Monthly Archives: October 2015

Poetry in Fiction

Does poetry have a place in novels? Far from wandering lonely as a cloud, poetry is a great connector, especially among those who have memorised poems. Its concentration works well to make reference to complex shared ideas. Novelists use poetry to heighten a moment, to say something about the characters and to point up a moment in the novel. They use it as they might imagery or flashback. It takes skill. Here are three examples.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I imagine that the Stephens household quoted poetry with their early morning muffins and throughout the day, and that the Bloomsbury Group prided itself on its knowledge of modern poetry.

209 To_the_LighthouseMrs Ramsay is reading to James, her youngest child, who is disappointed that they will not be going to the lighthouse. She reads the story of the Fisherman and his Wife.

‘And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,

“Flounder, flounder, in the sea,

Come, I pray thee, here to me;

For my wife, good Isabil,

Wills not as I’d have her will.”

“Well, what does she want then?”said the Flounder.’ (65-66)

With this snippet of verse from a children’s story Mrs Ramsay’s resistance to her overbearing husband is revealed. Mr Ramsay has declared the trip to the lighthouse will not take place. It has been established that he is prone to quote a single line from Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade

Someone had blundered.

The line sets up resonances of war and campaigns commanded by blunderers. The poem is about the massacre of British troops in the Crimea war, mistakenly sent into the Valley of Death. Mr Ramsay appears to be at war with everything, including the elements and ready to blunder on himself unaware of the currents beneath the surface within his family. War will appear again, scything through the family in the passage called Time Passes.

Selecting these two points in the novel I see that flounder and blunder chime.

Later that evening the family and guests are seated at supper. Virginia Woolf writes the scene through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes.

Her husband spoke. He was repeating something, and she knew it was poetry from the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy in his voice:

Come out and climb the garden path,

Luriana Lurilee

The China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the yellow bee.

The words (she was looking at the window) sounded as if they were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves.

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be

Are full of trees and changing leaves.

She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside herself, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she had said different things. She knew without looking round that everyone at the table was listening to the voice saying:

I wonder if it seems to you

Luriana Lurilee.

with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had as if this were, at last the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.

But the voice stopped. She looked round. She made herself get up. Augustus Carmichael had risen and, holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe he stood chanting:

To see the King go riding by

Over lawn and daisy lea

With their palm leaves and cedar

Luriana Lurilee,

and as she passed him he turned slightly towards her repeating the last words

Luriana, Lurilee.

and bowed to her as if he did her homage. (127-8)

This is beautiful passage. Virginia Woolf wants us to hear the lines being quoted, hear ‘the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy’. The repetition of Luriana Lurilee adds to the intensity.

I notice her observation about the effects of poetry read aloud, how the words ‘were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all’. And how she was responding to the poem as if the words were hers. And when Augustus Carmichael takes over the recitation she reminds us of the pleasures of sharing poetry when it is read aloud.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Perhaps like me you thought that this poem, called A Garden Song, was well known at the time when Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse. The novel was published in 1927 but the complete poem was not published until 1945, when it was included in an anthology by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. It was a poem known within the Bloomsbury group it seems.

A Garden Song (Luriana Lurilee) is by Charles Isaac Elton. You can find the complete text here. You can also finds lines from William Browne, William Cowper and William Shakespeare in To the Lighthouse.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

209 Crossing to S cover This is a beautiful American story about two couples who were friends for decades. The men are both connected to writing, one in the University the other in publishing. Larry Morgan narrates, and he is professor of English Literature and a novelist and frequently quotes lines of poetry. At the start of the novel five lines by Robert Frost appear, the source of the novel’s title.

I could give all to Time except – except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.

As with Virginia Woolf one gets the impression that poetry for Wallace Stegner and his circle was always present. On page 7 we get four lines of Swinburne, followed by Easter Hymn by AE Housman (p42-3). And poetry appears every now and again throughout the novel, along with money problems, tenure issues, marriage, children, arguments, disability, illness, holidays and the rest of life: WB Yeats, Bliss Carman, and several quotations I don’t recognise. Poetry is as everyday as friendship.

I was introduced to this novel by the enthusiasm with which BookSnob referred to it on her blog.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey greyMrs Palfrey is also revealed to have poetry as part of her life. Struggling to keep up her spirits she is going for a short walk.

