Monthly Archives: July 2015

Paintings in Four Novels

Every novel I read for a brief period recently seemed to contain references to paintings, were about eminent painters, or were inspired by particular paintings, or the plot turned on the art of the painting. Here is a selection of four, beginning with the best!

  1. How to be both by Ali Smith (2014)

160 How to be bothThis was one of my best reads of the last 12 months: judges of many prizes agreed, including Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize which it won in June this year. This novel draws on fresco painting techniques in its layering of stories, and in its exploration of ambiguity. The paintings are the frescoes in Ferrara, and in the National Gallery, St Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa.

You can read my review about the novel from March 2015 here.

  1. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)

190 Girl with coverThis book was a best seller, not least because of the film adaptation. The book tells the story of a servant girl, Griet, and the picture painted of her by the great Dutch painter – Johannes Vermeer. It is narrated in the voice of Griet, who is unfamiliar with the world of the artist, but learns how to mix his paints, pose for him and eventually to loose her innocence through her relationship with the painter.

Tracy Chevalier has made a speciality of highly researched historical fiction. The insights into the Delft household, and Dutch society in the seventeenth century are among the attractive details of this novel. Vermeer has become very popular since the book was published. Here is a picture of the crowd around another of his paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Girl with a Pearl Earring is in The Hague in the Mauritshuis.

190 Vermeer crush

  1. Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (first published 1997)

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black

142 R's whoreThis is novel also takes its inspiration from a Dutch artist. But it was written in French. As the title suggests, Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s housekeeper, is condemned by the Calvinist citizens of Amsterdam. She tells her story from her arrival in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, to the moment she dies of plague, after having given birth to a daughter.

The theme is the valuing of art and love over dogma and narrow-mindedness. The novel drew me into the life of Amsterdam and its people, as you can read in the longer review in December 2014, one of a group of novels I reviewed that were situated in Amsterdam.

  1. Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)

190 SUmmer in F coverThis novel draws, not from a single painting, but on a group of artists who congregated in Cornwall before the First World War. They were real people.

It concerns a love triangle. The larger-than-life figure – all performance and attention demanding – is AJ Munnings, who later as Sir Alfred Munnings became President of the Royal Academy. His rival in love is Captain Evans a rather staid, but open young man. The men are portrayed as complete opposites, but friends. The object of their affections is Florence Carter Ward. Florence’s character really irritated me: a fatally attractive woman, men are unable to resist her. She was the subject of Munning’s painting, Morning Ride, sold for nearly half a million pounds at Christies in 2000.

Florence married Munnings, and the story follows them until the tragic ending of the unhappy triangle. Was this novel more than a love story? Was it anything to do with painting? What was the influence of love on painting and of painting on the novel? And what was the role of that other artist Dame Laura Knight?

Of the four novels referred to in this post, this was the least convincing to me. But it is interesting how novelists use painting and painters in their writing.

What novels have you read that are influenced by painting or painters?

Related posts

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Amsterdam Stories

 

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No Surrender by Constance Maud

No Surrender is novel about Suffragettes, written by one and published before votes for women were won. It describes why they decided to become militant, and what they did to draw attention to them and their demands. Constance Maud knew what she was talking about. Alongside the activism there are love stories, adventure stories and some jolly humour, mostly at the expense of the ‘Antis’.

189 no_surrender_pic

The Story

Jenny Clegg is a Lancashire millworker. She gets good wages, but appalling working conditions and comes from a family where her brother Peter was wounded by a shuttle in the weaving shed, and her married sister has two of her children sent to Australia because her estranged husband doesn’t want to support them. Her mother is downtrodden and her father takes advantage of husbands’ rights to help himself to her earnings. Other downtrodden women appear within the novel, including Maggie who becomes pregnant by her employer, murders her baby and is sentenced to hang. She is Peter’s sweetheart.

Mary O’Brien is Irish and comes from a different class. She is well connected and interested in the welfare of women. A visit to her uncle’s mills results in her conversion to the women’s cause and from then on we follow Mary and Jenny as they join the WSPU and take on active roles. The movement becomes increasingly concerned to draw attention to the demands for the vote, which gives rise to some interesting demonstrations. Both are imprisoned.

