Friday, 2 October 2015

The 1924 Club

It’s been a while since I wrote anything here, but I seem to have been busy doing all sorts of other things, and never did get round to post reviews on some of the bools I read for All Virago, All August. My track record on joining in challenges and read-alongs is not very good I’m afraid – I always seem to fall by the wayside. However, that doesn't deter me and, like many other bloggers, I can’t resist The 1924 Club, jointly organised by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings.

 They want us all to spend a week in October reviewing books published in 1924, and they say we can include posts which have already appeared, as well as ‘new’ reads. My first reaction was one of sheer horror, because I cannot recollect when any of the books I’ve read were written or published. But when I looked at some of the suggested titles, and the ideas listed by other bloggers, I realised I’ve already written about some books from 1924 (Pink Sugar, by O Douglas, for example). And a quick rootle through the shelves revealed Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street (which I’ve read) along with The Rector’s Daughter, by FM Mayor (which I haven’t) and Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph (ditto). So I should have something to write about between October 19 and 31, which is when The 1924 Club takes place.

The idea, according to Simon and Karen, is to get everyone reading from a particular year. “It could have been many different years, really,” explains Simon on his blog. “But 1924 seemed to have a lot of significant works published, as well as generally being an interesting time. If the project is a success, we can repeat it in the future with other years.”

You’ll find all the details you need at Simon and Karen’s blogs (just click on the links above). They will issue posts so you can link your reviews, and a final round-up, so each participant can see what everyone else has read.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Frost in May

Virago Modern Classic Number 1: This is
the 1991 edition, with an introduction by
Elizabeth Bowen. The cover shows a detail
 from Girl and Flowers by Dod Procter.
 Antonia White’s Frost in May, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the very first Virago Modern Classic, published in 1978 after being out of print for many years. I’m not sure why it has passed me by until now; for some reason I think I was under the impression I’d read it long ago. But I must have confused it with something else - I would definitely have remembered this, because it made me so angry.

Written in 1933, it’s a fictionalised account of White’s own childhood, telling the story of Nanda Grey’s time at a repressive Catholic school. Her fall from grace, and the way her spirit is finally broken make for painful reading. And these days the rules governing the girls’ daily lives would probably be regarded as an abuse of human rights.  Is this an accurate portrayal of a convent school I wonder? Did nuns really treat their pupils like this? How could they be so cruel in the name of religion? What about compassion? And whatever happened to the idea of a loving, forgiving God?

It’s not that the nuns at the Convent of the Five Wounds are physically cruel to their young charges: they play psychological mind games which seems somehow worse. And there’s a kind of drip-feed brainwashing because everything in the school relates to God – even the rooms have religious names, and there are pictures and statues, and edifying (but often horribly gruesome) stories about saints and sinners.

The nuns, who see themselves as instruments of God, demand unquestioning obedience to themselves, to the school, and to God. And they have very odd ideas about education. Mother Radcliffe, the Mistress of Discipline, explains:

We work to-day to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.

Nanda (short for Fernanda) is nine when she arrives at the exclusive girls’ boarding school. She is ‘one of those children who cannot help behaving well’. She wants to please, to fit in, but she is too good, which makes the nuns suspicious. t’s surprising how quickly she adapts: when her parents visit at the end of the first week she already feels ‘unpicked and resewn and made over to a different pattern’.

And there’s a lot of making over to be done. There are all kinds of regulations. There are no
Author Antonia White.
mirrors, the girls must never be naked, and they sleep flat on their backs, with hands crossed on their breast, so if the Lord calls them in the night they are ready! Close friendships are forbidden, so girls cannot go about in pairs. Letters to and from home are vetted, and the girls are watched all the time.

At night the girls opt to show their piety by placing stockings in the form of a cross on top of their neatly folded uniforms. And they indulge in small mortifications, like washing in cold water, and putting salt instead of sugar on their rhubarb, or stones in their shoes.

Lessons, like the girls, must bend to the will of God. Most story books are deemed unsuitable (unless written by Catholics); science is a dubious area, because most scientists are wrong; poetry is fine for the glory of God – but not for personal enjoyment. But poetry and passionate friendships arouse feelings in Nanda that her religion cannot provide. Even her First Communion, eagerly awaited as the biggest day in her life, proves a disappointment. Nevertheless, her faith doesn’t waver:

She accepted the Catholic Church whole-heartedly and tried hard to mould herself into the proper shape of a young Catholic girl. […] She could never, she knew, break away without a sense of mutilation. In her four years at Lippington it had grown into every fibre of her nature; she could not eat or sleep or read or play without relating every action to her secret life as a Christian and a Catholic.  She rejoiced in it and rebelled against it.

That seems to reflect the experience of many Catholic writers – perhaps it’s that tension which enables them to be creative?

Despite her efforts to fit in, Nanda has an independent streak, which sets her on a collision course, and when she is finally sent away, on her 14th birthday, Mother Radcliffe tells her:

Every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God’s will. And there is no other way. That is what true education, as we see it here at Lippington, means.

