Monthly Archives: November 2016

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

As a child born in 1948 my vocabulary included the word duringthewar. Adult conversation I overheard often included it. It was years before I realised what duringthewar referred to. By that time the adults had become largely silent about their war experiences, something my generation often remark upon. The silence was strange because their war experiences, like Frances Faviell’s, had often been intense and they influenced the post-war period.

And who knew? There is a form of writing called blitz-lit according to the foreword to A Chelsea Concerto. In my experience this is a unique book and worthy of its republication by Furrowed Middlebrow. First published in 1959 it is a vivid and authentic account of one young woman who was living in Chelsea during the Blitz.

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Frances Faviell

Frances Faviell could not keep silent about her experiences, as she noted in the Prologue:

And the ghosts will not recede or leave me in peace. Pushing, jostling, thrusting away their grey forms they blossom before my eyes from the muted cobwebby hues of memory to those of warm pulsating life. They will not recede; insistent and determined they force me to take up my pen and go back with them to the summer of 1939. (2)

So who was this writer who could not let her memories rest? Frances Faviell was her pen name and she had already written three novels: A House on the Rhine (1955), Thalia (1957) and The Fledgeling (1958) and a memoir. But she was also a painter, as the language of the quotation might suggest. She was known as Olivia Fabri and had studied with Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art, married a Hungarian painter and travelled with him discovering a talent for languages. Before the war and without her first husband she had settled in Chelsea to be among artists. Her facility for languages was put to use in her work supporting the ever-complaining Belgian refugees who arrived in Chelsea in the first months of the war.

I have sadly been unable to find any paintings by Olivia Fabri or Frances Faviell on the internet. But the lurid cover of the book is from a painting by her.

The Blitz in Chelsea

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As the events recede the collective memory of the Blitz is of a relentless bombing on London from the outbreak of the war in 1939 to its conclusion on VE Day in June 1945. But the truth is more particular. Other cities suffered badly from aerial bombardment, not least Plymouth (where Frances Faviell’s mother lived) and Bristol (home of her sister). I was born in Coventry, another city ravaged by bombs, and I later taught history in one of its secondary schools. Pre-war Coventry was somewhat hard to find.

Between November 1940 and the Spring of 1941, following the ‘Phoney War’, there were 71 major air raids on London, in which 40,000 civilians were killed. Raids took place most nights. Being on the River Thames, Chelsea was badly hit. It must have been an intense time of heightened emotions and sharp experiences. Raids reduced in the summer of 1941, but began again with the V1s (Doodlebugs) and V2s in the last months of the war.

A Chelsea Concerto covers just under the first two years of the war, from its outbreak in September 1939 to the raid that demolished Frances Faviell’s home in Cheyne Walk on 11th May 1941.

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk Restored (albeit it red brick) and re-consecrated (1958) after severe blitz damage in 1941 by Alexander P Kapp via Wiki Commons

A Chelsea Concerto

Her account begins with the outbreak of war and proceeds to record how the impact of war grew steadily, culminating in two terrible nights in April 1941. Frances had signed up as a Red Cross nurse and trained to work in a First Aid Post (FAP). She also undertook volunteer work on the switchboard for civil defence communications and looking after the families of Belgian refugees who found themselves in London. Like all Londoners, there was also fire watching duty, to deal with the thousands of incendiary bombs.

In her area she had many friends. The children were evacuated, and returned as the dangers appeared exaggerated. They disappeared again when the bombs arrived. The young men joined the forces and disappeared, older men and women took on war work. In Chelsea there were also the working class families, who ran shops businesses. The old couple who slept with their horse is the stuff of myths, but really happened.

Frances Faviell kept open house until she was bombed out, and she supported her many friends. They became homeless, suffered breakdowns, needed support with their children, or came to to pet the dog or to exchange news.

She tells stories of real suffering and of heroism, including her own.

‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down – better without it.’ I took off the dress. ‘Fine,’ he said shortly when I stood in the ‘black-outs’, as we called the closed black panties which most of us wore with uniform. ‘It’ll have to be head first. We’ll hold your thighs. Go down first with this torch and see if it’s possible to give a morphia injection or not – I doubt it. Ready?’ ‘Yes,’ I said faintly for I was terrified. ‘Better hold the torch in your mouth, and keep your arms tight by your sides,’ he said. ‘Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ I nodded – it was as if I was having a nightmare from which I would soon waken. ‘Ready?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs, swung me up and lowered me down the hole. ‘Keep your body absolutely rigid,’ said the doctor. ‘Don’t be afraid – we’ll hold you safe,’ said the large woman. ‘I ought to be doing this – but I’m too big.’

