Week 95: The Body Count

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untitled (5)Why are we, like Webster (you know your TS Eliot), so much possessed by death? Not the slow decline of inevitable ageing and mortality, which is the unavoidable fate of us all and which we refuse to acknowledge, contemplate or come to terms with, but violent death. In 2013, when the population of England and Wales was fifty three and a half million, there were five hundred and fifty one murders. Or, in other words, you are infinitely more likely to win the Lottery (always worth looking on the bright side, I find, even if only to fill in the time until we die; which will not be at the hands of others).

Yet murder forms the staple of television drama. Otherwise perfectly pleasant people who have a tendency to recoil squeamishly at the traumatic idea of squashing a wasp wade knee-deep in gore as they settle down on the sofa in the evening. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the housing market in the Cotswolds has remained so buoyant, what with all those serial killers portrayed in Morse, Lewis, Endeavour (mostly melodramatic if well-acted should you not have seen this prequel series) and Midsomer Murders (purest ham and suggesting that south Oxfordshire is in the grip of a population decimation not seen since the Black Death). We particularly enjoy sitting unmoved and supine before tales of serial killers: indeed, in the implicit league table of murderers, there is something a bit namby-pamby and not-really-trying about the villain who only kills once.

These crimes – which I do rather hope would produce a more empathetic, not to say wildly hysterical, response in what we laughingly call real life – have literary form. Cain, of course; a tale told with admirable brevity in Genesis: and after him, a grand parade of the vengeful, the greedy, the psychotic and the frankly panic-stricken. Snuggle down in your staggeringly safe home and enjoy.

IPhone pics Nov 13 005Shakespeare, who lived in a rougher world more prone to using its fists and knives, gives us Macbeth – a terribly plausible decent chap who plummets into an unstoppable chain of murders and loses his soul in the process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but far, far, darker – although now I think of it I quite fancy Mickey Mouse as the Scottish King). And, what with being a man of his time and all that, Shakespeare also gives us Lady M, whose fault it all is. It’s that pesky double X chromosome, you see. Did you know that the most popular topic for carving onto the elaborate marriage-beds of the sixteenth-century rich was Adam and Eve? The point, dear newly-married couple, is not so much the blissful existence in Paradise, but the Awful Warning that Eve rocked up in Adam’s comfy homosocial world – just him and, well, Him – and ruined everything. Girls, hey? One of the great triumphs of the Enlightenment is that, in patches and in places, we have, at least from time to time, moved on.

My goodness, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really had a problem with women. When they’re not the sexually voracious evil villains of the piece – try Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil – they are being murdered on stage in such numbers that I can’t help thinking that the writers had spotted exactly what sells tickets: yup, our old friends sex-and- death, with women as the she-probably-deserved-it fetchingly draped body (we will have a crack at getting our heads round the fact that the bodies in question were boys in frocks another day). Have things, in books at least, changed? Let’s have some murders on this week’s bookshelf.

No self-respecting crime library should be without representative texts from Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and (plonking prose but rattling plots) Agatha Christie. Ah, feminist revenge: weary with being the victim, women rose up and wrote the stuff themselves. It just crosses my mind to wonder (I offer it as a PhD topic should no-one have got there first) whether women writers kill off more chaps. And we must have EC Bentley’sTrent’s Last Case, if only because it is always spoken of as a classic of the genre so we look a bit awkward if we’ve never read it (I don’t know that it’s the most gripping thing that I’ve ever read, but it’s good). Raymond Chandler is another sine qua non, even if you will frequently have no idea what is going on (nor did he, apparently). It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century went to the same school – Dulwich College, and the other is, as of course you know, PG Wodehouse, whose murder mysteries, had he written any, would have been byzantinely plotted and shimmerlingly narrated (oh come on, Sebastian Faulks: a clear and obvious next best-seller for you).

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody's guess

Why a beautiful pink rose would remind David Austin Roses of Brother Cadfael is anybody’s guess

Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, successfully created an entirely believable world in her twenty or more Brother Cadfael books. As murders, especially murders in fiction, go, they are lightly drawn and it is unlikely that you will have nightmares. Their quality lies in the skill with which she breathed life into her twelfth century monk, his friends, colleagues and enemies, and the streets, manors, hovels and fields of Shrewsbury and Shropshire. There have been many – hordes – of imitators, all of which seem to me to fall at the first hurdle of failing to digest their research before regurgitating it into their narratives. If you think you have an historical novel in you, (a) think again and (b) read Ellis Peters very carefully and thoughtfully before you begin (but unless you are Jude Morgan, (a) will still be the correct answer).

