Refugee Tales III

It’s Refugee Week 15th – 21st June 2020 and I am launching my Crossing 25 Bridges challenge to highlight the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) who since 2015 have been making an annual walk

in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees.

In the manner of the Canterbury Tales, as they walk they tell stories, which are collected and published. Some refugees tell their own stories, and some are retold by accomplished writers. 

Human Rights?

The UK is the only country in Europe  that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. For all kinds of reasons this is wrong. One reason is that it is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrart arrest, detention or exile.
[Universal Declaration of Human Rights]

Refugee Tales III 

In the third volume of Refugee Tales, six stories are told by individual refugees in their own voice and 13 more are presented ‘as told to’ some notable authors such as Monica Ali, Roma Tearne, Patrick Gale, Ian Samson, Bernardine Evaristo, Gillian Slovo.

Tales are told by the stateless person, the orphan, the foster child, the father and the son and more. The people are identified by activities that we can all understand. 

A terrible picture emerges. Each person’s story has a brutal start in their country of origin. These stories are individual, often violent and involving betrayal, torture and always fear.

Once the refugees have arrived in the UK the themes coalesce into a horrific story of the obstacles to being granted asylum. They all involve indefinite detention.

For a moment pause and consider what it might mean to have left your country, often your family, your identity, your language, culture, food and history. There is likely to be trauma in that story. You arrive, looking for safety and find yourself met with a wall of disbelief, distrust, cruel and labyrinthine administrative and legal processes, and ever-changing personnel. And imprisonment, without apparent reason, often removed when signing on as required, and often released again with as little apparent cause. 

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, or detention?

But more significant perhaps than the transgression of the UN Declaration is the inhumane aspects of this policy. Most people are aware of the Hostile Environment initiated by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, in 2012. Fewer people are aware that it involves indefinite detention. More people need to be aware that refugees have few rights to benefits, or a job, and only to meagre accommodation and, until very recently only £5 a day to live off. The current Home Secretary raised it to £5.26p in early June.

Responding to Refugee Tales

I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something.

Here are some things to do:

• Buy and read one of the three collections of the Refugee Tales.

• Listen to what refugees have to say

You are not really going to listen. No one listens
You’re not really going to hear. No one hears.
But I will tell you my story anyway. I will tell you my story because you have asked to hear my story.
But that is all. You want my story from me. I do not want anything from you. […]
Now you have my story. And I still have nothing.
[From The Fisherman’s Tale as told to Ian Sansom]

  • Hear what refugees have to say, be a witness, enter the community that acknowledges these stories and these lives.

So I ask him, why does he want me or anyone else, to tell his story? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming directly from him? His response is that he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience, to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he heard and saw. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing itself; because it signifies that in a world that so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.
[From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Be a vigilant witness against evil and heartlessness and stand up for solidarity, beyond all seeming borders or nationality and creed. Jonathan Wittenberg knows the importance of this from researching the history of his own parents who were refugees from Nazism.

As I listen and record, I become a companion in defiance against the silence in which vicious regimes try to bury the knowledge of the crimes they have committed against the dead and disavow the living trauma of those who manage to survive them.
S needs me, us, to be allies. [From The Erased Person’s Tale as told to Jonathan Wittenberg]

  • Support my lockdown walk over 25 bridges in support of retelling the stories of flight and detention and the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
  • Join in the weekend of online events with Refugee Tales –  3rd – 5th July – details on their website.

My Lockdown Walk with Refugee Tales

Staverton Bridge, Devon.

My walk this month will, as far as possible, cross 25 bridges. Some may be crossed twice. I hope to walk with friends and family, including remotely. The bridges will be photographed and I’ll put them on Twitter, Facebook and my Just Giving page.

You can donate to the Just Giving page  and the  here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp

Other connected pages

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, short stories, words, Writing

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce is a lively 20-year-old American in Paris, the narrator of this novel. She is being subsidised by her rich uncle, so does not have to worry about money. She is a fresh voice, relating the succession of disasters in her life with sparkle, wit, some insight, and with great style. Just right for the post-war world.

The Dud Avocado was the first novel by Elaine Dundy. It quickly became a best seller. It was published in America in 1958, and was reissued by Penguin Books in 1960 and by Virago in 1993. With this choice for the the sixth decade in the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we emerge from the Second World War. 

The Dud Avocado

I first read this in 1961, perhaps the very copy I still have in my possession. At the time I thought it was risqué, funny, modern, definitely the voice of youth. Now with a reread it feels dated, and I have to admit that I was a little bored at times. Too many evenings in the bars and nightclubs, pursued by men, following her dream of becoming an actress and hooking up with Larry Keevil. (Really, the name should have been the clue.)

Sally Jay appears to be lively and irresistible. She certainly attracts attention, not least because when she first appears she is wearing an evening gown and it is around eleven in the morning. 