The sound coming from the hole was unnerving me – it was like an animal in a trap. I had once heard a long screaming like rabbits in traps from children with meningitis in India, but this was worse – almost inhuman in its agony. (130)

Fear came late to Frances Faviell as the end of 1940 approached.

Up to that time I had not minded the Blitz at all. I had just married, and we were very happy, although the occasions when we were both together were increasingly rare. Richard was frequently away on a tour for the Ministry, and I was often on night duty, but the bombs only seemed a macabre background to our personal life, and the fact that either of us could be a victim of the Blitz seemed a remote thought. … (166)

Fear seems like a rational response. Here’s her description of the raid in April that brought down her house, killing three of its occupants.

We had never experienced such a night – bombs seemed to rain down – and in the intervals of their explosions which tonight were the loudest and longest we could remember we could hear the guns in the planes as the fighters chased them. The sky was alight with flares, searchlights, and exploding shells – it was a magnificent but appalling sight. The fires which we could see were terrifying – the largest in the direction of Victoria, was enormous and appeared to be increasing. Behind us, much nearer, there was a terrible blaze in the direction of Burton Court. (212)

Moments later the house was hit and Frances, Richard and the Dachshund barely escaped.

She retells her experiences of the time in everyday detail, with much humour and sharp observations about the way in which the Blitz affected Londoners. And she is mindful of the damage being inflicted in turn upon German cities by the RAF and the Allies.

Such experiences have not been confined to history. Sadly, such an account reveals something of what it must be to live in Aleppo at this time. War is ever with us.

Thanks to Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press for the review copy.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016 235 pp

Related Posts and Books

Scott, who writes the Furrowed Middlebrow blog explored A Chelsea Concerto in some detail in 2013.

Heavenali reviewed this book enthusiastically in October on her blog.

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Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (2011) published by Penguin. Virginia Nicholson wrote the Foreword to the new edition of A Chelsea Concerto.

I also reviewed a novel from this new imprint in October. A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

 

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My Writing Heroes

I reckon that the 300th post on the Bookword blog merits a celebration. That’s why I decided to write about my writerly heroes, an unashamed self-indulgence. Regular readers of the blog will not be at all surprised to find that I have chosen nearly all women as my writing heroes.

Why are these writers heroes?

After I had chosen my short list of heroes, I reflected on what they had in common.

  • They have all lived some of their lives in adversity.
  • They have all used writing to communicate important values.
  • They are all writers who share their understanding of the world, through fiction, but also through polemic, performance or other writerly activities.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

John Opie's portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft lived at a time when women were not expected to have a view on matters outside the home, and nor were they equipped to have a life in the public sphere. She had to support her family from an early age. She set up a school for girls in Newington Green in north London, was employed as a governess to a wealthy family in Ireland, and then decided to earn a living through her writing.

She held radical views, not just about women but about how society should be run and the French Revolution. She was intrepid, travelling to Lisbon alone to support a friend who died, and then going to live in revolutionary Paris. To support her lover Imlay, who had lost some merchandise in a shady deal, she travelled to several Scandinavian countries with their baby daughter, on his behalf.

American edition of Vindication

American edition of Vindication

She was a woman of principle, and passions. She gave birth to Fanny Imlay (later Godwin) in France. Back in England she met up again with the foremost political philosopher of the day, William Godwin. She died in childbirth. Their child was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley).

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and wrote; reviews for journals, reports of what she saw in France, letters, novels, and polemic writing including her most famous book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

She has been called the original suffragette, but this description is not appropriate. She was a feminist, she did believe that women should have political power, but she was not especially focused on the right to vote. Hers was a more encompassing vision.

George Eliot (1819 – 1880)

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot. She wrote novels, poems and was a journalist and translator. She was also, notoriously, a common law wife, that is she lived with George Henry Lewis without being married to him for 20 years.

