Today x, y and z came to visit

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street:
Letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952–73

edited by John Saumarez Smith

This is the first collection of Mitford letters that I have read, after a couple of years of build-up, and I must confess that I feel a little bit let down.

Nancy Mitford briefly worked at the London bookshop of the title, before her writing career took off and she moved to Paris. The bookshop was started by, and for many years run by, Heywood Hill. Their correspondence lasted from 1942, while Nancy was still working at the shop, through Heywood’s sale of the shop and subsequent retirement, right up to Nancy’s death. From friendly but businesslike beginnings, they became firm friends and confidantes.

Between Nancy Mitford’s reputation (and indeed my great enjoyment of her novel The Pursuit of Love) and the bookish basis for the book, I had high hopes. I imagined an 84 Charing Cross Road with added gossip and celebrity shoulder-rubbing, and to an extent that’s true, but this book almost entirely lacks the charm of Helene Hanff’s classic. While both Heywood and Nancy are clever, witty and bookish, their letters seem to be largely composed of lists of people who they have visited/who visited them, most of whom are famous or aristocratic or literati (or all three).

Now, this may be down to the editing, which I was not impressed by. Smith also worked at the shop, starting there just before Heywood’s retirement, and struck up a friendship with Heywood and his wife, so he is not an impartial outsider. He is even mentioned in some of the letters. He has heavily cut the letters – ellipses abound – and added lots of explanations in square brackets, but he has not changed anything. So there are varying styles for book titles or emphasis, and abbreviated names are left abbreviated. I am sure it would have been acceptable to readers to spell out all those ampersands and contractions (seriously, text messaging was not the first time people wrote in their own shorthand code to one another) and it would have been a sight easier to read.

What he has done is summarise the first nine years of letters and occasionally throughout he adds in italics his summary of a letter or exchange of letters rather than the originals. But he hasn’t explained some events that are obliquely referred to – a falling out between the Hills and Heywood’s successor at the bookshop, for instance, which comes up often but is never explained. There are also bookshop/publishing terms used often and only a couple of these are explained. (What on earth is a Rainbird?)

Between Smith’s interjections, footnotes and a bibliographical index, there are a lot of different ways of filling in the details of the large cast and it felt bitty. A lot of the letters have been cut down to half a page or less and I constantly got the feeling that the better half had been cut out. There was certainly very little that was personal left in. I understand that in places a letter had been lost and Smith was piecing together what had been said from other sources but he also chose not to include letters that had been published elsewhere, leaving odd gaps, especially early in the book.

Perhaps more time needs to pass between a person’s death and a publication like this (Heywood Hill died in 1986 and I imagine this book took many years to compile). And I would certainly have thought that an editor who did not count the book’s subject as a personal friend would be preferable. Or perhaps surviving family (Hill’s widow and Nancy’s youngest sister are both still alive) were responsible for the odd editorial decisions that appear to have been made.

Whatever the reason, though both letter writers come across as warm, intelligent, humorous people, this collection was only occasionally entertaining and often tedious.

First published 2004 by Frances Lincoln.

See also: review by Simon at Savidge Reads.

It’s Hell in here

Damned
by Chuck Palahniuk

This, Palahniuk’s latest offering, is every bit as crazy, vitriolic, scathingly sarcastic and darkly comic as you might expect if you’ve read any of his previous work. It might actually be lighter than usual and more funny, but it’s been a few years so maybe I’m mis-remembering.

I throw out words like “light” and “comic” and then have to tell you that this book is set in Hell. A really nasty, gruesome Hell to boot. But it’s narrated by a chirpy 13-year-old American girl whose view of both the world above and the one below is hilarious.

Each chapter begins, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” in a riff on just one of the many literary influences in this story. In life, Madison, slightly chubby and hopelessly naïve daughter of rich, famous parents, liked to read romantic novels and watch feel-good films. In death she raves about how she managed to die in an outfit particularly practical for Hell and tries to make friends with fellow damned souls. We gradually hear her life story, told in-between descriptions of Hell and her attempts to get on with spending eternity there.

Initially I found Madison irritating, though the concept was funny. She repeats the same phrases, harks back to the same references and makes the same jokes over and over. Which is realistic, I don’t doubt, but not the makings of a sympathetic character. However, death forces her to examine and analyse herself, remember details she’d rather forget and question the identity she clings to, so that she gradually becomes more likeable. Perhaps it says something about me that I vastly prefer her once she has lost her innocent guilelessness!

The depiction of Hell plays on preconceptions, twisting and turning them around. There are demons, sure; in fact every demon ever invented by any culture or religion. There are fires and pits of torment and endless methods of torture, but there are also the very gruesome indeed Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, Swamp of Rancid Perspiration, Dandruff Desert and many more of that ilk. Thankfully they are not all described in detail but, well, some are. And there are strict rules. Many, many rules. In fact, it becomes a running joke. At first it seems to Madison that perhaps the Christian right had all the answers, but she slowly discovers that the rules of Hell are petty, almost arbitrary, and can trap anyone. But the fact that there are rules means that you can learn them, and play them.

From the cell in which she first finds herself installed in Hell, Madison makes the acquaintance of a cheerleader (Babette), a jock (Patterson), a nerd (Leonard) and a punk (Archer). Adding her goody-two-shoes self, that makes her very own Breakfast Club and she determines to befriend them all. When Archer uses the safety pin from his cheek to spring them all from their cells, the motley crew journey across Hell together. Patterson just tries to get off with Babette while Leonard drones on about all the different demons encountered (he’s more of a history nerd than your typical science nerd) but Archer and Babette prove themselves surprisingly useful friends to have around.

I found this book genuinely funny, but also disturbing (it is Palahniuk, after all) and even sad. I grew to like Madison’s style of chatter, though the obviousness of her references never failed to grate. With her uber-bohemian parents and Swiss boarding school, surely she could have some less mainstream books or films to refer to occasionally? And while I accept that in the parents Palahniuk is mocking a certain kind of hypocritical celebrity, I did find some of his attacks a little too broad-ranging.

I think I will continue to look out all Palahniuk’s new releases, but so far his Diary: a novel has not been ousted from the favourite spot.

Copy kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Published October 2011 by Doubleday.