There is one present suitable for all ages, not too expensive, inexpressibly beautiful and an joy forever – a book, but not just any book. The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.
A while back I posted about Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks, [May 9 2013] and commented on one of the saddest paragraphs I had ever read. He was writing about words that were being dropped from The Oxford Junior Dictionary. Space obligations were creating a demand for some words to be left out in order to make way for new words that children would need to know and MacFarlane listed some of them: adder, willow, ivy, fern, wren…
and so on. But now he has rectified this terrible omission by creating an alternative, an illustrated book of these lost words.
Each word used and illustrated comes out in stages: the opener is a beautiful picture threaded with letters, but the observant reader will spot that some letters are a different colour and spell out a word; turn the page and there is the word and a “spell”, a short or long semi-poetic evocation of the meaning by MacFarlane and on the next full page and double spread – an exquisite painting of the subject/object by Jackie Morris.
Only picking up this book and looking through it can you even begin to capture its essence and its joy. But if you are wondering what to give a partner, a godchild, a grandparent, a parent, a difficult aunt and above all – any child you know…you will have in your hands the answer.
There is an old philosophical argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Some of the answers lie in the twelve-part chronicle of the twentieth century in Anthony Powell‘s series Dance to the Music of Time, itself an homage to Nicolas Poussin‘s painting of the same name in The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London.
Now Hilary Spurling has brought out her biography of her great friend and mentor Anthony Powell, called unsurprisingly, Anthony Powell Dancing to the Music of Time.
There are other novels by Anthony Powell, as there are other books by Hilary Spurling. But this one is a marriage made in heaven, with plenteous angels dancing on pins.
Early on in her career, when she had only one book published, she was invited by AP to compile a sort of dictionary/encyclopaedia companion to Dance to the Music of Time which he had completed in 1975 with Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of the series. This admirable little volume is called Invitation to the Dance, it is a handbook to the characters and situations found in the long series.
Powell lived a typically literary life of the twentieth century, sometimes radically short of money and often hard pressed for the next payment; he had a wife, Violet and two children. Violet is described by a contemporary and friend as “the right-arm of Tony’s imagination”. This I suspect, exactly represents their long relationship and intense marriage. Violet, born of a great literary family herself, the Pakenhams, had a marvellous memory for the detail in the sequence, and was always the first reader of any of Anthony’s books; but this came into its own once he began the series, which was first of all to be a trilogy, but then extended almost by its own volition into a twelve volume sequence which took almost twenty five years to write, a new volume coming out at almost two yearly intervals.
The delight of this biography is that it puts names of real characters to their fictional avatars in The Dance. Some fall straight from life on to the page, others are a combination of characteristics drawn from life and combined in fiction and a few characters in The Dance are completely original.
In the three volumes that cover the war years, more characters fall straight from life into fiction and Anthony Powell had a nervous lunch with one of them when his commanding officer invited him to lunch; AP was expecting a dressing down and possibly a legal action, but to his relief the Colonel had mis-identified himself with another much more likeable and congenial military figure, actually based upon a Major in Anthony’s unit of the Welsh Regiment.
In this biography, we meet more literary giants than you can imagine. The Powells were well connected through Violet’s family and had a web of literary friends through Anthony’s other work as a reviewer, variously for Punch and The Daily Telegraph and other papers and periodicals. So parties and country weekends seem to burst with talent: Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, T S Eliot, Philip Larkin, John Betjemen, Graham Greene and many others; not confined to the literary arts they were also friends with the painters Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Henry Lamb, Osbert Lancaster, Adrian Daintrey, John Banting and Augustus John; through their friendship with Constant Lambert they mixed with the ballet crowd, including Margot Fonteyn and Michael Helpmann and through the Pakenhams (Lords Longford et al) they were connected with many other strands of society, both literary and nobility, and were often found to be staying with the Duke of Wellington in Granada, Spain, with the Sitwells at Renishaw, at Pakenham Hall in Ireland (in case you have not made the connection Lady Antonia Fraser, later wife of Harold Pinter is one of many) and the Mitfords.
