, and the story thereafter sort of peters out. The thing that The Small Back Room brought home to me is that, while a book composed mainly of dialogue might seem an easy option, it can actually make for a tougher read than a more narrative novel. Balchin does well to progress the story largely through dialogue, but the end result is only moderately interesting.

Sleepless Nights

Elizabeth Hardwick: Sleepless Nights
I bought Sleepless Nights some time ago after seeing it recommended by Colm Tóibín in one of those end-of-year roundups. It’s a quite singular book in that I ‘enjoyed’ it hardly at all, yet think it so fascinating and full of good things that it should be more widely known. First published in 1979, it’s not hard to see why it had fallen out of print until NYRB Classics reissued it: it’s a difficult book, and a tricky one too which by its brevity leads the reader to expect plain sailing. (In fact it reads something like a 300-page book compressed to 128 pages.) Difficulty, in this context, means nothing more than that the reader should pay attention – hardly an arduous challenge – but also that we should admit there may be structure in apparent chaos (and not be too hung up if we can’t find it). The prose, certainly, is beautiful:

More or less settled in this handsome house. Flowered curtains made to measure, rugs cut for the stairs, bookshelves, wood for the fireplace. Climbing up and down the four floors gives you a sense of ownership – perhaps. It may be yours, but the house, the furniture, strain toward the universal and it will soon read like a stage direction: Setting—Boston. The law will be obeyed. Chests, tables, dishes, domestic habits fall into line.

Sleepless Nights is a book of “transformed and even distorted memory”: but “if only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.” What the narrator does remember is a series of splinters from a life, often very like the life of Elizabeth Hardwick (whose name she shares too). That is, the reader is encouraged to confuse the book with a fractured memoir. In his introduction, Geoffrey O’Brien observes that

Sleepless Nights might be taken as an exploration of the problem of genre, the problem of distinguishing fiction from what is so coarsely described as ‘nonfiction’, except that the book is more like a demonstration that the problem is illusory.

The spot-memories which the book explores are intense through brevity. Real figures, such as Billie Holiday, come and go along with old flatmates such as ‘J.’, who barely appeared on the page before he died in a traffic accident, when a car “rushed into an ecstatic terrorism against J.’s neat, clerkly life at the curb.” Time passes and repasses, back and forward, “a decade falling like snow on top of another, soundless.” It is a bold, admirable work which I found quite impossible to appreciate fully – or to write about adequately. To redress the balance, I offer you a helpful contemporary review of Sleepless Nights, which compares it with Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Gerard Woodward: August

Gerard Woodward: August
If, as Alan Bennett says, “all families have a secret: they’re not like other families,” then Gerard Woodward’s Joneses top the table for idiosyncratic individuality, with a glue-sniffing mother and a psychopathic pianist son, and everyone else (and those two as well) an alcoholic. Ever since reading, and loving, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon a couple of years ago, I’ve been eager to read August (2001), the first volume in the trilogy. Eager but reluctant, for fear that it might disappoint.

It disappointed. It didn’t strike me as being near the high standard of I’ll Go to Bed at Noon – but then, what is? Indeed, if I had read August first, as intended by Woodward, I don’t know that I would have gone on to read the second volume.

This is not to say that it’s bad. It’s well-written, with the peculiar and seductive mixture of compassion and wit that Woodward does so well. Perhaps part of the problem was the structure, which loosely describes the family’s camping holiday in Wales each summer during the 1960s. Really, however, the meat of each section is in the flashbacks, which means there’s a lot of dense rehearsing rather than getting on with it: not something I object to in itself, but it did slow the reading down a lot for me.

As with I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the central characters for me were Colette, the glue-sniffing mum, and her son Janus, a fascinating and frightening figure whose great giftedness for music we are never really given much evidence for. It’s horrible to read his taunting of the other family members, but impossible to tear yourself away.

‘I’d like to know why you did it.’

‘Did what?’

‘I’d like to know,’ Janus lowered his binoculars, the eyepieces having left a pair of red pince-nez on his nose, ‘why you were intimate with my father.’

Janus’s eyes looked stupidly small. Colette bent forward with incredulous laughter and repeated the word ‘intimate’ to rehear its quaintness.