‘It’s all I’ve got to wear. My laundry hasn’t come back yet.’ (10)

And her hair is pink, originally ‘dyed a marvellous shade of red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’. (9) A bit on the transgressive and scatty side then.

She decides to ditch the Italian diplomat with whom she has been having an affair. She wanted to lose her virginity and she thought it was rather dashing to have an affair with a man who already had both a wife and mistress. She moves on through many casual encounters, and a relationship with Paul, an American painter. He is serious, but she leaves him to spend the summer in a villa near Biarritz. This has been organised by Larry, who has brought along a hunky Canadian who is keen to take up with Sally Jay and a girl he wants to seduce. Sally Jay’s main objective is to secure Larry for herself. But he becomes very elusive. She acts in his theatre company, spends the summer in his, but never gets into his bed.

During the timescale of the narrative (September to the next late Summer) she joins in the lively young night life in Paris and near their villa. They go to bars and nightclubs, dance and drink, eat and drink, and get involved in acting in plays and the movies. Her impetus for this hedonism seems to be that she is young. Here she is explaining to Teddy, the rejected Italian diplomat, why he is so angry.

What you can’t stand is the whole new young adventurous population with either just a little money or no money at all, no jobs, nothing, just a desire maybe to see the world awhile. Then all the jealousy and envy in your mournful little unfulfilled life rises up inside you and you have to invent all sorts of dark sinister motives for everyone. (212)

She says some pretty unpleasant things to people from time to time. But there are two things I noted about this statement. One is that young people really did feel like this well into the late ‘60s. And secondly that some of her circle did have ‘dark sinister motives’ for their actions, as Sally Jay found out later.

She asserts her right as a young person (a well-off American?) to explore life as she wishes. I think we could see her as an early example of that trend that became almost obligatory in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: to find yourself through life’s experiences.

I said that I tired of her, and it is true that the endless round of partying, name-dropping and wildness palled. I enjoyed its raciness more when I read it in my early teens. Her selfishness is only a little curtailed by the theft of her passport and the underhand and abusive behaviour of one of her circle.  She herself is rescued by a wealthy and glamorous man who only appears in the last 15 pages. 

Elaine Dundy

Elaine Dundy (1921-2008) was born into a wealthy family in New York and educated at home by governesses. After the Second World War she escaped to Paris and then to London, where she married the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in 1951. (His name is dropped in the novel). They had a fraught marriage and separated in 1964. She worked on the satirical tv programme That Was The Week That Was, which had the reputation of being anti=Establishment. Back in the US she wrote two more novels and continued to make her name in theatre, journalism, films and writing biographies. 

The comparison with Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not resisted in many comments about Sally Jay. The novels were published in the same year. 

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, first published in 1958. I used the Penguin edition from 1960.  255pp

Some relevant sites:

In the Guardian in August 2011, Rachel Cooke sees the Sally Jay’s life as ‘a complicated hoot’. She is not too bothered by the amoral aspects of the story. She rightly points out that no one reads this novel for the plot and enjoys the details of the heroine’s chaotic life. You can find her observations here

Simon in Tredynas Days, in May 2018, found that it was best to read the novel in small doses, to appreciate its qualities, like savouring chocolates in a box. Here are his comments in full.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century 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. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first five choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Are there any readers who have failed to notice this book? It won the Booker Prize 2019; it is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. It sparkles. It’s about 12 people – girls, women and one other. I am highly recommending it.

Girl, Woman, Other

This is a long book, divided into five chapters and including an epilogue. The first four chapters each feature the stories of three people. Each story is connected to others in this collection, and the connections help it to zip along with energy.

Its epicentre is London, a London with which I became very familiar and where I lived and worked for 35 years. Most of that time I lived in Hackney, and worked either in the city’s secondary schools or at the Institute of Education, which was part of the University of London at that time, teaching teachers on masters and doctoral courses.

During that time the so-called Second Wave of feminism died down, although those of us struggling in a discriminatory world did not feel that we were in any way in post-feminist times. During that time, girls were still experiencing growing up on terms decided by men. There remained a great deal of discrimination, on the grounds of class, ethnicity and gender identity. It was hard for the young people in the schools, and hard for young women in the poorer areas. 

Bernardine Evaristo covers this ground, and more. Her imaginative ability to conjure up these lives interacted with my memory of these times, and added the important ingredient of experiences of minority ethnicities.

Her characters engage with discrimination, migration, heredity, gender identity, marriage, parenthood, abusive relationships, struggles with education, employment, and so on. So much of life is here, with a female and black emphasis.

She has written beautifully about this kind of territory before, not least in Mr Loverman, set in the Hackney I knew, it could almost have been in my street!

What the judges saw

Passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour, a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood … Dazzling. [Booker Judges quoted on the cover, quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition]

There is so much to enjoy in this book, not least the way in which it is written. I do not recall another book that has so many main characters, and which links their lives in ways which illuminate their own and other stories. The multiple stories are told vividly, and not restricted to London or to suffering although every person featured, like every person on the planet, has to engage with the difficulties and beauties of life. 

