Monthly Archives: November 2013

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a novel about love of many different kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear – indicated by the title. For all the characters in this novel, the summer season changes their experience of love. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel. She manages a complex cast of characters and has the confidence to let her story unfold.

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Kate Heron is the protagonist. She is around forty and has recently married for the second time. As she is well off, her husband Dermot is able to be unemployed for stretches of time, although he tries his hand at growing mushrooms and at entering a partnership in a travel company in London. Kate has a sixteen year-old daughter, Lou, back from boarding school for the holidays, and a son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business. At the start of the novel one feels that Kate and Dermot are doomed, but not for the traditional reasons she and he separately suspect are harboured by Kate’s former friends: marrying a younger man, or marrying for her money. Something more complex is implied.

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During the summer season Lou falls for the curate, a Father Blizzard. She hangs about places and undertakes parish chores, such as sorting shoes for the jumble sale, hoping to bump into him. One morning he asks her to help him buy a birthday present for his sister.

When they were sitting together in the bus, she felt completely happy, without knowing that to feel so is such a rare experience that it might never come to her again. The very knowledge would have made something else of it. This morning was something she recognised as having been waited for, but with wavering degrees of hope. As the miracle had come about she simply accepted it, but was taking it in little sips, blissfully restrained: for instance, she had not yet raised her eyes to look at his face. (p56)

Elizabeth Taylor is able to capture these adolescent feelings without implying they are inferior to adult love. As autumn approaches Father Blizzard makes a decision to leave the village and join a Catholic monastery in France. Lou returns to school. I love the description of Waterloo station as mothers see off their children. I was catching trains to and from school at the same period (she was writing in the early ‘60s). She has captured the scene at the start of term.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (p206)

Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently when he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, when she returns with her father to the village. She is a cool customer, training to become a model, vividly attractive and sexy, but able to control Tom with her unresponsiveness. The reader feels for him in his unsuccessful pursuit. She is a prototype for the anorexic size 0 models of our time.

Dermot loves Kate, but he cant quite live up to his own intentions for himself, preferring to allow the truth to be obscured so that he doesn’t appear smaller in her eyes and those of her friends. He feels his inferiority to her and her friends; it is moral, educational, cultural and he resents it. This resentment is the catalyst for the climax of the story.

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One of the delights of Elizabeth Taylor novels is the references to other novels, in this case The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, which Dermot does not recognise as a novel. I admit having yet to read this book, but it is about things, and a widow’s battle to retain her spoils – antique furniture. As Susannah Clapp points out in her introduction, ‘piles of discarded, unused and unlovely objects are strewn throughout In a Summer Season. … They carry some force as reminders of the inhibitions and consolations of memory and habit’. The Spoils of Poynton was Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, and links Kate to him and to her previous life in a way that Dermot resents. It’s a clever, quiet device that also shows up Dermot’s ignorance (and mine!).

Kate is more aware of each person, including herself, than any of the other characters and because she is central to the plot we often see people mediated through her susceptibilities. She has to manage her relationship to Dermot. Elizabeth Taylor lets us know, in this early scene, that Kate understands Dermot very well.

On the way home they quarrelled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarrelling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it. (p34)

As readers we are encouraged to have some hope for the couple for the evening ends thus:

He ran his knuckles down her spine. ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of self-respect that loving her had given him. (p40)

This is pure Elizabeth Taylor, the temporary relaxation of the tension, and the quiet observation of Dermot’s character.

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does not satisfy all readers. We are unsure what kind of future Kate will have, but the final short chapter allows us to see how where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

As always in her novels there are some great comic moments (preparing for the jumble sale, watching tv, Dermot’s mother). Great tenderness is shown towards Lou’s ‘calf ’love and Tom’s hopeless infatuation with Araminta.

But the uncertainties of love are also revealed with some tenderness: Kate’s dream about Charles, Dermot’s desire to do better by Kate leads him to lie and deceive; Lou’s growing up so that the departure of Father Blizzard is not such a blow; Lou crying about her mother and Dermot after he has accused her of being ‘bloody smug’; Charles’ comfort; Tom’s inability to recover from Araminta’s death.

 

Some other blog reviews of In a Summer Season:

Dovegreyreader

Of Books and Bicycles

 

Next month I will be reading Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel: The Soul of Kindness, published in 1964. Join me!

 

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Are you sitting comfortably?

Reading with young children, pre-readers, is both necessary and a delight. Fiction for children is necessary because it is an early gateway to independent reading and because it builds empathy. There is an obligation to the individual and to our society to develop literacy in young people. This is the argument of Neil Gaiman in his lecture Reading and Obligation for the Reading Agency in October 2013. You can read his lecture in full on the Reading Agency website, here.

