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Archive for the ‘Published 1900-49’ Category

Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

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Now and then someone recommends a book to me and my heart sinks. It might be that the title sounds naff. Or that the author is someone I’ve made a vow never to read. The genre might be the problem (as regular visitors to this blog know, magical realism and I have a largely hate-hate relationship), or the subject matter.

In the case of Norwegian Nobel-Prize-winner Sigrid Undset‘s Kristin Lavransdatter, it was the 1,100-plus page count that had me gnawing my knuckles in dread.

Now, as anyone who’s seen my plans to read the world in 2012 knows, I’m not afraid of a challenge. It’s simply that on balance I prefer novels to look like books rather than doorstops. So when this three-volume beast thunked on to the mat, it took me a good while to work up the enthusiasm to open it and have a read.

But, oh, am I glad I did because, quite simply, and with no qualifications of any kind, this is one of the best books I have read in my life.

Set in fourteenth century Norway (I know, it’s not a promising start, but stick with it), the 1920s trilogy follows the life of noblewoman, Kristin Lavransdatter. The narrative keeps largely to the estates and convents at which she lives, yet this is no period kitchen-sink drama: kicking sand (or perhaps Scandinavian snow) in the face of all those who maintain that women’s lit is narrow and homely in scope, Undset uses the domestic as a prism through which to view national and international events.

In this, the book shares ground with Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but, as the protagonist is female and, as such, not privy to the machinations of the kingmakers as Mantel’s hero is, Undset’s achievement is all the more impressive.

Impressive, too, is Undset’s knowledge of the period in which her story is set. This is evident in everything from the detailed descriptions of rituals around events from births, through the preparation of the marriage bed and the last rituals of dying right down to her choice of similes. These are consistently faithful to the setting and yet fresh and memorable for the modern reader — for example, when Kristin is only able to glimpse her lover from a distance at convent services, she is described as feeling like ‘a hawk that sat chained to a roost with a hood pulled over its eyes’.

Yet what brings all this alive is Undset’s feeling for the characters and world she has evoked. Instead of a cold procession of historical and anthropological details, we are presented with a vibrant milieu, peopled with beings riddled with faults and contradictions. What comes home again and again over the course of the epic is its author’s insight into and sympathy for humanity and her awareness of the cruel conspiracy of character and circumstance that drives people off the course they would have wanted for their lives and yet enriches existence.

The upshot of this is a cast of characters with whom we feel and live through events (when Kristin’s father Lavrans died, I cried my eyes out on the tube — apologies if you were riding in the same carriage), and it makes for a book that is without question among the greatest works in the world. If I hadn’t already read it, I would be recommending it to myself for next year, regardless of its length.

Thanks to Jason Cooper for the recommendation.

Picture by jimgrant

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Written by londonchoirgirl

December 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

EM Delafield: The Diary of a Provincial Lady

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If proof were ever needed that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady provides plenty. Looking particularly chintzy in the rose-covered jacket of its excellent new four-volume edition from Virago, this prim-sounding  tome from the 1930s seems to promise a gentle stroll through everything that is genteel, correct and charming…

In other words, dull. In fact, had it not been recommended by a friend who’d already put several other great reads my way, I’d probably have slotted it straight back on to the shelf and moved on. So it was a delight, on settling down on the daybed one Sunday after giving the servants the afternoon off,  to find wit and sharp perceptions where I’d expected find fluffy generalisations and tweeness.

Told through the diary entries of an anonymous Provincial Lady, the novel unfolds the triumphs and frustrations of domestic life in the early twentieth century. It documents the trials of its narrator as she struggles to keep up appearances in the face of mounting debts, squabbles among children and staff and the unreasonable demands of contemporaries.

‘Why are non-professional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”?’ she muses at the end of one entry. ‘Answer came there none.’

Yet this is no catalogue of woes. Bursting from the same stable as Stella Gibbons, Delafield uses comedy to fence from behind the accepted forms and social mores of upper-middle-class society, spearing the hypocrisy, inconsistencies and oddness of the world around her. Each character is revealed in all his or her contrariness, from Our Vicar’s Wife, who is always saying how busy she is and yet always outstays her welcome, to the stormy Mademoiselle, who has a mauvais mot for every occasion. Not to mention the Provincial Lady herself,  with her talent for selective blindness when it comes to domestic economy versus shopping sprees.