And she has adopted a somewhat restless style of writing: the text appears to be divided in traditional ways. There are chapters, with subdivision within them. On the page the text appears to be in paragraphs, but they are constructed of a main sentence or starter and then continue with a series of subclauses. Here’s an example from the start of the novel:

Chapter One
Amma
1
Amma
is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by
to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons
to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s
she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes
a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade
Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight (1)

I love the way this innovative form allows for multiple experiences, unfinished ideas, variation, and, in this opening statement, tells us a everything we need to know about who is featured, where and when and it alerts us to a significant event later that same day.

As I say, I highly recommend it and I am sorry our book group decided to read eleven other books this year, I would have liked to have discussed it with them. Maybe next year. But my enthusiasm has confirmed my daughter’s interest, especially as I told her she will find her school and college friends here, and our neighbours from when she was growing up.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019). I read the Penguin paperback edition. 453pp

Connected posts

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013) from Bookword in August 2014

HeavenAli reviewed Girl, Woman, Other on her blog in October last year. You can find her review here.

And an interesting list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020

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The Street by Ann Petry

For some groups of people the American Dream has always been a lie. And for some of them it’s a nightmare. In the 40s if you were a single mother, black, living in New York you were at the bottom of the bottom of the heap. In The Street Ann Petry describes the life of the urban poor, revealing the tensions that existed for them all and how their hopes and intentions were blasted. 

The Street

New York, during the Second World War, a young single mother moves into a few rooms on 116th Street in Harlem. She has left her husband, who was unfaithful while she was away working and moved away also from her father and his girlfriend who showed little care for the boy. Lutie Johnson has brought her son, Bub, who is eight, to live here. 

Lutie wants to make a better life for herself and the boy and has already studied and worked hard and saved to get this far. She believes that the street is no more than a staging post. She has to leave Bub alone so much he is taken under the wing by the vengeful Super of the block, Mr Jones. Everyone in the street is hustling to get something from everyone else. There’s Mrs Hedges, who keep a brothel and offers Lutie work. She is the white man Junta’s right hand woman and protects Lutie for his benefit. 

It amused her to watch the brawling, teeming, lusty life that roared past her window. She knew so much about this particular block that she came to regard it as slightly different from any other place. When she referred to it as ‘the street,’ her lips seemed to linger over the words as though her mind paused at the sound to write capital letters and then enclosed the words in quotation marks – thus setting it off and separating it from any other street in the city, giving it an identity, unmistakable and apart.

Looking out of the window was good for business, too. There were always lonesome, sad-looking girls just up from the South, or little girls who were tired of going to high school, and who had seen too many movies and didn’t have the money to buy all the things they wanted. (231)

Then there’s Min who lives with the Super, but their relationship becomes vitriolic and violent. She seeks the help of a root doctor to keep him from throwing her out. Although in the end she leaves him. And the school teacher, a white woman who hates the children. And the girl Mary who work for Mrs Hedges and falls for a sailor. 

Lutie reflects on the situation she finds herself in.

Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place. And she began thinking of Pop unable to get a job; of Jim slowly disintegrating because he, too, couldn’t get a job, and of the subsequent wreck of their marriage; of Bub left to his own devices after school. From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands. (297)

Lutie has maintained a faith in the American Dream up to this point. If she can just work hard enough, or sing for the band, or save enough money, she and Bub can get out of the street and into a better life. No good will come of Lutie’s efforts. She is a single woman who is black, so at the bottom of every heap and considered fair game by many. Everyone wants to take something from Lutie. But in the end she she commits a grievous crime, abandons Bub to juvenile detention and escapes from the street and the city. The world will close over her brief stay in this street. The reader has a strong sense that Lutie will find herself in a different but similar street again soon.

Underlying all the action is the difficulty for black men to find work, or work that is not demeaning. The Superintendent of the block is black, but he is half crazy with being inside all the time. Boots, who leads a band, and is a fixer for Junta, has worked as a Pullman Car porter, resenting being at the beck and call of every person, and being called ‘Boy!’

Although Lutie is the main character, we are given a good look at many of the people she meets, and to understand how they are also caught by the other people on the street. The street is any street. The tragedy written into the story from the outset is more than Lutie’s tragedy. Hustle, give in, fight back, there are opportunities to do all of these. But in the end the street is a dead end. For everyone.

I originally chose this novel for the Decades Project, for the 1940s. I was so impressed by A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn that The Street will not be included. The Street was the first novel of the black American female writer Ann Petry, published in America in 1946. It is highly recommended.

Other Blog Reviews

A Life in Books blog reviewed it in January. She regrets that the novel is still relevant today. You can find it here.

Heavenali says that the novel is compelling and devastating and praises Virago for reissuing it, here.