She too was a prolific writer and today is best known for her novels, including Middlemarch (one of my desert island books), The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. Just typing the titles makes me want to reread another of her novels.

There are a few other personal connections that mean very little, but are pleasing to note. Middlemarch was reputedly based on Coventry, where I was born and where I worked for 15 years. In London, my daughter happily attended George Eliot Infants School. I remember writing a history essay for my first degree about Middlemarch and feminism.

Write to Life Writers

My third writerly heroes are the writers at Freedom from Torture: the Write to Life group.

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These are people who have suffered torture in their own country, and as part of their recovery attend the Write to Life group. Some readers will know I am currently raising money for Freedom from Torture, and if you want to know more check out the The Challenge page on this website.

Jade in Lost and Found

Jade in Lost and Found

Recently some of these guys performed at the Roundhouse in London in their play with music called Lost and Found. You can read my account of this event here.

Sheila Hayman, who runs the group says:

It’s a lyrical, funny, surprising narrative about six survivors’ journeys to London; not the gloomy and overdone tales of crowded dinghies and miserable hostels you’ve heard before, but the violin buried when the Ayatollahs banned music, or the African song unwittingly sung to the occupants of a British Library reading room; the piano at St Pancras bringing a Cuban moment to a grey London, and the stranger who stopped to chat, and saved a life.

All these stories are linked by music; music remembered, and the original music they inspired. And the whole thing has been binaurally recorded so you can put on your headphones and travel with the stories.

On the site are videos and the individual numbers to browse, and the whole album to download for your journey to work, or wherever.

You can find the download of Lost and Found on the Freedom from Torture site here.

And …

I hope you enjoyed my selection of heroes. I would love to know who you would pick for your 300th post.

Related posts

Dear Jade, Sept 2013

Souvenirs, May 2016

Mary Wollestonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw, March 2016

Desert Island Books, February 2013

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Do Refugees need Holidays?

Freedom from Torture runs a Holiday Hosting scheme. The organisation supports refugees who have suffered torture. Why would people who have been tortured need a holiday? Isn’t every day a holiday if they are now free? Of course not. The effects, physical, emotional, familial, even economic are long-lasting. The scheme has given help to victims of torture to come to terms with what has happened to them.

This is the third of my posts in support of Freedom from Torture, asking readers to support my walking/blogging challenge. More details can be found by clicking on the Challenge page link above the picture. And the link to my Just Giving page for your donation is here.

Meet Gill and Tim

Gill and Tim provided holidays for refugees for several years. I met Gill and Tim while we were training as befrienders for young unaccompanied refugees with FFT several years ago. They were no longer offering holidays but supporting refugees through befriending. I asked them if I could use their experiences of offering holidays for my FFT challenge, and they kindly agreed.

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I was delighted that it all started with a book. They began offering holidays in their home because they had read An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992). Keenan describes his imprisonment in Beirut as a hostage, and how he survived in part because of his friendship with another hostage John McCarthy. Impressed by the book, when they received a request for donations signed by John McCarthy, Gill and Tim began to support the charity and it developed into offering holidays. John McCarthy is a patron of FfT (then called the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture).

What did their guests get out of it?

At that time many refugees rarely got out of London. The holiday scheme offered a week in ordinary homes. Some of their guests had never been inside a British home before, still less stayed in a British home. Gill and Tim were living on Merseyside amidst pinewoods and sand dunes and they therefore also offered a different aspect of Britain to their guests.

In their home the guests were able to relax. Some got practical help, like the Iranian couple who were living in a B&B and so unable to open a bank account. Gill went with the wife to all the banks on her high street to try to persuade them to take on these guests as clients. Although they were turned down by every bank, the wife was later successful. She told Gill she had used the words she had heard Gill use to make her case.

Others found outlets for their feelings. Gill told me about a young man from Afghanistan who was in a tearful state when he arrived. He needed to tell his story, which was horrific as he had seen his family killed by the Taliban. In the garden a tree had been felled and Tim invited their guest to help chop up the tree. An axe was found and the tree was despatched. A therapeutic tree chop.

Another guest became very close to her hosts, to the extent of becoming the nanny to their grandchildren. The nanny’s children have in turn trained as a doctor and a pharmacologist.

