Monthly Archives: October 2021

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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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

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