There are all kinds of things I haven’t mentioned: the girls themselves, who are all utterly believable; the constant ringing of bells; curtseying; gloves; the smell of beeswax and incense; cabbage drowned in vinegar, and the sense of being shut away in an enclosed community which becomes more real than the world outside.

Virago non-fiction:There's Something About
A Convent Girl, published in 1991. 
After finishing Frost in May, I re-read There’s Something About A Convent Girl, a Virago anthology edited by Jackie Bennet and Rosemary Forgan, because it makes an interesting companion piece, containing a brief history of convent schools, and varied recollections from former pupils. Some contributors, like Maeve Binchy and, surprisingly, Germaine Greer seem to have happy memories of their schooldays. Others, like playwright Mary O’Malley (author of Once A Catholic), hated the humiliations, the lack of kindness, the bigotry, and the feelings of guilt about sex and life in general.

Her view of convent school life echoes that of Virago founder Carmen Callil, who says she can never forgive the nuns at her convent for the way she was treated. She’s particularly scathing about the view of the Catholic Church on suffering, especially in relation to women, and she gives a moving account of her feelings when she first read Frost in May:

I was absolutely suffused with misery and agony and fury as I read it because I identified with it so much. It told what I felt to be my own story. Not that it was my own story, but the suffering it conveyed and the feeling of mindless repression that the child couldn’t deal with because the child couldn’t understand what was going on and what the reasons were. I felt so strongly about it I actually invented Virago Modern Classics to enable me to publish that book. The world had to read the book again.
I think she’s right, and I’d urge anyone to read it, because Frost in May is beautifully written, with some wonderful characters, and it’s as valid and relevant now as it was when Callil reprinted it, and when Frost wrote it. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Book Buying in London!

Book boxes outside Any Amount of Books.
I’ve been to London for a couple of days visiting my Younger Daughter, and although I didn’t make it as far as Persephone, we spent a happy afternoon exploring bookshops in Charing Cross Road. I guess their main business must be from the rare books – collectibles, first editions, curios and so on, and they’re fun to gaze at, but way out of my price league. However, there are shelves full of second-hand paperbacks (slightly more expensive than the average charity shop, but the choice is much better). I was very restrained, since trekking around London carrying lots of books is not a happy experience, and I had to travel back home on the train, with my backpack full of clothes and stuff, and didn’t want to struggle with too much additional luggage!
Window shopping! Outside Henry Pordes - inside is wonderful, a real
Aladdin's Cave for book lovers 
In Any Amount Of Books (which really does live up to its name) there were lots of irresistible green spines, and I pounced on A Woman of my Age, because I’m on a bit of a Nina Bawden thing at the moment. This one is about Elizabeth and Richard, on holiday in Morrocco, and Elizabeth’s account of ‘the desert her life has become’ is reflected in the barren landscape. The blurb on the back goes on to say the novel is about marriage, families, expectations and betrayals, and is written with poise, with and charm. Has anyone read it? Does the description match the book?
And I found Pirates at Play, by Violet Trefusis, which I bought it because it has a fabulous cover - a portrait of Nancy Cunard by Guevara – and I know this is not a good reason for buying a book, but I loved Hunt the Slipper, and I’m sure I will like this, which is described as a romantic comedy set in the ‘frenetic, fantastical Twenties’.
Henry Pordes Books was fabulous, a real treasure trove, with even more old Viragos (and lots of other books as well, but I’m collecting VMCs). Anyway, I succumbed to this:
It replaces my 1974 edition of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, which I bought new all those years ago after watching the TV drama starring Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton – does anyone else remember seeing it? It was kind of timely, since I hunted for the book to re-read after reading The Land of Green Ginger, and found it when I started reorganising my bookshelves. But, like so many of the books printed during the 1970s, it has not worn well, and now looks like this:
I had great difficulty tearing myself away from Henry Pordes – I could have spent a great deal of money in there (if I’d had a great deal of money, and if carrying purchases home was not a problem). But I limited myself to two volumes, and after much thought selected The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, an author I’d not come across before. I read a bit in the shop, and thought I might enjoy it, and I liked the cover, and it has an introduction by Germaine Greer! Apparently Henry Handel Richardson was really Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, and this novel is about Laura Rambotham and her life in a Melbourne boarding school.
And, as something completely different, my daughter and her boyfriend took me to Gosh!, the comic bookshop in Soho, which is very bright and cheerful, and unlike any other bookshop I’ve ever been in, two floors full of comics and graphic novels and such like – definitely not a genre I know anything about, but interesting nevertheless. And there are kids’ books, and arts books, but I don’t think there’s much you’d find in a traditional bookshop – the books all seem to be different, edgier somehow. Anyway, I couldn’t resist this, which is a bit of an extravagance, but it makes me happy!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Time To Tidy The Shelves...