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Some difficulties

Sometimes it was not possible to do anything more than just be there for their visitors, Gill told me. There were limits to what they could do to help the refugees with their problems, some were beyond their powers or without solutions.

Some difficulties were hard to negotiate, like the different levels of faith and significance of religion and belief.

Bookish Connections

I asked Gill and Tim for their bookish connections. Their list started with An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992), and they had four more recommendations.

  • What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006) A true story of a boy who was separated from his family in Sudan’s civil war and his journey through simply horrendous situations, till he reached America
  • The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007) The fictional story of Lev who arrives at Victoria Coach station from somewhere in East Europe, where he was unable to support his wife and daughter and we share in the highs and lows of his attempt to make a new life in London.
  • A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ismael Beah (2007) The true story of a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s during the violent civil war. Taken as a boy soldier he transforms into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine that the army makes readily available. But a few years later when agents from the United Nations pulled him out of the army and placed him in a rehabilitation centre. Anger and hate slowly faded away, he abandons violence, he takes it upon himself to speak for the voiceless- -other children trying to survive amidst war. A powerful book.
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011) In this novel, Harri, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy arrives in the UK, with his mother and sister, leaving behind other members of his family. They move into a highrise flat in south London where they are among many immigrants, the alcoholics, dealers, petty criminals and teenage members of the Dell Farm Crew gang. Harri and a friend see a boy killed on the estate and they set about to find the identity of the murderer. Harri talks to a pigeon who visits him on his balcony. Harri is an endearing 11 year old and a vivid life is portrayed through his lively, funny, innocent curiosity, though there is an air of menace overlying the story.

What matters?

When I invited Gill and Tim to talk about the holiday scheme I expected to hear good things, but I was struck with how the important thing was the human connections they made. Their guests were people who had suffered, and to whom they offered generous connections. This to me is the best of humanity. And I loved that it emerged that writing had played its part in this process, launching them into it and helping them understand something of the suffering of their guests.

Thank you Gill and Tim for your help in writing this post.

My walk and challenge

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I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the third post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

November walk

Danbury Down, November 2016

Danbury Down, November 2016

The third walk was about 10km (6+ miles). I planned to walk home from Newton Abbot, but the bus I found on-linefor Sunday travel didn’t exist. In the end I walked in a loop around the equestrian countryside. There were two landmarks: the iron age fort of Denbury Down, seen from a different perspective than my usual view, and HM Prison Channings Wood, where visitors were waiting.

channings-wood

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The fourth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-December

 

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The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This book took me much longer to read than I anticipated, and I enjoyed it less than I had hoped. This is a pattern. I first tried The Waves when I was a pretentious 15-year old. I gave up. Later I came to it when I read all Virginia Woolf’s novels in the order in which they were written. I liked it, but not much of it remained with me. I was impressed by its structure, the lyrical evocation of time passing over the waves, and by the six voices of the novel. It seemed a bold experiment, but I was not sure what Virginia Woolf had achieved with it.

Emboldened by participating in #Woolfalong, hosted by Heavenali on her blog, I decided to give The Waves another go. This is my sixth contribution to #Woolfalong. You can find the others listed at the end of this post.

298-waves-coverA Summary

The structure of this book is conveyed through the six voices of the six characters. Their lives unfold through episodic sections. Between these parts are very lyrical descriptions of the waves and the surrounding countryside at successive times of day, beginning at dawn ending 200 pages later with the simple phrase

The waves broke on the shore.

THE END

In To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf had written a similar section called Time Passes, which referred to the material condition of the Ramsay’s house, the animals who lived in it, the people who were its caretakers, and the people for whom it had once been so important.

The other sections of The Waves are reported in the voices of the six speaking characters, each one indicated by ‘Bernard said,’ or ‘Jinny said,’ and so on. The characters are of an age, three boys and three girls, and there is another who never speaks, Percival, to whom they all looked up. He was something of a hero to them, a situation cemented by his early death as a result of a fall from a horse.

We follow these six people from childhood in the garden to Bernard’s death. In the final section his is the only voice and he reflects on the lives we have been reading about.

Reading The Waves

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I had several long train journeys and many quiet hours in rural France when I could expect to devote myself to the book, but it took me much longer than I had anticipated. I found that the narrative was too slight to carry me forward. I needed to read more carefully, more slowly than usual. It was like attending a modern dance performance and not being very sure where on stage to give attention.

