Sunday, 26 October 2008

Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

I must confess to a strong sense of personal bias about Deborah Lawrenson’s Songs of Blue and Gold since it features a character who, though highly fictionalised, is clearly (and Lawrenson openly admits this) based on Lawrence Durrell, without doubt my favourite novelist. Like me, she particularly admires the Alexandria Quartet, which she transposes for her character, Julian Adie, into the Cairo Triptych. However, let me say that regardless of the Durrell perspective, I really enjoyed reading this book.

The basic premise is a detective story. Melissa, the central character, undergoes a traumatic combination of events in which, in short order, her marriage breaks up, her mother develops Alzheimer’s disease and has to go into a home, and then the mother dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Just before leaving home for the last time she presses one of Adie’s books into her daughter’s hands. It bears a cryptic inscription in the author’s own handwriting that suggests that she and Adie may have been lovers, and been privy to some great secret that must never be revealed.

This serves as a device to have Melissa go to stay on Corfu and begin rooting around for the truth. To say more would be risk giving away key aspects of the plot. Suffice it to say that the narrative is well-constructed and leaves the reader always eager to start the next chapter for the next layer of truth to be peeled away. This is despite continual shifting between time and place which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could be very confusing.

The references to Durrell’s own life and works, and those of his naturalist brother, are very well handled. Like me, Lawrenson has read and enjoyed the biographies, both the official one by Ian McNiven and the unauthorised, and thus less sanitised one by Gordon Bowker. The first three wives are all drawn from the pages of those biographies; only the names have been changed.

The parts of the book that I enjoyed most were the descriptions of first Melissa and then her mother (later in the book, but first chronologically, of course) on Corfu. There was a sense of immediacy, and that here was a world in which Lawrenson thoroughly believed and felt at home. It also helps, of course, that she is a very fine writer with more than a hint of Durrell about her own prose.

Time and truth are elastic. I could feel that strongly here, sitting on the rocks on which they once sat and which he described so alluringly, peeling away the layers of the present and the past. The slippage of years is like the strong undertow of the sea over steeply shelving beach.

I had a little more difficultly with the other parts of the book, particularly those describing Melissa’s present day problems with her husband. Perhaps it is just that so many books have been written about women in similar situations by women authors that the whole genre is in danger of becoming almost a pastiche of itself. Perhaps also these parts suffer in comparison to the Corfu scenes because the latter are so vibrant and unique. Whatever the case, I thought the husband was in danger of becoming almost a stereotype male figure; in particular we never really understand his motivation (though there are third party points of view, all from women) for acting as he does. I am not suggesting this is Lawrenson’s fault, simply that this particular theme has been done to death over the last twenty years and that to say something new about it has thus become an enormous challenge.

Again, without giving away too much of the plot, the identity of the man with whom Melissa will end the story happily ever after is obvious from a very early stage to anyone who has ever read a Jilly Cooper story (I deliberately am not using the world “novel”). I could not help wondering whether such a well-worn formulaic approach might have been forced upon the author by her agent or publisher, anxious to create a “commercial” book. Personally, I found myself saying “oh no, not that” and almost wishing for an unhappy, or at least unresolved ending, but then perhaps I am just a hardened old cynic.

Congratulations to Deborah Lawrenson for having written such a hugely enjoyable book. My last point is strictly speaking nothing to do with the book itself but about its packaging. Publishers today seemed obsessed with brands, and with squeezing a book into one rather than letting its merits speak for itself. This book has very clearly been labelled and packaged as chick-lit romantic fiction (whereas it is undeniably a serious literary novel) and I must confess that had I picked it up in a bookshop I almost certainly would not have bought it. Publishers should beware the old legal maxim expressio unius, exclusio alterius.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Still reading despite appearances to the contrary!

Apologies for not having posted another review yet. I do have several in the pipeline, including one of a novel by the Scottish writer and fellow blogger Jim Murdoch, but a glance at my webiste will reveal how busy I am in my other life, plus I am working hard on my next book, which will be a narrative history of the Plantagenets (when it's finished) ...

At least I have got around to changing my reading list.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Some Tame Gazelle: Barbara Pym

Some Tame Gazelle is a testament to the persistence that is an essential part of any writer’s make-up. Finished in 1935, it was not published until 1950. Of course, the world was a very different place by then, with any remaining illusions of innocence and human goodness having been shattered for ever by the Second World War and its attendant horrors, and one wonders if this had something to do with the publishers’ change of heart. Perhaps there was feeling that after the war readers were yearning for some escapist material, set in an altogether gentler age.

