Week 87: Difficult Books

author-writing-writerThe reason, since you ask, why it has taken me until Thursday to write to you this week is that I had a splendid idea for a topic and spent days – and days … trying to get to grips with it. Born with a stubborn streak, it has taken until this evening for me to realise that it’s just not something I can squeeze a thousand words out of (hadn’t you noticed? Each week is more or less a thousand words: which means, if you have been kind enough to read me from the beginning, that we have shared a novel together, in length if not in meaning). Hitting a writerly brick wall has made me think about the books that, for various reasons, have presented the North Face of the Eiger to me: scalable, yes, but not by me.

I have read and enjoyed most of Ian McEwan, but his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, was too painful. I started to read it when my daughter, the lovely KatePonders, was a baby, and the opening chapter, in which a small daughter called Kate is kidnapped, harrowed me so unutterably that to this day I have never been able to return to it. My visceral abandonment of objectivity is my loss, as the book is thought of by many as McEwan’s masterpiece. Should you not have a daughter called Kate, or indeed should you not be at that vulnerable stage of life which revolves around the fragile wonder that is your child, do please read it and get back to me.

While I’m confessing to personal and illogical taboos, the pictures of the Weasel’s House in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books have haunted my dreams since I first came across them when I was about four. And I have told you before about the terrors of Struwwelpeter, my really rather odd grandfather’s preferred choice of reading to his small descendants. Kateponders expressed a profound aversion to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations for Jon Blake’s untitled (18)You’re a Hero, Daley B! and could be reduced to sobs by well-meaning would-be readers-aloud inadvertently retrieving it from the very back of the bookshelf where she had hidden it (actually destroying a book being unthinkable to her even when three: the mixed blessing of an academic household). Should you, or the very little people in your life, be made of slightly sterner stuff, the book – and indeed the illustrations – are delightful and capable of being an enormous hit in your household.

Some books and authors are of course difficult for other reasons. I freely admit that tremendous length is not at first sight a recommendation to me (which is of course precisely why my enthusiasm for a handful of Really Long Books is so striking and worth taking me up on: good God, if I of all people urge you to read Nostromo, say, or Bleak House, there must be something in them). It is worth remembering that many of the weightier Victorian novels first appeared in instalments in periodicals. Perhaps returning to that approach and taking them in regular but well-spaced bite-size chunks will open up a vaster range of fiction for those wary of the long haul. And we should not lose sight of the fact that some authors are just plain hard work. That is by no means a bad thing – think how boring life would be if everything came in condescendingly platitudinous soundbites (an eternal pre-election, for example): but you do have to be in the mood for grappling. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound should both keep you intellectually pinned down for a while if you’re looking for that sort of challenge. James Joyce’s Ulysses and (even more so) Finnegan’s Wake, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, even Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; one of the layers of difficulty lies in the language. Reading them makes us read slowly, taking each word as it comes. This deliberate barrier to glib understanding draws our attention to our everyday habit of impatiently skimming through everything we read. How much do we miss?

And then there are the books that just aren’t for us. Too many of us had teachers – it’s usually teachers, I’m afraid – who got it into our heads that a book, once begun, must be persevered with to the bitter, bitter end. Sadly true if it’s a set text (see, if you feel so inclined, Week 86 for what I think about our exam-ridden education system), but otherwise, arrant nonsense. You cannot know if any particular book is the sort of thing you might like without giving it a whirl (which is why first lines and pages are so important: see Week 20 for details), but only a fool, or, I suppose, someone trapped on a desert island with only one book for company, would carry on reading once it has been clearly established that book and reader have nothing to say to each other. So, dearest reader, if you have been trudging through War and Peace, Moby Dick or Paradise Lost since time began, cast off your dreadful sense of obligation and consign the loathsome volume to Oxfam, where your particular poison will turn out to be someone else’s food for the mind and the soul.

But, should the mood take you, there are times when we really quite fancy something difficult, or at least something different and out of our comfort zone. So here are three that you might possibly not have read: James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And if they turn out not to be your cup of tea, fear not. Let them drop from your hand and reach for another. Don’t forget Yeats’s wise words:

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

That’s telling us. Happy reading.Reynolds_BoyReading (2)

