Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

My book group recently read The Soul of Kindness (1964) by Elizabeth Taylor - I have a feeling I recommended it, although can never quite remember - and I don't think we've ever had a more divided discussion. Some thought the whole thing uneventful and boring; some thought it a brilliantly subtle novel about realistic people and the way they interact. Guess which I was?

Well, if you've read my previous reviews of Elizabeth Taylor - you can see them all by picking her from that dropdown menu of authors over on the left, should you so wish - you'll probably have guessed that I was in the latter camp. (As a character thinks: 'men, she knew, are very interested in detailed descriptions of ordinary things'. Curiously unlike the usual division of men and women in stereotype - the masculine grand epic vs. the feminine domestic hearth.) The Soul of Kindness is an extraordinary novel and, just like her others, almost impossible to write well about.

The first thing I have learned with Elizabeth Taylor is that you can't read her quickly. Well, you can - but so much is lost. Because not much happens, and it's easy to skim through the calm conversations and quiet movements, and miss the spectrum of emotion playing under the surface, so cleverly told by Taylor.

The novel opens with a wedding. Flora isn't paying much attention to her husband; she is feeding doves (note their influence on the beautiful cover to my 1966 Reprint Society copy):
Towards the end of the bridegroom's speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she had caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.
That lack of self-awareness and observation is the central thread of the novel. Flora is the 'soul of kindness' of the title - as another character says, "To harm anyone is the last thing she'd ever have in mind." She is a blonde beauty, doted on by her mother, surrounded by people (mother, husband, friend, housekeeper) who never dream of crossing her, and who do not see any darkness in her. For, indeed, there is no darkness in her. I thought the novel might be about a craftily vindictive woman, but Flora is just monumentally naive - with a naivety either born of selfishness, or a selfishness born of naivety. She wants to help people. She is (as Hilary notes in her fab review, linked below) not unlike Austen's Emma - although Flora is less meddlesome. She just suggests things and engineers things, without seeming to give any great effort, and... mild disaster follows.

A marriage that shouldn't have happened. A union between two friends that will never happen because the man is gay. The encouragement to a young man that he is a talented actor, when he is hopeless and will only meet failure on that path. Everything Flora does is well-meaning. There is a moment of crisis (I shan't say what), but... by the end of the novel, most people haven't changed enormously. Human nature doesn't follow a brief and convenient narrative structure.

For that is what Taylor observes and depicts so brilliantly: truthful human behaviour. Some people at book group found the characters poorly drawn, and I do agree that we see them chiefly from the outside rather than the inside - but that is an authorial choice and (I think) a good and acceptable one. There are wonderful scenes where she draws up the difference between what people say and what they mean - and what other people think they mean. It is so (that word again) subtle, and done extremely skilfully. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most agonising, where those between Patrick and Frankie - Patrick being in love with the youthful, callous Frankie, and anxious for any possible attention from him, taking what he is thrown so gratefully.

Oh, and Mrs Secretan (Flora's mother) is the best depiction I have seen of a hypochondriac - usually they are hysterical or selfish, but Taylor's portrait shows the terror at the heart of the true hypochondriac, particularly the one who dreads the doctor. I speak as one who knows...

I should add that there are moments of lovely humour. I enjoyed this a lot, about Flora (and that naivety):
She sat gazing in front of her. On a table at her side was a piece of knitting which had not grown for days, and the book by Henry Miller Patrick Barlow had lent her, which she was reading with such mild surprise. ('What does this word mean, Richard? 'Truly? Well I suppose it had to be called something.' How had she lived so long without knowing? he wondered.)
All in all, I thought The Soul of Kindness a brilliant example of an exceptional writer. There are, of course, different books for different moods. When I wrote about My Sister Eileen recently, I shouted my love for books that are unashamedly lovely. Well, this is not that. It's for a different mood. But, in the right mood, you could hardly do better.


Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"What I love about this novel is how subversive it is." - Hilary, Vulpes Libris

"I found the characters not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating." - Karen, Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

"The subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is masterly." - Ali, Heavenali

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Literary Conference - César Aira

I guess my blog is, if anything, a bit of a celebration of well-written middlebrow, mostly English, mostly oldish, and mostly about tea cups and cats. Fair? Well, I also love to try things that are a bit different sometimes (especially - scholar that I am - if they are short, so the experiment needn't be all-encompassing). So, when I went off to a literary conference in the summer, I thought I'd take The Literary Conference (2006) by the Argentinian author César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver (one of three Aira novels sent to me by Hamish Hamilton a while ago, in a boxset of three with the cover designs below).


Somehow I got distracted, and only finished it recently - which, considering it's only 90 pages long, isn't very impressive, but it isn't because I didn't like it. I was delightfully baffled and bemused by the whole thing. It's surrealism mixed with postmodernism, with a dollop of science-fiction for good measure.

Our hero - and seldom has the term been used with less justice - has the same name as the author, and is off to attend a literary conference. We see extremely little of this. Instead we see his arrogance, his venom against rivals, and his determination to succeed. All are seen in the curious opening, where he discovers the secret of the 'Macuto Line' - a rope that has pirates' treasure on the end of it, under the sea, only nobody has worked out how to solve it. Guess who does?

But that is an overture to the main event. The protagonist wants to clone his rival, and has - since he is, he is willing to confess, a genius - devised a cloning machine, and secures a cell from Carlos Fuentes by means of a trained wasp.
Upon my return to the hotel, the excitement of the past few hours reached its anticlimax. The first part of the operation, the most demanding part for me, was over: I had obtained a cell from Carlos Fuentes, I had placed it inside the cloning machine, and I had left the machine to operate under optimum conditions. If you add to this the fact that the previous day I had solved the secular enigma of the Macuto Line, I could feel momentarily satisfied and think about other things. I had a few days to do just that. Cloning a living being is not like blowing glass. It happens on its own, but it takes time. Even though the process is prodigiously accelerated, it requires almost a week, according to the human calendar, for it must reconstruct on a small scale the entire geology of the evolution of life.
The climax of the novella is undoubtedly the way in which this clone goes awry. I want to say what happens so much - it is so strange, and yet extremely fitting (and goes back neatly to the beginning) - but I won't do Aira the disservice of spoiling the ending, in case you choose to read it.

I have no real idea what I thought about The Literary Conference. It did remind me of the two novels I've read by Adolfo Bioy Casares - in that it pretty much confused me, without alienating me. Perhaps it was more of a tourist venture into the tastes of others, but... it was fun, nonetheless.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

My Sister Eileen - Ruth McKenney

There aren't enough unashamedly lovely books around. Too many modern books (it seems) feel they have to be either trivial or miserable, as though the only way to be literary was to be grim. There is a market for uplifting books, but these tend to be insultingly light reads (pastel-coloured romances) or forgettable books you buy from the pile by the till. Comedy, meanwhile, is apparently represented by arch or melancholic writers whose novels strike me as either entirely unamusing (I'm looking at you, Howard Jacobson) or tragedy decorated with jokes.

This is a broadbrush and uninformed portrait of modern literature, of course, but my sense is that we are experiencing a good decade for literary and experimental fiction with its serious face on, but missing out on well written joie de vivre. The exception that comes to mind might be David Sedaris' non-fiction, which is very funny, but even this is decidedly melancholic.

So, what am I suggesting as an antidote? It's every bit as lovely as Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Herbert Jenkins' Patricia Brent, Spinster - it's Ruth McKenney's My Sister Eileen (1938). You might have guessed that from the title of this blog post.

I bought it a little while ago, after seeing it fleetingly mentioned in a review of Joanna Rakoff's excellent My Salinger Year, and I was excited when a beautiful copy arrived. Still, it felt like an indulgence to be saved, and I didn't dive straight in. My recent holiday felt like a very good opportunity to treat myself. As I expected, it's lovely and funny and good.

