Monthly Archives: March 2020

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

Diana Athill is something of a heroine in my eyes. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Her contribution to post-war fiction in the UK was enormous in her role as founding director of Andre Deutsch publishing. She worked with him from 1952 until she retired aged 75 in 1993.
  2. During that time she edited (among others) the works of Molly Keane, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys, and without Diana Athill’s patience and care we would probably never have been able to read Wide Sargasso Sea.
  3. She wrote about all this in Stet (2000), and it is an essential insight into editorial work. Also into her relationships with some of the writers she had to deal with.
  4. She wrote about ageing in an interesting way, and in life managed her final years with dignity and generosity. Read Somewhere Towards the End (2008)
  5. Her short stories are highly enjoyable. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was published in 1962 and republished by Persephone Books in 2011.

And the sixth reason is this novel Don’t Look at Me Like That which was published in 1967 and has been reissued by Granta.

Don’t Look at Me Like That

The novel is set in the early ‘60s, and mostly in London. Meg is the main character and the narrator of this novel. She is a clergyman’s daughter and up until the point she comes to London Meg’s life has been directed by her parents and by social expectations, reinforced by school. There she had had few friends, and it was only Roxane, who lives in Oxford with her widowed mother, who is willing to be close to her. Roxane’s mother invites Meg to live in her house while she attends art college in Oxford. Mrs Weaver, is a complete contrast to Meg’s mother. She directs Roxane’s life to the extent of picking out and grooming her husband Dick.

The novel is partly about how Meg from childhood feels out of place, a misfit, unable to consider marriage, unable to make friends easily, unable to find her way in the world. But by the end of the novel she found her own friends, living independently and in some poverty in a succession of rented rooms. She has come to belong within her own circle. But she has also carried on an affair with Dick and therefore comes into conflict with her own family and with Mrs Weaver. Eventually she makes a decision knowing that it will shock her family and people’s ideas about young women.

So this novel notes the changing expectations for generations during this time, and especially for young women. It reflects the different pace of social change in rural areas and London at the time. And it is about making good relationships, and the difficulties of doing this whether you reject the traditional social patterns or accept them.

The character of Mrs Weaver is carefully observed and built up. She is a shocker. Much of Meg’s reflections seemed to me to expose the dilemmas and tensions that develop for any young women at any time; the importance, or not, of marriage and relationships with men and with women; clothes; independence; having children; fidelity and loyalty; managing on limited resources; parental influence and so on. 

Diana Athill

Diana Athill was born in 1917 and died aged nearly 102 in January 2019. Her death was the occasion for obituaries, and the republication of this novel for reviews. For example John Self in the Guardian in December 2019 called it a ‘reissued gem’. Here is the link.

And this is from an obituary by Lena Dunham, which cacptures the spirit in which to read this novel and the other works of Diana Athill.

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself in which the demands of femininity — marriage and children, specifically — were rethought and redefined. (Lena Dunham in the New York Times. January 2019)

Other reviews can be found by bloggers: for example JacquiWine’s Journal in February; and A Life in Books in January.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill, first published in 1967 and reissued by Granta in 2019. 187pp

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Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

The world is a little out of kilter at the moment. A novel by Barbara Comyns seemed an ideal choice for the times. But although other books by her have very odd almost magical properties, this one, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is more straight forward than her later novels.

This is by no means the first of her books that I have reviewed on Bookword. You can find links to the others below.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

The central theme of this novel is poverty and the misery it causes. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, reassuring us that her story is grim but got better.

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries, he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. (1)

She frames the book as the story she told Helen, mentioning the importance of Sandro, how she regrets ‘lovely little Fanny’ and remembering ‘Charles’s white pointed face’. 

Having married another artist, Charles, very young and impetuously, Sophie lives in Bohemian London in the 1930s, in poverty. Her husband comes across as a selfish man, putting his own wants above others’, so she has to earn pennies sitting for artists while he stays at home and paints. There is no suggestion he should do the housework and cooking except as a favour. 

Sophie becomes pregnant which means she has to give up her work as a model. It also means that she has to endure childbirth in a charity hospital. The presence of their son, Sandro, puts a great deal of pressure on their finances and on their marriage. Charles’s family say that she is selfish to have a child and expect support from Charles. 

