In 1945 all the nice people in England were poor

girls-of-slender-meansThe Girls of Slender Means
by Muriel Spark

This odd little book is funny and tragic, fleeting and profound. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than Muriel Spark’s more famous work The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

It’s the story of a Kensington hostel, “The May of Teck Club for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” With savage brilliance, Spark lampoons everyone – the young women new to the club, intent only on dating airmen and giggling endlessly; the slightly older women who are engaged or very nearly engaged or seriously intent on their careers; the sad old spinsters who try in vain to control goings-on at the club; the married men who become obsessed with the May of Teck and all it represents.

There are two timelines: 1945 and an unspecified “many” years later (the novel was published in 1963 and this seems a reasonable guess as to the “future” year). In the future timeline, journalist Jane Wright is phoning round her old friends from the May of Teck to break the news to them of the death of a man they all used to know, who used to visit the May of Teck in 1945. The 1945 storyline runs roughly from VE Day to VJ Day, and is occupied with that uncertain jubilation, the balance between sudden peace and stricter-than-ever rationing, a city half in ruins but no longer under threat.

Continue reading “In 1945 all the nice people in England were poor”

It wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear
by Graham Greene

Once upon a time I read a couple of Graham Greene books and really enjoyed them, then I promptly forgot about him as an author. Fast-forward several years and I have finally come back to him thanks to Simon of Savidge Reads, who is running a challenge called Greene for Gran,in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. It’s such a nice way to pay respect to someone for whom books were important.

This book has one of the greatest opening chapters I have read in a long time. Arthur Rowe goes to a vicarage fête, which sounds like a pretty dull unpromising beginning, but not so. For starters it’s in London during the Blitz, so there’s immediately a surreal atmosphere surrounding the attempt at normality, with some dark humour about the limited prizes on offer. But even beyond this, there are sinister undertones, foreshadowing the shadowy spy novel that this is going to turn into.

“There was something about a fête which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of the band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts. Of course this year there were no coconuts because there was a war on; you could tell that too from the untidy gaps between the Bloomsbury houses.”

Arthur wins a cake, but there appears to have been some mistake, and first a series of people try to get the cake off him, then mysterious forces appear to be coming after him. It all seems a bit farcical at first, but never annoyingly so. The humour always has a dark undertone. The depiction of the Blitz is scarily believable (which makes sense for a book published in 1943) and the thriller elements genuinely had me on edge, but the book never gets too dark.

“‘Have another piece of cake?’ Rowe asked. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man: it wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness. ‘It may not be…’ he waited till the scream stopped and the bomb exploded – very near this time – ‘…much.’ They waited for a stick to drop, pounding a path towards them, but there were no more.”

Arthur is a great character. There is something bad in his past, which both explains why he is not fighting in the war and why he is how he is – saddened and distanced. I love that the back story is given in pieces, so for a long time we are left to wonder whether the bad thing in Arthur’s past was justified or not. (Incidentally, this part is completely given away in the blurb on the back of my copy, which thankfully I didn’t read before starting the book. Also, I’ve realised that my favourite passages, highlighted while I was reading, relate to this reveal, so I won’t quote them here.)

“Blast is an odd thing; it is just as likely to have the air of an embarrassing dream as of man’s serious vengeance on man, landing you naked in the street or exposing you in your bed or on your lavatory seat to your neighbour’s gaze.”

There is a big switch in pace halfway through the book and it shows how good a writer Greene was that he gets away with this. The one thing that doesn’t change, but just keeps building up throughout the book, is the fear. It’s so cleverly done, beginning with little more than a spine tingle of a warning at the vicarage fête.

I greatly enjoyed this book and am now eager to read the other Greene I had left sat on the TBR for too long – The Heart of the Matter.

Published 1943 by William Heinemann.

Source: I really don’t remember. I have a 1972 Penguin edition so it was clearly secondhand but there’s no pencil-written price or stickers anywhere that I can find. Charity shop?

See also: Simon’s review over at Savidge Reads.

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

Saplings
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.

Simple pleasures, elegantly phrased

Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
by Virginia Woolf

This collection of essays in the Penguin Great Ideas series were originally published between 1925 and 1942 (a few being from a posthumous collection). I think I am growing to prefer Woolf’s essays to her fiction, which is probably some kind of heresy in a literature graduate, but these are truly beautiful pieces of writing.