Revelling in the ludicrous, Delafield, who originally wrote the book in instalments for Time and Tide — itself a recurring theme in the book — exploits the diary form for comic effect, puncturing expectations with the bathetic reality that follows. So ‘dear old school friend’  Cissy Crabbe turns out to be on a punishingly strict diet that throws the household into chaos, and the bulbs that are puffed so persuasively in their marketing pamphlets moulder in their pots.

The comedy lives in the space between the way things are supposed to be and the awkward reality, much like the novel itself. And this is what makes it such fun to read. Far from being the narrow story of a cossetted woman in a very particular time and place, this is a work that resonates far beyond the boundaries of its setting and subject matter. It is anything but provincial in scope. Cosmopolitan men, women and children everywhere will find it a joy.

Which books have surprised you ? Leave a comment and let me know.

Picture by Ms Bailey

Written by londonchoirgirl

August 8, 2011 at 8:27 am

Rosamond Lehmann: The Weather in the Streets

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One of my favourite things about reading books from eras past is those rare flashes of insight that remind me that I’m really no different from people who’ve gone before. ‘Stop thinking you’re so sophisticated,’ the best writers say, ‘Stop thinking that you invented sex, irony, hair removal [or whatever it might be]: you’re much more similar to these folk than you can even begin to imagine.’

That doesn’t happen in Rosamond Lehmann‘s The Weather in the Streets. There is not one single, isolated insight. Instead, the whole book is soaked in universal female experience; so much so that you forget you’re reading and feel rather as though you have been granted privileged access to the interior monologue of the woman sitting across from you on the bus as she thinks through the things that happened to her last year.

Told from the perspective of Olivia, an early thirty-something who has separated from her husband and rents a room in a wealthy single friend’s London pad, this 1936 classic unfolds the germination, blossoming and consequences of her affair with a married childhood friend. It charts her progress from emotionally fettered, overgrown adolescent to seasoned woman, throwing up startling glimpses of the mental cages that the people around her live in along the way.

Lehmann is a fearless writer. Not only does she lay bare the terrors and neuroses that riddle us all and wade freely in the waters of the forbidden — homosexuality, drug use and back-street abortions being just a few of the topics she takes on — she also takes the rules of writing and snaps them in two.

Her promiscuous use of both the first and third person voice would make a creative writing tutor weep. Indeed, it would make nonsense of most writer’s work, but Lehmann’s style is so distinctive, and her touch so deft, that it merely serves to heighten our sense of being in Olivia’s world by showing us the ambivalent way she sees herself — sometimes ‘me’, sometimes ‘she’. At its most magnificent, Lehmann’s writing has the fluidity of an impressionist painting, yet with all the details picked out in astonishing clarity.

She’s really funny, too. Best of all are the flashes of steel that puncture the pomposity and smugness of minor characters. A case in point is Olivia’s private response to a prudish acquaintance’s plans to embroider a set of eight chair covers for her dining room chairs.

‘I think it will be gay’  she said meekly, holding up the square with her dear little old-fashioned head on one side.

Nothing you did or conceived of could ever be gay; and do your children know yet they hate you?

That’s not to say the book’s perfect. The wrapping up, involving a host of secondary Bohemian friends who engineer a possible next step for Olivia, feels thin after the heady emotion of the preceding chapters. Although it does contain some nice touches and wicked vignettes — the scene where the drunk Adrian tries to chat up the beautiful teenage boy who features as the back end of the bull in the amateur play is great.

Taken as a whole, though, this book is extremely impressive, elegant, engaging and a lot of fun. Much like the lady who recommended it (thanks Jo).

Picture by jaybergesen.

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth

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Rubbish pickers in Kolkata, India

Airport bookshops are strange places. Something about the transience of the terminal experience rubs off on the shelves of slasher stories and chick-littery, putting browsers in a holiday humour, and making reckless purchases and bold choices seem somehow less of a stretch. And so it was that on my way to India this spring I found myself at the check out in Gatwick’s South Terminal clutching… a copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Alright, I’ll admit it, my stock of adventurousness was all used up on the contemplation of the trip ahead. I’d never been to India before and despite having visited parts of Africa and South-east Asia, I had a feeling nothing could prepare me for the madness of Kolkata. I was looking for something comforting, familiar and safe: a tried and trusted formula that I could retreat into when one of the world’s most extreme, desperate, colourful and crowded cities got too much for me.

But Edith Wharton had other ideas. Feisty to a fault, this grande dame of early twentieth century American literature grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and thrust me into a world every bit as unforgiving and shocking as the place I was headed.