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Week 81: All at Sea

WP_20150304_026Thalassa! Thalassa!, Xenophon tells us thirty thousand Greek soldiers cried out when they came over the ridge and saw the Black Sea, The NorthernReader does not quite match that for volume or intensity of feeling, but it is our ritual cry on spotting when the horizon becomes all watery (pretentious? Moi?). Close to Britain’s very best coastline (tell nobody), we give ourselves the opportunity for this egregious showing-off at least once a week. Walking on empty sandy beaches, accompanied by romping dogs, with the early spring sunshine on your back and a breeze so fresh you wish you’d put heavier boots on, is one of life’s great pleasures. Is it just me (and that horde of Ancient Greeks), or have writers thought so too? Yes of course they have. And at least a couple of them know their Xenophon too (try the Penguin History of My Times and The Persian Expedition: he has a wonderfully clear and straightforward style and is full of vivid description): Buck Mulligan exclaims – or shows off to Stephen Dedalus, exclaiming in Ancient Greek and showing off never being very far apart – ‘Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look’. I have no idea whether James Joyce kept a copy of Xenophon under his pillow and liked nothing better than to read a little Greek every day, but here in Ulysses it is clear that he knew this ancient visceral response to the sea. And of course Iris Murdoch – how out of fashion she is now but once she was, more or less single-handed, England’s intelligentsia – finally collared the Booker Prize with The Sea, The Sea. If you are unfamiliar with Murdoch, be warned: her heroes are profoundly slappable and you may be as irritated as you are entranced. An ability to remain calm in the face of barrowloads of cod mysticism is a requirement for reading pretty much any Iris Murdoch, especially her later novels, but go on, give it a go.

WP_20150221_021More fun, perhaps, is some poetry we can chant as we stride along the beach. John Masefield takes some beating: not only ‘Sea Fever’ (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) but ‘Trade Winds’ and the deliciously exotic ‘Cargoes’, where every word is gorgeous to read and – important to Masefield – to say aloud. Oh, go on then, let’s have Coleridge as well, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And after all that lurid story-telling, let’s pause to reflect with Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. I love it: I come back to it after years away and I still love it. There’s a direct simplicity with which it looks you in the eye and takes you on a journey which engages your intellect as well as your heart. And Arnold’s view of the world, that ‘hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light’, stands delicately balanced between the metaphysics of John Donne and the terrible nihilism of Edward Thomas. Worse places to be, provided you are only visiting.

But there is something about the rhythm and pulse of the waves beating upon the shore that draws novelists as well as poets into lyrical writing. John Banville’s The Sea WP_20150304_022(another Booker winner) shifts its moods as fluidly as the tide. And we must have Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; an astonishing thing, woven of multiple soliloquies, shot through with the changing light of the coast across a single day. One to read while we listen to Britten’s haunting ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes – a Desert Island Discs choice if ever there was one. We could add Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to this week’s shelf, too. Not only is it a perfect gem of Modernism, but it also conjures up a sense of summer on the Isle of Skye that will have you yearning for the Hebrides (To the Lighthouse is almost the only book I can think of that sets itself in the Highlands and Islands without wallowing in clans, tartans and generalised Brigadooning). Even normally-to-be-trusted Arthur Ransome goes a bit goodness-aren’t-they-quaint on us in Great Northern?, his last novel, set in the Outer Hebrides, where all the locals hang around in kilts and beards and mutter in uncouth tongues. It’s worth reading, nonetheless, even if only to give yourself the pleasure of one last trip with the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums. Ransome’s love of the sea and passion for sailing makes him unequalled by anyone other than Joseph Conrad for giving us landlubbers a sense of life on board: try We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea and Missee Lee and feel that you have sailed across the English Channel at night and met with pirates in the South China Seas. And then settle back in your safely land-locked chair and immerse yourself in the pleasures of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. We all think we know it – The Muppets, the current National Theatre version (the opera, the ballet and a musical with Tim Minchin as Long John Silver can only be a matter of time), but there is so much more to Treasure Island than adventure and derring-do. Its subtle exploration of the very fluid nature of morality, for a start, makes it a book for our time. Ah, hoarders of gold who will stop at nothing to avoid paying taxes. There are more, and uglier, faces than Johnny Depp’s to be the poster boy for pirates these days.

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

O come on: obviously this is entirely non-gratuitous

Week 48: In Praise of Elizabeth Bowen

All great writers are great readers

All great writers are great readers

It’s confusing stuff, this modernism. In music, it seems to mean Mahler, Richard Strauss and Debussy (and they can happily go on the tracks list for a Modernist Desert Island Discs). In the sometimes arcane worlds of art and design, Modernism means angles and an austere rejection of ornament. For us literary types, Modernism came and went and we are all Post-Modern now: a topic for another day. Literary Modernism can be broadly dated from the First World War up to the beginning of the Cold War. Yes, I know you want to quibble, and say ‘but what about …?’, but to give us some boundaries to get hold of in our minds, the Somme and the Iron Curtain will do nicely. So, our Modernist bookshelf has probably already got TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce propping each other up. But I wonder if you’ve read Elizabeth Bowen, and if not, why not. It is the NorthernReader contention that she is one of the greats of English Modernism. Much more to the point, she is a joy to read: dry, witty and piercing. As the brothers Gershwin (great Modernists themselves) put it, who could ask for anything more?

Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin, thus giving her a place in the Irish pantheon together with Joyce and Beckett, but brought up in England. She was (one is tempted to say ‘of course’) friends with the Bloomsbury Group, and she had the almost obligatory affairs. Having inherited Bowen’s Court in County Cork, she and her husband lived there on and off from the 1930s to the 1950s and held a sort of literary salon to which pretty much anyone who was anyone – Woolf, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch – flocked. She died in 1973.

Her second published novel, The Last September, which appeared in 1929, is a haunting and sparely told story of love amid the Irish War of Independence. It is my everlasting sorrow that someone with actual, as opposed to Monopoly, money got there before me, bought the film rights, and made a complete hash of it. Alright, I am not an impartial witness, because I had cast it and directed it so perfectly in my mind.  Please, don’t see the film, read the book. And then you can join me in my Ancient Mariner impersonations, stopping people in the streets to tell them that they should read it too.

I’m going to implore you to add her next novel, Friends and Relations, to your bookshelf too. We could call it a comedy of manners, but it unflinchingly notes every tiny detail, every opportunity missed, every road not taken, as it tracks the constrained lives of two young couples. It is also the best-observed depiction ever written of the turmoils of being a teenager in bourgeois society. If you enjoyed EM Forster’s Howard’s End – and of course you did ­– this is definitely one for you. We could club together for the film rights.

TheHouseInParisOur Elizabeth Bowen collection must include (possibly my very favourite in a crowded field) The House in Paris. One of the tenets of Modernism is that it challenges the idea of a linear narrative – you know, one damn thing after another. Well, The House in Paris starts on a particular day, skips back for its central chunk to a narrative that may be entirely imaginary, and then catches up with itself exactly where we left off at the end of Part 1 – and oh, as Wordsworth would undoubtedly have said, had he been lucky enough to be around in 1935 to read a first edition, the difference to us! We return to the House in Paris, but we are now in the position of the person who says, ‘Well, if I’d known then what I know now …’. Only it’s cleverer, and more unsettling, than that, because we’re not sure that we know anything more than we did. All we know is that time, and places, and narratives, and – most of all – people, can’t be trusted. Elizabeth Bowen seems to have been incapable of writing a sentence that wasn’t graceful, lean and elegant, and The House in Paris will wind itself round you like an Hermès silk scarf. Only sadder.

Bowen's Court

Bowen’s Court

Just two more. She wrote almost a dozen novels, many short stories, essays, biographies and memoirs, including Bowen’s Court, the best biography a house ever received, but it is my purpose to whet your appetite, not give you a potted digest of every book she wrote. To you, the joys of browsing, especially as (unaccountably in my opinion) several of her books are out of print. So I am going to pick out another novel and a book of short stories. The Heat of the Day, first published in 1948, can sit beside Waugh and Manning who, you will recall, we have elected as the writers of the greatest fiction to deal with the Second World War. Set in London after the Blitz, it weaves together ideas about personal and national loyalty and betrayal. It makes us question our certainties about identity and truth. In true Modernist style, its narratives overlap and contradict each other. But don’t for one moment run away with the idea that Elizabeth Bowen sat down to write a Modernist Novel: not even, perhaps, The Modernist Novel.  No, like all the very best writers, she has something to explore and she found a way to do so.

The book of short stories I am going to recommend to you is A Day in the Dark (and part of me is shouting ‘No, wait! If you can really only have one, have [insert name of today’s favourite] instead!’ You can see I’ll be rubbish when Kirsty asks me which book I’m going to take with me to that island of hers). A Day in the Dark was published in 1965 and brings together nearly forty years of short-story writing. It is a selection made by the author, who prefaced it with the graceful disclaimer, ‘If this selection of stories does not please, I can blame nobody but myself – in the first place, for not having written better ones; in the second, for choosing wrongly from those there are.’ Dear Miss Bowen, no blame attaches: no-one has written better ones, and a selection made in the dark would be as pleasing.

Week 47: Books for the Summer

British-summer-in-Blyth-N-001Summer might have taken a little while to be coming in, but loudly sing cucku now it’s arrived. Here in what our soft southern friends think of in their secret hearts as the frozen north (as a friend of KatePonders said, getting off the train at Newcastle, ‘I had no idea there was anything north of Manchester!’: ah, just like George Osborne), we are garden-watering and lazing in the sunshine with the best of them – and of course we have daylight until almost midnight, making late-night al fresco reading a real possibility. What to read?