189 Votes for wPublished before the vote was secured, and when it was still likely or possible that it was a vain cause, Constance Maud could not give the reader the happy ever after ending. It was not until 1918 that some women gained the vote and it was 1928 when we got the vote on the same terms as men.

The Writing

There is considerable humour in No Surrender, especially in the creative ideas for action that the Suffragettes make: posting themselves in parcels to Downing Street, ambushing cabinet ministers in the village church and at a society dinner party. Even the male staff were in on that one.

Along the way we hear all the argument of the Antis and the men who have not yet thought enough about it, and those who are resisting, including men in the Labour movement. The arguments are rehearsed by characters who ask questions, especially the French Count who is shocked by what he hears of the treatment and abusive descriptions of the women of the WSPU. We read about women from other countries (Australia, US, New Zealand, Scandinavia) and how they the vote has benefited their countries.

And we hear the idiotic arguments of officialdom, the church, the privileged, the politicos, and the organised groups called ‘The Antis’.

189 Force feedingWhile it is a campaigning novel No Surrender is not didactic. In its details it is commanding. One of the most difficult passages to read is the force feeding of Mary O’Neill. We should recall that this treatment was the official response to the women who went on hunger strike in prison.

What I liked

I enjoyed a familiar sense of rightness, exultation and action of involvement in political protest as I read this novel. Think Aldermaston Marches, Greenham Common Occupation, demos for Women’s Right to Choose, Stop the War … This last proved that a government does not have to take any account of opposition. Just like the continued refusal to hear the feminist voices today.

Does it matter any more?

We take the women’s vote for granted now. We are accustomed to seeing cabinet ministers who are women, and endured a prime minister who was a woman. Women are represented on the boards of companies, in local government, everywhere. Still in a minority however.

Every argument against Votes for Women is aired in this book. You would think that women had little to campaign about and that winning the vote would make everything ok. Of course it did not, although it was an important part of the struggle.

189 Do it coverThe book I picked up immediately after No Surrender was Do it like a Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez. No Surrender was the motto of the WSPU, and PUSH: Push Until Something Happens is the motto of a Liberian activist, – in her case the abolition of FGM. Caroline Criado-Perez reminds us that there is still so much to do. PUSH!

I am often daunted by women’s struggles, and the very slow progress made, but I recall an educator saying to me ‘Nothing like a good experience of daunt!’

Endpaper from No Surrender published by Persephone Books

Endpaper from No Surrender published by Persephone Books

No Surrender by Constance Maud originally published in 1911 and reissued by Persephone in 2011. 328 pp

Do it like a Woman … and change the world by Caroline Criado-Perez (2015) published by Portobello 292 pp

 

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Mrs Dalloway is ageing

Inspired by Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet, which I saw in May, I reread Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. It was one of three of her novels on which the ballet was based. You can see the post about Woolf Works here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

There was so much to enjoy in this rereading. The narrative is barely evident, just taking the reader through one June day in London in the early 1920s, as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for the party she is giving that evening.

I was struck again, by the richness of Virginia Woolf’s prose: the imagery, the inventiveness of the sentence structure and word order (was Elizabeth Taylor influenced by this aspect of her style?), the movement between the characters, how she leads us slipping between the inner life of different people, finding how they made sense of their lives, of relationships, of other characters. She shows us how our lives are interlinked. And the horror of mental illness also stood out in this reading.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

I focused on the parts of the novel where the characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, consider ageing and what it meant to them that day. Unlike descriptions of physical decline that feature so much on the subject of ageing, in Mrs Dalloway the characters reflect on the perspectives that age brings to their lives. Virginia Woolf was 41 when it was published. This is Clarissa, who is 52:

She felt very young: at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time, was outside, looking in. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (10-11)

One event in her day sets off some uncomfortable responses. Her husband Richard has accepted a lunch invitation, and she was excluded.