Their relationship, deteriorates and she begins an affair with the sleazy older art critic, Peregrine Narrow. She has a second child Fanny, fathered by Peregrine, but this child dies of scarlet fever just as Sophie leaves Charles and she has to stay in hospital to recover from the disease. This is her lowest point and Sophie only begins to recover when she finds a job as a cook for a farming family. She and Sandro live happily in the country for three years. It is here that she meets Rollo, another artist, and they live happily ever after.

Some of the most shocking passages concern the relatives who look after Sandro during a period of difficulty. They are Charles’s relatives and their strict rules are in contrast to the haphazard way in which he has previously been brought up. It proves hard to rescue him as Sophie rarely has the money for the fare.

In one sense this is a novel about a young woman gaining control over her own actions and decisions.

There is plenty in this novel about the lack of a public health service and the provision for people in poverty, expectations of women in marriage, child care and London in the 1930s.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels and is perhaps best known for Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. 

She knew about poverty and insecurity. There is a strange note on the copyright page:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Chapters 10-12 are the ones set in the charity hospital and describe Sandro’s birth. Childbirth was not a subject dealt with in much detail in fiction at the time.

Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind. I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and I was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. (52) 

Emily Gould in the Paris Review (in October 2015) suggests that her writing style was deliberately destabilising. There is a simplicity to her writing, but it has a dark side and more complexity that is largely masked. It was intended to knock the reader off balance. Perhaps it is a suitable book for our time, after all.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns first published in 1950 and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. I used the 2013 edition with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. 196pp

Other books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword

Here are links to reviews of some of her other books:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

The Vet’s Daughter (1959)

The Juniper Tree (1985)

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Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?

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The Far Cry by Emma Smith

The fictionalised account of Emma Smith managing boats on the Grand Union Canal during the Second World War appealed greatly to me. I reviewed Maidens’ Trip a few months ago. I would recommend it strongly. One comment on that post (Kaggsy again!) led me to this novel, which draws on the same author’s experiences in India immediately after the Second World War. She sailed there in September 1946, with a small film crew on a commission from the Tea Board. Laurie Lee was the scriptwriter in the same crew.

Looking back from the vantage point of old age at the young person I was in 1946 I realise now that the ignorance I so deplored was really a blessing in disguise. I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion. I was totally unprepared for it. Engulfed by a teeming multitude of exotic strangers – foreigners – by raucous noises, brilliant colours, pungent smells, the huge surprise of it almost overwhelmed me. (p.ix From the author’s preface)

The endpaper is a late 1930s English printed linen which Teresa’s sister Ruth might have chosen for her bungalow from a catalogue sent out from London.

The Far Cry 

Teresa Digby is 14 years old and at the start of the novel we find that she has not experienced much love so far in her life. Her mother left her father to live in America. As we become acquainted with him in the novel we understand why. This was her father’s second marriage. He has a favourite daughter, Ruth by his first marriage. Ruth lives on a tea plantation in Assam. Teresa had been placed with her Aunt May, who is kind but not loving.

Mr Digby believes that an imminent visit from the US of his second wife means she will take Teresa away. More in a spirit of defeating an enemy, Mr Digby determines that he will not allow it, and decides to take Teresa to India to visit Ruth. 

The novel moves through five sections, beginning at Aunt May’s, on the voyage to Bombay, the train journey to Calcutta, Arrival in Assam, the final outcome.

Each section is rich with understanding especially of Teresa, but also of Mr Digby’s selfishness and unsuitability for this adventure. On board the ship Teresa learns how to make friends and how other people will latch onto you. When she falls ill from sunstroke Miss Cooper looks after her with kindly detachment.

 In Bombay, like the author, she is nearly overwhelmed by India, but is helped by Sam their self-appointed bearer. The unsuitability of her father as a carer becomes more and more apparent. At Ruth’s husband’s tea Garden five unhappy people are thrown together: Teresa, Ruth who believes she deserves much better from life because she is so beautiful; Edwin, her husband who understands her, but despises her attitude; Mr Digby who having achieved his objective finds no place for himself and becomes more and more pathetic; and the deputy manager Richard, who is young and so required to entertain Teresa which he bitterly resents. Edwin is one of the few people who behaves well towards Teresa and does not join in Mr Digby’s racism. The five of them find only occasional pleasure in each other’s company, for example on a picnic. Teresa begins to fall completely for India’s charms and is devastated when after her father’s death Ruth plans to leave Edwin and take Teresa back with her to England. 