Must keep going, she thought, as she so often thought. Every day for years she had memorised a few lines of poetry to train her mind against threatening forgetfulness. She now determined to train her limbs against similar uselessness.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste out powers.

Her lips moved gently as she tried to remember her lines for the day. By tomorrow she would have forgotten them. Only the poetry she had learned by heart as a girl remained.

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

She was stuck after the third line. That was the way it went with her these days. (108)

Unlike the first two novels I have considered where poetry connects people, Mrs Palfrey’s failing memory intensifies her separation from the world as she ages.

The poem is by Wordsworth. The first line is the title and the full text can be found here. The unrecovered fourth line is: We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! It is a poem about being out of kilter with the world. A nice touch by Elizabeth Taylor.

A recommended novel – about a poet

209 Great Lover cover The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published in 2009 by Sceptre about Rupert Brook and his Cambridge days.

Related posts

Andre’s Blog has much information about Virginia Woolf, and in Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and to the Lighthouse Brambles explores the use of the poem in To the Lighthouse.

Here is my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor And a post about her ageing here.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, poetry, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (again)

Anne Tyler’s novel A Spool of Blue Thread was hotly tipped to win the Man Booker Prize 2015. In the event the panel chose A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. He is young and relatively unknown while Anne Tyler’s book is her 20th and (she says) her last. It would have been fitting to see her win the prestigious prize, especially as it’s always good to see women winning. But it is also good to see a newcomer’s talents being recognized and to enjoy the fuss over novels that the award generates.

And I would also say that A Spool of Blue Thread is not Anne Tyler’s very best novel. While I have gained huge pleasure from all her books for me it is The Accidental Tourist. Last month I reread it for one of my reading groups and remembered all over again its many delights.

208 Acc T cover

Here is my revised review, originally posted in April 2013.

The Story of The Accidental Tourist

Macon Leary and his wife Sarah are trying to come to terms with the random murder of their teenage son. The novel starts as they return early from a holiday at the beach to their home in Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how each sits and what each wears. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.

Sarah leaves Macon who does not manage without her, despite devising all kinds of contraptions – like doing the washing in the shower – to make his life easier. After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live.

Macon is rescued by Muriel, a dog trainer. Her life is chaotic, but she is open, generous, logical in her own way, and, as several people observe to Macon, unlikely. People will wonder about such an ill-matched couple, his ex-wife tells him.

He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.

As readers, we know that Muriel’s efforts, her persistence, her kindness are just what he needs, and by the end of the book, so does he. And in turn he will ground her.

Macon

Macon (pronounced May-con) is one of Anne Tyler’s ‘forlorn bunch’ as she calls her male protagonists. He is an antidote to the usual heroes of Great American Novels. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, a broken leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.

Macon’s employment is as unsuitable as the rest of his life. He writes a series of guides for people forced to travel on business called Accidental Tourist in London, Paris, …

Macon hated travel. He careened through foreign territories on a desperate kind of blitz – squinching his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life, he sometimes imagined – and then settled back home with a sigh of relief to produce his chunky, passport-sized paperbacks.

I love the word ‘squinching’. This is pretty much his way of careening through life, the separation from his wife, the increasingly difficult behaviour of his dog, his ridiculous name and his inability to deal with his losses.

The Leary Family

Families are a constant theme in Anne Tyler’s novels because, she says, people are forced together in them and she wants to know ‘how they grate along’. That theme can run and run. Your family probably has some rituals, sayings and episodes that you don’t boast about.

The Leary family have some interesting patterns of behaviour; they get lost whenever they venture into the streets of Baltimore, they never answer the phone and their favourite food is baked potatoes. One of the things that needs fixing in the novel is the Leary family’s dependence on each other and the bizarre rituals they have developed to cope with the external world. The three brothers, including Macon, and their sister Rose, all get lost whenever the venture out into Baltimore. They get lost in every respect until their lives are smoothed by opening to other people, especially Muriel.

Perhaps we all have rituals like the Leary family. Here is a delightful detail about order in Rose’s kitchen.

Rose stood on a stepstool in front of a towering glass-fronted cupboard, accepting groceries that Charles and Porter handed up to her. “Now I need the n’s, anything starting with n,” she was saying.

“How about these noodles?” Porter asked. “N for noodles? P for pasta?”

E for elbow macaroni. You might have passed those up earlier, Porter.”

Anne Tyler

208 A TylerIn the very few interviews that she has agreed to, Anne Tyler asserts 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).