This makes for fascinating reading because it is a glimpse into the lives of writers, artists and others that have figured enormously in the lives of anyone between the ages of 95 to 65, because these were the writers of modern fiction when we were “growing up”.
This large and talented group were the social opposite of the other famous, not to say legendary, literary giants of a slightly earlier period, the Bloomsbury Group. While the later group were all equally “well connected”, their lives were predicated upon the different mores that followed the First World War and during and after the Second.
If you have never read anything by Hilary Spurling, there are twelve other books to choose from, ranging from biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett to Pearl Buck, taking on Matisse and Paul Scott and the Raj Quartet as well and if you have not read Anthony Powell – I sort of envy you, because you have such a treat in store. The Dance to the Music of Time is one of the very few re-reads I make, and I follow through by re-reading Marcel Proust The Remembrance of Things Past, for they are enduringly fascinating, wonderfully revealing and each time make the reader feel differently, as you perceive more layers and meaning in the increasingly familiar texts.
The woe-begotten stories of the House of Atreus are familiar to many people. Even if we do not know who wrote the original story or the exact reference, nearly everyone knows the expression ” a bit of a Cassandra” meaning someone who always predicts the worst; and the names Electra and Agamemnon generally ring bells even if you cannot remember exactly who they were.
In one of the more infamous moments of this family mythology, Agamemnon sends to his wife, Clytemnestra to bring his daughter for marriage to a place where he is waiting. But there is no marriage, Iphigenia is to be sacrificed to the Gods in a hope that the Gods will send a fair wind so that he and his warriors can sail off to the Trojan War. A story which I think pretty much everyone has heard of even if they do not exactly remember it.
Colm Tóibín in his new novel, House of Names, has re-worked this whole ghastly story into a shockingly vivid narrative of betrayal, fury, lust, revenge and tragedy. It had all these elements already, but it is in the finer detail that Tóibín makes us look at this again.
He describes the smell of blood and death, the flies and the stink; he dresses his characters in fine robes and we can hear the rustle of silks as they sweep the floor; we feel the hunger and fear of the captured Orestes and we rejoice when he and Leander escape. It is in the detail that we begin to properly understand the horror.
We do not begin at the beginning of this sorry and sordid tale, but at the point when Clytemnestra has taken her revenge on Agamemnon after his return triumphant from the wars; bringing with him his new mistress Cassandra, the voice of doom. While he has been away, Clytemnestra has been disporting with Aegisthus and between them they have cooked up a deadly revenge. Clytemnestra has had woven a deadly garment, the poison in its threads will hold the victim paralysed but aware, while his lovely welcoming wife slits his throat. Clytemnestra then kills Cassandra for good measure.
Meanwhile, her other daughter Electra is locked up downstairs and her son, Orestes hurried off to a place of safety.
We then go back to the moment she has prepared her beloved daughter in the finest wedding clothes for marriage. as she thinks. to the hero Achilles. So she is a bit amazed when he denies it, but still unsuspecting, for who could imagine the truth. And although she does not witness the sacrifice herself, having been tied up and thrust into a hole, we learn later that Iphigenia went bravely forward, pleading with her father not to do this awful thing and it was only when she threatened to curse them all that they tied and gagged her before cutting her throat. But the detail that her black hair was cut short, and her neck nicked in the cutting so that she cried out, is entirely Tóibín’s addition, part of the added detail that makes all this so profoundly real.
But, of course, this is Greek tragedy so nothing goes quite according to plan and one act of murder follows another until the final gore-fest ends steeped in blood.
I suspect that an Irish writer, more than most, would understand the nature of the festering wounds that are inflicted generation after generation as families divide and fall apart in a welter of blood and revenge. The Troubles, in real life, mirrored some of the more horrible aspects of Greek tragedy. Not that I am imagining that they were provoked by an effort to appease, placate or influence the Gods, but one murder led inexorably to another until the country was steeped in blood in a war just as profound as that on the cliffs of Troy.
Oops, no! Not the film!
The new novel by Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan was recommended to me by my favourite bookseller, Jessica at Primrose Hill Books NW1.
