Celebrating English PEN at 100

Recently I attended online an award ceremony for the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga. She was being honoured at the British Library with the PEN Pinter Award for 2021. In turn she had nominated, as a writer of courage, Kakwenza Rukirabashiya, from Uganda, who read from his account of arrest and torture: Banana Republic: where writing is treasonous

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The event was moving, not only for the celebration of these brave writers facing opposition in their countries, but also because we were reminded that English PEN is 100 years old this year. Few international organisations in defence of human rights have lasted a full century. We should celebrate the work of the organisation, its purposes and those it supports.

A brief history

Founded in 1921 by novelist, poet and playwright Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Gallsworthy as its first president, the organisation boasted from the beginning many well-known writers of the time: May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera BrittainEM Forster, WB Yeats, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. It spread quickly to other countries.

In 1940 in wartime it issued it Appeal to the Conscience of the World, a plea for the protection of freedom of expression. The text was written by Storm Jameson and signed, among others, by Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West. In 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, its Charter was agreed in Copenhagen

Its first principle is as appropriate now as it was more than 70 years ago:

Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

There are currently 145 PEN International centres, in over 100 countries. The current president of English PEN is Phillipe Sands. 

Activities

The phrase Common Currency, from the Charter, has been adopted as the name of a series of events this year to mark the centenary. See the website for details.

The PEN Pinter Prize has been awarded annually since 2009, in memory of the playwright Harold Pinter. The criteria for the award are taken from Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005. It is presented to the artist who casts an

‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

As I said, this year it was Tsitsi Dangarembga. I reviewed her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions earlier this year, and I’m currently reading the second book in the trilogy, The Book of Not. The third novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

The Hessell-Tiltman Prize is awarded for non-fiction. Among the winners was David Olusoga for Black and British in 2017. I am currently reading this book too.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize is awarded annually for autobiography. 

English PEN also have several campaigns and other actions. There is the Writers at Risk programme, and a programme to support translators and translations: PEN Translates. An outcome is The World Bookshelf, a list of more than 100 translated titles. Bringing writing to new languages is an important part of sharing ideas and of free expression. 

Reflections

I notice, as I have included links from the posts on Bookword blog, how many of the early PEN supporters I have read and been impressed by. And how many prize winners I have read over the years.

I also notice how significant women writers have been from the start. Not only was English PEN founded by a woman, now renown more for this action than her writing, but many of the activists and presidents have been women, and this year’s PEN Pinter winner is a woman of colour. 

And since I enjoy the adventurousness of much writing in translation, I look forward to exploring The World Bookshelf. One volume of short stories is already on my tbr pile: a present from my daughter: Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). 

Sadly, I think that English PEN will be needed for the next 100 years, but this year let’s acknowledge and celebrate its achievements over its first hundred. 

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

This is not the kind of book I would normally read or review on this blog. The cover says quite a lot about its genre, and mostly I think it is signalling mature women’s chicklit (which I have tongue-in-cheek referred to as ‘henlit’ before now). But I like mixing up my reading: a bit of non-fiction and some lighter stuff among the general diet of literary fiction.

I enjoyed much of this book: there’s a hilarious golf club celebration, the ineptness of people consoling a bereaved man with an illustrated tin of assorted biscuits, a shooting party that encounters children who have escaped from a school bus for a pee, and other humorous observations on everyday life.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

The story is set in a pretty village in Sussex in the present day. The village is largely untouched by the twenty-first century, and many of the inhabitants are retirees of some means. One reflection of our changing population is that the village shop is run by a couple from a Pakistani background. When Mr Ali died his wife continued to manage the shop, and has recently been joined by her nephew, who is rather surly and resentful. Helen Simonson nicely captures the patronising views of the villagers, especially as Mr and Mrs Ali were born in the North of England.

The upper echelons of the village, led by the ladies of the various village committees, compensated for the rudeness of the lower by developing a widely advertised respect for Mr and Mrs Ali. The Major had heard many a lady speak proudly of ‘our dear Pakistani friends at the shop’ as proof that Edgecombe St Mary was a utopia of multicultural understanding. (5)

Like Mrs Ali, Major Pettigrew has been widowed, but the story begins when his brother dies, and he finds it hard to drive to the funeral, so Mrs Ali offers him a lift. He is concerned about one of a pair of special guns that he believes his father intended to be reunited when the first of his two sons died. Major Pettigrew is rather keen on family traditions, and has great pride in his father’s achievements. He followed him into the army.