And she does it gently, wittily, wryly, in all her novels. She says that she has to like her characters, and even when they are behaving in absurd ways, the reader recognises something of themselves, their fears or foibles: perhaps you don’t alphabetise your kitchen stores, but people do organise stuff in their homes in very particular ways (see Bookword post on arranging books for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine.

Is she a women’s writer? The question seems to imply she’s a lightweight, and contains an accusation that she is sentimental, homely, homespun. It has been suggested that she is anti-men. Of course she has many male admirers, including John Updike. And it is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky. But they are not wimps, unpleasant, grasping or self-promoting. And Anne Tyler herself claims that growing up with a loving father and brothers and having had a good marriage, her experiences of men have been good. ‘Isn’t everybody quirky? If you look closely at anybody you’ll find impediments, women and men both.’

Another reason to reread The Accidental Tourist (1985) is that it seems to me to be an exception to the disappointment of film adaptations. Starring William Hurt and Geena Davis, this film captured Macon’s maladroitness as it is slowly smoothed out by Muriel’s openheartedness.

I will be sorry if she never writes another novel but happy to explore her oeuvre again. One of the things I enjoy about her novels is how her characters are engaged in managing the challenges of ordinary lives, and how she continually challenges stereotypes, especially of the adult American male.

Related posts

I reviewed A Spool of Blue Thread on Bookword in July 2015.

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

 

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler published in 1985 by Penguin Random House 355pp

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Fallen Women

It’s an old story. It’s women’s story. To tell it is a feminist act. The fallen woman was seduced, became pregnant and faced the consequences alone. Abandoned by her seducer and by her family many of these women left their babies and committed suicide, often by drowning.

G>F Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 Watts Gallery. Used with permission

GF Watts Found Drowned c1848-1850 © Watts Gallery. Used with permission

The Fallen Woman Exhibition

The inspiration for this post comes from an exhibition The Fallen Woman at the Foundling Museum, London. Established by Thomas Coram, supported by Hogarth and Handel, the Foundling Hospital took in babies from 1741.

The exhibition explores what led mothers to leave their babies at the Foundling Hospital, and draws on the petitions the mothers made to the hospital committee to persuade them to take in their children. A sound installation by Steve Lewinson uses the words of women, found in the petitions, in a moving addition to the paintings. The paintings are by men and largely show the shame the women had to endure, the rejection and the suicides.

Fallen Women in Fiction

Fear of becoming a fallen woman has haunted novels since the genre became established. As the term suggests it refers to a woman who had some respectability but lost it through sexual relations – ‘criminal conversations’ as they were referred to in the petitions. The title of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) says it all. In the Victorian era the prospects for a fallen woman were assumed to be prostitution, disease and death. There was, of course, no such thing as a fallen man.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

A character who seemed destined to fall is Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. So keen is she to get a husband, so enthralled by Wickham that she runs off to London with him. The family’s concern is entirely to get him to marry her, to save the family from public shame. It is Darcy, as a kindness to Elizabeth, who uses his wealth to persuade Wickham to do the right thing. His own sister, Georgiana, was almost seduced by Wickham. Lydia is a wild and silly girl. She has absorbed her mother’s obsession to marry off her daughters, and on her return home, safely married, wastes no time to show off her wedding ring to the neighbours. Elizabeth Bennet comments to Lydia, ’I do not particularly like your method of getting husbands.’

136 Pride & PrejIn contrast, Charlotte Lucas accepts the awful Mr Collins’s proposal. Elizabeth is shocked by the prospect of her dear friend marrying such an ass. Charlotte makes it clear that her future depends upon her having an establishment of her own, and this was only possible through marriage.

‘I only ask a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’

Women of a certain class were so entirely dependent upon finding a husband, any husband, that Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr Collins makes some sense. Lydia risked everything by her escapade with Wickham.

A fallen woman, Jane Austen reminds us, can bring social opprobrium not only upon herself but also upon her family. This explains the rejection of the fallen woman by her own parents. I found The Outcast by Richard Redgrave to be the most shocking thing in the exhibition. The father’s dramatic and incontrovertible gesture was echoed by another father who gave evidence to the committee at the Hospital:

He had rather been dead than have to deal with his daughter’s disgrace.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave 1851 © Royal Academy Photographer John Hammond. Used with permission

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Jane Eyre had no family to consider, but she refuses to fall. Mr Rochester and Jane are in the church for their wedding when it is revealed that he already has a wife. To the humiliation of being publically unable to marry him, Mr Rochester adds a proposal: ‘you shall be my wife – both virtually and nominally and I shall keep to you so long as you and I live’. But Jane rejects the status he offers. ‘Mr Rochester, I will not be yours.’ The narrator (Jane herself) makes it clear just how hard it was for her to leave him. Her resolve is strengthened by the apparition of her mother. ‘My daughter, flee temptation.’ And off she goes to other adventures.