‘Fear no more,’ said Clarissa. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; for the shock of Lady Bruton asking Richard to lunch without her made the moment in which she had stood shiver, as a plant on the riverbed feels the shock of a passing oar and shivers: so she rocked: so she shivered. (34)

Later in the afternoon she tries to recall the intensity of her love, for her friend Sally Seton, when they were barely twenty.

‘She is beneath this roof … She is beneath this roof!’

No, the words meant absolutely nothing to her now. She could not even get an echo of her old emotion. She could not remember getting cold with excitement and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy (now the old feeling began to come back to her as she took out her hairpins, laid them on the dressing table, began to do her hair), with the rooks flaunting up and down in the pink evening light, and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall ‘if it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy’. That was her feeling – Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton! (39)

Soon she moves on to think about the limited time left to her, for we know she has been ill recently.

Laying her brooch on the table, she had a sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there – the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself. (41-42)

Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin, Lead. 1931. National Portrait Gallery

Virginia Woolf by Stephen Tomlin, Lead. 1931. National Portrait Gallery

And the wisdom that time brings is revealed to Peter Walsh, the man that Clarissa did not marry.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly in the light. (88)

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh, it seems, are all they ever have been, not just two people defined by their age. Their consciousness in the present is as much influenced by the events of the past as by the awareness of the present: preparations for the party, the people they meet and the words they exchange alongside memories, what ifs and the histories of their closest relationships.

No wonder it pays to re-read Mrs Dalloway: one finds so much in it, and to dance it. And there is still more (of course)!

188 Mrs D coverMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925, republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 1964 (page numbers in this post refer to this edition). 215 pp

Related posts

Eileen’s guest post about Rereading Books.

About the ballet: In step with Virginia Woolf

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, is from Cymbeline. The full text can be found here at The Poetry Foundation.

 

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Draw the line!

Cartoonists and other staff were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on 7th January 2015. Twelve people died in the attack and eleven people were wounded, four seriously. The responses were immediate, identifying with the victims – Je suis Charlie – the demonstrations in Paris and a renewed determination not to be cowed by extremist ideas and extreme action.

187 suis ch

One response, in the UK, was Draw the line Here, a collection of more than 100 cartoons by 66 cartoonists, drawn in response to the murders. It was curated by the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation committee. Funds were raised by CrowdShed crowdfunding. I’m proud to say I took a small part in the crowdfunding.

187 Draw f cover

Dedicated to anyone, anywhere or at any time who has suffered persecution for the crime of expressing their thoughts and opinions.

I wish I could show you some of the cartoons, but I can’t. But better yet, you could buy a copy.

187 je s c pencil

Predictably many of the cartoons utilise the black balaclava, the gun and its similarity in shape to the pen or pencil. Others draw on the absurdity of violence as a means of persuasion. Others simply restate a belief in freedom of expression. Yet others are concerned with the damage to Islam of the Paris attacks.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie in Kayserberg May 2015

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie in Kayserberg May 2015

In the foreword, Libby Purves refers with admiration to the art of cartoonists:

How do these guys with pencils and weird imaginations suddenly relax your thoughtful news reading frown into a daft grin and make you snort aloud at the memory hours later? … The glory of the art is in its freedom, its courage, its willingness to dance lightfooted over dangerous ground. Not with malice or threat, but in the name of freedom, curiosity, and argument.

And as if to endorse these words, without malice or vengeance this was the Charlie Hebdo cover on 14th January 2015 …

187 Ch hebdo

You can buy a copy of Draw the Line Here (£14.72) from English Pen, the publisher, by clicking here. Funds raised from the sale of Draw the Line Here will be shared between the families of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and English Pen’s Writers at Risk Programme.

And as you do, remember the importance of asserting freedom of expression. And remember the victims of those who believe that some things should not be thought or expressed in words or cartoons.

Back cover of Draw the Line Here

Back cover of Draw the Line Here

Draw the Line Here by Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, published by English PEN in June 2015. 90pp

 

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s novels gives me the same feeling as when I hear Knoxville, Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber. Both are very American and strongly evocative of ordinary urban life. As with Barber’s piece it is easy to get into a novel by Anne Tyler, but as you progress you are challenged. She presents you with surprises and with people acting like real people – not like stereotyped heroes and heroines. They have foibles, grief, whims, traits that make them recognisable and interesting.