LibraryThing and Viragoing for August has gone to my head I think. Have started trying to tidy bookshelves – not something I attempt all that often! Now have two rows of Viragos and Persephones, which may not look a lot, but they’re double stacked, so there's a complete row of green Viragos behind the grey Persephones. (all my books are double stacked – no room otherwise). Who thinks I shuld put these in alphabetical order?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Land of Green Ginger

Another Virago for LibrayThing’s All Virago All August challenge. And I think this one will do nicely for the What’s in a Name challenge over at The Worm Hole – it’s my entry for a book with the letters ‘ing’ in the title. And it fits the bill for Yorkshire, for Reading England 2015 (which you can find over at Behold the Stars).
The Land of Green Ginger, by Winifred Holtby.
Not, alas the 1983 Virago, but a 2012 edition,
with a Yorkshire Dales British Railways Poster
 on the cover, which I quite like.
As a small child Joanna Burton is entranced when she passes a street called The Land of Green Ginger. Her aunts hustle her on, but the name conjures up something magical for Joanna: 

To be offered such gifts of fortune, to seek Commercial Lane and to find – the day before Christmas Eve and by lamplight too – the Land of Green Ginger, dark, narrow, mysterious road to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa, which was the goal of all men’s longing, where Father lived in a rondavel… 

The heroine of Winifred Holtby’s The Land of Green Ginger spends a lot of time yearning for far-flung, fabulous lands. She is born in South Africa, but her mother dies, and her missionary father cannot care for a baby, so she’s sent back home to England to be raised by her maiden aunts in Yorkshire. 

She is highly imaginative, drawing her knowledge of life from books (she’s in love with Walter Raleigh and the Scarlet Pimpernel), and she dreams of travelling the world to see strange, exotic places. But in 1914, aged 18, she falls in love with Teddy Leigh who tells her he has been given the world to wear as a golden ball. At this point I started thinking of Milton, but it was a golden chain which linked Earth to Heaven – but the golden ball was in the fairy tale about the Frog Prince, and it seems that Teddy is paying tribute to Joanna, who is golden haired, tall, and ‘grandly portioned’. 

Teddy Leigh drew towards her happiness and health as a chilled traveller draws towards a fire. She seemed so young, so strong, so sure that life was good. He, who snatched sudden joys from an uncertain world, looked at her with envious longing. She seemed as strong and stablished as a golden tower. 

It is her vitality, her love of life that attracts him - but in the end those are the qualities he comes to hate the most. For Teddy is a kind of Frog Prince in reverse, who can never be rescued by a kiss. Handsome, charming, debonair, he has TB, but Army medics have passed him as fit for active service and he is off to join his unit, and feels he has been handed life as a golden ball. 

He and Joanna marry, and a daughter is duly born nine months after their brief honeymoon. His visit home on a gunnery course results in a second daughter, and eventually in June 1918 the combination of gas and consumption proves too much and he is invalided out and ends up at the Yorkshire Military Sanatorium, where the true nature of his illness is finally revealed to Joanna (but not by Teddy – he never mentions it to her). 

Unable to return to Cambridge and continue studying for the ministry, he uses an Army pay-out to buy Scatterthwaite, a run-down, isolated farm (at the time it was believed open-air life helped consumptives). However, he and Joanna have no money, no experience and no aptitude for farming. “Small debts prospered as did nothing else on the land,” Holtby tells us. 

Teddy, faced with his broken dreams and broken health, is querulous, selfish and demanding. Joanna struggles to make ends meet as she tries to care for him and run the farm. Eventually, to protect the children from infection, sends them to her aunts.  

The Virago 1983 edition -  I'd love this edition,but
can I justify two copies of the same book, even if
it is a Virago?
Growing shabbier and shabbier, she develops a reputation for oddness – she’s viewed as a bad housekeeper, a bad mother (because she sent her children away), and a bad farmer. As the local curate observes, she looks strange (she is wearing green stockings on the day he calls). And her behaviour is even more peculiar, for she never says or does what you expect. She’s an unsettling sort of person.  

Things get worse when local landowner Sir Wentworth Marshall employs a group of Finns to establish a forestry project. Local villagers resent the foreigners, and tensions build. But the real trouble comes when the interpreter, Hungarian Paul Szermai, comes to lodge with Joanna and Teddy. Joanna has already glimpsed Szermai in the woods, envisioning him as Tam Lin from the old ballad, or a fairy tale eldritch knight.  There is no foundation for the ensuing scandal, but their friendship is misinterpreted - even Teddy suspects them of having an affair – and the story moves inexorably towards what should be a final tragic conclusion. 

I won’t reveal what happens, but somehow Joanna finds herself again, and sets off with her children to pursue her dream. Life is a good bargain, she tells Sir Wentworth.  

I mean, imagine what it would be like if you were dead, and you looked up and saw people acquiescing in life, and treating it like a poor thing, and saying, “You can’t have the best of both worlds,” as a kind of reason for getting the best of none. Wouldn’t you feel cheated? I should. I’d think, “Here am I who’d give anything, anything to be alive again and there they are treating life like a bad bargain.” Why, it’s the best bargain. It’s the only bargain worth buying if you really live. 

Joanna’s struggle to find fulfilment is played out in the aftermath of WWI, and though she is uninterested in politics and social change, things like employment problems and the peace movement are there in the background. They are never intrusive, but I think they inform much of Holtby’s work. I don't know that enjoyable is necessarily the right word to describe it. Compelling would be nearer the mark. But it's well worth reading - I'd recommend it.