When I first read Jane Eyre in the 1960s I could not understand why she did not follow her heart and take Mr Rochester’s suggestion. Being with the one you loved was more important than anything, I believed. Since then I better understand the control exerted by the church and social norms, controls on women.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: a pure woman faithfully presented by Thomas Hardy (1902)

Tess famously becomes the ‘victim of seduction’ by Alec D’Urbeville. She lives in seclusion through her pregnancy and the baby survives only a short time. She reveals her past when she marries Angel Clare but he finds it unacceptable, despite his own ‘criminal conversation’ and what follows is Tess’s inevitable descent into abandonment and ultimately murder. This novel depends upon a double standard: men can be excused a fling, even rape, but a woman is fatally blighted. As I said, no such thing as a fallen man.

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (1960)

207 cover LShapedRoomSet in the late 1950s this novel considered the fate of the mother of a child born out of marriage. Jane Graham is cast out by her father when she reveals that she is pregnant and experiences hardship in finding a room and coping with a small child. She is helped by the other boarders in the house she found, misfits themselves. The book was considered shocking perhaps because it did not treat marriage as the conclusion of a woman’s story. An unhappy love affair resulted in a baby instead.

 

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble (1965)

207 Millstone coverThis novel was also very successful and shocking. A one-night stand results in pregnancy. Although advised by her older, married sister to get an abortion (still illegal) or to put the baby up for adoption Rosamund Stacey decides to have the baby. She finds support from a friend who needs accommodation and will provide childcare in exchange. Her difficulties are indicated by the title of the novel.

The fallen woman haunts many other novels: George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Adam Bede (1859), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Bowles (1969). Other genres come to mind. The Inspector Called by J B Priestly, a play in which one element in the victim’s abuse is the seduction, exploitation and abandonment by the young man of the family. Traviata (1853) the opera by Verdi, based on La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas. One of the most beautiful arias is sung by Germont’s father who pleads to Violetta to give up his son. Their liaison is damaging his daughter’s chances of marriage. There are more examples.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

And then there is Mary Wollstonecraft, not a character in a novel but a writer herself. She refused to fall. Most often remembered as a key figure in feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft should have been a fallen woman. She had two children, both conceived out of wedlock. The first, Fanny Imlay, was the result of her liaison with Gilbert Imlay. When he made it clear that their relationship was over she threw herself off Putney Bridge into the Thames. This was a popular method of suicide, classic behaviour of a fallen woman. Mary, her biographers agree, was in despair at her rejection, not haunted by shame. She was rescued. Painters used the dramatic visual impact of suicide to push home the awful destiny of the fallen woman. Cruikshank blamed drink and one of his etchings shows ‘a destitute woman throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’ (1848).

Mary recovered and went on to meet and fall in love with William Godwin, the renowned philosopher. They married before their child was born. Mary died in childbirth. The press reported her death as an appropriate end for such a dissolute woman.

The baby survived. She was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.

The exhibition

The Fallen Woman continues at the Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ until 3rd January 2016. It was curated by Professor Lynda Nead, author of social histories of the Victorian period, including Myths of Sexuality, Representation of Women in Victorian Britain. To write this post I used the exhibition guide, including articles by Lynda Nead and Margaret Reynolds. I am also grateful for permission to use the images from the exhibition and to Hannah Thomas at the Museum for assistance with them.

Do you have any examples of the fallen woman to add?

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The Man Booker Prize 2015 The Winner

And the winner of The Man Booker Prize 2015 is …

Marlon James (Jamaica) – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)

206 Brief History Booker Cover

Two words dominated the broadcast of the award last night: diversity and voice.

Diversity

Opening the prize to writers in English from anywhere in the world has resulted in a wider range of authors on the long and short lists. There are women, people of colour, eminent established writers as well as newbies. Just what the best of published fiction should be.