The summer holidays in children’s books were always uniformly warm and sunny, paving the way for endless picnics. Enid Blyton’s children have gone down in legend and song for their lashings of ginger beer (I wonder if the phrase actually appears in any of the books?), and the Swallows and Amazons, thanks almost entirely to Susan but with Peggy as sous chef, feast on pemmican and grog: but the best of all picnics is Ratty and Mole’s. Whose mouth does not water at the thought of all that cold chicken and ‘cold​tongue​cold​ham​cold​beef​pickled​gherkins​salad​french​rolls​cress​sandwiches​potted​meat​ginger​beer​lemonade​soda​water’? Although I do hope there is finely chopped hard-boiled egg in with the cress, and I notice their manly omission of cakes and chocolate. We Freudian critics (such fun) have long noticed that food in children’s literature offers much the same sorts of thrills as sex in books aimed (we hope) at a more adult readership – and can’t help thinking that poor old Constance Chatterley would have been so much happier had she taken a nice wicker hamper into the woods with the gamekeeper. Lawrence had a bit of a penchant for picnics, sending the Brangwen sisters off on various al fresco jaunts in Women in Love. Good old DH, never one to hint subtly at what can be made hugely, glaringly obvious (all that nude wrestling! All that drowning! All those frozen mountains!). But do read/re-read Women in Love. It is the best of him and will remind you that we were not wrong to think of him as a major novelist.

Deliciously, we can put Jane Austen next to DH Lawrence on this week’s shelf, because we cannot be without Emma being rude to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In fact, the Box Hill picnic can sit shoulder to shoulder with the outing into the Italian countryside in EM Forster’s A Room with a View – and yes, do watch the Merchant-Ivory film again, because it really is as perfect as you remember it. Kiri Te Kanawa is singing somewhere inside your head right now, isn’t she? Let’s add the gorgeous score for Granada Television’s Brideshead Revisited while we’re at it: it’s by Geoffrey Burgon, who also composed the haunting Nunc Dimittis for the BBC Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, Spy. That lush, over-ripe trumpet music for Brideshead takes us to Sebastian and Charles eating strawberries and drinking champagne in heady mid-summer.

But there is more to summer than food. No, really there is. If you are of a holidaying disposition, this is the time of year to load the car with a change of clothes and forty books each as you head off for the joys of motorway, ferry and autoroute on your way to the Dordogne/Tuscany/wherever is fashionable at present. Hilariously, the lighter magazines will advise you to take a selection of impossibly irritatingly badly-written chick-lit with you, presumably on the grounds that you will be leaving your intellectual faculties behind to watch the house while you’re away. Equally preposterously, what used to be called the broadsheets will earnestly admonish you to take twenty or so of those classics you always meant to read. Lounging by a pool with a drink in your hand? An obvious moment to get stuck into Ulysses. No, just take lots: you’ll read each other’s, anyway, won’t you (which is just one of the reasons why you should choose your holiday companions, or indeed life partners, with such care).

We make our own entertainment in the country

We make our own entertainment in the country

We will need some poetry. For a sense of that heavy, shimmering heat that gets into your bones, we can have some more Lawrence. ‘Snake’, which he wrote in Sicily in the early nineteen-twenties, lodges in your heart: once read, never forgotten. And this is the time of year for Edward Thomas’s evocative ‘Adelstrop’. Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ may seem too obvious, too clichéd, but read it again. Far from being a simple cheery piece of sunny flattery, the poem reminds us how much we would like to be young and lovely for ever and how inexorably old age, decay and death will overtake us – and, just when we might be hoping for the comfort of assurance that we will always be loved, the poem twists round to its real subject – the author – and promises him immortality. He got it, too. The bee-loud glade allows us to have Yeats’s ‘Lake Isle at Innisfree’ as well. And now is the moment for Auden’s ‘A Summer Night’. It’s far from his best, but Auden not-at-his-best still outranks pretty much everyone. The stanza, ‘Now north and south and east and west/ Those I love lie down to rest; The moon looks on them all,/ The healers and the brilliant talkers,/ The eccentrics and the silent walkers,/ The dumpy and the tall’, is irresistibly Auden. What could in other, lesser, hands, be doggerel is transfigured by some special alchemy into a blessing, an incantation that we can whisper as we lie on our backs in the grass and marvel at the night skies.Pleiades-from-Kielder-1

Ah yes, that reminds me. Above all, this is the time of year to get outside. Go for a walk. Go fishing (if the light is right). Go and sit on the grass. Take a picnic, by all means. And – of course – take something to read.