The other series which I heartily recommend is Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels. Over the last twenty years or so, Ms Leon, an American living in Venice, has mined deeper and deeper into the politics and psyche of contemporary Italy via the medium of her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is worth, should you not have come across them, starting at the beginning with Death at La Fenice, which is a competently plotted crime novel with the ravishing setting of La Serenissima and a detective who arrives fully-formed into the canon of crime fiction. But keep reading; it feels as if Leon has grown in scope and confidence, and the later novels are dark, disturbing (this is a recommendation, by the way) and have profound things to say about the state of Europe today.

 

Of those British murders, incidentally, forty-four involved guns. I just mention this in case anyone from the gun lobby in the USA might have dropped by.untitled (7)

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Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

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It’s been a trying week, watching and – even worse – listening to grown men and women squirm and cavort in the increasingly desperate hope that they might inspire us to like them, or perhaps pity them, enough to vote for them. What with one chap deciding that suit jackets are some sort of symbol of oppressive tyranny, making shirt sleeves a uniform regardless of the weather (I don’t know about you, but I’m not casting any clouts just yet), and another bloke inflicting an excruciatingly awkward Dick Van Dyke sound-alike audition on us when he grovelled round a multi-millionaire middle-aged and somewhat bafflingly self-appointed representative of Youth, it’s all been a bit demeaning. I’m afraid the answer to the question, ‘just how stupid do they think the electorate are?’ is pretty clear. So I thought we might turn away from the hurly-burly of the hustings and give some thought to the uses of disguise.

This week’s title comes, as you well know, from Charles Dickens via TS Eliot. Dickens coined it in Our Mutual Friend to describe Betty Higden’s son (rather splendidly known as Sloppy, as if he were a prototype for Wodehouse) and his talent for reading out the lurid bits in the newpapers; and Eliot borrowed it as the working title for what he later decided to call The Waste Land instead. Eliot’s poem is a fabulous patchwork of different voices, colliding, overlapping, coming in from nowhere. If you haven’t read it, or at least not for a while, rush off and do so now, preferably aloud, and, now that you are not in school and it is not a menacing set text, find all the humour and zest lurking within it. Eliot was not necessarily everyone’s idea of the perfect dinner-party guest – not often given to having the table in stitches – but as well as the undeniably austere philosophy and the rigorously scholarly breadth of his cultural references, he was not unaware of the divine comedy of human existence. Try The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock if you don’t believe me.

I have NO IDEA who this could be

I have NO IDEA who this could be

Some disguises in fiction are, we are told, amazingly effective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, can baffle everyone around him – and especially, of course, Dr Watson, Baldrick to Holmes’s Blackadder – with his ability to metamorphose into – gosh! – a working class person. Poor old Mrs. Hudson, ironing the plumber’s outfit after Holmes comes back from a tiring day righting wrongs (or, of course, stalking people. It all depends on your perspective). At a slightly more sophisticated level, the basic premise behind GK Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, is that we automatically presume that a bumbling Catholic priest must be too simple and unworldly to unravel the cynical heart of the villainous mysteries he stumbles across. His biretta works as a constant disguise, on the same lines as Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant understanding of where the best place might be to hide The Purloined Letter. Graham Greene develops the idea in The Power and the Glory, and the Whisky Priest is just one of Greene’s flawed heroes whose greatness and courage is disguised, not least from themselves. Greene and Eliot knew and liked each other, incidentally, and were profound admirers of each other’s work. I remain unconvinced that that dinner party I am constructing in my mind would go with more of a swing if they were both invited, nonetheless.