The villagers pay consolation visits to the Major, and we see the concerns of the ladies (not a word I use often, but they would describe themselves that way). In contrast Mrs Ali, finding the Major in some difficulties provides practical assistance. He appreciates her kindness and finds himself drawn to her. Her kindness is in sharp contrast to the attitude of his son, Roger, who seems unable to think of anyone but himself and nearly misses the funeral.

The story amiably ambles through the brother’s funeral, the son’s attempts to capitalise on the rather special guns, a shoot with a fading Duke and a predatory American property developer, and a disastrous themed Christmas dance at the golf club. Many assumptions and prejudices are challenged in the course of all this: especially about race and age, but also gender. The Major is involved in these events, inwardly critical but outwardly compliant.

The Major is an interestingly conceived character. He is constantly affronted by people who are selfish and inconsiderate, and there are many in Edgecombe. The Major is also quite stuffy, unwilling to break the social barriers that support community and quite pompous about people who do, but sceptical about those that create and promote barriers, especially of age, gender and ethnicity. 

I found him a little unrounded; he followed his father into the army, and we are told that when he left he spent time teaching in a boys’ private school but was happy to leave it. He had tried to impart his love of English literature to them. We do not find out how he earned his living in his later years, before retirement. He is 68 years old and Mrs Ali not yet 60. They share a love of Kipling.

He is an affable man, thinking or saying under his breath his ripostes to the clunky statements of his neighbours, or the patronising attitude of his solicitor. He is capable of generosity, providing Mrs Ali’s nephew with accommodation when he needed it. Abdul Wahid had fallen foul of his family and was considering a strict form of Islam.

All this was rather thin. In particular I had to suspend my critical historian’s eye over the re-enactment of the events that led to the Major’s father being awarded the pair of guns by a Maharajah. It happened, the re-enactment, at the end of the golf club party in which every patronising nod towards the Indian sub-continent had been rehearsed by the upper echelons of Edgecombe society. It is Mrs Ali who points out that although the Major’s father might have shown extreme bravery in protecting the Maharajah’s daughter against a violent mob that ambushed the train, the process of Partition was blighted by many massacres, especially of passengers on trains as Hindus fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan. The real story, no comedic aspects here, was the bloodiness as the British rule in India came to an end. Not the heroism of the Major’s father.

I enjoyed reading it, but some of it seemed a little schematic and designed as a slight provocation to those who haven’t yet cottoned on to what it means to be woke.

Selected by the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2011

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, published in 2010 by Bloomsbury. 388pp

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Rereading this novel from 1976, I was reminded of how important books were in the women’s movement of the time – now rebranded as Second Wave Feminism. I found that the future world created by Marge Piercy was impressive and influential. It was the possibility of this or other futures that I remembered from my first reading, so much so that I had forgotten Consuela’s struggles with the mental health system of New York that carried the plot. I remembered Consuela visiting the brave new world, and her surprise at what she found and was shown. It was an effective vehicle for describing a different way of life. 

Now I have reread the novel, 45 years after its first publication, I can see that Marge Piercy was also suggesting that the way in which women were being treated in 1976 was laying the foundation for the dystopian futures that Consuela also visits. In those futures, sexual subservience, enforced by controlling women’s minds, was enabled by the experiments in which Connie was unwittingly and unwillingly enrolled. 

 

Woman on the Edge of Time

Consuela is a Mexican-American living in New York in the ‘70s. She is assaulted by her niece’s pimp and ends up in an asylum, where she had been incarcerated after a previous breakdown. This time she has just been tidied away, except that she might be useful in an experiment that one of the doctors is undertaking. Desperate to escape, when Consuela is contacted by Luciente she willingly goes with her into the future, returning now and again. At first, we do not realise that Luciente’s community called Mattapoisett hopes that Connie can stop the programme that she is about to be put on. From time to time she passes over to visit Luciente and her friends and learns more about the feminist-socialist community being developed.