I came to Barbara Pym on the recommendation of various people whose opinions I respect, most recently the novelist Alexander McCall Smith, and I deliberately chose this novel as I knew it had been her first, written immediately after she left university. As a novel, it is almost a contradiction in terms. A novel, Forster said, tells a story, and yet this is a book in which very little of substance seems to happen. For a modern reader, brought up to expect at least one marriage break-up or hallucinogenic episode a chapter, it will feel tame and dull. To a reader who appreciates an expert using the English language as it was supposed to be employed, it will be a delight.

So, nothing much happens, but to say that is to miss the point of the book, as I suspect the publishers originally missed it back in 1935. Pym presents us with a slice of real life as it actually happens, and one might think that this means a description of the dull and the mundane. Yet what is dull and mundane depends not on the events themselves but upon one’s perception of them. Viewed and described as they are through the lens of her characters they take on a totally new life, since they become our means to understand the characters themselves.

I think it is no accident that people who enjoy Pym tend also to be admirers of E.F. Benson: McCall Smith certainly is, indeed he cites them (along with Narayan and Auden) as his four main literary influences. He says that Pym, Narayan and Benson all write of human yearning, and a striving after something elusive. That is certainly true here. Harriet and Belinda are two sisters who live together. As the narrative progresses we work out that both are in their early fifties, yet this comes as something of a surprise since they both seem to have preserved exactly the same outlook they had as young girls. This is one of the many ways in which our temporal sense is manipulated slightly by Pym. We constantly hear, for example, fifty being described as the prime of life. Yet there are other, darker tones which intrude, such as the references to unmarried sixty year old men looking for a wife to help them towards the grave.

Harriet likes to mother young curates, whereas Belinda is in love with the real thing, a neighbouring clergyman, (the archdeacon, which calls to mind Trollope’s great creation), who had the poor taste to marry someone else instead.

Belinda, having loved the archdeacon when she was twenty, and not found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning.

This passage sets the tone for the book itself, which has exactly that feeling of mellow fruitfulness. It is no coincidence that all the characters, with the exception of the young curate himself and his fiancée whom we glimpse but briefly at the end, are in the autumn of their lives. This is a gentle book, which we read as if reposing in a hot bath that has just gone slightly off the boil yet can still induce a sense of dreamy lassitude.

Actually, the archdeacon is a rather unpleasant character: querulous, petty, pompous, arrogant, and openly unpleasant to his wife. So throughout the book we are presented with evidence of the filtering effect of a character’s feelings on that which they perceive around them. Early on in the book the archdeacon’s wife, Agatha, goes away to Italy on holiday, where incidentally she meets a bishop whom she brings home to visit the village. In a different book, with different characters, the scene would now be set for a prolonged period of sexual tension as we wonder whether Belinda and the archdeacon will resist temptation or take advantage of the opportunity which has been presented, but of course we know that this is not that sort of book.

True passion is conspicuous by its absence. Visiting gentlemen pop in to deliver a proposal of marriage, delivered in a charming yet stilted manner, apart from the rather racy Ricardo, who proposes to Harriet regularly every few months in a passionate, poetry-spouting sort of way. Rejected, the gentleman usually nods sadly but sagely and departs without finishing his tea, though he is liable simply to walk straight down the road and propose to someone else instead, reviving memories of Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

This is a novel where the most important thought in anyone’s mind seems to be with whom they are going to take tea that afternoon. Yet these petty social niceties mask a range of complex emotions which are no less real for remaining entirely unrequited. Agatha is rather in love with the bishop, but married to the archdeacon. The bishop is rather in love with Belinda, who is rather in love with the archdeacon, who is married to Agatha but thinks constantly that he would rather be married to Belinda. It is Harriet who points out in a common sense sort of fashion that the parties might consider a straight swap, or re-arrangements along the lines which their emotions suggest, but such things happen only in films such as The Wicked Lady.

McCall Smith says that Pym’s novels are stories of the yearnings of ordinary people, and that is certainly right if you can get around the fact that to a modern reader these people are far from ordinary. What he might have gone on to say is that it is a yearning which is destined to remain always unfulfilled, and that where resolution occurs it is not through the emotion being requited, but by the character coming to terms with it, and forcing it down into themselves until it becomes just a comforting, cuddly teddy bear that they carry around with them. Which thought chimes rather conveniently with the title itself, which is from a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly, the next line of which is:
Something to love, oh, something to love!