Some of the writing is dense, unusual, experimental. Here is Bernard noticing that they have moved into another stage in life, in middle age.

‘And time,’ said Bernard, ‘lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. Last week, as I stood shaving, the drop fell. I, standing with my razor in my hand, became suddenly aware of the merely habitual nature of my action (this is the drop forming) and congratulated my hands, ironically, for keeping at it. Shave, shave, shave, I said. Go on shaving. The drop fell. All through the day’s work, at intervals, my mind went to an empty place, saying, “What is lost? What is over?” And “Over and done with,” I muttered, “over and done with”, solacing myself with words. People noticed the vacuity of my face and the aimlessness of my conversation. The last words of my sentence trailed away. And as I buttoned on my coat to go home I said more dramatically, “I have lost my youth”. (141)

This passage introduces the image of the drop indicating time has passed, adding to the idea of the steady dripping, sand running out. Virginia Woolf here combines the everyday and concrete (shaving, buttoning on a coat), clichés (such as ‘over and done with’) with this more cerebral or at least philosophical consciousness of how time changes us.

There are some motifs to notice in the text: the drop, the flower, the moths and, of course, the waves. Each wave, each event is followed by another event, similar but different, bringing change, making its mark, both creating (patterns on the sand, piles of detritus) and destroying what it makes. Some events become like talismans; an example is the water poured over his skin that awakens the very young Bernard to the sense that there is something outside of him.

What was Virginia Woolf trying to do?

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf was always experimental, and since Mrs Dalloway she had been revealing the world from inside the heads of her characters, rather than show the reaction of the characters to events. The term for this is stream of consciousness, and in an earlier post about To the Lighthouse I said,

But the phrase [stream of consciousness] is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading.

And here she is doing it with six characters over their lifetimes.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition Kate Flint contrasts the approach of Virginia Woolf with novelists such as Arnold Bennett and HG Wells who, in conventional plots, emphasised the importance of the material world.

Here she goes even further than previously in the direction of demonstrating that identity, rather than depending on the concrete circumstances of a person’s life, is primarily constructed from within, through an individual’s deployment of language. (x)

I would go further and say that Virginia Woolf rejected essentialist notions of identity. It is common to suggest that novelists uncover the true identity of their main characters. In The Waves Virginia Woolf shows us that our sense of our self changes, and in relation to others. We know our identity, have a sense of ourselves, only as far as we share, contrast and mutate with others through words.

What I loved

To the extent that this makes a great novel I am not sure. I think I would have to reread it many times to understand its many layers, themes, motifs and ideas. But I can start with picking out some of the successes that I noted on this, my third attempt.

First those lyrical sections, between the episodes in the life of her six characters, are marvels of writing: imagery, rhythm, colour and timbre. Descriptive passages are often static, a moment for the reader and characters to draw breath. But in The Waves the interludes bring change, are all about change.

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel. The girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight path over the waves. The quivering mackerel sparkling was darkened; they massed themselves; their green hollows deepened and darkened and might be traversed by shoals of wandering fish. As they splashed and drew back they left a black rim of twigs and cork on the shore and straws and sticks of wood, as if some light shallop (see note) had foundered and burst its sides and the sailor had swum to land and bounded up the cliff and left his frail cargo to be washed ashore. (54)

Portugal 2010

Portugal 2010

Then there is a section that brought a nostalgic pang to my reading, which follows the passage just quoted. The six characters are now young adults, Bernard and Neville up at Oxford or Cambridge, the others beginning to feel their adultness. In this section the possibilities of life are fully anticipated by the young people.

‘The complexity of things becomes more close,’ said Bernard, ‘here at college, where the stir and pressure of life are so extreme, where the excitement of mere living becomes daily more urgent. Every hour something new is unburied in the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No I am that.’ (56)

It’s a long time since I felt acutely ‘the stir and pressure of life’ as extreme. This novel put me back in touch with that feeling.

And so …

And so I feel pleased that I have again engaged successfully with this novel and enjoyed some segments. But much of it seems very obscure, dense and I am not surprised that, as far as I am aware, no other writer has attempted to follow Virginia Woolf to show how people’s identities are formed from inside their heads.