Connie is identified as suitable for a new treatment for violent patients: implanting neurotransmitters to control behaviour. She is unable to resist becoming part of this programme, despite an escape attempt.

On two occasions Connie travels to the future but fails to arrive at the Mattapoisett of her friends, instead joining them in a war they are losing against robotic weaponry and on the second occasion finding a woman who has been physically enhanced and is controlled by sophisticated neurotransmitters to be a sex save, confined in a managed and artificial environment. 

Eventually Connie is due for her final fitting at the New York Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. Her ability to control her behaviour is about to be removed, and if she cannot prevent it, the community of Mattapoisett will not be able to establish itself. Their destinies have become entwined.

Reading Woman on the Edge of Time for the first time

It is one of the greatest gifts of good fiction, that the reader can be shown a different world, a different way that things can be. Marge Piercy has said that she wanted to show readers that there were choices about the future, that it did not roll out with inevitability. Science Fiction is especially good at this.

For me it was the idea that people did not need to live in a world where everything was defined by gender: two examples: the language can be changed (per/person instead of she or he is used in this book); Connie is not initially aware that Luciente is a woman because she doesn’t dress or move like one. More significantly, with the use of artificial pregnancy and birth, gender-based roles in society have been removed and in Marge Piercy’s imagined community persons are free to follow what they are good at. Furthermore, the community is organised for the benefit of all. It is not only feminist and socialist but also ecologically organised to care for a much-damaged earth. 

This vision of different possible futures was what I took away from this book on my first reading. It was powerful. It was not inevitable that we would march into such a destructive future. But we perhaps we have all the same. 

The future from the past

Some of her ideas have turned out to be well-founded. For example, everyone wears a ‘kenner’ on their wrists, familiar to Star Trek fans as ‘communicators’ and to Ursula le Guin readers as ‘ansibles’. We call them cell phones or mobile phones. And from time to time in Mattapoisett many people meet on one screen in a prediction that looks a lot like zooming.

Sadly, the treatment of women from ethnic minorities remains a subject of concern four decades on. There is much in the novel about how women, especially Mexican or Latino and also Puerto Rican women were treated in the ‘70s, and how women who wanted to take some control over their lives were often defeated by the men in their communities, using violence, incarceration and drugs. 

I have been asking myself how I initially came across this book. I think it must have been a combination of things: I was very fond of Marge Piercy’s poetry in the early ‘70s and would have been attracted to her fiction. Perhaps I was offered the book by the Feminist Press Book Club. My first edition was certainly published by them, now with its glue failing, and the pages all brown. Perhaps it was reviewed in Spare Rib, or I heard about it by word of mouth, or from my consciousness raising group.

Whatever, I was pleased to reread it for the 1976 Club, organised again by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, first published in 1976 and recently by Penguin in 2019. My first copy was published by the Feminist Press in UK in 1979. 417 pp

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Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

You have probably heard of the multi-talented Vita Sackville-West. Born in 1882 she shone in many fields before her death in 1962. Consider the many ways you know of Vita Sackville-West.

Her love affair with Virginia Woolf

 

Somehow the rather intellectual Virginia was bowled over by Vita’s charms and they were lovers and great friends for many years. Their love letters were recently published by Vintage press: Love Letters: Vita and Virginia. Vita was also the lover of other women and men.

Orlando

One of the outcomes of that relationship was Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando. Vita Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote, 

The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her. (From Wikipedia)

I like that: Orlando is ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’. It’s also great fun.

All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific writer herself, poetry, novels, journalism and biography. One of her 17 novels takes pride of place in the older women in fiction series on this blog: All Passion Spent, published in 1931. 

In the novel, Lady Slane is in her 60s. She is the widow of a Very Great Man, and when he dies her six middle-aged children meet and decide what she will do: stay with each of them in turn. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid. These final years bring new friends and interests, and after a lifetime of being eclipsed by her husband, Lady Slane finds happiness on her own terms.

Sissinghurst Castle

You may also know that Vita Sackville-West was a great gardener. Unable to inherit the family property Knole, she bought Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and created a beautiful garden there, which you can visit as it is now a National Trust property. She wrote regular columns for the Observer on gardening from 1946 until 1961.

Her portrait

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Love that hat!