‘Am I embarrassing you?’ said Janus.

‘You’re embarrassing yourself.’

‘Am I causing you pain?’

‘Only of laughter.’

‘Sometimes I feel it is my vocation to cause you pain to counterbalance the pleasure you had in conceiving me.’

It’s all downhill from here, and knowing where the story is leading probably did not help. My fault perhaps, as much as Woodward’s. I will certainly read A Curious Earth, the third volume of the trilogy, but with a lot less urgency and excitement than that with which I approached August.


  1. I do recommend Caravan Thieves, however, short stories without any Joneses but worth a read. Woodward, disturbing as ever, but the opening story has haunted me ever since. Quite wonderful.

  2. I’ve been working my way through your archive, John, and I actually wondered whether you knew of “Sleepless Nights.” I read it when it first came out and that’s long enough ago that I probably can’t say a whole lot about it that’s intelligible. I do remember liking it and thinking it was different from most books I read. It’s probably one of the more evasive things I’ve read.

    The one main character is obviously based on Robert Lowell to whom she was married. He was a notable American poet and from what I understand a pretty awful person. He had mental problems. I read somewhere that she should have been canonized for what she put up with from him. Maybe that’s why she wrote the book the way she did. You sense that she’s leaving a lot out; that she wants you to guess at the larger story based on the fragments she’s told you. But perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

    At any rate, I think it’s a very skillfully written book but admirable more for its technique than for the story it tells. The critics loved it but I’m not so sure about the average reader.

    1. Yes, I am sure that it was no picnic to be married to Robert Lowell. But I think he was more than just a “notable American poet” He is one of the few poets whose selected poems are worth studying. I put Phillip Larkin, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and T.S. Eliot in that category, can’t think of any others. The problem with poets is that if they are any good, you see all their major faults, and very few of them stand up as exemplary human beings. I remember being very impressed with “Sleepless Nights” when I first read it a long time ago, but don’t remember any details Elizabeth Hardwick was Robert Lowell’s second wife. Another fine writer is Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford. . .

      1. You’re probably right about Lowell, Tony. I haven’t read much of his stuff for the specific reason that I can’t seem to get past what a bastard he was. It’s always disillusioning, isn’t it, when we learn that the person whose work we admire was a real shit. Like finding out that Larkin was a racist and Celine an anti-Semite. Most of the time I don’t let stuff like that get in the way of my enjoyment but for some reason with Lowell I do.

        You’re right about Jean Stafford. Her first novel “Boston Adventure” was very good–although probably hard to find now–and her collected stories is definitely top shelf. As far as poets go, I would add Donald Justice to your select list. A poet’s poet if ever there was one.

      2. Thanks again for your input, John and Tony. I’ve never heard of Jean Stafford, so I’ll have to look out her stuff. Are you sure, John, that you mean the same thing by ‘top shelf’ that I do…?

  3. I’ve read all three of these, and agree with you about the Hardwick. I have to say, though, that I really, really liked both the Balchin and the Woodward, even though I can’t really argue with your arguments for their flaws. (With ‘August’, I read it and its two sequels over a short period of time, so I’m not actually even entirely sure what happened in which book.)

    The (usually physically, sometimes emotionally) crippled Balchin hero whose wife/girlfriend cheats on him with someone ‘whole’ is very much a recurring motif. ‘Mine Own Executioner’ has a dying war hero with a missing leg and, I think, genitals, whose girlfriend has an affair. ‘A Way Through the Wood;, filmed recently as ‘Separate Lies’ has an uptight man whose wife has an affair with someone much more exciting, and who accidentally kills someone in a hit-and-run.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. I’m pleased to see interest in Elizabeth Hardwick in particular, and I’m grateful to John and Tony for the enlightenment re Lowell’s involvement with Hardwick. John, “evasive” is a perfect word to describe Sleepless Nights. As I hinted above, I think my difficulty with the book was that I approached it expecting a quick read, when really it deserves meticulous attention. I have Lowell’s Life Studies somewhere which I will have to look out.