*In case you wonder, The Land of Green Ginger is a real street in Hull (Holtby’s inspiration for Kingsport in novel), and is believed to have got its name because in Tudor times it was the place where green ginger, a conserve of ginger and lemon juice, was sold or made.


Saturday, 8 August 2015

Tears, Lies - and Ice Cream!

My 1990 edition of A Little Love, A little Learning. The
cover shows Weisse Vase Mit Heidekraut by Oskar Moll.
The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning, or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pray for. Ellen, our mother, said this was a pretty limited ambition for a girl of 12 and that I ought to have learned by now that icecreams made me sick. Boyd said that was why I wanted them: it was a clear example of a man’s reach needing to exceed his grasp, what else is heaven for?

If an intro grabs me (and this one did – it’s right up there with I Capture The Castle) I can’t put a novel down. Imagine me, if you will, sat on the floor in the Back Room of the Oxfam Bookshop, surrounded by boxes and bags, all stuffed with books that must be sorted, priced and stacked on shelves… But I’ve been sidetracked because I spotted a Virago edition of Nina Bawden’s, A Little Love, A Little Learning, and I opened it (just to have a quick look you understand), and once I started reading I couldn’t stop!

That was some weeks back, and I didn’t get round to writing about it, but I notice the Virago Modern Classics Group on LibraryThing is running its traditional All Virago All August challenge, so this seems an apt moment to post my thoughts.

A Little Love, A Little Learning is a brilliant book. I loved it. And if you’ve never read any of Bawden’s work for adults (she seems to best known as a children’s author) it’s probably a good place to start. It is 1953, Coronation Year, and we are in Monks Ford, a small, suburban town on the banks of a Thames tributary, about 25 miles from London. Factory hands have jobs in Slough, while office workers commute to London. It’s a perfectly drawn picture of lower middle-class life, with all its values and social mores, in that particular location, at that particular time, and Bawden captures the feelings of uncertainty and ‘not-belonging’ that can over-ride everything else when you’re young.
Our narrator is 12-year-old Kate, poised on the threshold of adolescence, trying to make sense of the world around her, her feelings, and her changing body. She lives with her sisters, Poll (7), who is going to be Elizabeth I in the Coronation Pageant, but would rather be Henry VIII, and Joanna, who is almost 18 and worries about getting old. Their mother, Ellen, loves them, but finds it hard to express her feelings. For her life is a serious business, and she has sterner ideas about bringing up children than most mothers. Their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor, is wise, kindly, loving and sensible.

In many ways he and Ellen are surprisingly modern for their time. For example, they believe in telling the girls the truth, especially with things like the correct medical terminology for parts of body, and the facts of life - but they conceal their own pasts, which impact on the present.

However, the past comes to light, and tensions surface as Kate and Joanna struggle with the process of growing up. No longer children, but definitely not adults, they are surprisingly mature and understanding about some things, but unable to cope with their own feelings or those of other people. Facts are half understood, and they fail to grasp the consequences of their actions.

Boyd’s abilities as a doctor and his standing in the community come under scrutiny when he inherits money from an elderly, reclusive woman who knew him long ago when she was a spirited young woman and he was a lonely child – a situation fuelled by Kate's lies. And the tale of Ellen’s life with the girls’ vanished father and her relationship with Boyd (which breaks the social codes of the day) is revealed when her old friend Aunt Hat comes to stay, so Joanna tracks their father down and invites him to visit.

Aunt Hat, ‘as soft and sweet as cake’, has undergone a hysterectomy and has been attacked by her husband, who is now awaiting trial for assaulting her stepson from a previous marriage. Unlike Boyd and Ellen, she doesn’t hide her past – she almost revels in it. To all intents and purposes she still loves her violent husband and excuses his behaviour. Kate and Joanna are aware that ‘she doesn’t always see things as they are, but as she would like them to be’. She, and other characters, modify the truth to suit their vision of the world.

This difference between what you feel and what you think you feel, between life as it is and life as we would like it to be, runs through the novel, raising questions about truth and illusion, delusion and lies. And there are issues about the nature of relationships, between friends, between husbands and wives, between parents and children.
The themes may be serious, but the book is funny, and sad and touching. Boyd, Ellen, Joanna, Kate and Poll pull through and emerge a little sadder perhaps, but stronger and wiser, than before, still a family, but with more self-knowledge, and more awareness of the things that matter in life. Kate, especially, develops an understanding of Boyd and what he has done for them over the years.

He had given us everything, without asking, and we had given him nothing; he had looked after us, and we had grown, taking his youth with us; he taught us things, played with us, held bowls for us to be sick in, and we had done nothing back. We had not even thought of him, we had lied, deceived, and between us brought him to the edge of ruin and disgrace, but we had not even thought of him now: we had been sitting drinking tea and eating chocolate cake.