Voice

I understand that A Brief History of Seven Killings is told in several voices. Michael Wood (chair of the panel of judges) referred to the diversity of voices in his comments about the short list. Again, fiction at its best shows the reader the world from new and sometimes various perspectives. It’s what it does.

All that razzamatazz?

199b The Man Booker Prize 2015 LogoSome folk do not like the hoopla that surrounds the award of the Booker. But I think it’s great that attention is brought to great fiction by the award, and that fiction and fiction writers should be given special treatment every now and again. Public acclaim for writers and their craft is rare. And apart from to Marlon James, his agent and publisher, it doesn’t really matter who wins. What matters is that fiction matters. Our attention is brought to lots of very good books published in the last year.

Here is the rest of the short list.

Tom McCarthy (UK) – Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)

Sunjeev Sahota (UK) – The Year of the Runaways (Picador)

Anne Tyler (US) – A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)

Hanya Yanagihara (US) – A Little Life (Picador)

And here are the books that were on the longlist, or Man Booker ‘Dozen’, of 13 novels, announced in July:

Bill Clegg (US) – Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)

Anne Enright (Ireland) – The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)

Laila Lalami (US) – The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)

Andrew O’Hagan (UK) – The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)

Marilynne Robinson (US) – Lila (Virago)

Anuradha Roy (India) – Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)

Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – The Chimes (Sceptre)

9781784630232frcvr.inddNot the Booker Prize

And with less hoopla the Man Booker Prize is shadowed every year of the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, organised by Sam Jordison. More attention for more great fiction, mostly by less well known authors. And in case you didn’t read about it here are the results in order of votes received:

  1. Fishnet by Kirstin Innes
  2. Things we have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh
  3. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  4. The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon
  5. A Moment more Sublime by Stephen Grant
  6. Dark Star by Oliver Langmead

So much good reading here. 19 novels, no doubt all brilliant. So far I have read three. So many great books to read.

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How do you organise your books?

The problem of organising your books is owning them. If you love books you own them – lots of them. You are given them, lent them, buy them and you read them, and then put them – where? On a shelf, on a table, in a pile? I you buy books you are confronted with the persistent problem of how to organise your collection of books. Even the most evangelical of kindlers surely has some books to organise. You would have to be completely ruthless to have no books. Kindles may be the answer to the problem in the future, but I am still not a convert to Kindle138 Oblique bookshelf

The rule

It’s the rule, in organising books. There is never enough shelf space, however many books or shelves you own.

If you have ever cohabited with another reader, the rule means you have had to take urgent action and someone must dispose of their copies of Women in Love, To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. It can be a fraught time as you argue over the emotional value of your GCSE copy of Julius Caesar, or don’t want to part with the precise copy in which you encountered Atticus Finch. And remember, some people can’t bear to part with books under any circumstances. That’s another topic – recycling books.

When you move house books get put in boxes, and often left in boxes for weeks, months, even years. A few years ago I came across several boxes of books in my cellar. I had put them there there when I moved in 30 years before. I figured that if I hadn’t missed those books in 30 years I could send them on their way now. Anyway, see the rule. Not all of them have been recycled of course. Some of them snuck onto the shelves (see method 2 below).

The problems

Volume (note sneaky pun) of books.

Finding a specific book again.

Library in Radstadt, book tower. Herzi Pinki via WikiCommons

Library in Radstadt, book tower. Herzi Pinki via WikiCommons

What to do with your tbr (to be read) pile: a stack? a dedicated shelf? a list?

Where to keep those embarrassing self help books, Lou asked me when I first posted about this topic. I think she suggested at the back of the wardrobe.

And Sue added her comments about her problem.

Books have been colonising my living space for the past ??? (well, over 60) years. In piles by the bed, under the bed, by any chair–in fact, anywhere there happens to be a clear surface. Three years ago I had a fantastic floor to ceiling bookcase built along my narrow hallway. But it’s now fully occupied, with a very eclectic selection.
Every few years I am determined to recycle my books to Oxfam or wherever I have the strength to carry them. Then I have a new interest, and it triggers something from a book I have read–I look on the shelves and in the piles–and realise it has been ‘de-cluttered’.
End result? Amazon have made a fortune out of my need to replace the ‘de-cluttered’ books.

The Methods

Here are some methods for organising your book collection. I’ve already given you a clue about mine. Which is yours?

