Tag Archives: Susan Hill

The Far Cry by Emma Smith

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

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

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

The Far Cry 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an example of Emma Smith’s writing. 

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

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

Emma Smith 

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

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

Emma Smith and her typewriter in Paris, by Robert Doisneau

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

Emma Smith lived in London until her death in 2018.

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

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On Being a Good Reader

I was approaching 50 when I decided to return to university full-time to study for an MA. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I loved it! I loved the time I had to read and the freedom to choose what to read. I loved the library. I loved reading books and articles, following trails of references, browsing among the journals, discussing what I had read with my fellow students. I was impressed by the librarian and she has since become a very good friend. I learned the pleasures of reading, following an idea, chasing up more ideas, being a serious reader.

One of the things I love about blogging is the research that it necessitates: for images, biographical details, finding obscure facts and quirky opinions. I recaptured some of the earlier pleasure of studying when I came upon the idea of the good reader and decided to follow it up. It necessitated reserving a library book!

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

I had enjoyed Howards End is on the Landing, so was pleased when my sister gave me a copy of Jacob’s Room. She said it was ‘a bit like a blog only all at once’, which is good description. I found myself taking notes of things to follow up, especially related to Muriel Spark, who’s centenary is this year, and I have already joined in a readalong with a review of Memento Mori.

She also reflected on Vladimir Nabokov’s literary criticism, and his description of a good reader. Here are her thoughts:

A good reader pays attention to everything. The surface of the prose. The structure of the book. The tense. The point of view. Perhaps to those even before the characters. Then comes the setting. The story can often come last. (145)

For many, many readers the statement that ‘the story can often come last’ would be incomprehensible. It will not surprise you that for Susan Hill a good reader often rereads.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s comments had influenced Susan Hill, so I decided to look them up. This required a library reservation, which always makes me feel like a serious reader! It’s a big heavy book, fetched from Exeter Library Stack (whatever that means). Big heavy books also make me feel like a serious reader. I can be so facile.

Susan Hill’s reference was to Nabokov’s introductory lecture: Good Readers and Good Writers. What does Nabokov say makes a good reader? Well, he identifies first those who approach reading to support their emotions, to recall their own past, to identify with the characters. This, he says, is reading of a ‘comparatively lowly kind’ (4). His good reader, on the other hand, approaches the book with the willingness and the imagination to enter the world created by the writer.

We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece. … The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. (4-5)

And he remarks on the necessity of rereading to be a good reader, to appreciate the three facets of a good writer: magic, story and lesson. In the lectures he goes on to show how this is done by Charles Dickens in Bleak House and Jane Austen in Mansfield Park among others.

A good reader?

It seems that the good reader is one who pays attention to more than the story in a book, who pays attention to how the story is told. For many people this is more than they want from their reading, and that does not make them bad readers of course.

I think in the terms of the two writers referred to here, who are also prolific readers, I do not count as a very good reader. But I am working on it. And I intend to go on by studying the world-building of writers (and paying attention to it in my own writing) and I plan to do more rereading.

New Book by Harold Harvey 1920

And I think I will still leave space to read for the story, for comfort and also to read with that lowly kind of imagination that means I am an emotional reader in Nabokov’s terms.

I will also practice being aloof. Writers need loofs. (Old joke).

References

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books: a year of reading by Susan Hill (2017) Profile Books. A gift from a sister.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov edited by Fredson Bowers (1980) Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The library book.

 

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

So how would you respond to being told to remember that you must die? With anger, acceptance, agreement, curiosity about the speaker, avoidance, denial? The characters in Memento Mori by Muriel Spark react in ways that illuminate their lives and characters. They each receive a phone call. A voice merely says

Remember you must die.

With her sharp wit, sparkling style and genial good humour Muriel Spark leads us through the final months of her many characters, drawing less attention to the mystery of who makes the calls and becoming more concerned with their reactions to the calls.

This is my first contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. I look forward to reading more of Muriel Spark’s work in this anniversary year of her birth.

The story of Memento Mori

This novel is short, bizarre, almost macabre. Published in 1959 and set in the ‘50s in and around London, the story concerns a connected group of older people. Dame Lettie Colston (a philanthropist who behaves with no charity) has received phone calls commanding her – ‘Remember you must die’. Lettie does not wish to remember, and has reported the calls to the police. Her brother, Godfrey, says the caller must be a maniac. He is fairly detached about it until he receives his own call. His wife Charmian, a novelist, accepts the reminder. Other characters also receive the call: Alec Warner, who is researching gerontology, taking copious notes about the effects of aging on people, including himself; the poet, Percy Mannering, who can do nothing without being loud and shouty (including spending a windfall on an excessively long telegram about another poet).

In this novel the characters are living in their 70+ years as they did when they were younger – using and deceiving other people, being cruel, blaming, lying to and exploiting each other. They pursue vendettas and inheritances, try to get even, settle old scores, behave as badly as ever.

