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 39: Reading the French

franceGoodness me. Dommage in fact. A level French in England and Wales includes no literature. It also seems to be possible – incroyable – to obtain a degree in French at British universities without reading any fiction. Je suis desolé: in fact, je suis flabbergasted. Here are the NorthernReader suggestions for a starter pack. We might call it, ‘How to Have a Glimpse of What It’s Like to Be French’.

Before we start, let’s get the tricky bit out of the way. I’m not suggesting you should read all, or even any, of these in French, really I’m not: but, even if you don’t have a word of the language, please try a sentence or two, just to get the sounds and rhythms swirling around in your mouth. Humour me.

Right. Which books shall we put on our shelf this week? We already have one: Le Petit Prince by the extraordinary, romantic and really rather heroic Antoine de Saint Exupéry (see Week 5): and in Week 23 we added Terre Des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) and Vol de Nuit (Night Flight). Saint Exupéry scatters Gallic je ne sais quoi through every page. You may need to take up smoking Gitanes.

But, even more essential to our Instant-Being-French kitbag, we need Madame Bovary (and read Julian Barnes’ acute observations in the London Reveniew of Books on choosing an English translation). You have to read Madame Bovary. It’s as simple as that. It’s up there with Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet and Nineteen Eighty-Four as stories you must have under your belt. But – if you happen not to have got round to reading it yet – prepare to have your heart broken. While we’re about it, can we have Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir please? It does perhaps demand some quick swotting-up on Bourbon post-Napoleonic France (and what could be more fun?), but really its power lies in its psychology. If you have ever wiled away an hour or two pondering the nature of sincerity, this is the book for you.

We could do this thing thoroughly and read Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known, not terrifically politically-correctly, as The Hunchback of N.D. in English and as Le Hunchback in the NorthernReader household). Les Misérables – or The Glums, as some of us like to think of it – is apparently one of the world’s most-read books. Well, I bet it isn’t. I think we have a statistic there that is muddling ‘books I ought to pretend to have read’ with ‘books I have actually read’. I did, many years ago, get inveigled into taking KatePonders and my mother to the musical. The book is one of the longest ever written. So is the musical. Take a picnic (and perhaps an i-Pod so that you drown out the noise coming from the stage as the long hours drag by).

d08_aurore_janv_981Much more riveting to read Émile Zola, a courageous and clear-sighted man who put everything on the line with the publication in L’Aurore of his article, ‘J’accuse’, his forthright denunciation of the mess that was the Dreyfus Affair. He achieved what he had set out to do, which was to be prosecuted for criminal libel, which meant that the whole tawdry tale of wicked connivance and conspiracy at the very highest levels of the French Establishment was aired in open court. Zola was stripped of his Légion d’Honneur, and avoided jail only by hopping nimbly onto the first boat-train to London, arriving with only the clothes he stood up in. It is still thought that his death, by carbon-monoxide poisoning, was arranged by his government enemies, who, in France as elsewhere, have so often shown themselves to be poor losers. For this alone we can elect him to the Hero shelf, but his novels – perhaps especially Thérèse Raquin – earn their place on their own merits as ripping yarns. Talking of which, why ever do we not have

merci, the person who drew this

merci, the person who drew this

Alexandre Dumas’s Trois Mousquetaires? It is pacy, gripping and funny: and as the years go by I have very nearly got over my childhood disappointment that it is not, despite my slight misunderstanding of the title in French, about mice.

What of the twentieth century? I’m not sure that anyone, either side of La Manche, reads Colette these days, but both Chéri and Gigi have been huge best-sellers in their time. Let us have Le Grand Meaulnes instead: and we could do a lot worse than pop a copy of Proust on our shelf, even if it is with intention rather than determination (why do long books, or series of books, so make us quail?). And we must have some Simenon: we will get nowhere on our great project of Trying to Be French if we only read classics – although, of course, Simenon’s Maigret is a classic. And so, quite rightly, is Franҫoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. It has something of the same affecting ability to capture the world through adolescent eyes that I love in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding: but in plot, if not in atmosphere, it is darker.