186 Spool coverA Spool of Blue Thread is Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel and continues her exploration of families. She has said she wants to know ‘how they grate along’ because people are forced together in families. In this novel she explores how families define themselves, creating their versions of themselves and how this changes over time.

The story

Set in Baltimore again, A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshanks and their four children. We meet Red (a builder) and Abby (a social worker and former hippy) in 1994 and follow them into old age where their children must respond to their ageing. The story shifts in Part Two to focus on the previous generation of Whitshanks and how they came to Baltimore. It emerges that the origins of both Junior and Linnie are obscured from their children and grandchildren. It is not clear whether they were even married.

In A Spool of Blue Thread Abby is a central figure. She is prone to invite lame ducks to a meal and forget about the invitation. She is generous and has opened her family to non-blood relatives.

Central to the story is the house that Junior Whitshank built and bought off its first owner, then passed to Red, becoming the home of the second generation.

Junior got his house, but it didn’t seem to make him as happy as you might expect, and he had often been seen contemplating it with a puzzled, forlorn sort of look on his face. He spent the rest of his life fidgeting with it, altering it, adding closets, resetting flagstones, as if he hoped that achieving the perfect abode would finally open the hearts of those neighbors who never acknowledged him. Neighbors whom he didn’t even like. (57)

The story ends as the house is emptied and the third generation move away from its orbit.

Why read A Spool of Blue Thread?

In every novel Anne Tyler creates characters of great charm and frustration. Who can forget the flawed Macon in The Accidental Tourist. He writes travel books and hates travel. His family store their groceries alphabetically. These are not romantic heroes and heroines and yet they love, suffer and make their lives as all of us do.

Anne Tyler has said that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

The novel explores how families shape themselves. Here are some of the ways in which the Whitshanks do it:

  • Through their responses to the wayward child, Denny, who sabotages much family activity, absents himself from the family, flits back occasionally, tells them nothing of his life.
  • The family’s retold two myths – how the house came to be in the possession of the Whitshanks and how Red’s sister’s dishonestly and manipulatively campaigned to marry a rich man.
  • What the members of the family tell each other and what they withhold.
  • How the family respond to ageing parents, and the assumptions they make about their need for care and about who should do this and how.
  • The resentful relationships between the siblings and how these are only revealed in crises.
  • How the family’s rituals define them, for example their annual holiday at the Beach and Christmas.
  • How they cope and don’t cope when they are all squashed together in the house.
  • How they respond to the death of one of the family.

Amanda the lawyer gives her brother Denny a piece of her mind on one occasion, and we learn a truth about this wayward son. She spoke on the phone to him, in front of their mother, Abby.

“But do you know something, Denny? Don’t count on me to take you in, because I’m angry, I’m angry at you for leading us on such a song and dance all these years, not just these last few years but all the years, skipping all those holidays and staying away from the beach trips and missing Mom and Dad’s thirtieth anniversary and thirty-fifth and Jeannine’s baby and not attending my wedding that time or even sending a card or calling to wish me well. But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.”

She stopped speaking. Denny said something.

“Oh,” she said. “I’m fine. How have you been?” (32-33)

The scene shifts and the next paragraph beings: So Denny came home. The humour, letting us down after one of the most emotional scenes, and the delivery of the home truth to Abby is typical of Anne Tyler’s writing, and of how she shows the relationships in this family.

There is no great denouement although Denny appears to be making a bid for a better life in the final scenes. We have been privileged to witness a family, any family, make its way through difficult times, from the Depression to the present day, and how each family member plays a part in shaping and defining the family while also being constrained by the collective ideas they hold.

And the reader has witnessed this through the eyes of a writer with great charm and humour and a gift for the detail. There is a link to Knoxville in the prominent role of the porch seat in the novel and which you can hear swinging gently at the opening of Barber’s piece.