(note) A shallop, by the way, is a boat used for rowing in shallow waters, especially a two-masted, gaff-rigged vessel of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is connected to the more familiar sloop.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931). Originally published by Hogarth Press, read in Penguin Modern Classics edition (1992) 241pp.

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

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Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I love to read an intelligent novel, one that makes demands upon the reader, that isn’t all about the story. A book that looks at something in a new way, shows me something from a different angle. Such a book is Hot Milk, a tale, as the title suggests, about a mother and her daughter relationship that is not going well. This novel is readable, very moving and thought-provoking.

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The Story

A young woman, Sofia, and her mother Rose (64) have come to Almeria in Southern Spain, a place where the desert meets the sea. Rose has come to the Gomez Clinic at great expense, in order to find a cure for her unnameable, undiagnosed illness that has afflicted her for so long. Sofia accompanies her as her carer. Rose cannot walk, she claims, has no feeling in her feet. While Rose consults the possibly charlatan Dr Gomez, Sofia undertakes adventures that widen her previously small life.

‘I wanted to write a story about hypochondria,’ said Deborah Levy in an article in the Guardian. One of the curious features of hypochondria is that while it is about fabricated and imagined illness, it is itself a pathology. It also ensnares others, in this case Sofia.

Sofia

Sofia tells the story. Here is how the novel opens:

Today I dropped my laptop on the concrete floor of a bar built on the beach. It was tucked under my arm and slid out of its black rubber sheath, (designed like an envelope), landing screen side down. The digital page is now shattered but at least it still works. My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me that anyone else.

So what I am saying is that if it is broken, so am I. (1)

Sofia is conscious that her life is very restricted. A little while later she goes swimming and meets the medusas – stinging jellyfish:

I am far away from shore but not lost enough. I must return home but I have nowhere to go that is my own, no work, no money, no lover to welcome me back. When I flipped over I saw them in the water, the medusas, slow and calm like spaceships, delicate and dangerous. I felt a lashing burning pain just under my left shoulder and started to swim back to shore. It was like being skinned alive as I was stung over and over. (71)

Poor Sofia, she doesn’t have much going for her: an abandoned PhD in anthropology, barista job, single, never lived with anyone but her mother, father abandoned them when she was 7 and returned to Greece. While Rose attends the clinic Sofia develops two love affairs, with Ingrid a German seamstress and Juan who looks after the injury tent on the beach and treats her for multiple medusa stings.

With Sofia as the narrator we should ask, are things how they look? After a few pages we are wondering about Rose’s illnesses, Gomez clinic, what Ingrid embroiders on the silk sun top, the broken laptop, the wrong sort of water, the dog that barks, her father’s newfound happiness in Athens, everything…

The author herself explains the central question raised by the novel:

Hot Milk puts the Medusa to work to ask Sofia a question: what is so monstrous about a young woman, who constantly has to endure the violence of the ways in which she is societally gazed upon, returning that gaze full-on? What would it take to insert her subjectivity into the world, instead of looking away? [in How to Write a Man Booker Novel in the Guardian, as above]

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Medusa: Detail of the Fountain of Apollo in Madrid, photo by Luis Garcia August 2007 via WikiCommons

Sofia has to learn that we should not always accept the identity given to us because of our nationality, gender, ethnicity, age, occupation and so forth. We are also, she learns, constructed by the things that happen to us, that we take part in. Identity is formed in part by experiences, which she finds when she follows Dr Gomez’s suggestions, such as practicing boldness. Here the myth of Medusa’s stare is significant. You may be stung by the gaze of others, but you can choose not be turned to stone or beheaded.

Rose, the mother

Part of Sofia’s problem is her mother. Her hypochondria has locked Sofia into a mutually dependent relationship. Sofia loves her mother, but hates her at the same time. She hates her mother’s unreasonable demands, the way she flirts with Gomez, the possibility that she lies; she understands how difficult it was to raise her after Christos left, how she takes on the world and her charm. Sofia wants more for her mother as well as for herself. In the final pages of the novel she articulates this.