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‘The simplest way to raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.’  Gaiman argues in favour of all reading, including comics, Enid Blyton and so-called ‘escapist’ fiction. ‘Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing.’ Anything they want to read will help them onto ‘the reading ladder’ and up, rung by rung into literacy. He makes a strong case for protecting libraries as well.

His argument about building empathy is also strong. Reading is different from action on screens, which happens to other people, in this respect, because it depends on the reader’s imagination. Further:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you have never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

Extending Gaiman’s points, I argue that reading with pre-readers is a powerful way to build social bonds. It is necessarily a social activity, full of emotional and physical closeness. A few days ago, at their request I read some classic stories to my two grandsons. The older one is five years old and on the edge of reading, and at the end of each story he took pleasure and pride in matching pictures to words: bear, porridge, chair, Goldilocks… The younger one, who is two, fell asleep with his head on my arm. His brother and I shared conspiratorial smiles at this. They have both been enjoying books since they were just weeks old.

It is one of the chief pleasures of reading to share it with someone else, through a blog, in conversation with friends, in book groups and – in my case – with my grandsons. There was a time when they preferred different books. The picture above makes me smile as I attempted to appease the tastes of both boys. No wonder I look so awfully tired.

64 Char & Oli IMGP1812Reading to the very young crosses generations, and I have a much-loved sequence of photographs of my mother reading to her great-grandson. The book is The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, but we still love reading it. We love Hamish the cat’s resistance to entering the basket, which will mean an aerial flight over the sea to the lighthouse. Hamish’s job is to keep the seagulls off the wonderful lunch prepared by Mrs Grindling. We love listing the contents of Mr Grindling’s lunchbasket and shouting CLEAR OFF, YOU VARMINTS! with Mr Grindling as the seagulls steal every bit.

The older one has begun enjoying longer stories with chapters, like the BFG, or Paddington Bear. The younger one loves being read to, and is not that bothered what it is. Here he is with Mog by Judith Kerr, which appeals to his love of books and cats. I used to read Mog to his mother. Mog is another delightful (but dim) cat.

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I can see ahead years and years of reading aloud, of giving books, of sitting with books, and of hearing each of them discovering that they can do it on their own. For me, part of the pleasure is discovering that even over two or three generations we can share our tastes: for favourites such as the Three Bears, Mog, The BFG, and for new favourites such as It’s a Book! By Lane Smith or 365 penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental. (Thank you Anne P for suggesting this big book, which delights us with numbers as the collection of penguins grows by one more penguin every day for a whole year.)

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Here is a brief list of some of my current favourites from among the books I like reading with them.

Anything by Anthony Browne because his images allow you to enter strange but familiar worlds. My Dad was a favourite until it fell apart.

Where the wild things are. Maurice Sendak

Roald Dahl’s The BFG, which was one of my daughter’s favourite reads.

Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and pictures by Axel Scheffler. Be careful what you invent because it might just turn out to be true!

You can see that we share a taste for humour, cats, anthropomorphic animals and good illustrations.

Here’s a link to the Booktrust’s list of Our 100 best children’s books. Lots of people pointed out omissions and some will have voted for their favourites. Have you any suggestions for me to read with the boys? After all Christmas is coming and although it is true that a book’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life, the gift of a book is always a good one.

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is a strange and clever book, and I loved getting into it, losing myself in its stories and ideas. It would not have surprised me if this book had won the Man Booker Prize in October. It was shortlisted but frankly any one of the six could have won – they are all so good. One the attractions for me of A Tale for the Time Being is the great older woman: old Jiko, who is an anarchist, a writer, a Buddhist nun, a teacher, the grandmother of one of the protagonists, and 104 years old with a wicked sense of humour and penetrating wisdom.

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There are two main characters, both female. Ruth is the narrator (she shares a name with the author) and lives with her husband and cat on an island off the west coast of Canada – remote then. She is a novelist who has interrupted her writing of novels to compose a memoir of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. She is blocked, perhaps by grief. Ruth is a Japanese Canadian, like her namesake. She finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shore containing the journal of a Japanese teenager, Nao. The reader is invited to consider both Ruth’s life, and the story of the younger girl revealed through the diaries, and the connections between them. According to her diaries, Nao had a great life in silicone valley before returning to Japan, where she suffered terrible abuse at school, difficulties in her family and is considering suicide. (She calls suicide ‘graduating from time’ or ‘dropping out of time’.)