I couldn't resist this picture of an ice cream sundae from my mother's
Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium, published in 1954 -
at that time knickerbocker glories in a café or ice cream parlour
were a much more exotic treat!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

A Doomed Love Affair

I’ve never read any Elizabeth Bowen before, and I didn’t quite know what to expect from The House in Paris, with its themes of love, sex, betrayal, growing up and the search for identity. To be honest, after reading it I’m still not totally sure how I feel about it. It’s one of those books that left me a bit cold really, because somehow I didn’t quite connect with it or relate to any of the characters.  I didn’t hate it, but I certainly didn’t love it. It was an ‘almost’ book that I almost liked, but not quite. Even so, I can appreciate the quality of the writing, the restraint and subtlety, the observations of those quiet moments which seem so understated you almost miss them, but you know they’re pivotal, that something has shifted, and things will never be the same again. It’s kind of oblique - nothing is ever spelled out, motives are never clear, and even the ending is ambiguous.  

A 1976 Penguin edition of The /house in Paris.
In the first section two children are spending the day in a house in Paris. Henrietta, aged 11, is between trains, en route from London to her grandmother in the south of France. Leopold, two years younger, living in Italy with his adoptive American family, is awaiting the mother he has never met… but she never arrives. They are in the charge of Miss Naomi Fisher, half English and half French, dominated by her bedridden mother. 

Then we move back in time and the tragic events of the past slowly unfold as the tensions builds. The Fishers once ran a small ‘finishing’ establishment for wealthy American and English girls, including Karen Michaelis, who became friendly with Naomi. The two meet again when Naomi travels to England with her fiancé Max, a charming young man who has a very odd relationship with her mother. In Paris Karen disliked and feared him. Now she is besotted with him, and he with her. They see each other twice more – once when Karen goes to Boulogne for a meal with him, and again when they spend a night together in England. When Karen discovers her pregnancy she turns to Naomi for help so the birth can be kept secret, and her son handed to others who will care for him. Afterwards she marries Ray, the man she was originally engaged to. 

Finally, we’re back in the present, when Ray arrives in place of his fragile wife (and without her knowledge) and provides some kind of resolution for poor, lonely Leopold. 

All the characters seem lonely and disconnected, searching for a love that they never find,
Author Elizabeth Bowen.
trying to establish their own identity in a world they cannot understand. Adults and children alike are cruel to each other, with words rather than deeds. Even the Parisian house feels suffocating, ill at ease with the people who live in it and the city around it.

That feeling, I think, emanates from Madame Fisher, as clever, manipulative and malicious as ever she was. It is she who tells Max that Karen loves him, precipitating the action that follows. Was it a ploy to prise Naomi and Max apart, to keep him in her power, knowing that despite their passionate natures any permanent relationship between Max and Karen is impossible? But even she can’t have predicted the outcome of the doomed affair and the way Max reacts to the pressures on him. 

Karen is hard to read. Is she ashamed of her behaviour all those years ago? Does she regret giving her child away? Whatever she felt then, she is unable to acknowledge Leopold now. Her reaction to her pregnancy has to be seen in the context of the time. The book must have seemed shocking when it was published in 1935, portraying a woman who pursued her sexual desires and had a child out of wedlock.
Only Henrietta has no connection with the past. She is an onlooker, there because her grandmother is acquainted with Naomi, and knows nothing of the tragedy (which left me feeling emotionally drained). Nevertheless, the day’s events leave their mark on her. 

Today was to do much to disintegrate Henrietta’s character, which, built up by herself, for herself, out of admonitions and axioms, (under the growing stress of: If I am Henrietta, then what is Henrietta?) was a mosaic of all possible kinds of prejudice. 

Leopold is intelligent, spoilt, self-centred, misunderstood, but he is not unloved – he is loved too much, by the wrong people, and yearns for his real mother. There’s a chance of him growing up well and happy if he sticks with Ray. And I know other reviewers believe Karen will join her son and her husband, but that wasn’t my interpretation.  

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Wine of Solitude

The Wine of Solitude, published in 1935,
translated into English by Sandra Smith in 2011,
The Wine of Solitude is a sad sort of book, and although it ends on a note of hope that feeling of sadness remains, because we know author Irene Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz, and it’s all the more poignant since she based the story of Hélène Karol on her own lonely, unhappy childhood, and her troubled relationship with her mother.  

Hélène lives in the Ukraine, with Boris, her passionate, distant father, Bella, her beautiful, uncaring mother, and Mademoiselle Rose, her French governess, who is the only person to love the child. Bored Bella has other interests. With her claw-like nails and her thin, red mouth (like a line of blood), she dreams of Paris, where she can be alone and free.

Looking after the house and her child filled her with horror. She was only happy in a hotel, in a room, with a bed and a trunk, in Paris […]

To hold a man tightly in her arms when she didn’t even know his name, or where he came from, a man she would never see again, that and that alone gave her the sharp thrill of pleasure she desired.         

Hélène also dreams of being free in Paris – free to be a normal child, untrammelled by the restrictions of her oppressive middle-class environment and her unhappy home.

Her penniless mother married her Jewish father because she knew he would make money. And so he does – though whether from his business interests or his gambling gains it’s hard to tell. For years he’s on a roll. He makes millions. The family move to St Petersburg, get caught up in WWI and the Revolution, escape to Finland, and move to Paris. Life is a mad whirligig of dinners, dances and parties. Boris Karol decks his wife with expensive jewellery and fabulous frocks, but somehow there is a sense of impermanence, and they have no real friends, just a circle of hangers-on.

