To define happiness, its one clean note

Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh

When I spotted this title in the Penguin Press Newsletter it wasn’t so much Bergman’s name that attracted me – though she was a great actress and some of her films are deservedly classics – but that of the other half of this brief affair – war photographer Robert Capa. Photography interests me as a hobby and as an art form and I was interested to see how that would be handled within a novel about one of the medium’s legendary names.

It’s a great story that has all the right ingredients for becoming a great film, but it didn’t immediately click for me. Despite a dramatic, well judged opening that contrasts Capa parachuting into enemy territory and being shot at in March 1945 with Bergman receiving an Oscar in a glittering ceremony in Hollywood, I found myself noticing the writing, tutting at all the similes that would have served better as metaphors and the slightly obvious parallels drawn with photography wherever possible:

“…involuntarily she repeats the way Pia had wrinkled her nose, closing both eyes at the same time as though taking a photograph.”

However, I think perhaps I just took a while to get over the fact that these were real people and that I had been expecting something that felt a bit more like historical fiction or even biography. Because this is solidly a novel, ascribing thoughts and fears and feelings to its characters and even using first person for about half of the narrative (always as Capa). And as I gradually got pulled into the story I began to thoroughly enjoy it and even to pick out well written passages:

“We watch as the light rises, giving the world shadows. The grey shapes of the trees on the boulevards hold their breath for the heat of day. And behind the buildings the sun comes up with its liquid edges.”

The bulk of the story is set in Paris, where Bergman is sent to entertain troops and Capa is based in-between assignments. Greenhalgh does a good job of describing Paris, primarily in a romantic light but with the occasional touch of realism, such as very funny observation about a high class cafe having a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and Capa imagining all the fancy ladies in their high heels squatting over the filth and being impressed by them emerging looking flawless.

I must admit, and this may be largely my own cynicism, that I found the early descriptions of the affair saccharine to an annoying degree:

“I don’t know whether it’s the music or Ingrid sitting there, her spoon poised over her ice cream, but everything merges at this moment – the leaves, the sunlight, the scent of vanilla, the street with its sliced shadows – and if I had to define happiness, its one clean note, well, this is the closest I’ve come to it.”

For me, it was everything else in their lives that captivated me, for instance when Capa had flashbacks to wartime and was terrified and yet would profess later that day a desire to get back to work, meaning another war. Or descriptions of Bergman making films I know and love, such as Notorious.

Perhaps I would have been better off reading biographies of these people and an anonymous love story, but the one advantage this novel does have is that you know from the start (or at least I did) how it ends, you know that this was not the only love either person experienced in their lives, nor even the most dramatic one, and yet while it lasted it was all those things and more, because that’s how life and love are. And I do now want to go back to Capa’s photographs and Bergman’s films, which is after all their legacy, not who they loved.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published November 2012 by Penguin Books.

She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best

by Noel Streatfeild

This is one of those books that I wished didn’t have to end, though in a way I was glad that it did because it’s the tale of a downward spiral. It’s also a beautiful book physically, being my first (finally!) read from Persephone Books.

End paper gorgeousness

Streatfeild is famous for her children’s books, especially Ballet Shoes, but she also wrote books for adults, though they never sold as well. This may possibly be the pick of the bunch but Saplings is so wonderfully good that I am saddened it’s the only one of Streatfeild’s novels for adults currently in print.

It’s a clever, sharply observed book about children, family and war. The Wiltshires are a happy, comfortable middle-class family, with two parents, four children, a nanny and a governess, a home in London and holidays to the seaside. But from the first pages the potential cracks are there. The adults are worrying about the inevitability of war and whether London is a safe place for children. The father Alex worries that war will take him away from his family. The mother Lena worries that she will have to go with the children when all she wants is to be at Alex’s side. The baby of the family, four-year-old Tuesday, frets because the adults are clearly worried, while 11-year-old Laurel mixes together war-time fears with more mundane worries about school:

“She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best. As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions…It didn’t matter being the plain one at home, people were used to it. If only she had managed to be super at something, then she could have gone to the Abbey School carrying her ability like a screen.”