Manhattan Beach is set in the streets and clubs around the Naval Yards of New York just before Pearl Harbour and after. There are many characters but we see the whole picture through the experiences of three of them. Eddie Kerrigan, tall, unobtrusively handsome, husband and father to Anna and Lydia. His wife, Agnes, was once a Follies chorus girl, as was her sister, Brianne, who breezes in and out of the narrative like a breath of whisky!
Anna, who is a child at the start of the book, she is her father’s girl and often accompanies him while he is out and about, as a messenger for Donellen, a Union man on the docks. But once she reaches the nubile age of around twelve or so, he can no longer take her with him.
One of the characters that Eddie visits is Dexter Styles. A racketeer, owner of several bars and casinos, he is the principle pivot in this novel around whom things happen. Dexter is married into New York nobility (of a sort) although he is himself on the wrong side of the tracks in every sense: background, profession and the rest. However, his father-in-law, a wealthy banker has allowed the marriage to go ahead on some pretty stern limits.
As a young woman, Anna sees Dexter again, in one of his clubs. At the time she is working in the navel yards at a bench where she assesses the exact measurements of small widgets that are going into the building and repair yards for battleships, namely the USS Missouri and others. One day, she sees divers training off a barge in the East River and determines to train.
Not unlike The Woolgrower’s Companion, this is a book very much set in its time, the war having taken the men away so that women finally have an opportunity to do some real work, as opposed to housework. And in a similar way, this is also demonstrated in a film I saw at the London Film Festival, The Guardians about women on a farm in France during World War I.
And as a complete coincidence, I saw the National Theatre production of Follies, the Stephen Sondheim musical; a completely overwhelmingly wonderful production, lavish, stylish and memorable. It must come on again sometime. Which chimes perfectly with the Manhattan Beach sisters, Agnes and Brianne.
Anyone who loves Scandi-noir as much as I do, will have read or watched on television the Wallander novels of Henning Mankell.
Italian Shoes and his very last novel, After the Fire are classic Mankell, taut dramas involving few people but extraordinary crimes. I have linked these two novels in one post because although they stand alone, they also involve one character, a surgeon Frederick Welin.
In both novels, we find Frederick hiding in his isolated house in the Swedish archipelago, alone on his island. In Italian Shoes, he has recently been involved in a terrible surgical miscalculation and has left his practice and the ensuing scandal and retired to his island when he is surprised in the middle of winter to see a figure struggling across the ice.
This is his past catching up with him, Harriet, a woman he once loved and abandoned has tracked him down to extract from him a promise made many years before and bringing him news that will surprise him.
To avoid plot spoilers I have to stop there, but believe me, it is worth finding out what happens next.
Moving on, we next meet Frederick still in his isolation, now aged seventy. Right at the start of the novel, he wakes to find his house burning down around him. He struggles out alive, in his pyjamas and boots, but in his haste he has picked up two left footed boots. Everything else he has ever owned is burnt to cinders.
Neighbours arrive to help, but there are fewer of them anyway as it is winter and the summer visitors have all gone. The retired postman, Ture Jansson, lends him a right-footed boot, but oddly not a pair and is helpful and concerned.
These are classic Mankell details, it is on these little things that one is hooked as surely as a fish on a line.
The police and fire inspectors follow, this is clearly arson and Frederick seems the most likely candidate, who else? Welin summons his daughter, someone whose existence he has only known about since she was twenty; another surprise. Their relationship is tense and often fractious but he knows deep down he still feels responsible for her, and sometimes even love.
There is an accumulating sense of dread and menace in this novel and once again I will not go further, for fear of giving away too much.
They make a brilliant pair of novels, but equally can be read one without the other. Both are worth the time, and the pages will flash by; these are the sorts of novels that make you miss your station (Underground or Overground), you will be so absorbed.
If you read my posts at all regularly, you will know that I have an unbridled passion for Australia: its land – which I consider God’s Own Country; its history – which makes me want to weep; and its culture – in which I include novels by English and Australian authors as well as everything else: film, painting and all things man-made.
My great hero in the writing world is Thomas Keneally. His output is prodigious and unfailingly interesting, gripping even, and apart from once straying into foreign fields, seems always to have a tenuous link to his own country.