Irene Nemiroskvy
Then there’s Max, Bella’s lover, 15 years her junior, living the good life on Karol money. And what of Hélène, who loves her father and hates her mother, but is neglected by both? Friendless, she stands apart from the world, watching and listening. In Russia she begins to write about what she sees and hears, which provokes a terrible row with her mother. In Finland she falls in love, a brief, tender episode.

And in Paris she sets out to make Max falls in love with her. As she changes from child to woman she exults in her power, but never softens her hatred for him and her mother. Even so, she becomes fascinated by him. At this point it would have been all too easy to let Hélène pay her mother back for all the years of cruelty and neglect by marrying Max. But Nemirovsky is far too good a writer for that, and in a stroke of sheer genius she allows Hélène to exact a far more terrible revenge by rejecting Max and dismissing him from their lives.

Bella is a monster, obsessed with keeping her youth and her looks, her life ruled by diets and beauty treatments. She needs money (and plenty of it) but I don’t think she needs love. She’s driven by lust rather than love – as long as she has a young lover she feels young and alive, like some kind of evil fairy from a folk tale, sucking the life out of her lovers so she can extend her own her own youth. Her husband adores her, and will admit no faults: if he does, his world will come crashing down. He has no eyes for anyone else, not even his daughter. He’s as disinterested in her as Bella is.

According to the blurb on the back, the book has been been described as an end-of-innocence story, but I’m not sure I agree. Hélène is never under any illusions about the adults in her life. What she lacks is self-knowledge. But gradually she becomes painfully aware that she has inherited character traits from the mother she hates, as well as the father she adores.

By the end of the novel she is able to walks out of her old life and into the new, head held high, unafraid, because she is young and full of hope, for the future, and the difficulties of her odd childhood have strengthened her and made her what she is.
But the final sentence stays in the mind, because it must have seemed so uplifting when it was first published in 1935, and no-one knew of the horrors that lay ahead:

She stood up and at that very moment the clouds parted , between the pillars of the Arc de Triomphe, blue sky appeared to light her way.

This is another contribution for Paris in July and the French Bingo Reading Challenge 2015 for Square E2 (Translated from the French)

Friday, 17 July 2015

French Connections

Paris! The Eiffel Tower is an instantly recognisable image of the city, and this
photo (which I took a few years back) conjures up memories of happy holidays.
OK people, I’m still in French mode for Paris in July, so let's start with a photo of the Eiffel Tower I took when I was last there. I look at this and it conjures up happy memories of some wonderful holidays in Paris. Anyway, enough of the past, now it's time for a little frivolity, in the shape of a wonderful colouring book: Tomislav Tomic’s A Walk Through Paris. It’s got a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the front, and the inside is like a concertina, with eight panels opening out into a long panorama of the city’s iconic landmarks, and  ladies and gentlemen in Victorian costume strolling along the boulevards. When you look closely there are all kinds of things going on, like a daring young man looping the loop in his flying machine, a balloonist up above the city,  a man rowing on the Seine, and another on a penny farthing. On the other side of the picture are individual vignettes of the buildings, with brief details about their history, and there’s even a space for you to produce your own artwork.

Apparently Tomic is a renowned Croatian illustrator, and the book stresses that there are no rules. It's your's, to colour in as you choose, using whatever medium you want – pencils, crayons, inks, felt tips…  Or you can leave it blank, and just enjoy looking at it, which is all I’ve done so far, because I’m scared to make start, but I’ve got my pencils ready, and a mug of fresh coffee, and I’m going to make a start. I’ll report on progress at the end of the month!

There’s also a little section explaining why colouring is good for you (adults as well as children!). There’s been a lot of publicity recently about the current craze for colouring books for adults, which some people see as a money-making gimmick. Others say it would be better to draw or paint your own pictures, but we’re not all that artistic.  Personally I think they’re fun. And if you enjoy doing them, and they give you a sense of satisfaction why not? Among other things, colouring is supposed to boost your ability to concentrate, help you relax, and increase your self-esteem. 

Anyway, I promised I would write a few notes about Paris in July and the other French book challenges I've signed up for, with an outline of my Reading Plan.So here goes. Paris in July, now in its sixth year (it's a couple of years since I've joined in) is hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea, and offers scope for all kinds of activities. You can read books (from any genre, fact or fiction), or watch a film, cook a meal, listen to music, walk round an art gallery – anything at all, as long as there’s a French connection, which is why I thought I’d include the colouring book. I spotted it a few weeks back when a friend and I thought we’d try out the café at John Lewis, which does an excellent honey and lavender cake… not French, but delicious nevertheless! At that stage I hadn't really thought of embarking on a 'virtual' trip to Paris, but there's a certain serendipity at work there I think.