The Street by Ann Petry, first published in 1946 and by Virago in 1986 and reissued with a smart new cover in 2019. 403pp

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Reading on time

My mind has been on the passing of time as the lockdown continued. At some point I decided to stop viewing the confinement as some kind of hiatus and accept that it was just how we are living at this time. It helped. But I think a lot about how many days, what we did this time last year, when will we be able to do some things again. It is a theme in fiction as well.

Here’s a celebration to enjoy of days, weeks, months and even years in fiction and memoir.

  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
  • The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948)
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1931)
  • A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
  • The Years by Virginia Woolf (1937)
  • The Years by Annie Ernaux (2008, in English translation 2019)

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This is a kind of riff on Mrs Dalloway. The title was Virginia Woolf’s own first idea for her novel. Set in three different times and locations The Hours examines society and its difficulties. As someone who has loved reading and rereading Virginia Woolf, I find it adds a new perspective to the original without detracting from it. We have a version featuring Virginia Woolf herself, another with an American suburban housewife from the 1950s and the third set in recent decades in New York, when HIV/AIDS was rampant. 

It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film (2002), largely successful. 

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

When I reviewed this thriller six years ago, I noted that rereading it had allowed me to appreciate more its admirable features. You can find that review here.  

It is set in London during the Second World War, and follows a couple of lovers, Stella and Robert, and a creepy man who appears to be a stalker. But the dilemma this man Harrison, presents to Stella is at the heart of the tension. Sometimes Elizabeth Bowen’s writing forces the reader to slow down and pay attention. Overall it is an excellent and highly recommended novel.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is another book that is worth rereading. I find it hard to get Anthony Hopkins out of mind as the butler, Stevens, who narrates the novel. He remembers his experiences in the years leading up to the Second World War. We see that he was in love with the housekeeper, but let the opportunity to be with her slip away. He also places loyalty to his employer over everything and fails to see what he is up to. What remains of his day for Stevens is being in service to a new American employer.

The Fortnight in September

I reviewed this in a recent post, enjoying the lack of exciting plot events or twists and noting that the annual family holiday gave pleasure to the Stevens family because everything was so familiar and a repetition of previous years.

Set between the wars as the family go on holiday to Bognor, it becomes clear that it will be their last fortnight. Everything is changing, as it does.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr 

This short novel is much loved by book bloggers and reading groups. My own extended comments can be found here

Set in the 1920s, in the north of England, a young man comes to recover from his failed marriage and his wartime experiences. He works as a restorer of church murals and finds much to help him recover in the village: the mural, the vicar’s wife, his friends the archaeologist and the teenage nonconformist Kathy, the villagers and the countryside. It’s a very beautiful novel about acceptance of damage and variation among people.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I am tempted to use the word forensic about Joan Dideron’s analysis of the year following the sudden death of her husband and the seriously illness of their daughter. 

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

She writes compellingly with sparseness and great precision. She provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

You can read my expanded thought on her account here

The Years by Virginia Woolf

As we near the end of this collection, we return to Virginia Woolf and her last published novel, The Years, which looks at the Pargiter family from 1880s to the 1930s in eleven episodes. This is the only novel of hers that I have not yet read. It gave her great pain in the writing, according to her diary. 

I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown, and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent. But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I am rid of it. [Tuesday 10th November 1936]

She began it in 1933 and only finished it three years later. It was well received when it published. I look forward to tackling it myself.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This book is a kind of collective memoir, covering the years of Annie Ernaux’s life (1940 to 2006) up to the point it was published in France. It was very extraordinary to read it, quite unsettling really. But also one of the most original and interesting books I have read recently.

When I think of my life, I see my story since childhood until today, but I cannot separate it from the world in which I lived; my story is mixed with that of my generation and the events that happened to us. [Annie Ernaux: I was so ashamed for Catherine Deneuve … by Kim Willsher. 6.4.19 Guardian]

The main character of this collective memoir is time itself. She notes that ‘we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation’. (20)

Translated from the French by Alison L Strayer

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Two Good Reads (in Lockdown)

As I write this (early May) no one has any idea how long the lockdown will continue. But one thing is sure: people will still want good books to read. And book groups will also still want recommendations. These two books, reviewed here, are both fairly long, and have been on my tbr pule for some months. And on my radar for longer, recommended by bloggers and others. So I bought one last year and found the second one in a second-hand book shop in February. 

  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

Both are recommended as longish and relaxing reads for book groups and for lockdowns.

The Fortnight in September

Set between the wars, the novel is about a suburban family as they go on their annual holiday to Bognor. As the title suggests it is THE fortnight in September, and they have been many times before. Not much out of the ordinary happens. 

Much of their pleasure in the holiday comes from everything being the same as all the previous years: their preparations, their timetable, the boarding house, the other customers in the pub, the way they spend their days. Each of these are experienced in loving detail by the family who believe in getting pleasure from each moment.