It's non-fiction - of the elaborated and exaggerated variety, I imagine - and is mostly about Ruth and Eileen's childhood, although there are also some chapters devoted to their time living in an extremely dingy New York basement (and it is this section, I believe, that is used in the film version - which I have bought but not yet watched).

Their childhood is certainly played for laughs - it is very amusing. I wasn't especially sold on the first chapter, which is about crying at the cinema (and the sisters' demand that a story should be entirely tragic, or it barely counted as a story at all). But from the second chapter onwards I was completely sold. The second chapter ('Hun-gah') details the sisters' attempts at amateur performances.

Eileen's only 'bit' was playing a 1920s song called 'Chloe' (Eileen is 'absolutely tone-deaf and has never been able to carry a tune, even the simplest one, in her whole life. She solved the difficulty by simply pounding so hard in the bass that she drowned herself out.') The infant Ruth, on the other hand, had a foray into acting - via an experimental drama teacher who allotted her the part of 'Hunger' (which, incidentally, was also her only line - to be repeated). There is a wonderful climax in a scene where the sisters have been asked to amalgamate their performances into one for their assembled relatives:

Eileen played and sang first. Just as the final notes of her bass monotone chant, "I GOT-TUH go wheah yew ARE," and the final rumble of the piano died away, I burst dramatically through the door, shouting "Hun-gah! Hun-gah!" and shaking my matted and snarled locks at my assembled relatives. My grandmother Farrel, who always takes everything seriously, let out a piercing scream.

Glorious.  And so the tales go on. We hear how Ruth was almost drowned by a Red Cross Lifesaving Examiner, how the sisters' father was obsessed with experimental washing machines, how they enlivened a camp bird-watching, etc. When they move to New York, these adventures turn to the complexities of a basement window that drunks would yell through, a cheating landlord, and (the story that inspires the cover), the time when Ruth - then a reporter - was followed for a day by the Brazilian Navy. It's so wonderfully silly and delightfully told. If it were not true (or at least based in truth) it might be criticised for being all over the place - but truth is not neatly arranged in logical or probable order, of course.

The Eileen of the title, incidentally, has another claim to notoriety - she married Nathanael West, and also died in the car crash that ended his life. This was actually two years after My Sister Eileen was published, so naturally it is not mentioned - but it lends a certain poignancy to the collection (and may influence the two sequels - one of which I now have, the other of which seems ungettable in the UK).

That moment of pathos aside, I think any lover of the Provincial Lady et al would also delight in this book - I certainly did, and was very glad to have found it.


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm off for part of the weekend - to visit Jane Austen's house, no less - and so still haven't caught up with answering comments yet. I will soon! But I shan't leave you empty-handed; here are a few bits and pieces to tide you over.

1.) I wrote about A.A. Milne for the OxfordWords blog, which I've been intending to do ever since I started working at OUP.

2.) Margaret Kennedy Reading Week was good fun, and I've bought a copy of her book The Outlaws on Parnassus: on the art of the novel as a result of it. Enjoy a full round-up over at Jane/Fleur's.

3.) It's actually been ages since I submitted my DPhil thesis (last October) was vivaed (in January) and had my corrections approved (May) - but I still haven't had my graduation (November). I have, though, finally got my thesis bound. One copy has been submitted to the Bodleian; another is here:


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

This Is The End by Stella Benson

A Shiny New Review from Shiny New Books - of an old book, now reprinted by Mike Walmer. I loved I Pose by Stella Benson (review here) and leapt at the chance of reading her next book, This Is The End. Even though I kept singing 'Skyfall' every time I picked it up...