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West

Vita came from a long line of rather remarkable and flamboyant women. She wrote about three of them in Pepita, published in 1937: her great-grandmother Catalina, her grandmother Pepita, and her own mother Victoria Sackville.

Her great-grandmother Catalina was a Spanish gypsy, who made her living selling second-hand clothes. It is not entirely clear whether Catalina’s barber husband was the father of her child Pepita. It suited people in their circle to suggest that the father was the Duke of Osuna, Catalina’s lover. The barber disappeared quickly from the story and died.

Pepita became a dancer of some renown in Europe, partly because she was very beautiful. She became very rich and supported her mother, who rose to be a landowner of a considerable estate in Spain. Pepita had been married briefly to her dancing master, but soon separated, apparently on account of her mother’s unpardonable actions – there’s a theme beginning here. While performing in Europe Pepita met the English diplomat and aristocrat Lionel Sackville-West. They became lovers, and he was the father of her children, including Victoria. 

He seems to have been a taciturn diplomat, one who did not observe the niceties of proper society for it was widely known that Pepita was his mistress and mother of his children. Pepita died in 1892 in the South of France, giving birth to her final child, who also did not survive. The children were farmed out, Victoria to a convent in Paris. Later her father needed her to act on his behalf in the social and diplomatic world of Washington. This was not a conventional arrangement as Victoria was not legitimate. Nevertheless, she played the part very well, and bowled over Washington society receiving many offers of marriage. 

Back in England she met and married another Lionel Sackville-West and went to live at the family estate at Knole. They had one child: Vita. Victoria was a very difficult and demanding woman, who also attracted admirers. 

Vita retells the stories of these women in Pepita. Her sources came from a trunk she found of papers, researched in Spain as part of a court case by one of her uncles. The Sackville-West men seem to be rather socially withdrawn, taciturn even, who liked these dramatic women, but did not exert themselves to make their lovers’ lives easier or mind much about the scandal that followed them. Vita’s own father did not (?could not?) leave Knole to her, so she invested her energies in Sissinghurst instead. 

As historic background to a talented and vibrant figure of the twentieth century, Pepita makes good reading, even if it is somewhat rose-tinted. 

Pepita by Vita Sackville-West first published in 1937 and reissued by Vintage in 2016. 266pp

Picture credits:

Sissinghurst Gardens: by Grace Kelly September 2011 via Wiki Commons

Pepita Dancing via Wiki Commons

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More of the last book I …

I found this meme meme on Bookertalk blog in December 2018 and because I enjoyed it I offered my own version the following month. I altered it slightly from the original (my comments were getting too repetitive), and now here is an updated version.

  1. The last book I gave up on

This was The Story of my Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. I had greatly enjoyed Lost Children Archivewhich I read because it was the Book Group choice for March last year. Although the manner in which The Story of my Teeth was written, almost cooperatively, was interesting, the novel didn’t quite grab me enough to review on this blog. I did finish reading it however.

  1. The last book I reread

That would be Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1906). I had two specific reasons for wanting to reread this children’s classic. You can find out what they were by reading the post “Better than Whitewashing.” The Wind in the Willows and Covid.

  1. The last book I bought

I’m currently awaiting delivery of the following books:

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Tension by EM Delafield

Look out for comments on these on the blog.

  1. The last book I said I’d read but hadn’t

I don’t do this. What’s the point?

  1. The last book I wrote in the margins of

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim, in which I made a few marks against some paragraphs to consider for quotations in the review on this blog. 

  1. The last book I had signed

I don’t do this either. But people often ask me to sign my books, and I do it, although I don’t know why they want me to.

  1. The last book I gave away

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus 

My local writing group doesn’t charge a subscription, so we raise funds in other ways. One way is a monthly raffle in which people are invited to provide writing-related prizes. As I had two copies of Refugee Tales IV, when it was my turn to find a prize in August I put one copy in the raffle. It was much appreciated. 

You can find a post on this blog about this excellent collection here.

  1. The last book I had to replace

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston. I wanted to read these short stories and I had forgotten that I had a copy on my shelves. I bought another. After that I found the original. This is not an unusual event for me, buying duplicates. I loved this collection and wrote about it on the blog which you can read here

  1. The last book I argued over

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. This was another choice for the book group and they were more enthusiastic than I was. We didn’t really argue, and we all got something out of reading it.