One of his best ideas was to have a set programme for every other day – leaving the days in between absolutely free for everyone to do what they liked. It was a wise plan from several points of view. The little squabbles you so often saw happening on the sands in the afternoon were not always due to the heat: more often they came from people being too much together, and getting on each other’s nerves. (166)

However, Mr Stevens is getting older and his hair is thinning. Mrs Stevens discovers that their landlady has had no other visitors that year, and frankly the digs are a bit below par. The oldest child Mary has a holiday romance and is a little burned by the experience. Her brother Dick has been depressed all year since leaving school and taking on a job his father found for him. He decides to take matters into his own hands and get a new job. It is clear that it will be their last fortnight.

It is a hymn to nostalgia. But it is also an account of change, its inevitability and the opportunities it brings. This novel was a great success when it was first published. It was one of the first books published by Persephone (no 67) and they have issued it in the Persephone classics series with a lovely beach on the cover: Algernon Talmage: Silver Morning, Alderburgh Beach (1931)

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff, first published in 1931; I used the Persephone edition of 2006. 326pp

A Gentleman in Moscow

In 1920 the young Russian Count Alexander Rostov is placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He has been deemed a former person, because he had private wealth, an aristocratic title and does not fit the Bolshevik ideas of a good comrade. He is a cultured man, and had written a poem that caught the mood of revolt in pre-Revolutionary Russia, so he was not executed.

For 34 years, until 1954, he lives in an attic room, befriends the hotel staff, becomes a waiter, adopts a child who becomes a great pianist, befriends a senior member of the Russian communist party and takes a lover. During this time he maintains his courtesy, generosity, culture, good manners and attention to detail.

But in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world? (459)

He manages to create a decent life, despite being confined. The history of the USSR is seen from the interior the Metropol. The story is told with considerable panache and extravagance.

It is charming, witty, funny and a good, well-told story. I was bothered by not knowing how he became a waiter, although I could see that it suited him, with his cultured attentive manner, courtesy and attention to detail. And I was uneasy that he slept in a tiny room with his adopted daughter until she was 25. 

This book was recommended for book groups by fellow travellers last year when I was in Nice. You can find their other recommendations here.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) published by Windmill (Penguin Books). 462pp

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A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

My god she was angry. Martha Gellhorn was most angry about Spain, where she had been reporting on the Civil War. But she became angry about the Allies’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 which she had visited earlier in the year. She had seen the determination of the Czechs to fight the German ambitions for Sudetenland. On returning after the Munich Agreement in September she found that Germany had taken Sudetenland and more as it increased control over the country.

Annexation of Sudetenland 1938

Martha Gellhorn knew what she was writing about, knew that the expansion of Germany into Czechoslovakia after Munich, would be the start of something terrible in Europe. The book is critical of French and British policy towards Hitler’s ambitions. She called Chamberlain’s approach ‘kid-glove fascism’.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. 
[Chamberlain‘s Speech on Radio on 27th September 1938, before he flew to Munich.

‘Peace in Our Time’ – Munich Agreement 1938

Her book warned of the Gestapo methods, and the despair of the refugee Germans, Jews and other ‘undesirables’ who had found sanctuary in Czechoslovakia, and of the Czechs who opposed Germany’s annexation.

A Stricken Field was the first novel of the American correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It was published in America in 1940, and in London in 1942. With this choice for the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we enter another dark period of the Twentieth Century.

A Stricken Field

By the time Mary [Martha] arrived in Prague the country had become a stricken field, a field that has been the scene of a battle, in this case a battle that had not even been fought.

There were young knights among them who had never been present at a stricken field. Some could not look upon it and some could not speak and they held themselves apart from the others who were cutting down the prisoners at my Lord’s orders, for the prisoners were a body too numerous to be guarded by those who were left. Then Jean de Rye, an aged knight of Burgundy who had been wounded in the battle, rode up to the group of young knights and said, “Are ye maidens with your downcast eyes? Look well upon it. See all of it. Close your eyes to nothing. For a battle is fought to be won. And it is this that happens if you lose.” 
[from a Medieval Chronicle, quoted at the start of the book]

As an American correspondent she was privileged to witness, but also powerless, even when she had information. The novel follow Mary Douglas in Prague as she becomes incensed by the betrayal of the people of Czechoslovakia and the danger to the German refugees there. 

Through her friendship with Rita, a German refugee who has been living in Prague, she sees the worsening situation, the people who have become homeless, stateless, and without protection except for underground organisations such as Rita’s. Peter, Rita’s partner is another Germany activist, part of the communist party and he also assists refugees. He is picked up by the Gestapo. 

Mary tries to obtain a small amount of leeway for the refugees who have been ordered to leave immediately and have nowhere to go. She uses her position to get access to the British Commissioner for Refugees of the Society of Nations, Lord Balham, and a French general who has resigned his commission , shocked by the way in which his country abandoned their Czech allies. They fail in their combined attempts to get the Czech prime minister to grant more time. Despite being the stuff of thrillers this incident is based in real events. The French general comforts Mary:

“There is never one injustice alone, but always many others which follow naturally. If you live, you will see many  more and worse. And if you live long enough, you will see it change.” (197)

But Rita is lost because she has no spirit left after her partner Peter is tortured. Mary prepares to leave and is asked by an unknown woman to take evidence of atrocities with her. 