The story follows the family from summer 1939 until summer 1944, such a short time but of course one of huge change for Britain as a whole. Streatfeild never tries to extrapolate the wider changes going on, she simply illustrates them through the Wiltshires and their extended family and friends. Things do not just suddenly fall apart, the descent from happiness is gradual. Some of it is unavoidable – evacuating the children to their grandparents’ house and then to boarding school, for their own safety. But a lot of what happens is far more subtle. Things aren’t said that should be, expressions are misunderstood, situations are mishandled. It is a heartbreaking study of avoidable unhappiness. And I thought this passage a very good description of a panic attack:

“He saw the attacks as if they had shape. Huge, black and soft, ready to fall on him…First he felt a tenseness in his diaphragm, which got steadily worse til he was hard in front, as if he were made of wood. Then he had a sinking sensation. The people around him were still there but on a different level, beyond reach…he had to get away alone and let the attack reach its climax. Then everything swam before his eyes, his heart beat quicker and quicker, there was thumping in his ears…”

The prose in insightful rather than poetic but once I realised that the slightly irritating idyll of family life at the start of the story was both part-facade and about to break apart anyway, I was carried along by the momentum of the story. Streatfeild does not keep surprises or mysteries up her sleeve, the narration is open in a way the Wiltshire family never can be. If anything this lesson may be repeated a little too often, but it is such a realistic one, touching on both the stoicism of wartime and the very English habit of keeping one’s emotions to oneself. She does allow herself a few characters who know the children well enough, or are just observant enough, to see what other adults don’t, but the wartime setting keeps these saviours away for long periods.

And without wishing to give anything away, everything is not alright in the end. Bad things have happened and those who are in a good or safe place know that it may not last. This was, after all, published while the war was still going on, and after several years of “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” optimism had faded, even when things were finally going well for the Allies. But also, the two oldest children, Laurel and Tony, have grown up over the course of the story and are 16 and almost 15 at the novel’s close, so they are seeing the world differently in more ways than one.

This is a story full of heart, and completely on the children’s side. Even the best of the adult characters gets thing wrong from the children’s perspective, and Streatfeild shows how a thoughtless word or imagined slight can lead to months of real misery. I wanted so badly for things to suddenly be all good, but of course life isn’t like that.

I chose this book after reading Liz’s review and it was bought for me by my very loveliest friend H who took me on a special trip to Persephone Books a few months ago. Thanks to both of them!

First published 1945 by Collins.
Published by Persephone Books in 2000.

Sunday Salon: Do you re-read?

The Sunday Salon

Re-reading is one of those subjects that comes up every now and again and every time I say wish I did, I just never get round to it. But that’s a rubbish excuse. I mean, if I don’t re-read, then what’s the point of my beautiful library (except as a repository for the ever-expanding TBR)? I have friends who re-read all the time, who return to certain books over and over again, and I can definitely see the appeal.

I was listening to an old episode of Books on the Nightstand in which Ann and Michael discussed how they don’t re-read and I recognised some of their excuses: too many new books – both in terms of the excitement of new books and the pressure to keep up – but also the fear that a book that was a perfect read the first time round won’t live up to the memory of it on re-reading. But I must also admit that blogging is another reason I don’t do it. Because it’s a lot harder to review a book on a re-read. Or at least, it can be.

For instance, I just read The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for, I think, the third time. Not only have I read it before, and all of its sequels, and watched the TV series and the film (though sadly never heard the radio show) but it’s also become a firm part of our culture, from the Babel Fish online translation tool to our local secondhand bookshop Beware of the Leopard to everyone’s favourite number being 42. There’s even a Towel Day every year to celebrate the work of the late Douglas Adams. This weekend, while going round our neighbourhood arts trail (here’s my post about the 2010 trail) I spotted that the sign next to the Norwegian waffle window included a joke about Slartibartfast, which made me grin like a loon.

How do you review a book like that? It’s not far off when I read a book for book group and on my way to the meeting I’m desperately trying to think of something more clever to say than “I liked it”. But then, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is exceptional, surely. Not every book I want to re-read is going to be quite so…well, brilliant.