And I’ve got a DVD of Marion Cotillard playing Edith Piaf, which I shall watch (again) and cry over (again) because Piaf had such an amazing voice, and led such a sad life. Then, of course, there’s a selection of books, some of which I’ve read during the past couple of weeks, but not written about yet, so whether I’ll get round to everything I don’t know. I’ve got plenty of choice!

I’ve already reviewed Emile Zola’s The Fat and Thin, and I’ve still got to write about The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen (which was on the TBR pile), and I spotted some Irene Nemirovsky novels in Oxfam, including The Wine of Solitude, which is ideal for Paris in July (serendipity again), and back in June I found Tigers are Better-Looking, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys.(see what I mean about serendipity?)  Then I got Edward Rosland’s  play Cyrano de Bergerac, because I heard it on Radio 4 last month. And I’ve been dipping in and out of Paris Metro Tales: A Stop-by-Stop Guide, by Ruth Paget, which is packed with fascinating snippets about the stations and how they got their names. I love anything like that, but I don’t think it’s something I could read from cover to cover!

In addition I've acquired Paris and the Parisians, Frances Trollope’s account of her travels in early 19th century, and Balzac’s Pere Goriot, both of which I’ve always wanted to read.

I must admit that when I looked at my French Collection I was a bit taken aback, because it seems to be dominated by classics and literary fiction – not a live author anywhere, which probably reflects the state of my book shelves! Anyway, I felt I should include something a little more contemporary, so I snapped up  a charity shop copy of The Confectioner’s Tale, by Laura Madeleine, because I liked the cover, and it’s set in Paris, and features a confectionery shop, and the blurb makes it sound quite delightful.

And at that point I got a bit carried away by the whole French thing, because I discovered  the French Bingo Reading Challenge organised by Emma at Words and Peace, which started at the beginning of the year, and finishes in December, so it’s already half-way through, and it’s a bit late to join in. But it looks such fun, and I think most of my books would qualify for this (not the colouring book though!),  so I decided to take part. I keep saying I will read some foreign authors, and not doing anything about it, so this seems opportunity to explore French writers over the next six months, and it will test my ingenuity trying to find books to match the various categories.

There are 25 categories, including a romance set in France, a book by a French author before 1800, a book with the Eiffel Tower on the cover, and if one volume meets the criteria for several different classifications that’s fine (but I think it would be good to read as many different things as possible). If you can’t manage to complete the whole card it doesn’t matter, you can bag a row or column of the various classes, or just snaffle an odd title here and there, as and when you please and see where the game takes you.

I also found Dreaming of France, which is a weekly meme run by Paulette at An Accidental Blog. You don’t have to post something every week  (I think that might be a bit daunting), but you can link in when you have something suitable and, as with Paris in July, it’s not limited to books, because it extols the glories of France and the French, which means I can include my lovely colouring book!

So there you are, three lovely links to French themed challenges, which provide a bit of fun, and an incentive for me to read something different! And one of the nice things about them is that I can see what other people are reading, and pick some ideas, which will be useful for the French Bingo.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Revolution and Markets in Paris

I love Paris, but it’s a while since I’ve been there and, sadly, I’m unlikely to make it this year either, so I’m making do with a ‘virtual’ trip to the city, thanks to Paris in July, a month-long celebration of all things French being organised by Tamara over at her Thyme for Tea blog. As usual I’m behind-hand, even though I signed up in advance, and I’ve actually read several of the books, but haven’t got round to writing anything!

Paul Alexis reading to Emile Zola, painted by Cezanne in 869/70.

So here goes. First up is Emile Zola, who I read as a teenager, ploughing my way through Nana and Germinal because he was a Great Socialist Hero and a Man of Principle. But I didn’t like the books, and I’ve avoided him ever since. However, Paris in July seems an ideal opportunity to revisit Zola, so I’ve opted for The Fat and The Thin or, to give it the French title, Le Ventre de Paris which, apparently, means The Belly of Paris. And before anyone asks, no, I’m not reading this in French – my failed ‘O’ Level may equip me to order a meal and black coffee, or ask for directions, but there’s no way it’s up to the task of reading a book! 

The novel is set in and around the great food market of Les Halles during the middle of the 19th century, in the days of the Second Empire, when France was ruled by Napoleon III. It follows the fate of Florent, who was arrested by mistake after a failed coup against the Emperor in 1851, and imprisoned at Cayenne, in Guinea. Seven years later he escapes and makes his way back to Paris, and it is at this point that the story begins.  

Historical photo of Les Halles from Paris en images, courtesy of 
Parisian Fields

Florent finds shelter with his prosperous step-brother Quenu and Quenu’s wife Lisa. They pass him off as a distant relative, and reluctantly he accepts a position as inspector at the fish market and (less reluctantly) makes friends with a small group of like-minded socialists who spend their evenings discussing politics. They plot and scheme against the government, and one of them acquires a gun, while Florent makes red armbands.  

Their uprising is doomed from the start - there is government manipulation, and agents provocateurs are at work.  But in the end it’s human nature that brings Florent down. Idealistic and naïve, he fails to grasp that people don’t want to be free. They’re happy as they are, they’re deeply suspicious of anything (or anyone) new or different, and they don’t want their lives upset and they’ll do anything to protect their well-being. 

