A vintage car, Middlemarch and hedgehogs

Not having blogged for a while, this post includes a somewhat random collection of subjects. There will be short stories and more paintings again next time.

First, can anyone identify the make of this English car of the 1920s? Olive's Car MJ

Next, while I blush at the years that have passed before I got around to reading Middlemarch (George Eliot), I finally accomplished this. If I had read it as a schoolgirl, I might have been a better writer, but hopefully it is never too late to have an improving influence. Eliot has a way of lightly skewering a character onto the page, with the result that they are forever real in your mind. There are no saints or villains to be seen; every character has strengths and weaknesses, can fascinate or disgust.

A few words on Mr and Mr’s Vincy’s relationship with their daughter, Rosamund, tells so much about all their characters.

Vincy, blustering as he was, had as little of his own way, as if he had been prime minister,…

Rosamund… listened in silence, and at the end gave a certain graceful turn of the neck, of which only long experience could teach you that it meant perfect obstinacy.

 And Bulstrode’s endless rationalisations are a total giveaway of sanctimonious hypocrisy.

… is it not one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another to accept an investment in an old one?

The fates treat everyone with impartial kindness or cruelty according to random whim. Yet  the plot is tight, intricate, totally believable and immensely satisfying. This is exactly what the title implies, a novel woven round a community, and yet this is no old-fashioned pastoral, the individual stories still grab you today. People’s mistakes and aspirations are still recognisable today. I’d better stop. Basically, Eliot has all the skills I am striving to acquire and my envy of her is too blatant.

I started Middlemarch in high summer, but autumn has more than set in. The hedgehogs are still feeding; we almost tripped over one last night, snuffling just outside the back door. He scuttled off, but returned quickly when I put food out. They will not eat in the rain, so if it is wet we put the plate under the back porch. Finally, my favourite rose, Just Joey, has decided to have a final summer fling and the cosmos chocamocha is flowering madly. DSCN6632 - Version 2


The Glass Room

I have just read Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

DSCN4746 - Version 2As a writer I am gagging with envy. As a reader I am one satisfied customer. The book is set in Europe between 1928 and 1990, with the meat of the story taking place during WWII. The frame of the story is a dream modern house (which actually exists), built in the 1920s for a private family, during the short-lived Czech Republic. Although the style of the house and the spaces it creates are central to the story, it is the characters that grab you, entertain you and make you care about their fate.

The language is immensely rich, graphic and easy to read. It is haunting, but never sentimental. It depicts some of the richness and beauty of the spaces we live in. If I have a caveat, it is one I often find in male writers, an inability to resist depicting one or more women as a vamp. Mawer’s particular vamp is one of the most interesting and entertaining of the characters, so I am not really complaining. Her very boldness allows him to say things that most characters would not get away with.

I can’t work out if this is a heartbreaking story or one of hope, which sounds strangely indecisive*. The coverage of war experiences, however fictional, is in essence true and devastating. The longevity of an idea, embodied in the Glass House and persistence in survival of the human race under a variety of repressive regimes as well as war, are elements of hope.

*My discussion group are in no doubt that it is heartbreaking.

writing magic

A few weeks ago a friend lent me a book she had been unable to put down.


John William’s book Stoner sets out from page one to kill expectations. The tone is matter-of-fact, and the novel opens with Stoner’s death at the end of a clearly unremarkable life. This life is led almost entirely within the walls of an American university, though, crucially, Stoner is the only child of a small farmer.

So why has it become a bestseller here in the UK? The prose is mesmerising in its clarity and simplicity. The life it unfolds is unpromising in modern terms; bare, unambitious, and with few happy contributions from chance. Yet, this is an extraordinary and moving novel. I have rarely felt more sympathetic towards a protagonist. This remains true, in spite of the fact that much of his experience is marred by the limitations of his own personality. His background and upbringing are hidden shackles which the reader continues to hope (and not in vain) will crumble just a little some day.

It is also a story about the ordinariness of love and the magic of the written word.

The Railway Man

Yesterday I went to see the film of The Railway Man (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada). Last night I re-read the book on which it is based that came from my father’s shelves.

DSCN4650The film was a moving depiction of a man finding redemption late in life, through the love of a woman who helped him to confront his traumas and finally to meet and even make friends with one of the men responsible for his traumas. It is ‘based on’ rather than an exact version of the true story.

The film also does two important things:

It renews my shame, as a UK citizen, at being even distantly connected to inhumanity of Guantanamo Bay and what the American military are still doing there. We have in the last twelve years thrown away the right to condemn any other nation for treating people inhumanely.

It gives me hope that people have the capacity to forgive their enemies, if they can only meet and talk.

