Last weekend I went to visit my parents in the Forest of Dean and took advantage of the lovely weather to go for some long walks in the countryside. From Littledean we walked uphill to some fields overlooking the River Severn (above) and from there past Blaize Bailey to Cannop Ponds, which we hit just as the sun was setting (below).
Castle Dor by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier
Well what a contrast to my previous read. After lingering for two weeks over The Evenings, I raced through Castle Dor in 24 hours. Was it a case of the right book at the right time, or is it just a cracking good read? It is Daphne, after all.
Except that it’s only sort-of Daphne. This book was started by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (better known to many by his pen name Q), who Daphne knew a little as her near-neighbour in Fowey, but he was much older than her, so it was his daughter Foy (named for their beloved home town) who became a close friend of Daphne’s. When Q died in 1944 he left behind one final unpublished work of fiction: the first half of a novel retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult, set in 19th-century Cornwall. Some 15 years later, his daughter Foy persuaded Daphne that she was the perfect person to finish the book.
Knowing that in advance, it is certainly possible to spot the signs that different hands start and end the novel. But it is skilfully done, with no obvious seam. (Apparently Q’s manuscript was left mid-chapter, even.) I can tell you that the opening chapters felt more flowery and more scholarly than any Daphne du Maurier book I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them now). And the closing chapters had a touch of the supernatural, even spiritualism, that felt very Daphne and certainly hadn’t been so prominent in the book. But the join between the two felt entirely gradual and invisible.
The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett
After the emotional onslaught that was A Little Life, a comedy first published in the 1940s seemed like the perfect next read. But perhaps this was exactly the wrong choice at that moment, because I did not enjoy this.
Set in Amsterdam in the last few weeks of the year (presumably 1947, when it was written) this is the story of Frits van Egters, a young office worker living with his parents, trying to stave off the boredom of the long winter evenings. He is irritable and melancholic, prone to dark, violent thoughts and fantasies.
Frits has plenty of friends to call on the time of, which is perhaps surprising considering how rudely he speaks to them, verging on bullying at times. But he is also something of an entertainer, talking a lot, telling tall tales, passing on gossip and encouraging others to do the same. He drinks, smokes, listens to music, goes to the cinema, but is always dissatisfied.
This book has consumed my life for a month. It is often sad, upsetting, shocking even, but I still wanted to dive back in as soon as I could whenever life dragged me away from it.
This is a big book, and it takes a while for its main themes to become apparent. Although I knew quite a bit before I started reading, I’m going to avoid spoilers here.
We open with four men in New York, good friends since college, now in their late 20s and trying to put their stamp on the world. Willem is an actor, making most of his money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant. JB is an artist, trying to find his subject. Malcolm is an architect, working long hours, dreaming of the day when he will have his own projects. And Jude is a lawyer at the public prosecutor’s office, not really making enough money to live in Manhattan.
I’ve been thinking lately about different forms of storytelling, particularly in computer games, and this new digital book feels like a natural extension. It’s an app, beautifully designed by Charlotte Hicks with botanical illustrations stretching vines and tendrils across the screen between chapters. You can swipe from chapter to chapter and read the story consecutively, or you can close each chapter after reading it and explore the map, opening chapters in the order of your choice.
The story is narrated by a girl in her last summer before going away to university. She lives in a small British hamlet, working at the local cattery. It’s the 1980s, complete with references to the music of Queen and Paul Simon and other luminaries I grew up with. The narrator reflects on her school and home life, on her friends and their homes, on the landscape she lives in.
I have been meaning to read this for years, and especially so since I added it to two of my reading lists: Classics Club and the Luke Cake Reading List. I finally bought a copy after seeing the Gordon Parks photography project of the same name in Berlin last year (Parks and Ellison worked together on the project for LIFE magazine), which was a really moving experience.
The novel is also moving, but equally brutal and shocking. It opens and closes (aside from the slightly abstract, essayistic prologue and epilogue) with its most shocking scenes. The un-named narrator starts out as a successful scholar whose family can’t afford to send him to college. His one chance is to impress the local rotary club – i.e. powerful rich white men. At the club he finds himself in a group of black young men who are stripped to their underwear and forced to fight each other while blindfolded. Afterward they are made to scrabble on the floor for their pay. It’s upsetting, humiliating, dehumanising, and the outcome is that the narrator is given a scholarship to a black-only college. It seems that his life is set.
I only recently discovered Tove Jansson. I didn’t grow up with the Moomins and it was probably only five years ago that I realised she was a woman. What I am now discovering is that she was a fascinating and talented woman. Jansson illustrated anti-fascist magazine Garm in the 1930s and continued to work as an artist throughout her better-known writing career. There is currently a retrospective of her art at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, which I hope to visit. Her books have a gentle, nature-loving heart and yet still manage to deal with some really tough subjects.
My first Jansson read was The Summer Book and I loved it. It’s the semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl who summers on an island with her (largely absent) mother and her grandmother. Next, I read a collection of Jansson’s short stories Letters from Klara, which are often sharply funny and switch easily from light to dark. Then I finally turned to her best-known creation: the Moomins.
I’ve written here before about appreciating the art in computer games and discovering narrative games. Since then I have played a number of small indie games that play with storytelling in very different ways. Here are a few that have stayed with me.
It’s now two years since Tim and I played Her Story and it remains a real high point. The interface looks like an old (early 1990s) computer console and it’s supposed to be the police database files from one particular case. All you have is a search bar where the results are video clips from a suspect’s interrogation. You’re given a hint of what to search for first, which also serves as a clue to the crime that has been committed. The video clips are actual videos, starring actress Viva Seifert. The story is really well told, even in short, out-of-order clips. It touches on fairy tales, family and some pretty dark stuff. I loved this so much I insisted on finding a way to watch every single video clip, long after we’d figured out the story.
After finding myself in a bit of a reading rut in August, I tried a few things in September to get myself reading again. I tried YA, rereads and graphic novels. It all helped, and now I’m back on track and have made headway in a couple of long books: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and A Little Life by Hanna Yanagihara. I think both will be challenging and upsetting, but hopefully also rewarding.
This week, Tim and I took a holiday at home, making a little more of our lovely city than we’d usually fit into one week. We went to the Old Vic theatre, the zoo, the Arnolfini art gallery and a very funny science show called You Can’t Polish a Nerd. Plus some great restaurants, our favourite pub quiz and some very lazy lie-ins. It was pretty great and definitely relaxing.
And then September becomes October, and autumn is most definitely here. Time for some Daphne du Maurier, if I can get through the Ellison and the Yanagihara quickly enough.