Setting aside all the metaphorical ways in which characters in fiction (and indeed in what we laughingly call real life) disguise their true nature – and Jane Austen is the Mistress of Metaphorical Disguise – a change of costume and some greasepaint can shove the plot forward a treat. Would Mr Rochester ever have got round to declaring his feelings for Jane if he hadn’t happened to have a complete Gypsy Woman outfit knocking around? And doesn’t it say a lot for Jane that, on discovering that the man of her dreams is an occasional cross-dresser, she takes it awfully well? What with that, the endless lying and smirking secrecy and – oh yes! – not just common-or-garden adultery or even attempted bigamy, but actually keeping the present Mrs Rochester in the attic, perhaps Jane is setting her standards just a little bit low. Apart from anything else, I suspect that Rochester’s disguise is on a par with Violet-Elizabeth Bott’s Beatle wig in Richmal Crompton’s unmissable Just William stories (or, indeed, when a temporary and very muddy incarnation as a squaw in William’s tribe renders her unrecognisable to her own father).

untitled (22)Which brings me to the finest disguiser of them all. Should Martin Jarvis ever feel a bit down in the dumps and wonder what it’s all for, I hope he will take comfort from the hordes and legions of his admirers, whose lives have been made that little bit sparklier by his readings of Just William. And, if you are familiar with those, rush out now and acquaint yourself with Mr Jarvis bringing all PG Wodehouse’s characters to life on CD. Yes, that’s right, all of them. Once heard, never forgotten. Some people suffer from voices in the head (known in the NorthernReader household as Joan of Arc syndrome), and jolly miserable it probably is for them. Others, more fortunate, simply have Martin Jarvis being Aunt Agatha, or Jeeves, or Violet-Elizabeth, giving command performance for their (inner) ear only. Add Alan Bennett as Eeyore and you will never again question the truth that radio is the medium of choice.

And the good news? Readers-who-are-voters-in-the-UK-General-Election, the end – one way or the other – is nigh. My advice for Thursday night would be to go to bed early with a good book.

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PS You might think us gluttons for punishment, but the next NorthernReader Book Club is going to talk about POLITICS. Eleven o’clock in the morning on Thursday 14th May (see the Book Club page for how to find us). There will be cake. Now, why don’t more politicians use that simple and persuasive phrase?

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)

Week 78: Welshness

gan-bwyll-a-siarad-cymraegOnce upon a time the NorthernReader household was located in Wales. Indeed, KatePonders was born there. If you are not fortunate enough to live here in the debateable lands between England and Scotland, I can heartily recommend Wales to you as an alternative: beautiful countryside, not too full, and lovely, lovely people. Only don’t call them Welsh, which means, depending on who you ask, barbarian, savage or slave. Remember your manners and call them Cymraeg, which means The People. You can see for yourself which might get your conversation off on a better foot. This weekend, our very good friends from the Land-of-their-Fathers-and-you-could-do-a-lot-worse have travelled up to stay with us: partly, of course, for the pleasure of our company, but also because we are all marauding northwards on Sunday to the Scotland/Wales rugby match at Murrayfield. You and I have talked before about what it means to be Scottish, and what Scotland has contributed to (in no particular order) the bookshelf, the country (that’s the United Kingdom, Mr Salmond) and the world: so now might be a good moment to consider Wales – I mean Cymru (very easy language to get your head around once you have grasped that Y sounds like UH and U sounds like EE: and there has to be some cachet in being able to say even a few words in what is said to be both the oldest language in Europe and the language of Heaven).

It might be that Dylan Thomas comes first to mind: orotund, lyrical and visionary, his poems demand reading aloud. I have previously suggested that you listen to Richard Burton, that great spoiled talent, in Under Milk Wood: I do hope you did so – if not, off you go. But there are other Thomases worth reading. Here are two. RS Thomas – Ronald to his friends – learned Welsh too late in life, by his own assessment, to write poetry in it, and therefore found himself in the quite strange position of writing in English while fiercely criticising the Anglicisation of his beloved home country. Thomas was a priest in the Church in Wales, and his poems are resonant with his sense of spirituality and religion as well as the rich landscapes and characters of Wales. He was beyond question one of the very best poets of the twentieth century. Try the elegant simplicity of ‘A Marriage’, or the bitter bleakness – very much his distinctive note – of ‘The Welsh Hill Country’.