It is not just a bundle of papers that I am going to have an awful time hiding. It is the proof that everyone is not beaten yet. (285)

She considers her role. Should she carry these papers out to Paris? What good will it do? We already know that she does, because we are reading the novel. But the question that lingers is – so what difference did it make? What difference can truth-telling make? Events moved on. The Munich Agreement was consigned to critical history, Germany took over Europe and millions died. No wonder she was angry. And although we know that it is important that truth is spoken, that people do not give up, we are also reminded that there will be dark and terrible days.

Martha Gellhorn

She was an extraordinary woman, and a brave one. She was the only correspondent to land on D Day in Normandy, having hidden herself in a hospital ship. She had been in Spain, Czechoslovakia, Paris and London and reported on the war from all these places.

The novel shifts points of view, and is not entirely satisfactory in its construction. But the burning fury of author is evident. Peter, Rita and Czechoslovakia succumb, but the foreign correspondent flies out to Paris. She can still write. I found it very powerful. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) Chicago University edition. 314 pp. It was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1986.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century 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. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first four choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

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The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is a highly respected writer. Her novels are much enjoyed by readers whose opinions I admire. Her reputation rests largely on Rebecca, a novel she published in 1938. Through the brooding good looks of Laurence Olivier and the happy fortune of Hitchcock’s film (1940) this writer has remained very popular. I think her reputation today is based on that film, and especially upon the creepy character of Mrs Danvers. The novel has a slightly different plot denouement from the film. I find it difficult to enjoy a book that depends on the reader’s sympathy for a murderer. I wrote about this here.

So what to choose for the Daphne du Maurier reading week, organised by HeavenAli for 11-17th May? I had a choice of four novels which had been on my mother’s shelves. I asked for help from book-tweeters and back came the recommendation for The House on the Strand. 

My choice for the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week 2020

I experienced nostalgia as I read it, a nostalgia based on the smell of the pages, and the appearance of the browning pages. This was one of those regular arrivals from the World Book Club. Sight, feel and smell all brought back my teens, reading from among these books in the school holidays. Katherine by Anya Seton (1954) was another, as was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961). The House on the Strand fits right in, published in 1969.

The House on the Strand

Richard Young, our hero and narrator, is staying in a house in Cornwall near Par. He is on his own, the house having been lent by his great friend the biophysicist Professor Magnus Lane. But his American wife and two stepsons will join him in a few days.

Dick has agreed to undergo an experiment for Magnus, which pitches him back in time to the early 1300s amongst the families of the district, and particularly beside one man, Roger, who is steward to one of the rich women. Dick returns several times to this world, coming to see it as more interesting. Gradually he becomes obsessed with it and would rather be in that world than with his wife in the present day. 

The reader follows Dick in his first experience of taking the drug. He finds himself in a vivid medieval world, full of politics, passion and underhand doings centred on the local gentry. The setting of the novel is vividly realised, the place names link old and current names, the tides and other topographical details are exploited. For example, a man is killed because in his consciousness he is on an empty hillside, but physically he is on a railway track still in the current day.

At each visit to the past Dick finds himself a little further on with the story he has been witnessing, especially as it concerns the beautiful and adulterous Isolde. There is a suspicious death, a brutal murder, community events and eventually a visit by the Black Death. 

As for Dick, he has severely endangered his own marriage, and put his health in jeopardy too. The doctor who treats him suggests that there is a Freudian explanation for what he has experienced, but aspects of it are not accounted for by this theory. 

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907 Daphne du Maurier lived a long and productive life, writing many novels as well as short stories and plays. Most of her life was spent in Cornwall, where she died in 1989 at Fowey. From 1965 she lived in Kilmarth, the house on the strand. 

She is usually characterised as a romantic novelist and there are often dark shadows of the paranormal in her plots. Although there is a fair amount of pseudo-science to explain the drug and its time-travelling effects, enough for one reviewer to claim it falls into the science fiction genre, the drug’s effects are more mystical especially as the traveller is not physically present in the medieval world, and experiences bad reactions when he touches a person from the past, including being catapulted back into the present. She is also famed for her ambiguous endings, the calculated irresolution. In this novel it is unclear what the lasting physical effects of Dick’s misadventures will be.

What are we to make of this book? She seems to be implying that drugs that mess with your brain are damaging. This was the time when LSD was becoming widely known and used. Or was she suggesting that science was getting out of hand? There is an eccentric professor to create the drug complete with a basement laboratory where monkeys’ heads are kept in jars along with phials labelled A, B and C.

Any ideas of class are completely ignored. Apart from Mrs Collins the benevolent housekeeper (an antidote to Mrs Danvers) all the characters are firmly in the well-to-do bracket. Dick’s wife is a widowed American who brings two step-sons and ambitious plans for Dick to emigrate to a job in the USA. And in the medieval period all the main players are people of substance, engaged in local and national battles for power.