Old scores are paid off, new rivalries are played out, and actions are governed by greed, petty jealousies, and spite. Rumour and gossip abound. Revenge and treachery are afoot. Even the would-be revolutionaries worry about their status, and as Florent becomes important previous leader leaves.   

Florent unwittingly becomes a focal point for people’s fears and unrest. All their resentments and hatreds seem to focus on him, and there’s an unacknowledged conspiracy against him, as if he is in some way responsible for all the ills of society. By the time he is caught and sent back to Cayenne there’s a sense that he is a scapegoat, punished so others can thrive and enjoy themselves.  

An old postcard showing market women in Les Halles. From

He’s definitely not a hero in the conventional sense (it’s fair to say there are no heroes or heroines in this novel) and he’s a very unlikely revolutionary. He’s ineffectual, a thinker rather than a doer, a sensitive man who finds it difficult to make friends. He’s had a hard life, but he makes hard work of it, if that makes sense.  

There’s a cast of wonderful (if unlikable) characters, like placid, self-satisfied, passionless Lisa Quenu, constrained by her corsets and her outlook on life. Set against her is the tempestuous fish girl Louise, unrestrained in behaviour and appearance. And there are market traders and shopkeepers, malicious gossipy old women, street urchins, and a host of others, all brought vividly to life. Standing apart from all is Claude Lantier, the artist who befriends Florent, and warns him about the battle between the Fat and Thin, the haves and the have-nots.  

The real hero of the book (if there is one) is the market of Les Halles. There are glorious descriptions of the huge wrought iron and glass pavilions and the vegetables, fish, meat and cheese piled high in market stalls and shops.  It’s very sumptuous, very sensual, very enticing, but very overpowering. There’s a surfeit of riches. You feel sated reading about it, sickened by the excess. When Florent comes back to Paris he is starving in the midst of all this. He remains thin, and is abstemious about what he eats, so the theme of hunger and gluttony, poverty and riches, fat and thin is maintained throughout the novel. 

Zola writes about the: 

… luxuriant fullness of the bundles of artichokes, the delicate green of the lettuces, the rosy coral of the carrots, and dull ivory of the turnips… 

Or what about this description of a butcher’s shop: 

There was a wealth of rich, luscious, melting things. Down below, quite close to the window, jars of preserved sausage-meat were interspersed with jars of mustard. Above them were some small, plumped, boned hams. Golden with their dressings of toasted bread-crumbs, and adorned at the knuckles with green rosettes…  

And I love his account of the hot soup seller: 

Along the covered way women were now selling hot soup and coffee. At one corner of the foot-pavement a large circle of customers clustered round a vendor of cabbage soup. The bright tin caldron, full of broth, was steaming over a little low stove, through the holes of which came the pale glow of the embers. From a napkin-lined basket the woman took some thin slices of bread and dropped them into yellow cups; then with a ladle she filled the cups with liquor. 
A soup stall in Les Halles - customers used the cups, and handed them back
for the next person. I downloaded this and lost the reference.

But there’s something faintly sinister about the richness, and Quenu’s kitchen made me feel positively queasy with its: 

…perfect battery of deep copper saucepans, and swelling funnels, racks of knives and choppers, rows of larding-pins and needles – a perfect world of greasy things. In spite of the extreme cleanliness, grease was paramount; it oozed forth from between the blue and white tiles on the walls, glistened on the red tiles of the flooring, gave a greying glitter to the stove, and polished the edges of the chopping-block with the transparent sheen of varnished oak… 

As you read on you become aware of what lies beneath the surface: the rotting vegetable, the slaughtered animals, the blood dripping and running through the market – symbolic, perhaps, of how Zola saw the government. 

The novel was worth persevering with. It was interesting and, on the whole. I enjoyed it, although there were times when I was overwhelmed by the long descriptive passages (not something which usually bothers me – it’s one of the things I love about Dickens). Some episodes didn’t seem to add anything to the story. But I will read more of Zola’s work. 

This made me realise how woefully ignorant I am about French history. I did discover there really was a coup against Napoleon III in 1851. Reprisals were very harsh indeed, and hundreds of people were transported to penal colonies in South America, where conditions were notoriously bad. 

Napoleon III was responsible for the way Paris looks today. He ordered the massive rebuilding programme undertaken by Baron Haussmann, and the market (designed by Victor Baltard and constructed in the 1850s) was part of the modernisation. 

But if there was a Napoleon III there must have been a Napoleon II, so who was he, and what happened to him? And how come the French, having staged a revolution and established a republic, abandoned ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ and ended up with an emperor? And how did the country become a republic again? I need a decent book on French history…

PS: Just came across a French Bingo Reading Challenge 2015 at Words and Peace, It looks interesting, so I'm giving that a go as well! There are 25 ideas for books with a French link, so I've marked this off for 'part of a series'. And I reckon it qualifies for Paulette's weekly meme, Dreaming of France, at An Accidental Blog - though I'm not sure how long I can sustain my 'French Connection'! I'll post a bit about all three challenges, and what I'm hoping to read, later in the week. (Edited July 15, 2015).