The two lives, Ruth’s and Nao’s, are connected through the journal, through writing. Everywhere in this novel the power of the written word is explored. Reading Nao’s diary allows Ruth to become connected to the younger woman. Nao reads her uncle’s letters and begins to understand his actions and his place in his mother’s life. Jiko herself says ‘Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,’ (p246). And what are we to make of the small folder paper returned to Jiko on her son’s death, as a kamikaze pilot, on which is written ‘remains’? They could not return an empty box. But what of Haruki does remain? Not just concrete things such as his watch and his letters, but the idea of him, in the memory of his mother, passed on to her granddaughter Nao, and through the medium of the novel, to us the readers.

Nao finds understanding through her contact with her grandmother and her uncle. She finds his letters, which illuminate the theme of people’s connection through writing and over time.

March 27, 1945

Dear Mother,

You will be happy to know that as I wait to die, I have been reading poetry and novels again. Old favourites by Soseki and Kawabata, as well as the books you sent me by your dear women writer fiends. Euchi Fumiko-san’s Words Like the Wind and the poems of Yosano-san in Tangled Hair.

Reading these women makes me feel closer to you. Did you share their racy past, my dear Mother? I applaud you, and will ask nothing further, knowing it’s unbecoming of a son to tease a mother so.

I find myself drawn to literature more now than in the past; not the individual works as much as the idea of literature – the heroic effort and nobility of our human desire to make beauty of our minds – which moves me to tears, and I have to brush them away, quickly, before anyone notices. Such tears are not becoming in a Yamato danshi. (p257)

The title, A Tale for the Time Being, is a gentle pun, or at least can be taken in more than one way. What a curious English expression time being is. It can be taken to mean now, which is also the meaning of Nao’s name, in Japanese. Now, or the time being, is a transitory moment, disappearing into the past as soon as you enter it. The time being is an impossible state to be in. But of course we are all living within our own time. We are time beings, none more than Jiko, who has managed 104 years.

Hi.

My name is Nao , and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. (p3)

Another little play on writing and time is that Nao’s diary is disguised in the cover of Proust’s A La Recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). This is how the novel begins, and already readers, including Ruth, will see that Nao is a writer wgho can hold attention. She is also an adolescent, with all the seriousness and pomposity of her age.

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Eventually, it is the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 that impels Ruth’s involvement in Nao’s narrative. Is that how her diary came to be on the Canadian shore, washed there by the ocean currents? Did she exist? Did she survive?

The only jarring notes I found were the supernatural ones: the dream that resolved a plot complication (I find dreams are as unrewarding to read about as people’s accounts of them the morning after), and the mystical disappearance and reappearance of the writing at the end of the diary. But these moments still did not spoil my reading of this novel.

I enjoy novels that question and challenge and extend its very structure and form – following in the footsteps of Laurence Sterne. I like novels that play with ideas about time as Kate Atkinson does in Life after Life, (winner of Not the Man Booker Prize in 2013). A Tale for the Time Being has copious footnotes, mostly providing translations for the Japanese words and provides appendices and a bibliography.

I like novels that explore important topics, such as why writing is important, how people should and can relate to each other, the important of the natural world, the relationship of age to youth and what families can do for each other.

And who can resist a novel that adds writing to the range of superpowers in fiction? Nao is keen to make a connection with her reader. Towards the end of the novel, as her life is beginning to resolve itself she writes:

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except that I thought you would like to know. My dad seems to have found his superpower, and maybe I’ve started to find mine, too, which is writing to you. (p389).

I63 Hello K lunchbox 2f you have read A Tale for the Time Being please let us know your opinion and reactions. Did you enjoy it? Are you tempted to read it if you haven’t yet?

 

The next Readalong, in January, will be Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in 1979. Hermione Lee has just published a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. Join me in reading the novel!

 

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In praise of short stories

Short stories are flourishing at the moment. Both the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) are applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. It’s a form that embraces many genres, styles, plots, and approaches. A recent innovation was the sale by Penguin of a single short story, in electronic form (£2.99) well as in hardback (£7.99): The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith. It’s an attractive innovation and has probably only happened because electronic versions are economically viable.

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I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral tradition (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer says that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend recently introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

Short stories have often provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention just a few. There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s (see for example the Showalter Collection below) and women have continued to make significant contributions to the form ever since (see the Angela Carter anthology for a superb selection).

Perhaps because the platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great novels, publishers don’t like collections of short stories, except by established authors, or so we are frequently told. But this is hardly true of some of the smaller publishers (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what sections of the reading public say they want to buy.)