It was hard to have sympathy for any character. Dick is weak and manipulatable; Vita is too energetic and has beastly friends; Magnus creates the concoction that initiates the whole mess and then disappears; and the bloodletting among the medieval characters, the jockeying for positions, the unpleasant relationships, none of these characters are sympathetic. Roger, a steward, who is the main character that Dick always follows has the redeeming feature of loyalty to his employer. But even he switches employer.

So …?

I am not much impressed by this book. It seems dated to me in its class assumptions, its focus and the narrative was hard to follow with all the place names (the all begin with Tre-) and the family names. Unless another blogger in this reading week manages to convince me, I think I shall leave the rest of Daphne Du Maurier’s oeuvre on the shelves.

What did you think of it?

Heavenali loved it and she has a much more positive review on her site than I have posted here. Happy Birthday!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) I read my mother’s hardback edition from World Book Club. 285pp. Virago Modern Classics published an edition in 2003

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The Best Books for … a lockdown

I am thoroughly fed up with newspapers, booksellers even book tweeters assuming that they know what I want to read during the lockdown. By the time this post appears it will be more than 50 days into the restrictions, and although we may still be finding them hard, we will know more about how we cope than pop psychologists with their routines of resilience. I am dubious about the idea of reading being some kind of antidote to boredom and loneliness.

We are being recommended to read long books, or comfort reads, or books about restrictions and the plague, or books that offer escapism. But we may not want this. What everyone seems to agree on is that readers are reading more, and readers have more time for more reading. But I don’t want to work through a list of long books I’ve been meaning to read forever; I don’t want books to cheer me up; or to match any low mood; or books that pander to a reduced ability to concentrate. 

During the lockdown I have enjoyed a good mixture. So here’s my list of Best Books and I invite you to add your choices too. 

Quiet books

If you haven’t read Stoner by John Williams this might be a good opportunity. The main character leads an unremarkable life, which can be described as an accumulation of failure and disappointment. But it is a life worth reading about. You can read my review here.

Barbara Pym is another writer, but very different, who writes about the small things of life, the quiet people, everyday events. I really enjoyed rereading Excellent Women, and highly recommend it to you. It was the subject of the previous post. And for a book by her in the older women in fiction series you could read Quartet in Autumn.

A thoughtful writer

An early casualty of the cancellation of all my activities was an event in Bristol at which Rebecca Solnit was due to speak. What made it even more frustrating was that this was the second time she had cancelled a visit to Bristol. I’m not taking it personally. But I want to read more from Call them by their True Names by Rebecca Solnit. This was a gift from my daughter at Christmas, being a collection of essays. And in anticipation of that cancelled event I had obtained a copy of her memoir: Recollections of My Non-Existence. I have scheduled a post on this blog on her writing for the near future.

She always provides a wider perspective on events, allowing one to understand the world in which we live in more breadth and depth. You will find several posts featuring her writing (all non-fiction).

Comfort Reading

I don’t usually go in for comfort reading, but there is one book that I have read in the past during times of great personal difficulty. It absorbs my attention and flatters my focus as a reader, for I know the plot so well. I enjoy reading new details, of style, comment, interaction and so forth. It is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. And if the moments of personal difficulty follow too close together I will replace it with Persuasion. Neither novel comforts me because they end well for the heroine, but because they are so well crafted, such a treat for the reader.

Books I started and want to finish now

One book in this category has to be Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which won the Booker Prize. I started it a few months ago, but it was called back to the library and so now I have my own copy I can continue to read it without the threat of being parted from it. I relished Mr Loverman, partly because it is set in Hackney, a part of London which I know well. And also because the people in that novel were, as it were, known to me. I had lived among them. In addition I attended a day course at the British Museum on which Bernardine Evaristo tutored. It was a good experience. That woman has serious talent.

And another book to finish is RC Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September. This is another book that I read a chapter of and now want to get back to. It regularly receives praise on social media, and I feel I should know it. 

Poetry

I am dipping into various collections and enjoying the work of a range of poets: Kathleen Jamie and Helen Dunmore for example. 

Novels on the theme of pandemic:

Maybe I will try one or more of these:

Lockdown by Peter May 

La Peste by Albert Camus

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

The Stand by Stephen King

But probably not.

And …

I am enjoying listening to Podcasts, for the discussions about books or words. And I’m pleased that Backlisted Podcast is now in production again. These podcasts feature, as the name implies, books that are on publishers’ backlists but still deserve attention. They restarted the series in April with a look at Barbara Pym.

And I continue to read chosen books for the blog, especially the series, my book clubs and because I have them on my shelves. 

Recommended by others

Five Comfort Reads from A Life in Books blog

Lockdown Reading by Anne Goodwin on Inspired Quill

Comfort Reading on the Guardian, chosen by various writers

There are lots of good suggestions there for people who like lists of recommendations.