The film is only a brief window on a relationship in trouble and the torture Eric Lomax underwent during interrogation. What the film does not, cannot, do is give the full long-term picture of what Eric Lomax and thousands of other men suffered as Far East POWs and the suffering consequently visited on their families when they returned. After lengthy torture, Eric spent a year or more in unimaginable squalor and imposed silence in Outram gaol. After release, first in India, he met the ignorance and indifference to his their sufferings that blighted these men’s lives – a lady volunteer who suggested that since they had been POWs during most of the fighting, they must now be anxious to ‘do their bit’. In England, so much had changed. Eric’s mother had died in 1942 and his father had remarried. People had suffered and were not keen to revisit, let alone deal with, something that was over and done with.

The book, not surprisingly, tells a more profound, detailed and informative story. There are many tributes to the book. Ian Jack of The Guardian writes: ‘This beautiful, awkward book tells the story of a fine and awkward man.’

The darlings he killed

A fascinating and salutary article about how life can sometime rob a writer. Mark Lawson, journalist, broadcaster, writer has had both fiction and non-fiction books snatched from him, half-written, by a variety of circumstances. In a his article he talks about each of these lost enterprises with modesty, humour and insight.


Novel People – Faulks on Fiction

Faulks on Fiction (Sebastian Faulks) is the kind of book you are so unwilling to stop reading that you read every last word – and discover that he would have preferred the title Novel People. 

This is a book about the people who inhabit fiction and it has walked straight into my personal favourites’ list for two main and several minor reasons. First, he uses, with delicious freedom, exactly the right word for what he wants to say. This is non-fiction, so Faulks is not constrained by his potential reading public or his characters’ vocabularies (or even an ageing brain) in his choice of words. He does not use obscure words, simply the right ones. The writing is also entertaining and fully accessible to the layman.

Secondly, as a reader and writer, to have all these characters from classic fiction (some of which I have read and others not) opened up for me to investigate both as people and as examples of their roles (e.g. hero, villain) in the stories they inhabit, is pure joy. This provides an extra dimension for a re-reading or a first reading of such books and an invaluable lesson in anatomy for a struggling writer.

The sections and chapters can be read separately and if you loathe Amis or love Austen (or vice versa) you can dip in and out. I find it very satisfying that he distances himself so convincingly from the ‘fiction is autobiography’ school. He has chosen a good eclectic mix of characters over the whole life of the English novel and he scans wider horizons each time he selects one.

Do I have any quibbles? My feminist side might have asked for a few more female writers. This book is a trawl through significant writers of the last two centuries. It will I hope become a school text. Many female writers are mentioned, but far fewer women than men make the cut and that saddens me. So Woolf, Zadie Smith, George Eliot and Mary Renault are mentioned, but Byatt, Murdoch and Drabble, for instance, don’t get a look in. These are not writers for whom I carry a flag and Faulks is very clear about the reasons for his selections. Also many great male writers are missing too. Still I am sad.

I will re-read this book over and over again. I will keep it among my dictionaries and style-guides for reference as a writer. I think it speaks usefully to writers of every level. As a reader, I will pick my way through the books it unwraps and that I have not yet read. As you can see I am struggling to put down.

Leo Tolstoy & Nick Hornby

I was going to title this Tolstoy versus Hornby, but that’s not what I mean.

Having recently finished Anna Karenina I picked out of my bedside stack a Christmas present (at least two years old) of Nick Hornby’s Juliet Naked. I had started it once before, but as the subject matter appeared to be the insane fan worship of a has-been rock star – not exactly central to my interests – it got queue-jumped.

I hesitate to admit it, but my enjoyment of my in-bed morning reading has now risen sharply. Hornby’s language is a chuckling delight. For instance, the fan and the colleague he has inadvertently started sleeping/living with arrive at work together: “Gina kissed him goodbye, on the lips, and squeezed his bottom playfully while colleagues watched, stupefied with excitement.”

Of course, Hornby is a lighter read than a Russian classic. Tolstoy’s people and the period are distant, and his use of language may well have lost some of its verve in translation. Also, while I was reading Anna Karenina, I did enjoy it, but there is relief in finding a character springing off the page in a sentence or two, and of internal monologues that make me smile in recognition (and don’t last for five pages).

With Anna Karenina there is a vast and satisfying depth to the characters, but so little humour and how much I miss it (and how difficult I find that in my own writing). It is difficult to love a character if you don’t get to smile while reading about them.

Anna Karenina, a mixed reception

We discussed Anna Karenina last evening. Tolstoy apparently described his book as sentimental, ‘serving no purpose’ and ‘bad’. Writerly modesty? Nerves? Depressive reaction?

At a simple level I would agree that there is sentimentality in Anna Karenina, but I can see no reason why a book should have to ‘serve a purpose’ and something that has stood the test of time and criticism so well is surely not ‘bad’.

That said, several of our group were not impressed, at least two had given up at an early stage, some were barely half way. Others felt (as I did) that Anna was not the main character, though the consequences of her actions created fallout for most of the other characters. The characters, as depicted by Tolstoy, would have survived and behaved as they did if Anna had not even existed. This, for me, was the most potent effect of the book. Each of the main characters whirled on his or her own axis, internally consistent, baffled, enraged, delighted by the other characters, but not changed. This does not mean that they did not develop, only that their development was internally driven.