Most how to write fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

Here is are five of my current favourite short story writers (not in any order and not necessarily the top five either – just five to celebrate):

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  1. Raymond Carver (Vintage)
  2. Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)
  3. Molly Panter-Downes (Persephone)
  4. Angela Carter (Virago)
  5. Flannery O’Connor (Faber)

And five of my favourite anthologies (again, not in order and five to celebrate):

  1. Persephone Book of Short Stories
  2. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series (Salt) – annually
  3. BBC National Short Story – annually
  4. Angela Carter (Ed), Wayward Girls and Wicked Women (Virago)
  5. Elaine Showalter (Ed) Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle. (Virago)

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Regular readers of this blog will know I am reading through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels at the moment. When I have read them all I will start on her collected short stories. What a treat that will be.

Tessa Hadley’s top ten short stories can be found here. Her list is dominated by established novel writers: DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, Nadine Gordimer, John McGahern, but includes stalwarts such Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka and, of course, Alice Munro. She has identified particular stories.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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To Kindle or not to Kindle?

Bloodless nerds: that’s how Kindle users were described by the well-known writer. It was July 2011 and we were at a literary festival. There was sustained applause from the audience for this remark. Bloodless nerds! It’s true, we were in BBCRadio4land, but this was offensive. So why does Kindle use arouse such passions, such rudeness and snobbery. I guess some of it is straightforward luddism. People are reluctant to learn how to link up to the web, invent passwords, and follow all those instructions. Some of this attitude arises from a bizarre idea that reading should not be easy, that it is almost shameful to be able to bring up your latest choice from your TBR pile almost anywhere: bus, back garden, beach, bed, plane, train.

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I don’t own a Kindle, but I don’t disapprove of them, just haven’t got round to getting one. In fact I haven’t touched one on more than two occasions, in shops where they were on display. This is strange, for in the last thirty years I have been something of an early adopter of various gadgets and technologies – fax, mobile, digital camera, laptop, smartphone, apps, blog, tweetery, facebook etc etc.

But although I have held one in my hand and imagined owning it, and despite seeing people on buses and trains with them, know it to be the indispensible holiday gadget (helps with the luggage allowance), seen the beautiful people on the adverts with a Kindle in a hammock, walking along the beach arm in arm (and would you really want a Kindle to read in that situation?) into the sun as it sets over the sea, despite all this I don’t have one. That is not because I don’t tend to go on beach holidays, and would rather look at the sunset and swim in the sea than light up my Kindle. And I have certainly coveted the Kindle covers, the faux Jane Austen, floral Cath Kidson, smart leather chic – still no Kindle. And I even considered going out and buying one when I was so shocked by the ‘bloodless nerd’ comment and the audience’s response. It would be a protest.

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E-readers tell me about the advantage of owning a Kindle, and as I understand it they are as follows:

1. The ease and speed of obtaining books that you want to read.

2. You don’t have books taking up shelfspace.

3. You don’t have to pack lots of books for that holiday or hospital stay.

4. You have access to the equivalent of the British Library in your pocket.

4. Some books are only available on e-readers.

I expect I have missed some.

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Are there any disadvantages?

Can you mark pages, lose and find postcards and other book marks in them, smell them, watch them yellow at the edge of the page? I like the physical aspects of books, as well as their constraints, having to decide about which to carry, being limited by what I have in my hand or on my shelf or available in the library or bookshop.

As well as being conservative in my habits, I do not want to be tempted to download lots of books, and I like waiting for them to arrive from the library or bookstore because I usually read something else in that time. I don’t want to carry another gadget (I got an iphone so I didn’t have to have to carry a phone as well as an ipod.) When I go on holiday to Africa in 2015 I probably will take one, but until then I’ll enjoy the slow exploration that hard copies require.

It seems I am not alone. Consider the passengers on the whimsically named Mayflower Express – the 11.06 from London Paddington to Plymouth – in the Quiet Coach where a bit of speedy research reveals that there is only one reader holding an e-reader. Seven people have books and two people are doing Sudoku, two reading the paper, one person writing on A4 lined paper (looks like a late University essay), one person is asleep, one person gazing out of the window at the gorgeous autumn landscape and one person is doing a survey of Kindle use. Only one out of eight readers was using a Kindle. I am not alone.

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With Christmas coming up if someone wants to give me one that’s fine. But I don’t feel a need to get one.

 

Any thoughts on this topic? Do you mind being referred to as a ‘bloodless nerd’?

 

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