  1. The last book I couldn’t find

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. I remember reading it and I thought I had a copy. But I couldn’t find a it so I acquired a second hand one. I could find it now. A theme is building up here.

That earlier post

The last book I …

Over to you

Do any of my answers resonate with you? Try this for yourself.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories, translation, Women in Translation

Even more praise for short stories

More praise for short stories was the title of a post on this blog in January 2017. It updated an earlier post (November 2013). It has maintained a modest readership ever since, so I decided it was time to revise the second post and recommend more short stories for those who love reading them, as I do.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, and the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, giving the reader the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggested that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions. He said:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts. (in Prospect 2006, A Short History of the Short Story)

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

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. 

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies of short stories. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! because they listen to what the reading public say they want.)

A selection from Bookword 

In the last year I have reviewed the following collections, with links included:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

And in the next few months I plan to read these: 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Elizabeth Bowen collection

Shirley Hazzard collection

Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). A present from my daughter.

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Award. And you can find local competitions too, for example here in the South West there is the Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters. These competitions are not usually limited to contestants in the area, although this one has an additional award for local writers. Online you can also find many journals and sites that publish short stories.

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

I say no more about writing them at the moment as I have been stuck on one for months and months and months.

Other recommendations 

Some other recommendations (with some links) are:

Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)

 

Raymond Carver (Vintage)

Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)

Edith Pearlman (Pushkin)

Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)

Persephone Book of Short Stories

Dorothy Whipple (Persephone)

When I previously wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following writers:

More Praise for Short Stories appeared in January 2017 on this blog.

Over to you

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

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews, short stories, translation, Women in Translation

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve

It is October 1918, the final months of the First World War. In Paris Jeanne Caillet is waiting for her husband to return. He has been wounded and in hospital for several months. Life is hard for Jeanne and the women who live near her: shortages of fuel, and food, and work. This novella reaches deep into the destructive power of war and looks at the damage it visits upon a small web of relationships surrounding Jeanne. 

Originally written in French, here translated by Adriana Hunter for Peirene Press, the publication date for Winter Flowers is 7th October 2021.

Winter Flowers

In some ways Jeanne is lucky. She has a job making artificial flowers by the gross to a tight schedule and exacting standard. The work brings in just enough to support her and her daughter. Her neighbour Sidonie sews aprons. Jeanne and her Sidonie support each other by taking turns to deliver the finished articles and collect the parts for the next batch. 

Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain. (7)

Sidonie’s only surviving son Eugène left for the war at the same time as Jeanne’s husband Toussaint. Eugène has not been heard from for months, but Toussaint is in hospital having been wounded in the face. 

As soon as he was admitted to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, Toussaint sent his wife a brief letter.
‘I want you not to come.’
Those were his words.
It was clear, definitive. It invited no reply, and Jeanne sent none. (29)

Jeanne, and the reader, learn indirectly of the dreadful injury to Toussaint’s face from a report from his father. It is as if the damage cannot be approached directly. But Jeanne does not know what to think of her husband’s message, and of what will happen when the war ends.

Meanwhile she has to keep on making the flowers, often far into the night. The flowers have several functions within this novella. To start with, they provide the only colour in a relentless grey and dismal time. The red poppies, of course, came to symbolise the dead soldiers of the Western Front. And Jeanne is making these for the luxury market, for those who have power and influence, and who still value the display of wealth and unnecessary objects. 

At the heart of this novel is this contrast: Jeanne is involved in the delicate work of creating artificial flowers and at the same time living in near destitute conditions and caring for a husband seriously damaged by the war. 

When Toussaint returns there is an intensification of the hardships of the Caillet family: another person in their small flat and another mouth to feed. Toussaint’s face is badly injured so he wears a mask. He may have lost the ability to speak, and he won’t go out or interact with his family. 

The Caillet family are by no means the only ones damaged by war. When Sidonie is told by the Special Messenger Service (women volunteers who inform families that soldiers have been killed) that Eugène has been dead for eighteen months she is devastated. Invited to the town hall to a ceremony at which she is given a certificate, Sidonie is accompanied by Jeanne. Here are the people who pronounce empty and vacuous platitudes to those who lose people.