    Fiona, thanks for the Woodward recommendation. I read one of his stories ‘A Tray of Ice Cubes’ which you can download here, which was interesting. Not sure if it’s in the Caravan Thieves collection though. JRSM, on reflection I suspect reading all three Jones novels in succession would be the best way to approach them, rather like St Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy (where I liked each one individually but thought the complete achievement much greater). I’ll Go to Bed at Noon is just magnificent nonetheless.

    The (usually physically, sometimes emotionally) crippled Balchin hero whose wife/girlfriend cheats on him with someone ‘whole’ is very much a recurring motif.

    Clive James makes a similar point in this article, which is well worth a read. He also details the sales figures for Balchin’s best known novels, The Small Back Room selling almost 400,000 copies. I’d like to get hold of Mine Own Executioner, which was one of Balchin’s most popular books in his day, but for some reason hasn’t been reissued along with the others recently. And I do have A Way Through the Wood (in its film tie-in Separate Lies edition), which I will read soon.

    1. Wow: that Balchin article is great. Thank you for the link. ‘Mine Own Executioner’ is very good, though I speak as an unapologetic Balchin fan. I got almost all of his books in tatty old ‘Reader’s Club’ hardback editions for about $10 a few years ago, after reading ‘The Small Back Room’ and ‘Darkness Falls From the Air’, and read them with great enjoyment.

  5. That’s a shame about ‘August’ – I have it on my shelf. As I also enjoyed ‘I’ll Go to Bed at Noon’. I read that on my first ever major Booker readathon. As you say, always tricky to read things out of order. Hopefully if the second was an improvement on the first then the third could also be very good, if not better?

    And speaking of Booker – will you be taking on the longlist this year?

  6. I don’t know jem – I don’t plan to but if it throws up a lot of interesting books, then I might. The problem is that several of the big names who are likely to be seriously considered by the judges – Atwood, Byatt, Mantel – have produced books this year which I have no interest at all in reading, and which if I did read them just because they were on the Booker list, I would be approaching with active resentment.

  7. Are you a fan of Powell & Pressburger, then? I always feel like I should watch more of their films, but just content myself with showing A Matter of Life and Death to everybody I meet. What would you recommend?

  8. Where to begin, Rob? Two of my personal favourites, though more low-key than their more famous works, are I Know Where I’m Going! and A Canterbury Tale. Both these films show a careful understanding of place and community.

    The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus are both rightly renowned, and ripe with brilliance, though I’m more fond of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, for which I have that special affection we give to the first film we saw (or book we read) by a favourite artist. Why isn’t Roger Livesey a better remembered actor?

    A box set of 11 of their films is available on DVD, though it includes some filler such as the bizarre Australian comedy, They’re a Weird Mob, made when Powell was on his uppers after becoming unemployable in England because of the furore over his serial killer film Peeping Tom.

    1. Aye, I’ve had my eye on that collection for a while, but I ought to watch some of the David Lean set I picked up before allowing myself any new treats. But I will, and when I do, I’ll be back…

      Good question about Roger Livesey.

  9. I read the Woodward Trilogy in order, and though I’ll Go To Bed At Noon is by far the best, I did like August quite a lot, and A Curious Earth less so, but to say why would give something away to those who haven’t read I’ll Go To Bed At Noon yet, so I’ll stay schtum on that.

  10. hey John, thanks for the response. I’m using the term “top shelf” to mean first rate. It’s a term you usually hear in connection with alcohol–top shelf booze or high shelf booze–and I appropriated it for my own uses. Maybe this use of it doesn’t quite jive across the water.

    I’ve pretty much worked my way through your archive now and should say thanks for all your work. I’m sure it’s time-consuming. I’m delighted to see that someone else besides me appreciates Patrick McGrath. I haven’t met anyone here who even knows who he is. The same can nearly be said for James Salter who I also think is fantastic.

  11. I’m a great fan of Woodward, and enjoyed the Janus trilogy greatly. Curious Earth is one of my “great books” I think – one that sticks in the memory long after reading it. Caravan Theives left me cold however.

    A very interesting post all round

  12. Tom, you’re the first person I’ve heard suggest great things for A Curious Earth, and I’m very pleased about that, and shall look forward to it with more keenness now.

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