‘Jane Austen with teeth’ was the first description that sprang to my mind as I began to read my way through the unravelling of Lily Bart, the beautiful and penniless New York socialite, whose flawless facade of serenity is both the secret and the nemesis of her success. But that would be unfair, both to Austen, who has a much sharper set of gnashers than she’s often given credit for, and to Wharton, who sees no point in biting her prey when she might as well tear the subjects of her scrutiny limb from limb.

No-one escapes. Not the bright creatures of high society sniping at one another from behind their opera glasses; not the conservative family members so bound up with ideas of duty and correctness that they fail to distinguish between petulance and desperation; not the charwoman who schemes for her own ends and not  beautiful, spoiled, hopeless Lily herself.

The Penguin Classics blurb-writer describes Lily as ‘the embodiment of woman as a passive creature, as the ultimate “consumer item”‘. Close, but no cigar. For while Lily allows herself to be carried on the currents of other people’s whims and schemes, she has a core sense of self-respect that won’t allow her to go along with the final strokes of deviousness and heartlessness that would assure her future.

It is what redeems her in the eyes of the reader, but also what brings her low. If she were a little more passive — more the superficial, carefree creature she pretends — then she would accept the repugnant offers of marriage, mistresship and mindless monetary gain that come her way and drift along the bright surface of the world she thinks she aspires to, and there would be no story.

What makes Lily’s fall so compelling and her final undoing so very, very sad is the kernel of humanity Wharton conjures at her core, reminding readers that the creature dwindling before their eyes is every bit as complex, conflicted and scared as they are.

In a city where naked children squat in the gutters as limousines glide past, the resonance of Wharton’s words was strong.

Picture by FriskoDude

Written by londonchoirgirl

May 24, 2011 at 6:05 am

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

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A bull much like the one Flora lets out on Cold Comfort Farm

The foreword looms large in Stella Gibbons’ classic, Cold Comfort Farm. Addressed to the forbidding imaginary figure of Mr Anthony Pookworthy esq ABS, LLR, it sets the tone for the hatchet job that Gibbons is about to do on the pastoral literary tradition. From the off, it’s clear that the over-egging of the rural pudding, found in the works of minor writers such as Mary Webb but also giants such as DH Lawrence and – sorry Tom – Thomas Hardy, is not going to get away lightly.

‘As you know, I have spent some ten years of my creative life in the meaningless and vulgar bustle of newspaper offices,’ she tells My Pookworthy. ‘The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realise the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.’

She then goes on to apologise for presenting him with a book that is ‘meant to be… funny’ and to explain that she has nevertheless tried to write some literary passages on Nature (with a capital ‘nuh’). To mark these out, she has created a star system for the sake of ‘all those thousands of persons not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle’.

As a jobbing journalist-cum-would-be-novelist, I found this an absolute joy to read. Not least because it gave me that slap round the face that the best books manage from time to time when they remind you that people decades and decades ago had the same wit, insight and concerns as we do, and that we are by no means as original, sophisticated or radical as we might like to think.

It also surprised me. Having no prior knowledge of Cold Comfort Farm beyond a BBC adaptation I saw as a child and the enthusiasm of a former flatmate who once claimed that Flora Poste was the literary character he was most like on a job application form, I was not expecting a lot (no offence to the former flatmate, who is in fact wildly successful at everything he does).

The book would be a sort of cosy, Sunday-night-television experience, I thought. The Lovejoy of the literary world – a bit of a breather after the rigours of Murdoch and the intricacies of Mantel. I wasn’t expecting feistiness, sharp perceptions and shooting from the hip.

But the genius of the novel (and that’s not a word I throw about lightly) is that, for all its sending up of bad writing and satirical attacks on the literati, it maintains a sunniness and downright funniness that makes it a pleasure to read. The story of Flora Poste gradually turning around the fortunes and outlook of her curmudgeonly cousins and discovering her own path in the process is so delightful and so engaging that you can’t help getting swept up in it.

But perhaps the supreme triumph of the work, the only one of Gibbons’ 24 novels still in print, is that it creates its own language and system for representing the natural world. While most satires do marvellously well at ripping down the things they attack without proposing an alternative, Gibbons’ text lovingly establishes its own pastoral aesthetic in place of the hackneyed exposition it replaces. The scene at the end where Charles comes at last to sweep Flora away from the farm she has transformed is spine-tinglingly lovely. It left me stunned, enchanted, jealous, and sure that I’ll be reading the book many times again.

Picture by Oli R