Of course, when I was a child and even as a teenager I re-read all the time. My copy of Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh is in pieces I read it so often, and I’m frankly amazed my other most-read favourites The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverley Nichols and The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter (yes yes, I loved a book based on a TV series) didn’t end up in the same state. I think I did buy new copies of a couple of Roald Dahl books that were getting tatty. But then I hit 16 or so and stopped re-reading as often. And the books I have re-read as an adult – most of which were for book groups – I have still only read two or three times, as compared with the at least 50 times I must have read the three titles listed above.

Of course, I do have less free time now. And I do challenge myself more (sometimes, at least) with my reading choices. And I am aware of the limited time I have versus all of the beautiful books out there that I have yet to read. But still, it is both comforting and rewarding to re-read and once again I conclude that I should do it more.

What about you? Do you re-read?

Time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it?

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

This book has left me puzzled. I was happily reading it, enjoying the slow, thoughtful prose, and then the last page happened and I thought, “What?!” Is that a standard sign of a Booker prize winner? Or is it just my standard reaction to Julian Barnes?

It’s a little difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away. It’s so short, only 150 pages, and is one of those books where you could say very little happens, or that a lot happens. Which is fine. The language is beautiful, measured and philosophical.

Briefly, narrator Tony Webster is retired, divorced, but generally happy with his ordinary life. Then something happens (and we don’t find out what until halfway through) to remind him of his childhood friend Adrian. Adrian was always the brilliant, serious, passionate one and Tony muses on the lost passions of youth, love, friendship, life and death. There’s a lot of musing.

“The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

Through flashback, Tony revisits his childhood and early adulthood. During the story he is led to question his memory, not just of events but of other people’s experiences of the same events. Which isn’t exactly original, but it’s done reasonably well.

“I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

The storyline annoyed me but the writing was provocative, intellectually stimulating. I’m glad I read it but I’m not sure I rate it as highly as other Booker winners I’ve read. I know a few people have said that it’s a book that demands re-reading so perhaps I should do that to see if I missed something?

“It ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011.

Each of us has only a quantum of compassion

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by John le Carré

Audiobook read by Michael Jayston

Many years ago I was sent a free copy of this novel (I think as a welcome gift to one of those book-buying clubs; I loved those when I was a teenager with my first part-time job) and I turned my nose up at it. It sat for years on the bookshelf and is probably still there at my Dad’s house faded and unread. Then when the film came out last year one of the newspapers offered the audiobook free to its readers, so I downloaded the mp3s and finally got round to listening to it over the past few weeks.

I have discovered more about me and audiobooks, I suspect, than I have about the book itself. Because it turns out I’m not great at listening to audiobooks, especially not during my commute (when I usually listen to podcasts). My mind wanders; I don’t always have a free hand to turn up the volume when the traffic noise drowns out the narrator; if I see someone I know I get chatting and fumble over hitting pause. I had more success listening to it at home while doing housework or, my favourite discovery, while having a bath (so much better than getting a nice book wet!). But even when giving it my full attention without distracting background noise, I still struggled a little. I think I just don’t take in information as well audibly as I do when I read it. I missed being able to flick back through the pages to check a name or other detail. I missed marking quotes I liked. Which was a real shame because there were some gems in here. I cribbed these off Goodreads:

“’I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,’ Smiley went on, more lightly. ‘Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things.’”

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

For those who haven’t read the book/seen the film/watched the TV show, this novel follows George Smiley, a spy who was forced into early retirement from MI6, as he is persuaded to help former colleagues track down a mole within the British ranks. Le Carré really brings alive the day-to-day existence of a spy, often humdrum, occasionally explosively exciting, always suspicious. I loved the language of Le Carré spycraft – how MI6 is “the circus” because it is (fictionally) located at Cambridge Circus in London; how babysitter, caretaker, janitor and mother are all euphemisms for jobs within the circus (there are others too that I missed; see this list for more); and terms I remembered from the brilliant children’s book I had of spycraft, which I think was a forerunner of the Usborne Spy’s Guidebook.