Here's the beginning of my review:

One of the more unusual novelists being reprinted at the moment is Stella Benson. Her work is issued by Michael Walmer, a one-man publishing house that is reprinting various neglected novelists in the order their novels were originally published. This Is The End is Benson’s second (from 1917), and comes immediately before the one that is probably most remembered now,Living Alone, about very curious witches.
I want to say that This Is The End is not supernatural, but any definite statement about a Benson novel feels like a trap waiting to happen; the reader never quite knows which genre they’re reading, or what sort of response is required. Except that laughter will always be involved somewhere.

Monday, 13 October 2014

My Name is Julia Ross

How do people feel about me writing film reviews? Is that something people would be in to? I tend just to post about the things I want to (witness: Song for a Sunday) and sometimes that turns into something unexpectedly popular (I never imagined anybody would want to read the Bake Off recaps, and now strangers - strangers plural, mind - come up to me at parties - party singular, actually - and tell me they like that.) But I guess the worlds of film and book review aren't miles apart, only I would consider myself something of an expert about books (if anything at all) and wouldn't about film.

Enough preamble. I'm going to write about My Name is Julia Ross, and we'll take it from there. By the by, a nice man called John writes a very book blog called Pretty Sinister Books which has regular film reviews, and he has written about My Name is Julia Ross here. But I actually came across the film when scrolling through the IMDB page for Dame May Whitty, seeing what else she had made.

My Name is Julia Ross is from 1945, and I watched it with my friend Andrea as part of the aptly-named Simon and Andrea's Film Club. The whole thing is available on YouTube (at the bottom of this post), although a DVD might still be available for all I know. It's based on a novel called The Woman in Red by Anthony Gilbert, whom I've never heard of (have you?) and is about Julia Ross (Nina Foch) who takes on an appointment as a secretary, and is drugged and kidnapped. When she awakes, she is in a clifftop house, and people are calling her Marion Hughes, claiming she is the wife of Ralph Hughes. They have recently moved to the village, and all the villagers know that Ralph's wife has suffered a breakdown, and doesn't know what she's saying...

The rest of the film documents Julia Ross's attempts to escape from the house - attempts that are repeatedly foiled, of course - and the viewer slowly learns why Ralph and his mother (the mother being played by Dame May) have brought Julia there. In the background, back where Julia was living in penury, are the rather lacklustre romantic hero Dennis and the rather wonderfully snipey housemaid.

To the modern viewer - perhaps even to the 1940s viewer - the actual plot is something of a cliché. It is interesting to see a drama where nothing grimmer or more inventive is needed than repeated unsuccessful escape plans (notes thrown through gates, sneaking into the back of cars, etc.). I don't know enough about film history to know how unusual this scenario would have been at the time, but it really isn't all that important. Of course she isn't going to escape half an hour into the film. What does matter is how it's shot - and it's really striking.

There are quite a few things in My Name is Julia Ross that make me think of Hitchcock - not least the looming out over the clifftop; the bedroom window is right on the edge. The setting is so stunning, and dramatic, and the film-maker (dir. Joseph H. Lewis) puts this to the best possible use.

Nina Foch is a very likeable heroine, if a little over the top at times, but it is the eerie calmness of Dame May Whitty that makes the mystery at the heart of the film so tense - not so much 'what will happen?' but 'why has it happened?' It might have been a more psychologically complex film if we hadn't seen the drugging - if we hadn't known whether or not Julia was right; if she could, in fact, be Marion - but even without this element, it's rather gripping.

I love watching films from this period - unsurprisingly, really - and it's interesting to find a thriller to watch alongside the Brief Encounters and Mrs Minivers with which we're already familiar.



Saturday, 11 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're all having a good weekend! Mine is disappearing all too quickly... and I've read only 20 pages of the book I was intending to finish. Oops.

Slightly different from usual this week, as I'm going to be entirely egotistical in this miscellany... these things are all me elsewhere.

1. I wrote about Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse over at Vulpes Libris.

2. I made a cake to celebrate the 400th Very Short Introduction book.

3. And I appeared in this Oxford Dictionaries video (see the post for answers):