The majority of these essays are about books, though there are a couple about the pleasures of walking in London, plus the titular essay which is literally what it says, though of course in Woolf’s inimitable style, full of imagination and passion and ideals. Woolf writes about how men are by nature inclined to war, and how women must help them to rise above such base instinct. Her politics creep in as she wonders whether, with more women in government and other high positions, there would be any war.

It is interesting to read an essay from the 1920s or 1930s pondering whether the fiction of the time stands up to the classics of the past, seeing what names are mentioned and whether they mean anything to me now, so many years later. Woolf suggests what will last will be “a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mere” (Yeats and de la Mere, yes, but Davies? I’m not sure who she means) and “Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness but hours of something very different” (assuming she means D H Lawrence then that is indeed one critics continue to argue over the “greatness” of) and “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, which may be my favourite opinion of that book!

There are several essays here in a slim little volume; each one short and self-contained. Woolf has a point to make but occasionally seems to change her mind halfway through, before concluding that the original question in fact has no clearcut answer. She is concise, intelligent and informed but her prose is still beautiful:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…?”

I do not always agree with Woolf’s arguments or conclusions. For instance, in “The art of biography” she states that biography was a late-18th century invention (wrong! though there was a major resurgence in the form at that time) and that it is a mistake to combine facts with fiction or speculation (I actually think this can lead to some remarkable writing, as long as it is made plain to the reader that it isn’t a straightforward history). But she argues her case so well that I don’t mind disagreeing.

The collection ends with “How should one read a book?”, in which Woolf says that there is no simple answer to that question, and then goes on to talk around the subject in what is, more than anything, a treatise on the joy of reading. I was intrigued by her comment about reading poetry, because I know a lot of avid readers avoid it – “the time to read poetry [is] when we are almost able to write it”. She talks about judging a book after having read it, whether we should be kind or harsh, and how the reader’s emotional response signifies a difference between them and the critic:

“Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics…to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible!…there is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love’, and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate…”

I will definitely be looking out for more Woolf essay collections. Any recommendations?

This selection first published in 2009 by Penguin Books.

Absorbing the pain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

This is a big book and, like all the best chunky tomes, it’s a little bit heartbreaking when you get to the end to leave that world and all of its characters behind. Which is a long way of saying that I liked it.

Like Chabon’s previous books, this is a historical novel with a strong Jewish slant and a great deal of research has clearly gone into creating a believable setting for the action. Many’s the time I reached for my laptop to look up details mentioned, famous people or events named in passing, but I invariably changed my mind because I was too eager to carry on reading to pause, even briefly.

The story is that of two Jewish men, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, during and after World War II. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and goes to live with Sam and his mother in Brooklyn, NYC. Sam’s mother has somewhat exaggerated his career and influence in her letters to Joe’s family but the appearance of this strange foreign cousin – and Joe’s astonishing skill as an artist – spark an idea in Sam that shapes the rest of their lives, and proves his mother’s faith worthy. Sam and Joe create a series of comic books that take America by storm, their greatest character being The Escapist, a superhero with Houdini’s escapism skills and a particular hatred for Nazis.

The book follows Joe and Sam’s changing fortunes over a couple of decades, but it also tells the larger story of comic books in America, as well as, on a much smaller scale, looking at changing attitudes toward Jews, Germans and homosexuals in the US.

With such huge events and themes, it is inevitable that some things will be dwelt on while others are skipped past quickly. The examples that stood out for me were the excellent long passage covering a brief section of Joe’s military service – a brilliant study of loneliness and self-evaluation – and the woefully short description at the start of Joe’s escape from Prague. Joe trains, as a boy, in escapology and it is his escapology teacher who plans his escape in a coffin. The origins of the plan, based around the smuggling out of German territory of a golem, precious to Jewish clerics, are detailed over several chapters but when it comes to the actual escape, a brief paragraph summarises Joe’s route before his arrival on Sam’s doorstep. This seemed to me to be a shame but it certainly added to the mysterious silence that Joe maintains regarding his past and his violent anger toward Nazis and Germans. Having left his family and friends behind in Europe the origin of his anger is obvious and his helplessness whenever he hears more bad news is devastating to follow.

I know very little about Jewish culture or escapology and, while I’ve read a handful of graphic novels, my knowledge of the history of comic books is almost non-existent, but I don’t think any of that matters. I loved this book. The tone and subject matter could veer from light comedy to the darkest exploration of humanity’s guilt and yet it never stopped being readable. The characters and story were absorbing, the writing style a good balance between faux memoir and adventure novel, and there were some descriptions of brief moments that were astonishingly vivid. This is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

Published 2001 by Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-1-8411-5493-0