I had been waiting on her all my life. I was a waitress. Waiting on her and for her. What was I waiting for? Waiting for her to step into her self or step out of her invalid self. Waiting for her to take the voyage out of her gloom, to buy a ticket to a vital life. With an extra ticket for me. Yes, I had been waiting all my life for her to reserve a seat for me. (216)

I like the use of words throughout the novel, often calling up several meanings. In this passage I can pick out the following: waiting on her mother, invalid, waiting for herself.

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The writing

Sofia is by training an anthropologist. This allows her, as narrator, to use her powers of observation as in this list of ingredients in the scene at the market.

I stood up and took my place behind the wheelchair, lifted up the brake, which was difficult because my espadrilles were flopping off my feet and began to push my mother down the dust road, dislodging the potholes and dog shit, past the handbags and purses, the sweating cheeses and gnarled salamis, the jambon iberico from Salamanca, the strings of chorizo, plastic tablecloths and mobile phone covers, the chickens turning on a stainless-steel spit, the cherries, bruised apples, oranges and peppers, the couscous and turmeric heaped in baskets, the jars of harissa and preserved lemons, the torches, spanners, hammers, while Rose swatted flies landing on her feet with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books. (93)

Touristy and practical, African and European, tacky and sophisticated, old and new and that final humorous image! There is lots of humour in this book, like the lunch that Sofia attends, but she is not allowed to speak.

Also delightful are Sofia’s occasional riffs on the meanings of things, such as her Greek father’s new wife, who has given up a high powered job saving the Euro for cosy domesticity in Athens where she frequently has to pretend to be asleep.

This is the first novel I have read by Deborah Levy. She has written six, and many plays. There is more about her on her website. I plan to read Things I don’t want to know (2014) next, being an answer to George Orwell’s Why I Write and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (2016) Hamish Hamilton. 218pp (Paperback available in May 2017)

Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize and Goldsmiths Prize 2016

 

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Post-War Novels

Change is implicated in all novels’ plots. No change is greater than that brought by war: physical change to bodies, buildings and landscapes; social and economic change to families and other communities large and small.

In the exploration of human relations, emotions, loss, change and survival after an armed conflict fiction has an important role to play. There may be no peace as delayed, new or latent issues emerge. Characters shift from a communal effort towards one objective – winning the war – to a focus on their own personal lives and difficulties.

Such change and conflict is fertile ground for novelists as these recommended post-war novels demonstrate, all set in the years following the Second World War.

  • Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire
  • Marghanita Laski The Village
  • Marie Sizun Her Father’s Daughter

Survival and guilt

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2004) published by Virago. pp314

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The title of this novel put me off but a writer friend recommended it and now I believe it is one of the best novels I have read. The fire refers to the engulfing flames of the Second World War, the involvement of so many countries, the explosion of the first A Bomb in Hiroshima and the scorched emotions of characters in the novel including a consuming love. And this novel considers the damage brought by survivor guilt.

Aldred Leith is an Englishman in Japan in 1947, physically and emotionally scarred. He meets a much younger Australian woman, Helen, and falls for her. The narrative follows Leith’s love for Helen, so strong, so necessary for his survival that it affirms the importance of love for humans, for a decent life, in war or peace. But it is much more than a love story, being peopled by the wounded victorious, the accidental survivors, the chance encounters, the generosity of strangers, the bitterness of war.

Here’s Adam Mars-Jones’s review from the Observer in Dec 2003: ‘surely an outright masterpiece’.

Social Change

The Village by Marghanita Laski, first published in 1952, reissued by Persephone Books in 2007. 302pp

This novel looks at post-war village life in England, the changes and frictions left after conflict. These are explored through the relationship of Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, one from the declining and impoverished middle class and the other from a respectable working class family. Roy is a compositor, a man of the future. Margaret’s family disapprove of their relationship, but they have hardy a penny to their name. Their reference points are pre-war.

For Wendy Trevor it is the worst social embarrassment to have her daughter engaged to a working class man. Mrs Trevor is prepared to do stupid and destructive things to ensure her daughter doesn’t marry Roy. But the reactions of the other villagers shows us how things have been changed by the war and also about values that were maintained despite so much destruction.

The value of property, the inability to maintain large houses, the changing relationship between workers and ‘masters’, even the contrast between Negroes in the North of the US and the working class are revealed.