Crimes of the Fathers, his latest novel, is no exception. The fathers in question are priests and the crimes are all too awful and apparent. Being of Irish-Catholic extraction himself, Thomas Keneally knows at first hand about the rituals and confessionals of the Catholic faith,
In this novel, he is both channelling the good priests and chastising the bad ones. He obviously knows whereof he writes, which is not to say at all or even to suggest that he was himself a victim of child abuse, but who nowadays can honestly say that they know nothing about it. He was himself training for the priesthood but recognised, in time, that it was not the place for him.
We are all aware now that abuse exists throughout society, in almost every conceivable walk of life where children and young people are vulnerable to approaches of an abusive nature by a responsible adult behaving irresponsibly.
The protagonist in this novel, Father Docherty, has returned from Canada to his home turf, Sydney, to give a lecture in an archdiocese from which he was expelled some years earlier. His topic is child abuse: its foundations and the Church’s response, which to say the least, has been inadequate.
In this searing, insightful account as exemplified by the narrative, Thomas Keneally exposes a wearisome conundrum. As an ex-seminarian, he knows at first hand how the training and practices of the Catholic priesthood – celibacy and the confessional – can lead inexorably to corruption and abuse in the hands of a few emotionally stunted men; a situation that leads them into sexually abusing young men and women, exposure following them in secret, but not public censure; the Church hierarchy moving them on, often to repeat their offences; shielded by a system whose fear of scandal, and worse, whose fear of being undermined allowed the top people, all of them men, to cover up a practice that should have been rooted out and exposed and dealt with long ago.
Only the threat of national media exposure has changed everything, and this novel shows both the damage and the insidious cancer, to both victim and the Church that this avoidance of acknowledgement has caused.
A second Australian novel The Woolgrower’s Companion is a book of a different order of narrative. The chapter headings all start with a quotation from the The Woolgrower’s Companion 1906, this is a double bluff, no such book or pamphlet exists. But it is a deceit which adumbrates the many different deceits inherent in this story. Joy Rhoades‘ novel is a heartbreaker.
I mentioned in a previous post the treatment of the Aboriginal People, I forgot to mention the equally appalling treatment of half-caste children, these were unfathomably always taken from their mothers and brought up, trained and sent out into service – generally into the service of white farmers, the very colonials who had often abused their kind. Orphans were also treated this way and always sent to places far from their origins so that they could not go walkabout and find their own people.
Set in 1945 Longhope, New South Wales, the family in this narrative, the Stimsons, were on the surface wealthy landowners. The book opens with Ralph and his married daughter Kate Dowd, waiting at the local station for the arrival of Italian prisoners of war who were detailed to help on the farms in the absence of the young men still fighting.
Kate Dowd and her father live on a large sheep farm in New South Wales, a farm that Ralph had extended from a Soldiers’ Settlement after the First World War. This was a scheme parcelling out of plots of land for returning servicemen; some thrived and some failed and in Stimson’s case he was a thriver, and had bought up his neighbour’s plots as they went under, not without some chicanery on his side.
As well as the POWs, they have picked up a young boy, Harry, the nephew of their overseer, Grimes.
There are, on the farm, Grimes and another hand, Ed (who is possibly of Aboriginal descent) and two Aboriginal People and the two POW’s. Ralph Stimson the owner, his daughter Kate and an Aboriginal girl, Daisy, a half-caste from the local Domestic Training Home live in the house.
The whole area though is suffering from extreme drought, so all farming is on the knife edge of disaster, Amiens (the name given to this farm) has a dammed reservoir (an advantage not unconnected with the failure of his neighbour’s enterprises), but the water level is getting dangerously low.
This combination of adverse weather conditions and a small team make for intense relationships, each person relying on another to make things work. Ralph, however, has been slipping into a state of absent-mindedness and erratic bursts of fury, brought on partly by the death of his wife and partly as a result of his experiences in the First World War. So Grimes, and eventually Kate, are having to manage the farm, knowing all the time that soon the Second World War will end, their men will return and the Italians will go.
As I indicated earlier, this is a novel full of deceptions and one by one, they reveal themselves, with devastating consequences.
Taut, evocative writing – suspenseful and poignant – this is a story of universal appeal.