Reading Anne Tyler

I have read (or reread) a novel by Anne Tyler every two years, my reading record shows.

Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass
(2009)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)

Anne Tyler's novels on my bookshelves

Anne Tyler’s novels on my bookshelves

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (2015) Chatto & Windus 358 pp

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

My copy was a gift from Kim, through her blog Reading Matters. Many thanks to Kim, I enjoyed it as I knew I would! The link takes you to her review.

 

Related posts:

An Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Shortlisted for Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2015

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’

 

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The Craft of Blogging: #9 Problems and more problems

I love the daily tasks of blogging: having ideas, drafting posts, researching images, making links, replying to comments and so on. I have been heard to say anyone who can access the internet can easily learn to blog. But recently I have come close to being defeated by some problems, and even thinking, shall I stop? I could stop.

Hacked!

A reader contacted me saying there was a rude message on the blog, a couple of months ago. Whatever they saw (“just below the picture of the books”) didn’t appear on my laptop so it was hard to know what they were referring to. I investigated a little but since the problem seemed limited and was invisible to me I first suggested that it was on their pc and then ignored it and hoped it would go away.

But two weeks ago the message appeared on my iPhone (although still not my laptop), and at the same time another reader emailed me to say that there was something strange on the title. This time I could see for myself that it was offensive, unwanted, sexual and very rude, and likely to put some readers off. It was spreading. Action was needed.

185 laptop macbookIt took some time to work out what to do. I am not naturally technical, or methodical. These two things may be related. I tried to find some source of assistance, a help line perhaps, but as I was away from home it seemed very risky to do anything more than tour the behind-the-screen mechanics of the blog.

Once I had returned home I installed more security, which identified the problem as a corruption of the theme (that is the appearance of the website). With much reluctance I changed it and so the blog looks different, but most importantly the rude message has disappeared.nice work badge DSC00129

And then the Analytics disappeared

No sooner had I solved the rude message problem than I had another problem. Google Analytics disappeared. It has been a useful tool (don’t ask me whether it’s a widget, plug-in or add-on) to monitor readership of Bookword. I have used it to see how many people land on the pages, which pages, how long they spend reading them, the proportion of readers who are first time visitors and where they come from. Since I have done a quick statistical analysis every Monday I can see trends and learn more about how Bookword is received.

138 google logo

For example, I know that book reviews are read as much as other posts but that they attract fewer comments. I know which posts are consistently read over months and months, which ones make a brief and popular appearance and then sink without trace, and how the readership is rising or falling.

Without the daily statistics I have to rely on feedback of a different kind: comments on posts, retweets on Twitter and the number of subscribers. These are useful in their way, but the continuous picture of the last eighteen months has been interrupted, and since I can’t seem to fix it, possibly permanently lost.

And then the bitly disappeared

An added irritation is that the short code, bitly, so useful for tweeting, no longer appears on the post. As a result it is harder to tweet from my iphone with a link, although with a little technical tweaking I could probably make it as easy as it from my laptop, frankly I’m fed up with trying to understand the technical language that explains (not) what to do.

And I don’t like the new theme as much

77 ipadI liked and was familiar with all aspects of the previous appearance of the blog and some aspects of this new one are not growing on me: the display of quotations, the presence of the sidebar on the posts, no bitly display. Again I’m fed up with trying to understand the technical language that explains (not) what to do. I may change the theme again in the near future.

I do like the fact that the rude, offensive and intrusive message has gone.

Continue blogging?

Waking early this morning, these problems and this post were doing unproductive loops in my head. I began to consider a break from blogging. I would be shot of all problems and the frustrations of the technicalities.

49 blog writingBut, dear reader, I like blogging and despite the distractions all stemming from the original hack, I will continue for now. Not only do I not like being beaten by the pointless and probably random activities of bot makers but I like blogging.

Any feedback would be welcome. And any advice

 

Some related posts in the Craft of Blogging series

#1 The craft of blogging … the medium

#4 The Liebster Award and the craft of blogging … Why do it?

#5 How I write my blog slowly

#7 Finding readers

 

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