  1. The Librarian. Categories of books are grouped together: gardening, cookery, reference, poetry, travel books, biography, gifts from Aunty Doreen, fiction. Within the groups they are organised alphabetically by author. But here there are problems: do you put short stories on the fiction shelves? And do you put books about Jane Austen alongside her novels? Help!
  2. Willynilly. Wherever they fit (but they wont – see the rule). You end up with some serendipitous and some bizarre juxtapositions: I notice on my shelf that Happiness by Tad Ben-Shahar is next to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.
  3. Half and half. Some organisation for half of them, so that cookery books are in the kitchen, reference books by your computer and books by the same author pushed in together. Other half, as in Willynilly.
  4. Surprise. After some discussion about organising sheet music at choir I asked an alto how she organised her books. ‘They’re art books,’ she told me, ‘and I keep them in the cupboard.’ She explained that they needed to be kept in very good condition. Well there you are.
  5. Aesthetic. By colour. Very tasteful, but this method takes ages to arrange and books take even longer to be found. But that’s not the point (see method name). My nephew did actually arrange his collection by colour and it was enchanting (see photo for one I tried earlier; not exactly enchanting). But this method doesn’t solve the question – where would you put that gold covered copy of The Mirror Within by Anne Dickson? 205 book colour org
  6. By size. A serious drawback of this method is that you have to remember the size of a book in order to find it again. Another problem is that all those paperback books are the same size, so you probably need a sub-method to arrange the paperbacks.
  7. The Vita Sackville-West method – see the picture. This method suits people with sets with matching bindings: all Dickens, Samuel Pepys Diaries in four volumes, Great Works of American Novelists (male of course), Readers Digest World’s Greatest Novels (American of course).

    Vita Sackville-West's study

    Vita Sackville-West’s study

  8. Acceptance. This is what Sue said after summarising her book organising problems and attempts at resolution.

But I love my books and their contents. They are part of my well-lived life and precious friends, for whatever mood I am in. They are faithful and always there for me at whatever hour of day or night.
So I have learned to accept that books-and-me come as a package: Love me–love my books!

7. Other wild ways. Order of purchase. Height. Alphabetically by title. Stacked on their sides. Order of publication. Order of reading. On the stairs.

And what do you do with your books?

Go on. What do you do with yours? How have you resolved the issues?

 

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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

There are no sweet old ladies in Quartet in Autumn. Barbara Pym takes an unflinching look at two women and two men as they end their working lives, and face their futures in London in the late 1970s. All four are single. All four have small lives. Barbara Pym herself knew what it meant to be overlooked in later life, when her publisher turned down a novel because it was not adequately commercial. 204 4tet in Autumn cover

The Story of Quartet in Autumn

The four share an office and have jobs that are utterly dispensable. We never find out what their jobs are or the nature of the business in which they work. Whatever it is, computers will replace them. We are introduced to the foursome through their lunchtime habits and learn something of the smallness of their lives as they contemplate the prospects for their summer holidays. Their plans show that their connections to the world outside the office are almost non-existent. Edwin has his church activities, and Letty her widowed school friend with whom she will live when she retires. Marcia always spends her leave at home.

Change moves slowly through their lives. The women retire and Letty’s plans to join her friend fall apart because Marjorie becomes engaged. Letty moves out of her room to avoid the noise of her new landlord’s Pentecostal church. Edwin and Norman miss the women as they wait for their own retirement but still take their time to invite them to lunch.

In retirement Marcia retreats into her house, continuing to neglect it, the garden and her self. She has recently undergone surgery and the focus of her life is her visits to the surgeon, Mr Strong. Her death brings together the other three for only the second time since the women retired.

Ultimately Letty learns that her friend has been jilted and would like her to revive their plans of cohabiting. She has a choice of where to live for the first time and understands that this makes her significant in the lives of other.

In many ways Quartet in Autumn is a dismal story, as no one seems to care about these older people (see also Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont). But the final words of the novel are ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. 204 B Pym writer Gerson_cropped_op_298x311

The older women in Quartet in Autumn

Letty Crowe

Single women need to be ‘drearily splendid’. Barbara Pym was reflecting on her own situation when she used this phrase. Letty could be described as ‘drearily splendid’ as she comes to understand how little she matters to anyone in her old age. Her only family connection is a cousin she has not seen for years and who lives in the West Country. She has invested in her friendship with Marjorie and is deflated but not defeated by Marjorie’s plans to remarry.