Up on a rostrum, flanked by his deputies, the mayor with his tricolour sash over his barrel chest gives an interminable speech, and there’s a pomposity in his voice and his words for which they are quite unprepared. (79)

The reader learns that the Jeanne and Toussaint had a good and loving relationship before the war, even surviving the death of their first child. The novel follows Jeanne’s attempts to reunite with her husband, bridge the years of the war, their different experiences, the maturing of their surviving child. How can they keep the family together, as Léo has grown up? How can Jeanne support Sidonie when the last of her sons is declared dead, and the official response is so lacking?

The flowers represent so much: they show up the dreariness of Paris; they indicate the suffering of the women; they are destined to be bought by rich people not directly involved in the war; and they represent the dead.

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, first published in French in2014 and the English translation by Peirene Press in 2021. 117pp

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

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“Better than Whitewashing.” The Wind in the Willows and Covid.

Back at the end of last year, as we finished our second Lockdown and almost immediately began the third, I gave in and decided to banish the worst effects of continued incarceration and got out a jigsaw puzzle. And after a few days I had finished it, with a little help from a grandson. 

While I had submitted to that curious addiction that jigsaws create in me (just one more piece, just that piece that goes there) I thought a lot about the opening scene of The Wind in the Willows. The Mole is spring cleaning his house, when he gets fed up with it and, with ‘an aching back and weary arms’, he decides to do something else.

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. (3)

I longed for the moment when we could leave our homes, not worried by Covid and masks and 2 metre rules, and escape into spring. It seemed like it was not far away, for were all going to be vaccinated and this long trial would soon be over.

And as the jigsaw progressed and I searched among all those shapes with small dabs of green for the right one, I promised myself I would read The Wind in the Willows and enjoy again the adventures of the Mole, his friend the Rat, the wild Toad, and severe Mr Badger. 

(There was another book that appealed to me for a similar reason: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. I had been told this novel was about the moment, a year after VE Day, when Laura could say that the war was over and they could start afresh. I reviewed that book in July. You can find the post here.)

If you know The Wind in the Willows, you will be aware that for the Mole it was not easy to emerge into the sunlight by the river.

So he scraped and he scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. (3)

And so it has been for us, despite the vaccine, and despite the ending of restrictions, I still feel we are scrooging and sometimes still scrabbling. 

The Mole is a fine fellow, and he quickly strikes up a strong friendship with the Rat, a water rat, who is never so happy as when he is messing about in boats. He is also something of a writer:

During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry or did other small domestic jobs about the house (28)

Off they go in the Rat’s boat, for the first of many picnics, and to enjoy an idyllic Edwardian summer, until the Toad spoils everything. 

The Toad is a boastful, talkative, self-satisfied animal, prone to passions about boats, then caravans and so on until his interest is taken elsewhere. But it is in motorcars that he has to face his lack of responsibility, and he is imprisoned following yet another smash-up, placed ‘in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England’. (76).

It takes the combined forces, ingenuity and manipulation of Mr Badger (forever speaking in the voice of Michael Hordern), the Rat and the Mole to get the Toad to see sense, and to win back Toad Hall for him. 

The character of the Toad is compelling. He is very tricksy and resilient. Here he is as he wakes up the morning after he has made his escape from the castle, dressed as a washerwoman.

He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers; and, his toilet complete, marched forth into the comfortable morning sun, cold but confident, hungry but hopeful, all nervous terrors of yesterday dispelled by rest and sleep and frank and heartening sunshine. (114)

Yes, I know that toads don’t have hair, but if they did it would be rather wild and straw-coloured.

His homecoming is delayed as the friends have to see off the weasels and stoats from the Wild Wood who have occupied Toad Hall during his absence. They do this thanks to the Mole’s subterfuge. Mr Badger insists that they prepare a banquet. The Rat has to persuade the Toad that at the banquet he will not make a single speech or sing a single song. Not even a little one.