AntHop-lowMy other Thomas for you is the writer, columnist, broadcaster and critic, Gwyn Thomas. Born in the same year (1913) as RS Thomas, but less long-lived, he was the child of the South Wales Valleys. His novels, short stories, essays and articles exactly capture the life of the mining communities in the Depression and beyond, into the postwar years. Self-deprecating and wryly humorous, he is a treat to read, and you can catch up with Anthony Hopkins’ wonderful portrayal of him in Selected Exits, a BBC drama some twenty years old now which was based on Thomas’s memoir A Few Selected Exits.

Two more poets, but of a different time. George Herbert has a lot in common with RS Thomas, being a Welsh-born Anglophone, an Anglican priest and a metaphysical, deeply spiritual poet; but his poems are considerably less pessimistic and grim. Every poem that survives (he was writing in the early seventeenth century and died in 1633) is on a devotional theme. Shortly before his death, he founded the religious community at Little Gidding that was later to influence the thinking and writing of TS Eliot. Herbert’s near-contemporary, Henry Vaughan, came through Cromwell’s Republican years but suffered losses, not least, perhaps, of simple-minded adherence to a cause. Ostensibly a Royalist, his poems reflect a deeply-felt (and entirely justifiable) contempt for all authority and the endless cycle of people struggling for power, gaining power and then cracking on with the same regime of intolerance, repression and beastliness as the previous lot. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? Another good reason to add Henry Vaughan to this week’s shelf.

Going back somewhat further, we come to Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis to his Latin-reading contemporaries and Gerallt Gymro to his Welsh relatives: ah, when I said earlier what a piece of cake Welsh is, I should perhaps have mentioned that it is one of those humdingers of a language that mutates at the front depending on the case: fun, huh?). Gerald was of mixed Norman and Welsh heritage but very sensibly stressed his Norman connections in order to Get On in life. A cleric and chaplain to Henry II, Gerald found himself accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury on a tour of Wales in 1188, which he wrote up some years later as Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae. Fear not, Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales, translated by the great Betty Radice, is a most entertaining Penguin paperback, not least because Gerald is a world-class moaner, always ready with something snipey to say about everywhere he goes and everyone he meets. The ideal travel writer, really.

another in our GREAT series of completely non-gratuitous illustrations

another in our GREAT series of completely non-gratuitous illustrations

But before you get carried away with the idea that Wales is entirely – or even faintly – a land of mists and legends, all Arthur and Pendragons, we had better add its current flowering as the home of hugely enjoyable BBC drama to our idea of what it is to be Welsh. Andrew Davies, who brought you the entirely perfect dramatization of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Little Dorrit and the screenplay for Bridget Jones, and Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and breather of new life into Doctor Who, can wear their ddraig goch (look it up) with pride.

So as you read this, think of us as we head up the A68 – the best, most heart-lifting road in Britain, feverishly trying to remember the words to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau while – because I have a Welsh-born daughter but Scottish ancestry – humming Flower of Scotland and wearing my thistle earrings with pride. Put it this way: this is rugby match I can’t lose.

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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 46: America

usa_cookiesHappy Independence Day, dear American readers. Almost two hundred and forty years ago, you picked up the ball and ran with it. As the dust settled, you produced the Declaration of Independence, one of the best pieces of aspirational prose ever produced. The lovely, the startling, the truly revolutionary, thing about it is its unqualified commitment to the human right to happiness. If we were only to acknowledge the indivisible relationship between happiness and kindness and have a go at living up to the Dalai Lama’s rigorous instruction to us all, ‘be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’, well, to quote another great American icon, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world.

On this your sort-of-birthday, America, I’m not going to say a word about some of the less praiseworthy things you have brought to the party (but that does not mean that I am condoning your really extraordinary continued espousal of killing people as a method of justice). No, today is a day for celebrating what you have done with the English language and how American literature has added to the sum of human happiness.

archy-and-mThank you for your poets. From Walt Whitman to the Beat generation and beyond, they have spun and whooshed into the language store with verve and energy and freedom and fun, and we are all the better for it. I’m choosing just three for this week’s bookshelf. The first is Don Marquis. Journalist, humorist (please note American spelling in honour – can’t go too far – of the occasion), novelist and playwright, Marquis is best remembered in the NorthernReader household as the poet behind Archy the cockroach who had been a vers libre poet in a previous life. Using Marquis’s typewriter (lower case only: it is tough to be a cockroach), Archy writes poems of great humour and poignancy about Mehitabel, the great love of his life who happens to be a cat – as in feline, although jazz culture and argot underpin Archy’s world. And that’s why I love the Archy and Mehitabel poems: they are the voice of NewYork, every bit as distinctive and authentic as Woody Allen, reminding me that the modern era started at least a decade before we tend to think it did (Marquis created Archy in 1916) and that by the end of the First World War the baton had already passed from tired old Europe to up-and-at-‘em America.