And we could have a very French evening in, with a bottle of wine, some fabulously garlicky sausage, and a film. My choice? A tough call, because j’aime French films: but the best celebration of Paris that I know isn’t French, but Hollywood: Woody Allan’s Midnight in Paris. It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, and it’s quietly thought-provoking. But you can’t not see Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule, so if you haven’t, that’s your evening sorted. Santé.midnight-in-paris5

Week 19: Thank You and Other Letters

Ah, the erasing hand of time.  As a small person at school, I remember being taught at some length, in obsessive detail and with cartloads of repetition, how to write a formal letter.  My address top right, their address a little further down on the left, hop back to the right for the date, correct spacing for the Dear Mr Thingummy, the anguished question of whether to indent, the social death attendant upon allying a Yours sincerely with a Dear Sir.  My perfect letter-construction may have knocked ‘em dead in the past, but now that job applications, complaints about the utter uselessness of whatever you have been foolish enough to purchase and even correspondence with your representative in Parliament are all done by email, Facebook or Twitter, I think the time has come to focus the rear-guard action on teaching the necessity for and advanced techniques of writing letters of thanks.

posting lettersYou and your angelic poppets have of course already trotted to the post-box with your Christmas thank-you letters.  You know as well as I do that they should be hand-written up to and including the pencil-wielding capabilities of the author – wobbly X and gruesome sketch of parents will do, although less likely to impress your aunt if you are, say, twenty-three.  They should convince as unique compositions and not all-purpose copies: and if your little treasures are thereby inducted into the world of forgery, cheating and bribing others to do their work for them, at least they are learning useful skills for the modern business world.  The ideal (we did agree we’d talk about advanced techniques) thank-you letter manages a paragraph about something other than all the other presents received.  The consolidating-the-place-in-the-will letter even remembers to ask after the health and well-being of the recipient and her family, dogs and memorable friends.

So, this week we need some role models. And, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that Francis Scott Fitzgerald is your man (and may I take this opportunity to urge you to see Woody Allen’s sublime Midnight in Paris, (a) because it is perfect in every way imaginable and (b) because it includes the enchanting Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott F).  He sent a letter of great clarity to his daughter Scottie, instructing her on what to write to the woman who had given her a coat, and what to write in a letter to him that he could then show the giver of the coat.  No wonder we remember the man as a genius.

Letters between parents and their children can make bitter-sweet reading.  In the last year, Darling Monster, Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius (more from him in a moment), made for considerably more charming reading than Roger Mortimer’s Dear Lumpy, a sequel of sorts to Dear Lupin (and therein lay the difficulty, for me anyway: I felt that he was infinitely more critical of his daughter than of his son).  Letters about the family can be purest treasure, as anyone who has The Paston Letters by their bed in case of midnight wakefulness (and who has not?) can confirm. Bright Star, the collection of love letters and poems by Keats, had for me the slight disadvantage of, well, being written by he who Byron rather unkindly (but you could love him for this alone) referred to as ‘little Johnnie Keats’.  Reading someone else’s love-letters should be, by definition, a squirmingly embarrassing experience anyway, and re-reading your own (whether written or received by you) sadly nearly always falls into the same category (reader: if you look back at his/her letters, written to you many years ago now, and neither laugh out loud at the sentiment nor murmur, ‘Who was he/she?’, then yours is a love of the true and lasting sort).

Incidentally, even the most syrupy love letter from your past will have the stuffing knocked out of it if you are as unwise as to follow the advice of some websites and write a love letter to your child.  You will understand that, as with all deeply disturbing material on the internet, having stumbled upon it I hastened on with eyes averted, so I cannot pass on the precise recommendations, but I think the authors are labouring under the deranged belief that a letter written by you, sealed in an envelope and kept for your little ones to open when they are adults will bring emotions to the fore.  Well, you can’t argue with that.  Just don’t be surprised when your adult children never visit you again.

Letters between friends are all the better for being less freighted with emotion.  84 Charing Cross Road is rightly a classic, if a jolly slight one, and Virginia Woolf was a correspondent to cherish: but one of the most enjoyable published exchanges is the collection of letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor.  They are particularly splendid when you know that, asked to list her ten favourite books, Deborah Mitford unhesitatingly chose Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water, announcing that she had never read it because she knew she would miss it so once she had finished it (she also petered out at six books, which shows a pleasingly high qualifying bar).

P12 Days of Christmaserhaps best of all are letters of complaint or rebuke.  Sadly, this takes us back to letters from parents to children, of course, but the barkingly mad letters written to newspapers provide more straightforward entertainment.  And, keeping the flickering flame of the Christmas season alive as we falter to the end of the year, let me recommend to you the shrewdly realistic Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich (told you), gloriously illustrated by Quentin Blake (hurray!), in which our heroine writes her thank-you letters for the partridge, the pear tree, and all the assorted flocks, herds and swarms that follow.  Good luck with your letter-writing.