“It’s no good, Toady; you know well that your songs are all conceit and boasting and vanity; and your speeches are all self-praise and – and – well, gross exaggeration and – and –“
“And gas,” put in the Badger in his common way. (153-4) 

So here we are now, the pandemic is not over yet, not here and not in the whole world outside either. There is no banquet for us yet. But I enjoyed re-acquainting myself with this book, even though all the main characters are male, and refer to people as ‘fellows’. 

And I have checked online and found that there are many more jigsaw puzzles available on the theme of The Wind in the Willows.

 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. I used the Penguin Threads edition published in 2012. 

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Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

What is this book? A cult classic? A fable? A feminist tract? A psychological story? Sci-fi? Perhaps all of these. I bought a copy and read it because I loved its excellent cover (in a new Faber edition), and because I had heard good things about it, that it is short and a good read.

Mrs Caliban

Rachel Ingalls appears to delight in ambiguity. You can take this book seriously at the same time as delighting in its playfulness. If Dorothy is Mrs Caliban, who is Mr Caliban: her husband Fred, or Larry the green frogman from the sea? Is it a psychological story, in which Dorothy has hallucinated a more satisfying relationship? This is not resolved. There is much sadness at the story’s heart, grief over the death of a son, a miscarriage and the failing marriage. Dorothy and Fred are too sad to divorce. 

The story concerns a human-sized green amphibian, who escapes from the Institute of Oceanographic Research. He appears in the kitchen in front of Dorothy, an unhappy housewife, in the middle of her preparations for dinner.

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (20)

We are in California in the late ‘70s. Interested? Curious?

Dorothy is very lonely. She is sure that her husband is cheating on her. She has one friend, Estelle, with whom she has coffee and occasional outings. She does not confide in Estelle about Larry. Estelle in turn is cagey about her lovers, and by the end of the novella we have found out why.

Dorothy provides accommodation in a spare room and food for the creature, and she calls him Larry. He is particularly partial to avocados. Soon they are having frequent and satisfying sex and managing to take drives under cover of darkness. The press is full of shocking stories about the violence of the frogman, but he explains to Dorothy that he killed two of the lab technicians because they tortured him. Many of the stories are fabricated, designed to shock and titillate.

The hunt for the sea monster continues in California, as Larry and Dorothy monitor its lack of progress on tv. They plan to return Larry to the ocean he knows, which means they will have to travel to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific being unfamiliar to him. Before they can embark on their trip one of Estelle’s children is killed, and then the bodies continue to pile up. The novella ends as Dorothy waits for Larry at a prearranged emergency rendezvous.

She came out of the car and walked up and down the beach, hour after hour. The water ran over the sand, one wave covering another like knitting of threads, like the begetting of revenges, betrayals, memories, regrets. And always it made a musical, murmuring sound, a language as definite as speech. But he never came. (117)

I loved it, for it is very engaging, unique and has a strong feminist thread.

Rachel Ingalls

Rachel Ingalls was born in Boston in 1940, her father was a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, her mother a fulltime housewife. She attended Radcliffe, spent time in Germany and then came to Britain and settled here. She died in March 2019.

Although lauded by John Updike, Ursula le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates and others, she is unjustly neglected, partly because she was very self-effacing. She wrote 11 collections of short stories and novellas. She is often concerned with rules and conventions and the violence by which society maintains them. 

Mrs Caliban is considered her masterpiece, and John Updike described it as ‘an impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last’. 

Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, first published in 1982. The new edition in the UK is published by Faber. 117pp

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

And the winner is …

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Congratulations to the winner

After 26 years is this prize still necessary?

This prize has been going for 26 years. Kate Mosse, co-founder, says it still does three important:

  1. honour and celebrate excellent fiction by women
  2. make women’s endeavours in fiction more visible 
  3. use funds to promote more excellent fiction through charitable, educational and research programmes.

Fiction, she says, can still make a difference. You can read her article published in the Guardian in 2020 about the prize and its continuing relevance here.

Honouring and celebrating excellent fiction

So, in the spirit of the prize, I give you forty-one brilliant books, all written by women, from the short- and long-list for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword. 

The 2021 shortlist

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

The 2021 longlist

There were sixteen longlisted books as follows:

  • Because of You by Dawn French
  • Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Summer by Ali Smith
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari JonesAn American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Here is the link to the website of the Women’s Prize for Fiction: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

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