A reunited or divided families

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun, first published in French in 2005 and published in English in 2016 by Peirene Press. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter. 150pp

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It’s Paris in the dying embers of war. A little girl lives with her mother in a close and rather spoiled relationship in a flat; her father is absent – a prisoner of war. Only her grandmother makes any impression on the child, with a memory of a holiday in Normandy and the birth of a baby sister. Back in Paris, without the baby, the child is told that the episode was a dream. The father returns, damaged, but happy to be back. The child reveals her mother’s lie and the father leaves and later marries someone else.

Told from the child’s point of view, her relationships within the family are charted through devotion to the mother, hostility to the father, changing into reluctant pleasure at her father’s presence, then devotion to him. When he leaves the little girl is forlorn, but then reinstates her relationship with her mother. Later in life she reflects on what her father has given her.

Rather a sad tale of change brought by war.

Some Other Post-War novels

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is set partly in the present and partly in the austerity years immediately after the Second World War. This novel deals with memory, dementia and loss. You can find my review here.

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Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) is partly set in the post WW2 era, and explores how people reacted to West Indian immigrants, among other things. It celebrates the West Indian contribution to the war effort and the attraction of the Mother Country.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) is a ghost story – or is it? – set around a dilapidated and declining country house in Warwickshire in the late 1940s, at the start of the National Health Service. The characters emerge from the trauma of the war to experience yet more difficulties in peacetime.

Over to you

Can you recommend any more post-war novels? What makes it such a good time setting for a novel?

 

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A little rant about … writers’ work-life balance

Work-life balance is claimed to be essential for a good life, in the well-being movement. I reject the idea, for writers at any rate. In fact it annoys me so much that I am writing another in my occasional series of little rants. I reject the idea that balance is necessarily a good thing, in diet, expressing a view and in relation to life or work. This is why.

Separating work and life

The idea of balance, like a seesaw, or the scales of justice seems to be good like mother and apple pie. But balance implies that two things are separate and in opposition. This is clearly illogical: my life includes work; I can’t have work outside of my life.

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Okay, so life, in the context of balance, means some kind of different thing from work – enjoyment, socialising, family, hobbies, interests, sleep, chores. But for many, many people the separation is not possible. Many people need to work long and exhausting hours to support themselves and their families. (I might do a rant about Cameron’s favourite phrase hard-working families if May resurrects it). Women in particular work both outside and inside the home, doing more of the housework and domestic chores. Life in the sense of not-work means so little to people who struggle to survive economically.

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Not only women, of course. It’s one of the most moving themes of Sunjeev Sahota’s Man Booker shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways. Our eyes are opened to the sheer amount of work that the young men from India had to undertake in order to pay off the debts incurred in their project of coming to Britain. Frequently their families were in danger if they failed to make the repayments. Frequently there was no work. Or they had to take two or even more jobs. Life for them was working long hours in poorly paid illegal jobs or chasing badly paid illegal jobs. It’s a recommended but hard read.

Is balance a good thing?

It may be that by balance we really mean a more complex concept, integration, a sense that different aspects of our lives have connection and relevance, come together in wholeness.

It is possible to argue that unbalance in our lives, or parts of our lives, is a good thing. I argue this in relation to learning and to writing. The idea of cognitive dissonance, as a necessary precursor for learning, is one I find attractive. Cognitive dissonance means having or encountering inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and this forces a person into rethinking preconceived ideas or understandings. It’s not balance but tension that is the dynamic force here. Being unbalanced is a good thing in this context.

I have been heard to argue at times that the purpose of writing is to create unbalance, uncertainty, requestioning.

Writing and living

As a writer I use my experiences, that is my life, to inform my work. There is no division between my writing and my life. I draw on my childhood, my years of regular employment, my previous writing, and what I read, see, overhear, experience …

What others say

295-cover-3-marriagesI am a great fan of Maria Popova and her Brainpickings. In one post in March 2015, linked here, she picks over the idea of balance in life by drawing on a book by David Whyte, the English poet and philosopher. The book is called The Three Marriages: reimagining work, self and relationship. It’s one I intend to read. She takes ideas of balance to a deeper level than I have, and as always says wise things. Her blog is a gem of thoughtfulness.

Over to you

Can you see any value in the idea of work-life balance for a writer? How is it for you?

 

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