Monday, 15 February 2010

Quick Round-Up

Here we are half way through February and so far my tally of books read is 32, of which 8 have been non-fiction and a gratifying 25 have been borrowed from the library. "Gratifying" because, like Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book, I am trying to restrict the number of books I buy this year, if only for reasons of space.

I thought I should say a word about Women of Bloomsbury by Mary Ann Caws, which I am glad I borrowed from the library, since had I bought it I would be feeling rather sore. The book focuses on the two sisters plus Dora Carrington, and their relationships with men and with each other. However, rather than actually telling their fascinating story, the author (an American academic) assumes that everybody already knows this, and goes off into the sort of navel-gazing that can give the less gifted members of her profession a bad name. This is essentially a prolonged discussion of how much they all respected each others' work, and much of it is supposition anyway, drawing upon their letters.

A shame, because I have been looking for some time for a good book about the leading Bloomsbury figures, but this is not it. As a fellow writer whom I met this weekend said, if you hold a grand sounding academic post than you are assured of being published, regardless of whether you can actually write, and whether you actually have anything interesting to say.

By coincidence I was reading at the same time, or had just finished, books by Empson, Leavis and Hobsbaum, as well as a biography of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones. The first three write literary criticism as it deserves to be written and the latter is a very good literary biography. I was expecting Caws's book to be some sort of cross between these things, but it isn't.

37th Book Review Blog Carnival

Many thanks to Clark Bjorke for running this, whihc can be found here.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Will there be a sequel to "Major Benjy"?

I am reproducing below the answer which I have posted in response to the above question on Librarything today. Apologies to anyone who has already seen it there.

Many thanks for your continued interest. Yes, it is still my intention to write another two, and the second one is part-written. However, there are a few issues.

First, for all the messages of support which I have received (which ARE very welcome!), sales of "Major Benjy" have been disappointing, as has the attitude of the bookshops towards stocking it, and the two things are obviously related. By the way, many thanks to Waterstones in Hampstead, who are a very honourable exception here. Both I and the publishers always said that the decision whether to publish the others would depend on how well this one sold. You cannot expect a publisher to do something without the expectation of making at least a reasonable profit.

We were hoping that every Luciaphile would both buy the book for themselves and also several other copies to give away as presents, but obviously this has not happened. So, in a very real sense, the answer to the question you pose lies in the hands of the members of this group, and others like it, as well as with all Mapp & Lucia lovers. Like it or not, publishing is a business, and if we all want these additional books to be published then everyone has to be prepared to support the project, and strongly.

In fact, I have been discussing with Tom Holt the possibility of publishing an entire set of Mapp & Lucia books, which would include both of his and all three of mine, so it just shows what might be possible given the right support.

The other issue is copyright. Benson goes out of copyright in the UK at the end of this year, hence the above discussion. However, the US rules are different so that any new edition would either have to be "not for sale in the USA", or we would have to continue to make payments to the estate, as both Tom and I had to do in respect of our books.

My position is very simple. I want to write them, and in fact already have the parts of both books roughed out. But there is little point in my pressing on with them if I know they are unlikely to be published.

So please, everyone, do your bit by getting out there and buying it for Valentine, Birthday and Christmas presents. This will not just boost the prospects for "Lucia on Holiday" but might just convert a whole new generation of Luciaphiles.

You should also request it from your local public library. Pester them until they buy it and then get together with your friends and family to make sure that it is borrowed repeatedly, because there are publishing statistics which track these things.

"To The Slaughterhouse" by Jean Giono

A little off-topic this, as Giono was of course a French writer, despite his Italian sounding name, but this is an English translation published by Peter Owen in 2004.

Giono was both a contemporary and a friend of Pagnol, and they were both rustic writers, describing the countryside of their beloved Provence, but there the similarities end. In fact, Giono is a completely different sort of writer. I have read Pagnol in French, and he's not too difficult, but I'm not sure I would want to try Giono's French. It is much spikier, and features much more argot.

With Pagnol, war is something that happens offstage, to which characters depart and from which they return. For Giono, who was later imprisoned for his anti-war views (ironically, shortly before the French capitulated in 1940), the horrors of war are very much something to be described, down to the level of the individual dug-out and the colours and consistency of all the various bodily fluids and body parts which may be found there. This book leaves us in no doubt at all that war is hell.