They begin their long journey back but Ruth delays in Calcutta and they meet up again with Miss Spooner. The outcome is better: Ruth is killed in a road accident and when Edwin comes to fetch Teresa he agrees to ask Miss Spooner to join them. It is hinted that Teresa will later marry him.

The novel is written with her clear style, with exciting set pieces: arriving in Bombay, the Festival of Light, the trip in the Nagar Hills, as well as long dragging times in the heat. She demonstrates a great deal of insight into the need of young people for affection and friendship and how that can be mishandled.

Here is an example of Emma Smith’s writing. 

She chose her oranges one by one, and the dusty-footed spectators who had gathered to help her choose, stretching their arms past her to pick out and offer the roundest, largest, most sunburnt specimens anyone could desire. They waved them in front of her now; they muddled her considerably. They were so gay, vying with one another to catch her attention: ‘Looky, memsahib – this one good orange,’ She felt like a grown-up at a children’s party. (121)

I was surprised that there was no mention of the war that had so recently finished when Emma Smith visited India, nor of the looming divisions in India’s independence movement that resulted in Partition at the time of Independence in August 1947.

Emma Smith 

She was born Elspeth Hallsmith in 1923 but used her nom de plume because it is easier to say. 

During the war she worked as a boatwoman on the canals. And then aged 23 went to India for nine months with the film crew. On her return in 1948 she published Maidens’ Trip and then The Far Cry in 1949. This was written in Paris where she was captured by the photographer Robert Doisneau, typing beside the Seine. 

Emma Smith and her typewriter in Paris, by Robert Doisneau

She married in 1951, had two children and then was widowed. She went to live in Wales and published some children’s books. Later she wrote another novel: The Opportunity of a Lifetime (1978) and two books of memoirs about growing up in the South West. Susan Hill found an old copy of The Far Cry and was struck by its competence and quality. She wrote about this in 1978 in a piece reproduced as the Afterword.

Emma Smith lived in London until her death in 2018.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith, first published in 1949 and republished by Persephone Books (no 33) in 2002. Afterword by Susan Hill, Preface by Emma Smith. 324pp

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Last month, February, I wrote a themed post about outsiders in fiction (here is the link). I listed some books about outsiders and invited readers to make other suggestions, which they did. Many thanks. One comment in particular drew my attention – the suggestion that all books about women are books about outsiders (Thanks @Kaggsy59). This observation is at the heart of reading for so many women, especially those of us who were active in the Second Wave of feminism. Reading was often a political act.

The additional suggestions included books by Anita Brookner, Veronique Olmi, Carson McCullers and Shirley Jackson among others. A suggestion on twitter also drew my attention as I was intending to get a copy of this novel and read it soon based on reviews I had read: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I found it in WH Smith on Paddington Station, as a ‘staff pick’ which seems fitting.

Convenience Store Woman

The protagonist, Keiko Furukara, is 34, a virgin and she has worked part-time for 18 years in the same convenience store. Like many young people in Japan she began this work while at University, continued it after she graduated, and unlike her contemporaries she has never left. It is soon clear that she is on some kind of spectrum, having few emotions and only able to pass in limited social settings by using some interesting strategies: excuses, white lies and by copying behaviour, speech patterns and clothing. But it is also clear that she understands the rituals and routines of the store, the service it provides in the neighbourhood and that this deep understanding provides meaning to her outsider life. This is not considered acceptable by her friends and family.

Into her life, at the store, comes Shiraha. He too is an outsider, but he is lazy, prepared to sponge off people, and he blames everyone else for his lack of attractiveness. He is not a sympathetic character as he often expresses ill-thought out reductionist cave man theories. For a while he convinces Keiko that if she takes him in (he owes money on his rent) and feeds him, this will get people off her back. She is indeed troubled by people who try to make her behave more like other women. At first her friends are delighted when she takes Shiraha in, but eventually even Keiko sees that this man is sleazy. She rejects him and reasserts her right to work in a convenience store. She wants to return to the simple demands the work makes on her and to a life which is familiar.

Reading this novel

I often find that reading fiction in translation shows me the world in a very different way. It is true with this book too. There is an element of strangeness about it, but it is also an appeal to allow people to determine their own paths in life. It was an easy read even a bit of a page turner. Simply written, in a deadpan style as a first person narrative, this quirky narration exactly matches Keiko’s character. It is also very funny in places.