She is discerning, is concerned for others and has spirit. She sets about making the best of everything with good cheer. Her new landlady is less than welcoming on her arrival but by the end of the novel the two women have developed a kind of friendship, based on sharing the kitchen and watching tv together.

204 B PymIt is Letty who will do best in this quartet, for she has created a situation where change is possible and it about her story that Barbara Pym makes that final observation that her ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’.

Marcia Ivory

Marcia is a more troubling older women. She is ill and somewhat odd. Her oddness is represented by her cherished milk bottle collection kept in her garden shed. Marcia troubles the voluntary social worker who has decided to take her on. Janice, a do-gooder, is determined to get Marcia to eat better and to become more connected to the other older people of the neighbourhood. She is unable to understand Marcia’s resistance.

Marcia is inscrutable to the reader as well. She is a little like the old woman seen by Letty early in the novel who slumped on the tube and when approached by a friendly young woman was roundly told to ‘Fuck Off!’ We steer clear of such people, aware that they don’t invite or need our friendliness, and we don’t want to catch their eye in case they engage us in some crazy and embarrassing talk. We want to believe that someone else is looking out for them.

Marcia is not cut off entirely from the world. She had perceived Norman’s lack of any resources to deal with life while they worked together. It is her kind bequest that releases him from his retirement difficulties and makes choice and change possible for him.

204 My cover 4inAMarcia herself is neglected, avoided and abandoned as many older people are. She is a stark reminder of what it means to be alone, old and overlooked. There are more Marcias today than there were in the 1970s.

Barbara Pym and her Writing

The darker themes of Quartet in Autumn do not obscure Barbara Pym’s close and humorous observations of the small but significant moments in life, which skill brings inevitable comparison with Jane Austen. She admired her and studied her technique. And like Elizabeth Taylor she has an undeserved reputation for being rather twee, but they both are quiet and perceptive in their observations of the social interactions.

Here is a delightful example that tells the reader and Letty everything about Father Lydell, Marjorie’s fiance who has come to the country for his health. When they are introduced Letty asks if the country is doing him good.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary – perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily taken aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear thoughtful tone. She was never certain how to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

‘Strong drink would do you more good than the eternal round of parish cups of tea,’ Marjorie suggested boldly. ‘Brandy, perhaps.’ (34-5)

In the 1970s there was much talk about ensuring that less fortunate members of society should not ‘fall through the net’. All four people will fall through the social net, even if they do not need the services of the welfare state. Barbara Pym describes here a general attitude towards older people as they came to retire:

If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation. Each would be given a small golden handshake, but the state would provide for their basic needs which could not be all that great. Elderly women did not need much to eat, warmth was more necessary than food, and people like Letty and Marcia probably either had either private means or savings, a nest-egg in the post office or a building society. It was comforting to think on these lines, and even if they had nothing extra, the social services were so much better now, there was no need for anyone to starve or freeze. And if governments failed in their duties there were always the media – continual goadings on television programmes, upsetting articles in the Sunday papers and disturbing pictures in the colour supplements. There was no need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory. (86)

This passage draws attention to assumptions about older women: their uninteresting social lives, their needs, their financial circumstances and that other people would look out for them. Older people are perceived as ‘other people’ even today. In this passage Barbara Pym makes it impossible to accept this prevailing view by showing us life from their perspectives. By referring to the continual horror stories in the media she warns us that we do need to worry about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, and indeed the two men who have not yet retired. 204 B Pym + cat

Barbara Pym knew what it was to be neglected. Famously her reputation was resurrected when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS. Quartet in Autumn was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Related posts

This is the 17th review in the series on older women in fiction. You can find them by clicking on the relevant category or by going to the page on the older women in fiction series.

An appreciation of Barbara Pym’s novels on the centenary of her birth by Philip Henscher was published in the Telegraph in June 2013

From the LA Review of Books 16th July 2015 by Mayotte, A Nice Hobby like Knitting surveys Barbara Pym’s career and novels.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, first published in 1977 by Pan/Picador 186pp

 

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More praise for short stories

Short stories are not adequately commercial for small bookstores to maintain a dedicated shelf. Nor for the big publishers to risk publishing many collections, except by well-known and established writers. And all the big news stories in literature are about novels. I doubt whether any writer makes a living out of short stories. Is it possible? Let’s face it – few writers make a living from their writing.

