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With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton

I recently had cataract operations, which gave me a new view on the world. One major change is that having used contact lenses for nearly 50 years, I no longer need them. Another change is that some colours that I thought were black have resolved into dark blue and purple. And as well as an all-round improvement in my sight I sometimes see out of the corner of my eye what I call ghosts, just the fluttering of something sheet-like disappearing out of sight. Having read With or Without Angels I think these may be angels. 

I loved this short book because it is about seeing, about looking, and doing those things differently, more closely and with a more imaginative eye. And I have always enjoyed how the arts influence each other. With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton is inspired by a series of collages by the Scottish artist, Alan Smith, which in turn are a response to Il Mondo Nuovo by Giandomenico Tiepolo.

It is a short novel about creativity, about seeing, about looking, and about some important questions to do with art, illness, life, change and death.

With or Without Angels

The starting point is a fresco from 1791 by the Venetian artist, Giandomenico Tiepolo. It is called Il Mondo Nuovo, The New World. It’s a large piece, landscape form, showing a variety of Venetians with their backs to the viewer, looking out to sea, not excited but not at ease either. Tieoplo has placed himself in the picture, in profile, raising something to his eye, standing just behind his father. The picture is strange, and the viewer must ask, what is this new world that these people are awaiting? A reproduction of the fresco is provided at the start of the book and sections are used on its cover. 

The central character in this novel is an unnamed artist who, through sickness, has become less able to use his hands to hold pen, pencil or brush. The old artist has taken to using a small camera. Working with a digitally skilled assistant, they created a series of 11 montages. They begin in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, and by the penultimate image have assembled a response to Il Mondo Nuovo, in which the figures now face the viewer. A final montage includes some figures from Antony Gormley’s Another Place, an installation of 100 figures on the beach at Crosby. I visited last year and was very moved. 

Other elements of his photographs are found recurring in the series, such as a floating shape, a little like a sheet – angels? As the old artist and Livvy work on the series, the significance or the references to other paintings emerge, some are included. The old artist reflects on the wisdom of various artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Dimmi, dimmi, se mai fatta cosa alcuna – tell me, tell me if anything was ever done. (24)

And contemplating his own mortality he reflects on Philip Larkin’s comment that what will remain of us when we are gone is love, love will survive. The old artist thinks ‘it is the work that will speak for him long after he is gone’. (25) Later he recalls being on Crosby beach.

He walked out to stand by one of the bronze men, shoulder to shoulder and looking out to sea. Do they look with longing? As though they already miss the push and pull of the water, like being held in a crowd and now let go. He took one rusted hand in his, felt the roughness of metal that will not last.
Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us – he had not been convinced of that before. He thought maybe his work would be the thing that survived – misunderstood perhaps. Now, remembering that day on Crosby beach, holding the hand of a rusted man, he is not so sure. He is not so sure they can be separated, the love and the work. (103)

So this book makes one think on several levels. It’s an exploration of Il Mondo Nuovo and Alan Smith’s collages in which he is responding to that fresco, and finally the author Douglas Bruton’s fictional account of the creation of the collages. He has considered life, death, illness, interactions, love and meaning and so much more. In his Acknowledgements he tells the story of how an artist’s widow visited his garden and spoke about the work of her husband. She has approved the publication of this novel.

In the process we are given a demonstration of looking, seeing the details in a picture, and the relationships, the dynamics, between different genres, different works, different inspirations, and concerns.

It is beautifully written, and very tender.

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton, published in 2023 by Fairlight Books. 112pp. Includes 12 colour illustrations.

Related links

The review on A Life in Books is what put me onto this book. I love discovering books through other blogs, and this post described a work I knew I wanted to get hold of. It was part of a Read Indies initiative.

The author, Douglas Bruton, recommends the website of the artist Alan Smith where the images can be seen screen-size, and there is also a video about the creation of his collages. You can find it through this link: http://www.alansmithartist.com/the-new-world.html

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In today’s world, where largescale and terrible things are happening (yes, Covid pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine) and where morality and honesty appear to have deserted the government (yes, sending refugees to Rwanda, lying about Brexit and partygate), it’s important to celebrate decent behaviour. There is not a great deal us little people can do, but we can behave with decency and sympathy, even if it risks local condemnation. So it is, in this short novel: a celebration of decent behaviour.

I originally gave it as a birthday present to a reader-friend, and she lent it to me having greatly enjoyed it first.

Small Things Like These

Set in 1985 in the small costal town of New Ross, in Wexford, Ireland. Christmas approaches and Bill Furlong is busy with fulfilling the winter orders for fuel. He runs a successful business supplying coal, wood and anthracite to the town, despite starting out as the illegitimate son of a single woman, now dead, and an unknown father. When she became pregnant, his mother was not thrown out by her employer, or sent in shame to a mother and baby home. Instead, Furlong grew up in Mrs Wilson’s house and was well treated.

He married Eileen and they have five girls. They are a loving family and are just about able to afford to have a decent Christmas, getting the presents that the girls have requested. Some of the most satisfying scenes are those spent with his family, for example when Eileen and the girls make the Christmas cake, and the girls write their letters to Santa. Such scenes, however, remind Furlong of the disappointments and poverty of his youth.

One of his deliveries is to the local convent. Furlong makes an early start and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed. Although the nuns treat her as if she has accidentally spent the night there, Furlong is uncertain.

As the days pass, he is increasingly uneasy. He must face the truth of his own origins, the silence of the town about the inhabitants and purpose of the convent, and the warnings that the convent nuns have power that could compromise Furlong in New Ross. Finally, he takes action.

The small things of the title include his marriage and daughters, their preparations for Christmas, his decency towards his workforce and generosity to his customers. It also includes the townsfolk turning their backs on whatever is happening in the convent, and generally ‘minding their own business’. Expectations and tradition keep everything in its place, and he is warned off tangling with the Convent. He defies this tradition.

Moral, moving, very quiet and short.

Claire Keegan

Although she has lived in other places, Claire Keegan was born in Ireland in 1968. She has previously published 3 collections of short stories, winning prizes and accolades for them: Antarctica (1999); Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Foster (2010)

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. 166pp

Related Posts

In her review Kate Vane is frustrated that the story did not include the implications of Furlong’s action for his family and business. But she has strong praise for the novella. Kate Vane Blog October 2021.

Susan, on A Life in Books blog also praises this short book, and expects to delve into more writing by Claire Keegan, November 2021.

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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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