At one level this short novel is a critique of the social pressure to conform in modern Japan. Her friends and family seem to believe that Keiko should be made to follow the normal patterns for a young woman.  

I am not quite sure why Granta decided to issue this paperback in several different colours with the purchaser receiving any one of them randomly. Mine is blue. It seems like a marketing gimmick, but I can’t see how it links to the novel’s content.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016) published by Granta. 163pp

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Published in 1929 Passing was the second and final novel by the American writer Nella Larsen. The title refers to a ‘Negro’ (her term) passing as a white person. Set in Chicago and New York among the middle classes, Passing exposes the damage done by definitions and categorisation by race. The novel provides a challenge to the concept of race altogether.

This is the third book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1920-1929 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Passing

The novel is set in the 1920s in the USA. Irene is taking tea in a department store in Chicago. To do this she is ‘passing’ for Irene is light enough in her colouring to appear to be white. ‘Negroes’ were not accepted in the restaurant. Irene was born and brought up in this city. A childhood friend, Clare, recognises her and they sit together to talk about old times. Clare is also ‘passing’, not just in the store for convenience, but she is married to a white man (unlike Irene who is married to a doctor who could not pass). Clare is a risktaker, lively and beautiful.

She is keen to spend more time with Irene, because she misses the company of ‘negroes’. She  invites Irene to tea and there Irene meets Clare’s husband. There is a shocking scene when Bellow laughingly explains why he calls his wife ’nig’- because she is getting darker with the passing of the years. And then, when Irene enquires whether he has ever met a ‘negro’ he replies:

“Thank the Lord, no. And never expect to! But I’ve known people who’ve known them, better than they know their black selves. And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And,” he added darkly, “worse”. (172)

There is so much to be shocked at here. The open, bragging way in which John Bellow dismisses ‘negroes’; that Irene did not challenge him; that there is such a casual racism in his criticism; and he is standing next to his wife who has been ‘passing’ for many years.

Irene is glad to return to her home in Harlem, New York where her husband is a doctor. Irene reappears some months later, wanting to mix with the lively inhabitants of Harlem. At first resistant to her troublesome former schoolfriend, Brian warms to Clare’s charms.

Fearing an affair, Irene contemplates what can be done, when she accidentally meets Clare’s husband again while she is in the company of a ‘Negro’ friend. John Bellow begins to understand and becomes very angry. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a death from a 6th floor window. Was the victim pushed or did they jump? We are not sure.

‘Passing’ in other ways

While the story of the novel is tied to the passing of ‘negroes’ there are some other kinds of passing that Nella Larsen reveals in this novel. We should also note that Irene, from who’s point of view the novel is written, is happy to pass in order to get a decent cup of tea, in other words, when it suits her, but condemns Clare’s more radical form, by which her whole married life is constructed around passing.

The term could also be used to describe other compromises people make. Irene is concerned to preserve her marriage to Brian at all costs. She would be prepared to pass as a happy wife, keeping up the nice home and the plans for their two children even while knowing Brian was sexually unfaithful. 

And what are we to make of the white folks who like to visit Harlem and mix in with the black culture? This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance after all. 

And finally passing might also refer to death.

And the reader cannot help noticing that all these other aspects are connected to the overall idea that race was a defining social category from which other issues arise.

Race in Passing

In Passing Clare has to perform being white, not being ‘negro’. This is what categorising by race does to people; also categorising by other ‘isms’. When we were writing about our ageing population we spent some time thinking about the pressures on people to act old, perform being older members of the community. Sexuality, gender and other categories must also be performed or hidden. The first two books in the Decades Project for 2020 were about young women who refused to perform as required by their families and insisted on leading their lives in their own way. 

The damage done by the category and labelling of race is exposed in Passing. The the main characters, Irene and Clare, and their husbands are all living lives that are lies. 

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in 1891. She died in 1964. She was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – 30s. She wrote only two novels because she gave up writing when she was accused of plagiarism. She was the daughter of a black father who deserted her mother who then married a Danish émigré like herself. So Nella grew up in a white family, although she was bi-racial. 

In some ways this book is dated, but it still has relevance today. I thoroughly recommend it. My book group read this a few years ago and it provoked some very interesting discussion. I know of another book group that had the same experience.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929. I used the edition published by Serpent’s Tail (with her first novel Quicksand) in 2014. 105pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first two choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

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