Week 13: the Banned and the Burned

It’s always nice to get feedback (yes, this means you).  Ideally, rave reviews and letters that offer unstinting gratitude for the way in which the author’s writing changed lives for the better: but even negative responses show that someone, somewhere, has at least read you and cared enough to hit back.  Scant comfort, perhaps, for the books that have been banned, burned and traduced across the centuries, but they are eloquent testimony to the fact that books matter.

book-burningThe Nazi book-burnings – and what a difference a hyphen makes, doesn’t it?  I would happily warm myself at the glow of Nazi book burnings – were organised by the oxymoronic German Student Association, who had not learned that you cannot call yourself a student if you burn books.  As well as the usual dreary roll-call of Nazi paranoid fantasy – writing deemed to be Jewish, obviously – they turned their incoherent fury on books that were Un-German.  That seems quite limiting.  Can they really have burned everything that hadn’t originated within their (admittedly fluctuating) national boundaries?  The estimate that only some 25,000 books were burned  – yes, only: some must have been multiple copies and, as your bookshelves and mine bear witness, 25,000 is not a lot of books – suggests that this wasn’t a very thorough purge, and in my optimistic hope for redemption for us all, I like to imagine that just maybe there were one or two young people who were insufficiently carried away by all that heat and fire and, picking up a childhood favourite, hesitated for a moment and then tucked it quietly behind their copy of Mein Kampf.  But spare a thought for the books that weren’t burned.  Bertolt Brecht was famously – well, incandescent – that his work wasn’t influential enough to be worth a match.  In a marvellous short poem, ‘The Burning of the Books’, he demands, ‘Haven’t my books/ Always reported the truth?/ And here you are/ Treating me like a liar!’ (incidentally, if you haven’t read any of Brecht’s poems, start now: the best of them are tiny crystal-clear scenes, at least as good as any of his plays and perhaps destined for greater longevity).

Burning is a lot more theatrical than banning (and goodness, how the Nazis loved a little bit of camp theatricality), but bureaucracies across the world have enjoyed a good ban whenever they get the chance.  Usually, their targets are depressingly guessable, their reasons ditto, but sometimes, as when Lebanon banned the alleged book (James Naughtie’s priceless phrase, making him a god in the NorthernReader household) The Da Vinci Code, it feels like a case of right book, insufficient reason. Dear Lebanon, it isn’t only offensive to Christians; it insults the intelligence of anyone who can read (the endless adjectives, the dreary predictability of what passes for a plot). And before we get too carried away on a wave of let’s-hear-it-for-Lebanon, may I remind you that Ann Frank’s Diary is also banned there, for portraying Jews favourably.

I am in some ways delighted to discover that Australia has at various times imposed a ban on the oeuvre of Jackie Collins, hinting at a rich cultural aesthetic not normally paraded by a nation best known for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.  Censors of Australia, I salute your good taste, but I still deplore your tactics.  Have confidence in your engaging and well-educated citizens: they will spot rubbish when they see it, and are unlikely to be willing shellers-out of good Australian dollars on dross.  Ireland, too, has an un-proud tradition of taking umbrage at books that it feels slight its image.  Oh, the irony: which image do you prefer, Ireland?  Being the nation that Edna O’Brien writes about (Ms O’Brien, it seems, has only to let her pen brush across a piece of paper for the book-banners to be saddling up), or being the nation that is so culturally insecure it can’t bear a tiny bit of criticism?  The Roman Catholic church has had the grace and humility to move on from its book-burning past and tends now towards sniffiness and bad reviews: less spectacular, perhaps, but an awful lot more grown-up.

And grown-up-ness – in the sense of a rational, balanced response to things we don’t much like – is surely what we should be aiming at.  So let’s have no more of book-banning, formal or informal. Yes, it is tempting to bring your little darlings up with minds unsullied by what you perceive to be the banalities of Blyton: but, Hell, no child yet died from reading a Famous Five, nor were any moved to go out and subjugate as a result: and a really large number of children learned to read with confidence and enjoyment by wading through the simple prose of the Adventure books.  And then they moved on and found other things to read.  So before we start compiling lists of books to ban, it is worth remembering that people read perceptively, subtly and in complex and multiple ways.  Because I read a book, it does not necessarily mean that I think it is good.  Why should it be?  I might enjoy it precisely because it is undemanding/infuriating/mildly entertaining/soporific.  And I think I should, at all costs, be kept away from compiling lists of Good and Bad books: so perilously close – don’t you think? – to demanding a world that conforms entirely with my world view.  And then I start to hear ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’: as Woody Allen put it, ‘every time I hear Wagner I feel like invading Poland.’  No, read what you like: and be grateful, endlessly grateful, that you can.