My second poet (I’m taking it for granted, by the way, that we already have the usual suspects on the bookshelf: Whitman of course; Longfellow – although a little of that relentless tum-ti-tum-ti rhythm goes a very long way; Pound and Eliot) is Robert Frost. Friend of Edward Thomas, which is accolade enough, surely, Frost was in many ways an old-fashioned poet; perhaps, even, the last of the old-style poets. Long-lived and prolific, his poems use colloquial language and, very often, a New England rural location to set out, scene by scene – he is, I think, a particularly visual poet – a careful exploration of the human condition. To my mind, Frost is second only to Auden as a poet of the twentieth century with the knack of coining perfect phrases. As a taster, let me remind you that Frost gave us ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (perfect for us here in the debatable lands of the North) and ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.’ Exactly, now I come to think about, what America herself did, and something for us all to check our actions against from time to time.

And my third great American poet (all of the twentieth century this week, you’ll have noticed) is E E Cummings, another celebrant of the typewriter’s lower case (although not for his own name: e e cummings was an orthographic imposition of his publishers later copied by critics). The Fourth of July is the day to remember his sonnet, ‘next to of course god america i’. Fiercely critical, satirical and unswervingly ready to call his country’s failings to account, Cummings is a splendid figurehead for the necessity for free speech (please don’t forget the Al-Jazeera journalists today, by the way: there is an Amnesty International petition here that you might consider signing). Cummings didn’t so much eschew the capital letters and punctuation in his poetry as play fast and loose with them, and one of the pleasing consequences is that you really do have to read his work aloud. His work is free-wheeling, exuberant and musical, and as American as they come.

We must have novelists too. Another trio, then, chosen pretty much at random from another crowded field: how about Henry James, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway? The lives of all three overlap, and James and Wharton were chums. I do  rather long to discover that Hemingway dropped round for tea and gossip with them both, and it would in strictly temporal terms have been possible, as he was sixteen by the time James died and I’ll bet he was precocious. But, whatever the vast chasms of difference between them – and the idea of James wrestling with lions is almost as enchanting as that of Hemingway getting to grips with Upper East Side manners – all three share the distinction of being indispensably great. If you have never got round to reading Henry James, you might not be expecting his dry observational humour. Granted, The Turn of the Screw isn’t terrifically

Correy Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

Corey Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

comedic, but, by and large, trust me. If Edith Wharton has so far passed you by, you’re going to love her acid and astute analysis of the power of money. Try The Custom of the Country. Think of her as an American, early twentieth-century, Jane Austen. And if you didn’t think Hemingway was your sort of thing, try Across the River and Into the Trees, not least because it made me cry and I don’t see why I should be the only one.

This birthday reflection has thought only of America’s past, dominated by white men. The present and the future are different, gloriously different. The land that said (through Emma Lazarus, a woman from an immigrant family) ‘give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has often lived up to such magnificence. America the generous, America the advocate of happiness, happy Independence Day.lady-liberty

Week 40: Books for A(nother) Rainy Day

ceiling_of_the_sistine_chapel _genesis,_noah_7-9 _the_flood,_left_view-largeThere is a new film out about Noah. In fact, it’s called Noah, and it has Russell Crowe in it. The NorthernReader household will not be traipsing off to the cinema to see it because (a) we’ve seen a trailer and we are beginning to rather yearn for a film with the light meter turned up to penetrable – these Scandinavian dramas have a lot to answer for; (b) when we want to look at lots and lots of water we can peer through the windows (this is the only time since we moved here that the weather in the north-east has not compared favourably with that in other, lesser, counties in England) and (c) we would not knowingly part with good money to see Russell Crowe have another crack at this acting lark. Mind you, he does add to the gaiety of nations with his unswerving adherence to Speaking Very Significantly, which, never mind the unintentional hilarity of any film he adorns, must make the Crowe breakfast conversation, the check-out at Tesco (‘would you like cash-back, sir?’ ‘No. I. Would. Not.’) and a game of Snap a bit more stressful than you were expecting. I’m afraid that Gladiator still takes the Best Comedy prize in the NorthernReader household: right up there with the surprisingly Glaswegian submarine commander in Red October – Sean Connery’s ‘Okay, Anatoly’, always guaranteed to have us gurgling in the aisles).