Miss Taylor, once Charmian Colston’s maid, now a resident of a hospital ward for old women (referred to as Grannies), has a theory about the calls. It will do.

‘In my belief,’ she said, ‘the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say. I don’t see, Dame Lettie, what you can do about it. If you don’t remember death, Death reminds you to do so. And if you can’t cope with the facts the next best thing is to go away for a holiday.’ (179)

Those that live as though they will never die are the most troubled by the phone calls. Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifesdtations of aging. Guy Leet, writing his memoirs, for example, is finding it hard going.

The laboriousness of the task resided in the physical, not the mental effort. His fingers worked slowly, clutched round the large barrel of his fountain pen … (185)

This is not a pleasant group of people. Miss Pettigrew is an evil, blackmailer and yet she achieves her goal of inheriting money through foul means. She has a stroke so is not able to enjoy it for long. In the end they all die, as we all do. We are reminded of this in the final pages, which list the fate of them all.

Muriel Spark

This was Muriel Spark’s third novel of the 22 she wrote. Her novels are very readable, mostly fairly short and written in a sharp style, but with depth. The focus of this novel could not be clearer, yet it is not preachy. We must acknowledge that we will die, not live as we did in our youth, when we could afford to image an endless future. Or go on holiday.

In a recent essay on her work in the Guardian Review Ali Smith quotes Muriel Spark and explains her wide reach and appeal.

Above all: “It is my first aim always to give pleasure.” This is how she described her raison d’etre as a writer, and to me she is one of the 20th-century writers most vitally, joyfully, seriously philosophically, aesthetically and politically engaged with the living materials of history, and with her own time, in a way that gives back to our time, and that will always give to readers no matter what time they’re embroiled in, whenever they read her.

Ali Smith also quotes her poem Author’s Ghosts, in which the ghosts creep back to update their texts. This is to notice that some books remain relevant. And Muriel Spark’s books have something important to say in our time, even if written more than 50 years ago, as Memento Mori. While we may live longer, on the whole, we see less of death in everyday life and we should all remember we will die.

I recently was given a copy of Jacob’s Room is full of Books by Susan Hill. She too admired Muriel Spark and makes several references to her style. Here’s an example of her wit, observation and lightness of touch from this novel. She is reporting the conversation of the Grannies in Miss Taylor’s ward and inserts this little grenade.

Mrs Reewes-Duncan, who claimed to have lived in a bungalow in former days, addressed Miss Valvona. (36)

I notice that both Ali Smith and Susan Hill are rereaders and this was my second reading of Memento Mori. I have mostly avoided rereading on the grounds that there is so much new to fill my reading hours, and I didn’t want to miss it. But now I am thinking that I don’t want to miss the pleasures that come with rereading. Expect more.

#ReadingMuriel2018

For March/April in this readalong I can choose between The Girls of Slender Means and The Mandelbaum Gate. I have copies of both. One would be a reread the other a first look. Now which to choose?

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark first published in 1959. I reread the Virago version. 226pp

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Photo Credit: Muriel Spark: thomas ford memorial library on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

 

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Books about books

Writers are told, ‘write about what you love!’ Here’s a list of all kinds of books about books, written by people who love them.

55 It's a book

1. It’s a Book! Lane Smith. A children’s book. Worried about children being attached to screens at the expense of the page? You wont be when you have read this. For the publisher’s trailer go here.

55 Eyre Aff

2. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Great fun, especially if you know the original. The Literary Tec, Tuesday Next, needs to straighten out a parallel universe. Reader, will she marry him? Nicely presented LA Times review here.

4. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. A series of enchanting essays about books, countering the trend ‘that books are so often written about as if they were toasters’. The author talked to Robert McCrum about her writing: you can find it here.

55 HE on the l

5. Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. She decided not to buy any books for a year and to immerse herself in those she already owned. A writer’s taste in books explored. Bloggers didn’t always like it but The Captive Reader did.

6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. A novel narrated by Death about a girl in Munich in the early ‘40s who steals books. A present from my niece.  Inevitably it’s been turned into a film.

55 If on a

7. If on a winter’s night a traveller … by Italo Calvino. A novelist’s novel that can be described as postmodern if you like that kind of thing. Each chapter is written in a different style, and linked by the idea of a particular book. You had to read it … David Mitchell, whose own work, such as Cloud Atlas, plays with form and interrupted narratives, paid tribute to this novel back in 2004 in the Guardian.

33 F Prose

8. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose, subtitled A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them, includes a chapter called Books to be read immediately. Help, I haven’t even heard of some of these. I’ve praised this book before in a post called Reading for Writers on this blog: here.

 

STOP PRESS: Just as I finished writing this post I have received two more books about books.

So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid, a present from my sister. It’s a provocative book about book production its economics and its meaning today.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, a library reservation. The author and his mother discuss life and books as her life comes to a close.

My late arrivals notwithstanding, please add your nominations for #9 & #10 to this list?

 

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