Week 2: a new term starts here

Ah, back to school. Strange what time does.  As a child, probably the most revolting words in the English language are, ‘Well, off to school bright and early tomorrow morning’.  For a parent, the unarguable awfulness of a return to getting up in the dark, finding socks and gym kit (which, it is a well-known fact, has its own private alternative universe where it is much happier than in your house) while simultaneously making a packed lunch out of the three things your child will eat and listening to a stumbling rendition of  Biff Chip and Kipper (Oxford Reading Tree and highly recommended, by the way, on the scale of learning-to-read series that won’t make the parents cry with boredom), is more than made up for by the wonderful realisation that the little poppets are going to be out of the house for five days a week between now and Christmas. And even more oddly, when adults look back on their own childhoods, it is often through a fog of sentiment out of which phrases such as ‘best days of our lives’ loom.

Well, I loathed school on the whole. But I did enjoy reading about people who didn’t, especially in the really rather splendid Malory Towers series by (whisper her name) Enid Blyton.  Actually, no, let’s not whisper her name: let’s shout it from the rooftops.  Enid Blyton gets a lot of children reading.  I think it’s the heady mixture of simple and repetitive text and the delicious aura of disapproval with which she is shrouded in the middle-class home.  Aah, forbidden fruits.  Anyway, Malory Towers made me (briefly and spasmodically) yearn to go to boarding-school.  It also, equally briefly, led me to believe that Darrell was a cool name.  Which, of course, if that is your name, it is.  But for the rest of us ….

School tends to get a cheeringly bad press in fiction.  Dotheboys Hall, anyone?  Or, indeed, any of the refreshingly unsentimental establishments whose alumni include David Copperfield, Jane Eyre or Billy Bunter.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned H. Potter.  This is partly because I suspect you may have heard of the saga already, but mostly because the Northern Reader household lost the will to live somewhere in the middle of volume 2.  Much more fun, and – crucially in this part of the forest – much shorter, are Jill Murphy’s splendid Worst Witch books.  Mildred Hubble is a considerably more down to earth (apart from the broomstick, obviously) character than Harry, and a lot less given to going everywhere with an implied soundtrack of dah-dah DAAH.  This seems as good a place as any to come out as allergic to Tolkien while I’m at it.  No, come back ….

After school, university.  Dear first-year undergraduate, here is your reading list.  You will learn – or you will if you are on a humanities course of any description and if it is any good – that reading lists are neither prescriptive nor proscriptive.  But try some of these on for size:

Malcolm Bradbury The History Man.  It really was like this, then.  Exactly like this.

David Lodge  Changing Places.  The scene in which academics play ‘Humiliation’ by trading lists of books they haven’t read is painfully funny (especially if it could – so easily –   be you).

BridesheadEvelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited.  It probably wasn’t much like this, even then.  But it is wonderful.  And, unusually, the TV adaptation is every bit as fabulous.  Do not, under any circumstances, watch the film.  You have better things to do.  Knitting, for example.  Or cleaning someone else’s oven.

The fictional university that sounds the most fun is in Ankh-Morpork.  Unseen University has featured in some thirteen Discworld novels in Terry Pratchett’s startlingly long oeuvre.  A splendid mix of anarchy and bureaucracy, it features the best university librarian you will ever encounter.  Eat your heart out, Umberto Eco: this knocks spots off The Name of the Rose as a seat of learning (but read The Name of the Rose as well: and anything you can get your hands on by Umberto Eco.  We’ll talk about reading books in translation another day.  Try and stop me).

You’ll have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Zuleika Dobson.  That’s because I haven’t read it.  We’d better talk about books we haven’t read another day too. Anyway, ZD may be wonderful – do drop me a line and let me know – although I have to confess to a suspicion that she, and it, may be a trifle tiresome.

For an education of a different sort, read Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale (yes I can, so I do, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t read it in English, in which case it is, of course, Sentimental Education).  I offer you two reasons for reading this: one is that Henry James thought it a bore, and the other is that Woody Allen doesn’t. You decide.