All the major characters went in for thought, and boy did they think a lot. Large tracts of the book are taken up with internal monologues. But this is how we are – at least this is how I am. Life is an endless guessing game, through which we each have to navigate solo, but some of us are luckier in our companions than others. Anna is unlucky; Kitty and Levin lucky. Others, such as Vronsky, Alexei, Sergei, Stiva, and Dolly have mixed luck in their companions, but vary a great deal in the uses they make of it. There is some inconsistency in the characters and their behaviour, but I buy that too. I think that is real, though a modern writer would struggle to get away with this.

We were an elderly bunch discussing the book and there was short shrift given to ‘the passions of youth’ and little sympathy for Anna, who was seen as choosing sex (though no one spelled it out) over her love for her son. For me there was something timeless and classical, about Anna’s situation. In a marriage in which passion played no part, she was as much a victim of passion when is hit her as Phèdre (c’est Venus as sa proie toute entiere attaché), consumed by Venus before she had understood the danger. From then on, there were no right choices for her and tragedy was inevitable.

Levin, like Anna, came in for some stick. His prickly behaviour, mood changes and endless existential angst made some want to strangle him, for others he was a loveable innocent – and the main character. On reflection, I can’t think of many characters I felt fond of (Agafya springs to mind), though I had no trouble feeling sympathetic.

As we were an all-female discussion group, it’s no surprise that Vronsky was dismissed as, not so much the villain more, the standard badly-behaved man. Stepan – Stiva, in the same grouping, was barely mentioned. Personally, I thought Stiva’s mixture of self-absorption and charm was interesting, and the dinner party where he mixed tricky personalities and managed to smooth social discomfort, was one of (or the?) book’s highlights. But would such a selfish man have had the empathy to behave like this? If he had empathy, would he really have treated Dolly as he did? I guess empathy and selfishness are not mutually exclusive, a successful con-man would possess both. Alexei, got less attention than expected. An essentially unlovable character, Tolstoy works hard to give him his due without, at any stage hiding his cruel and vulnerable self-justifying behaviour.

On the whole Tolstoy avoided authorial generalisations – but sometimes as here… ‘This playing with words, this concealment of the secret, held great charm for Anna, as for all women.'[my italics] he succumbs to a personal belief. Tolstoy also tackled such a vast number of existential worries, that you could take home any number of ‘messages’ from the book and adapt them your own belief system, perhaps that is one reason for it’s enduring popularity. Towards the end, talking of Levin, he says. ‘He lived (without being aware of it) by those spiritual truths that he had drunk in with his mother’s milk…’ (culture). Yet Levin goes on to worry that if he did not know that he should live for God, not for his needs: ‘I would rob, lie, kill.’ Yet again he also recognises the essential fallacy of this statement as he realises that other religions, other outlooks don’t make people more or less likely to rob, lie or kill.

This has now become a ramble on the experience of reading Anna Karenina, so I shall stop. I am glad to have read something that both daughters have so consistently praised. I may post again after discussing the book with them.

writer’s balancing act

A rejection yesterday; today a request to discuss my first novel, A Small Rain (out of print), with a book group. In yesterday’s paper a brief article by a literary agent complaining about capricious, deadline missing, needy, rude authors. I want to put my hand in the air and shout, “Please Miss, please Miss, take me instead. I work happily to deadline’s, I don’t do rude, or writer’s block and…” but she’s not listening.

However many books I finish, I always seem to be reading three more. Current trio are Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, James Shapiro’s Contested Will (good scholarly look at the history of Shakespeare doubters) and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.

Warm, sunny, windy spring day. Gardened to exhaustion.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – part 2

We had a group discussion of Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist last night and I left feeling faintly troubled. Most people wanted to talk about the subject matter – leading off into all sorts of world views and favourite gripes. I had been knocked out by the use of language and the writer’s skills. One of the consequences of writing, which has both an upside and a downside, is that your perspective changes. You can’t help, even in the most absorbing of stories, becoming aware of the writer’s craft skills. I used to regret that total loss of self as I read, now I relish it.

That wasn’t the only disquiet I felt. I thought Hamid had taken us, very skilfully, by the hand and led us from a world perspective we shared into one that we mostly fail to understand and yet are worried by/curious about. The curiosity and worry were certainly shared by my fellow readers, but I am not sure they had all come on the same journey. Part of this is the assumption that the writer is the protagonist – an almost unshakeable belief held by so many readers – and this led them to mull over who Hamid is, and where his allegiances lie.

Having said that, the story is so concentrated – while appearing to be deceptively straightforward – that each person had noticed (or read about) aspects of the story that the rest of us had missed. I will certainly need to read it again. Perhaps I should lay aside my concern as there was a general vote to read another book by him.