Yet short stories are not going away. Enough of us are reading them, buying collections, writing them, enjoying them and blogging about them to sustain the survival of the form.

9781907773440frcvr.inddWhat’s to like about the short story?

The form allows as much creativity as any other; of genre, style, plot and voice. They can be dark, as many are in the Salt collection (see below). They can be easy to read but have a sharpness just beneath the surface, as Elizabeth Taylor’s do – many were published in the New Yorker.

They often contain a moment of revelation and understanding in the last paragraph. This is not always comfortable. In Hilary Mantel’s story Winter Break she presents a deeply unhappy pair locked in the coping mechanisms of an unhappy marriage. The shock of the five last words indicates their inadequacy to deal with an experience on holiday.

Short stories are not novels-lite, yet the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader feels she has had the experience of reading a novel within one story.

We can be introduced to new writers through reading short stories; be given a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provided with insights into different approaches to writing in a digestible length.

Short stories also provide a platform for writers not visible in other forms, especially for novice writers and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions such as Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa.

There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s on: see for example Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle edited by Elaine Showalter and published by Virago.

I often read a short story or two as I make a transition from one novel to another. They are like the best palate cleansers, worth savouring in their own right.

Some recommendations

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. These three recommendations all do that.

  1. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series

203 BBSS2015This is an annual series published by Salt. The 2015 collection has lots of dark obsessions and inverted takes on the world by inadequate people. I read these stories feeling as I do when I think I have found a new friend, only to discover too late that they are clingy and obsessive.

Nicholas Royle has a sharp tongue for those publishers that don’t help the short story project, a taste for the eerie, macabre and mysterious, and for the stories of Julianne Pachico. His useful introduction notes the growth of on-line publication of short stories, and celebrates the democratic approach of Salt Publishing.

Best British Short Stories 2015 edited by Nicholas Royle. Published in 2015 by Salt 238pp

  1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel

203 Assof MT coverNo commercial risk to the publisher in this collection, even if many of the stories have been published elsewhere. The title story appears in the Best of British Stories and even caused ripples among the most somnolent of the House of Lords. The story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and published in the Guardian review. Lord Timothy Bell and other Conservatives called for the police to investigate, and the word treason was mentioned. Mantel remarked that she was more interested in respect than taste in her writing. A short story piqued Thatcher-lovers – brilliant! Fiction produced apoplexy while the actual extra-judicial murder of Osama bin Laden was barely questioned.

There is a very dark strain through her stories and some are truly shocking such as Winter Break and The School of English. Mantel shows us the dark deeds of which her characters are capable and the women who are frequently the victims of abuse administered in subtle, gradual and calculating ways. Her stories have the power to make one uncomfortable without being far-fetched.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel. Published in 2014 by 4th Estate 288pp

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverI referred to these stories recently in my post on Bookword in St Petersburg. and picked out two: Tolstoy and Rasputin. I wondered if the description of the meeting were true, and one reader left a comment to say that Teffi did indeed meet Rasputin.

Many of her early stories are variations on the theme of the biter being bitten, little denouements which are nicely satisfying. Later she came to portray people in Paris, the White Russian emigres among whom she lived between the wars.

I came across this collection in July on the blog called JacquiWine. Her review inspired me to buy the collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Support for Short Stories

We should note and applaud the significant role of Indie publishers in supporting the short story. The platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great or popular.

203 Galen Pike coverI’m looking forward to reading The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, published in 2015 by Salt.

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.

And BBC Radio4 occasionally broadcasts short stories, such as Tolstoy, a version of which can be found in Teffi’s collection and Hilary Mantel’s infamous Assassination.

For those who enjoy writing short stories there are many competitions to enter, not just the big ones mentioned above, but other respected competitions: the Exeter Writers and Bristol Short Story competitions, Mslexia (for women writers), and numerous on-line publishing possibilities (twitterati will see them in their time lines more or less daily, but beware of supplying publishers with free copy. Writers should be paid for their produce, just like car manufacturers and dairy farmers.)

Related posts

An excellent article about differences in writing short stories and novels by Paul McVeigh from the British Council’s Voices Magazine.

My first post on this topic was called In praise of short stories and was published in November 2013. I’ve reused some portions of that post here,

I’ve mentioned Salt Publishing already six times on this blog so here’s the link to the website and you can order books direct from them.

Here’s a list of 13 short story collections from Bustle’s site.

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

 

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