Best Books for …

This was my third post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first two were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020.

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the lockdown?

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Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Prompted by praise on a Backlisted podcast, I revisited Barbara Pym and read two of her novels in succession. She is an excellent observer of small social groups, and her main characters are curious about other characters in their circles. This makes for lively rather than dramatic scenes in her novels. It is probably for this kind of social observation she has been compared with Jane Austen. If you haven’t experienced her writing yet I recommend you start with Excellent Women or Quartet in Autumn.

Excellent Women

Written immediately after the Second World War and published in 1952, Excellent Women was Pym’s second novel. The drabness, the greyness of that time, especially of food, clothing and décor are well captured. But people went on behaving in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. This is observed by the narrator Mildred Lathbury. Although she appears to be a repressed spinster, we soon realise that she is more than she seems for she had been in censorship during the war

Mildred Lathbury is 31, single, and lives on her own after the death of her parents (father a clergyman), and her school friend Dora’s decision to leave their shared rooms to pursue a career in teaching. Mildred’s days are spent working in a charity for impoverished gentlewomen in the morning and attending to church matters, jumble sales, flower arranging, and such matters in the afternoon. She is one of those excellent dependable women, whose lives are considered to be at everyone’s disposal because they are single. 

Into this settled life come Rocky and Helena, moving into the flat below her. Helena is an anthropologist and Rocky has recently come out of the navy where his job seemed to be to manage an admiral’s social life by being nice to Wrens in Italy. Rocky is attractive and charming but the couple are not happy. Also unsettling is the news that, Allegra Grey has moved into the spare rooms in the rectory and has quickly becomes engaged to the priest, Father Malory. 

All these people make demands upon Mildred, and they all make assumptions about her. She navigates through, keeping as far as possible to the morally right path as well as trying to correct false assumptions. It is assumed that Mildred has always wanted to marry Julian Malory. They all assume that they can make demands upon her. Mildred is clearly an excellent woman, so she will undertake these tasks efficiently: writing letters, dealing with tradesmen, comforting the bereaved and so forth.

Even as Mildred is being put upon it is clear that she has trouble saying no, and towards the end one wishes she would. But her observations about the behaviour of others are precise and frequently amusing and depend on them treating her as an ‘excellent’ woman. 

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (1)

‘This may sound a cynical thing to say, but don’t you think men sometimes leave difficulties to be solved by other people or to solve themselves?’ (231) 

I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing a hat in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction. (123)

There are many good comic scenes and characterfs, perhaps the best is the awful Mrs Bone with her hatred of birds, which she devours with the enthusiasm of vengeance achieved, and her silent companion.

A Glass of Blessings

This was Barbara Pym’s fifth novel, published in 1958. For some it is their favourite, but I found it much less interesting than Excellent Women. This probably has a lot to do with the main characters. Wilmet is very different from Mildred. She is about 30, was a Wren in the Italy and married a major, now a Civil Servant. She does not work, or occupy herself with household matters (they live with their mother in law) and nor does she have any interests beyond herself and nosiness about others. She does share with Mildred an interest in the Church, Catholic but not Roman.

With no paid work, hobbies, occupations or housework Wilmet is attentive to what goes on in the clergy house, with the new priest who is in danger of going over to Rome, and with their housekeeping arrangements. She also becomes preoccupied with her best friend’s brother, Piers, and she fancies that he is in love with her. Also the same friend’s husband pays her improper attention. These minor flirtations are about self-regard, and (a bit like Emma) Wilmet is rather surprised to find that Piers is gay and the handsome new priest will marry the very dowdy Mary and her mother-in-law will remarry and want the house they currently share for herself and the professor. 

The title indicates that Barbara Pym wants the reader to see that whatever one’s circumstances life is full of interest and ‘blessings’. Wilmet thinks that, ‘perhaps it always had been without my realising it.’ (p277)  The title comes from a line in a  George Herbert poem, The Pulley. The blessings of the poem are strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure and, left in the bottom of the glass, rest.

Barbara Pym

She lived from 1913-1980 and was successful with her early fiction, such as these two novels. But her publisher dropped her in 1963 because she wasn’t modern enough and her reputation languished. It was revived when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS

She knew much of what she wrote about, for example she had been a Wren in Italy in the war. She never married or had children, so perhaps she knew what it was to be seen as an excellent woman. She observed closely small lives, noted important and telling details, and could communicate the gap between what was said and what was meant with sympathy. 

Today she is considered one of the great English novelists of the post-war period. A podcast by Backlisted team was released soon after I completed this post about this book and Barbara Pym. It is very enjoyable and the knowledge that it was on its way was the stimulus to my rereading of Excellent Women. . 

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, first published in 1952 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classics in 2008. 288pp

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym first published in 1958 and reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 2009. 277pp

Related posts

Three reviews of Excellent Women can be found on these blogs.

JacquiWine’s Journal

Tredynas Days

Vulpes Libris

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym from the older women in fiction series on Bookword.

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