Anyway, pulling myself together, I need to go with the flow and read about rain.

piglet_rainThe bench-mark, as it were, is as ever provided by Mr Milne, and no contemplation of flooding can be complete without reference to the useful chapter ‘In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water’ (in which you will notice that none of the animals had been daft enough to build their homes upon the floodplains). Pooh is, as you would expect, kind, thoughtful and self-effacing, and above all he does what he can to make a bad situation better. ‘We are what we do’ is one of the very few sayings I would consider having on one of those tasteful bits of washed-out board hanging artily in the downstairs loo – you know the sort of thing – and Pooh, now I come to think about it, is a good figurehead for that philosophy.

And talking of philosophy brings us to Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. There is a chance, if you are neither American nor an undergraduate studying American Literature (and we must talk about reading books under duress one of these days), that you haven’t read much Bellow, because I don’t think he’s in focus at present. He died less than ten years ago and is therefore still in the gulf of oblivion that seems to overcome recently-dead authors, even Nobel Prize-winning ones (as he was). Someone, somewhere, has declared a Decent Interval before we can take up again with previous loves, whether it’s books, Ercol furniture, or indeed old loves. Bellow stakes out some territory for himself which is midway between Graham Greene and TS Eliot, leavened by humour and salted with an American world-view. Try him, if you haven’t. And we can add two more novels to our shelf, one very familiar and the other perhaps less so. The familiar is of course Jane Eyre, which begins in the rain and sweeps us onto wet moorlands via a cataclysmic thunderstorm after The Scene in the Orchard. Less familiar might be Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest. In some ways less autobiographical than her really fabulous Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy (put them together with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and you’ve got the Second World War pretty much covered on the literature front, with no reinforcements required), The Rain Forest is a bit over-laden with symbolism, but Manning’s writing is so vivid that she is always a pleasure to read.  Brittle and well-equipped with shoulder-chips, she cannot have been an easy person – she objected to the casting of Emma Thompson to play her lightly-disguised self in Fortunes of War on the grounds that Thompson’s feet were too big (ah, hell, that’s why I’ll be objecting to Helena Bonham-Carter playing me when they make the bio-pic, then) – Deirdre David has made a thorough job of her biography, A Woman at War, catching both Manning’s right to be considered as a major twentieth-century writer and her desperate, angry ‘pick me! Pick me!’ voice sniping from the sidelines.

Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis

But best of all, perhaps, we can have some poetry to stay indoors with. Shakespeare points out the very English fact that ‘the rain it raineth every day’ (a song he gives to Feste in Twelfth Night, and not, as Sam Mendes would irritatingly have us believe, to the Fool in King Lear). Edward Thomas and Alun Lewis both catch the mood in their great poems from each of the two world wars. The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas would be a good choice for window-seat, looking-out-at-the-rain, reading, especially for ‘Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain/ On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me; (cocoa, anyone?). Alun Lewis’s poem, ‘All Day It Has Rained’, refers to Thomas and picks up where he, and his poem, left off: ‘All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,/ Drenching the gorse and heather’. A quiet and interesting man, Lewis was posted to Burma. He was found, gun in hand, with a bullet in his head, in March 1944. For poets even more than for novelists, it seems, the thought of rain is melancholic. We are left with sadness and need to stand up, to shake ourselves, to look out of the window.

But look! In the immortal words of Bob Newhart, ‘Wait a minute! It’s stopped raining!’ Hand me my Barbour; I’m going outside. If I’m lucky, I might find William Carlos Williams’   red wheel barrow.buddhistmodernpoetry

PS This month’s Walking Book Club meets at 10 o-clock on Wednesday 28 May at St Mungo’s Church, Simonburn. It’ll probably rain.rainbow