The story is heavily political, with real ambiguity about whether any of what any of the spies is doing is of use to their country, or humanity at large. There’s a lot of men talking in rooms, as I believe Mark Kermode said of the film, and what action there is is in flashback. There are two main narrative threads – the main one following Smiley and an occasional one following a former spy called Jim Prideaux, who is now working as a schoolmaster at a boarding school in Somerset and has developed a sweet facsimile of a spymaster–apprentice relationship with one of the boys there. The latter thread was more immediately accessible and has made me interested in Le Carré’s earlier novel A Murder of Quality, which sees Smiley investigate a murder at a boarding school. (Incidentally, I hadn’t realised this wasn’t the first Smiley novel and now hope I can read the earlier ones without plot points having been spoiled for me.)

Michael Jayston’s narration was spot-on and it was only a small surprise to discover that he played a main role in the 1979 TV series. I loved his voice for Smiley, a quiet, almost bored, quickly forgettable tone perfectly in keeping with Le Carré’s description.

I wish I could properly assess Le Carré’s writing but, aside from knowing that there were many brilliant phrases that stood out for me, I don’t think listening to the words allows me to be sure of my reaction the way reading them would.

First published 1974 by Hodder & Stoughton.

We invent memories without thinking

Before I Go to Sleep
by S J Watson

I think this may be one of those books that is best not analysed. While reading it I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, was gripped even, but since putting it down I have been picking it apart.

The story is that of Christine who has an unusual form of amnesia whereby she is only able to retain new memories until she falls asleep, so each morning she wakes up not knowing where she is or who the man lying next to her is. Every day this man must explain that he is her husband Ben and that she is 47 years old, not in her early 20s as she feels. The novel begins with her meeting a doctor who gives her a journal he says she has been keeping. On the first page is written “Don’t trust Ben”. And so begins a rollercoaster ride of paranoia and uncertainty.

“The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I came to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”

The writing is simple, effective and without flourish. I did not mark any notable quotes while reading but I didn’t cringe at anything either. It’s a thriller that does its job and does not try to be any more than that. Which is fair enough. And I was hooked while it lasted.

“We’re constantly changing facts, rewriting history to make things easier, to make them fit in with our preferred version of events. We do it automatically. We invent memories. Without thinking. If we tell ourselves something happened often enough we start to believe it, and then we can actually remember it.”

But when it ended I began spotting plot holes, mostly relating to the ending, so I won’t discuss them. One failing is that the majority of the book is supposed to be Christine’s journal, but it doesn’t read like a journal at all. Another failing is, I suppose, a product of the amnesia plot device: Christine has no real character and all the people she meets essentially seem the same to her – friendly-seeming but potentially lying and therefore slightly creepy.

There are some criticisms I have heard from elsewhere that I don’t agree with. While the form of Christine’s amnesia seems too good to be true for a thriller writer, it is actually based on real-life cases (the author’s bio says rather vaguely that he worked for the NHS). And a few people said they guessed the end and were therefore disappointed. While the ending was one possibility that occurred to me early on, it wasn’t the only one. I probably won’t re-read this, but it was a good read at the time.

Published 2011 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld.

Sunday Salon: Speed reading

The Sunday Salon

I have had wildly varying reading speeds lately, and this has set me thinking. Are the better books the ones that slow you down, that make you re-read sentences or even paragraphs? Or are the books that you read in one or two settings in an engrossed daze actually better?

In September I started reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. It took me more than a month to finish. I worried that I had lost my reading mojo. And admittedly I did find it hard, but I thought the language wonderful. And so clever. I feel enriched for having read it.

In the past few days I read Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson (review here). I was absorbed and raced through it, eager to get to the end. And once I did I felt satisfaction with the story. But the language had at no point caught my eye and I’m already beginning to forget the book.

In some respects I enjoyed Before I Go to Sleep more. And as a thriller it did for me exactly what it set out to do. But I would absolutely state that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is the better book, without question.

So I’m trying to work out if this is a general rule or just these two books. Is there always more value in the books that slow you down, encourage you to notice the language and savour it, or can quick reads be equally good? I certainly know I like to read some of both. How about you?