Their attitude to nature is very different too. Pagnol paints dreamy bucolic landscapes, in which nature is a bountiful mother who, properly treated and respected, will provide lavishly for all her children. For Giono, nature is about mud and blood, a treacherous enemy who will unleash flood, drought, pestilence or famine at the drop of a hat, an adversary that must be constantly feared and against whom every possible precaution must be taken.

Giono is a fine writer and I am sad and a little ashamed that I have not come across him before (I finally stumbled across him on the shelves of Swiss Cottage library, where, incidentally, Elaine of Random Jottings fame used to work). I was reminded constantly while reading this book of Silone's Abruzzo Trilogy, and can really find no better way of describing either the quality or the feel of To The Slaughterhouse than that. It is a sort of French version of the Abruzzo Trilogy.

Published by Peter Owen, London. ISBN 0-7206-1212-8

Friday, 12 February 2010

Hampstead Books

Please allow me a small plug for this very friendly and interesting second hand book business which plies on its trade at the Hampstead Community Centre every day except Sunday. The entrance to the Community Centre is just past the King William IV pub. Anybody out there who lives in North London should definitely pay a call and support this very worthwhile venture. They specialise almost entirely in serious modern (i.e. 1900 onwards) fiction.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

"Black Narcissus" by Rumer Godden

I am sure that most people will have seen the film, but I am not going to give away the ending of Black Narcissus. Suffice it to say that it is a very fine novel indeed, that gets inside the heads of its various characters as well as making us care about what happens to them (contemporary writers, please note). To say that is about a nun who falls in love with a man would be simplistic. It is much more complex than that, operating on various different levels that the film, perhaps any film, can never properly convey.

In fact, love may be the one thing that does not truly appear in the book, though that is a matter of opinion. Godden sketches a number of variations on tunes of obsession, stubbornness, fondness and duty, but perhaps the most subtle variation of all plays around the theme of whether imagining oneself to be in love is any less real than actually being in love.

The local colour is drawn from the life, as Godden spent some years living in exactly the surroundings against which she sets her story. I have recently read a biography of Godden, who by the way became the very last writer of all to inhabit Lamb House in Rye before it was gifted to the National Trust. The tensions with the local people in Black Narcissus are given an added piquancy when you read of her real life experience of one of her servants trying to poison her.

Godden came from a whole family of strikingly beautiful women (there are some wonderful photos in Anne Chisholm's biography) and was probably considered somewhat unconventional around the time this novel is set, since not only did she go off to live in the middle of the foothills of the Himalayas, but she later divorced her husband, which was doubtless thought a very scandalous thing to do at the time.

She was an amazingly prolific writer, a fact I had not realised until I looked at the book list at the back of the biography. I count 25 novels, 26 children's books (at least one of which is set in Rye), 7 collections of poems, and 13 works of non-fiction. At the risk of all my posts sounding the same, yet again almost all of these are scandalously out of print. Perhaps Persephone will take a look at rescuing her as they are currently doing with various other neglected authors.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

"Invisible" by Paul Auster

A very good review here by Evening All Afternoon of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy prompts me finally to write about Invisible, which I have had in my TBR pile for quite some time.

Some of those who have read the Trilogy might have been left wondering, like me, if it was actually intended as a real novel at all, rather than just an exercise for a creative writing class. Am I alone in finding that all the obsessive behaviour and constantly shifting (and often uncertain) identities get in the way of the story, which is any event pretty thin? Having bought it as a result of all the hype which surrounded it, I ended up being dreadfully disappointed.

If so, relax, for Invisible is a different animal entirely. Yes, it is told by various narrators from various different viewpoints, and moves between the past and the present, but on this occasion it all works, and the reader feels challenged but never downright bewildered.

Auster uses the device of an author struggling to finish a book, and enlisting the help of a third party in order to do so. Death, natural and otherwise, a detective style investigation, and sex make up the mix. It is difficult to say much more about the plot without spoiling the ending.

In fairness I should point out that I have never read any of Auster's other books (which many admire and respect), but on the evidence of the Trilogy, which frankly I did not enjoy, Invisible came as a very pleasant surprise. It is well written and well crafted, each of the three main characters coming across with their own voice. I would happily recommend this book to anyone.