Alan Hollinghurst – The Swimming Pool Library

A holiday away from home requires at there to be at least some attempt to find literature that is appropriate to the location, it is a tried and tested approach to reading. Admittedly, it is a plan that I have only successfully executed in one previous location – partially reading Hans Fallada’s excellent ‘Alone in Berlin’ (recently a somewhat less good film) whilst staying near Checkpoint Charlie.

imageAn ‘all-tinclusive’ hotel holiday in Menorca proved somewhat challenging subject matter, but thinking slightly laterally Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ seemed appropriate – a book picked up at the Greenwich and Blackheath Amnesty International second hand book sale last autumn.

The novel is set in the summer of 1983 for William Beckwith a 25 year-old feckless and work shy narcissist ‘riding high on sex and self-esteem – it was my time, my grande époque.’ He is living on the early inheritance from his grandfather when cruising for sex in a public lavatory, Will saves the life of Charles Nantwich, an 83-year-old gay peer.

Nantwich asks Will to look at his diaries with a view to writing a biography, this juxtaposes the past criminalisation of homosexuality with Will’s considerably different experiences of early 1980s London.

imageCleverly and wittily told, the narrative sometimes drifts off into almost Sebaldian diversions with a flawed but always engrossing narrator. It was certainly better than the only other novel of Hollinghurst’s that I had read before – ‘The Stranger’s Child’, which had rather put me off his work. It seemed a novel of its time, set before HIV/AIDS had become widespread and at a time when attitudes to gays much more hostile and coming out still hard for many.

Was it the best of my holiday reading? Sadly, not; that accolade goes to the subtly told tale of bereavement and developing a new life beyond just coping
Colm Tóibín’s delightful ‘Nora Webster.’

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Colm Tóibín – ‘Nora Webster’

Set in late 1960s Ireland against the backdrop of the growth of imagethe Civil Rights movement, ‘Nora Webster’ is about one woman’s loss of a husband, Maurice, a well respected teacher and member of the local community. It also deals with the impact that his death had on their children, particularly the two younger sons. Several of the interviews given at the time of the publication suggest that it was partially shaped by the death of Tóibín’s own father.

imageDeath, loss and the beautifully observed small town Ireland feature strongly, they are well trodden paths for Tóibín – featuring in some of his other novels, notably ‘Brooklyn.’ As the flow of visitors and people stopping her in the street to ‘pay their respects’ reduces, Nora begins to find a voice for herself and a new confidence through classical music as the beautiful, well-paced novel progresses.

In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

Austin A40 mkIThe detail of the Austin A40 (picture Wikipedia Commons) driven by Nora brought back memories of my own youth – trips from the Nottinghamshire coalfield to the south west of Cornwall with five on board, piled high with carefully polythene sheet wrapped ancient cases, precariously balanced on a roof rack of uncertain stability. I digress though ……

Tóibín has a delightful reading voice, which you can almost ‘hear’ in the narrative; it is a voice that I first came across reading a short story by Sylvia Townsend Warner on the excellent New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The YouTube video below has him reading some extracts from Nora Webster as well as discussing it.

 

 

Literary Lewisham – Graham Swift’s Last Orders

One from my ‘other’ blog that has some overlap here.

Running Past

Running Past occasionally covers some of the writers that have formed part of the Lewisham’s literary heritage.  This has included some with clear links such as CS ForesterDavid Lodge and Robert Browning, plus a few where the links are a little more tenuous – including Thomas Dermody – a Lewisham resident only in is his dying days and burial at St Mary’s Church.

Graham Swift was born in Lewisham, and, if my memory has served me correctly, in a nursing home on Woolstone Road; this was based on an information board that used to be at Kirkdale Bookshop.  Certainly, Swift was born on the borders of Catford and Sydenham.

There are South London settings to many of his novels – his debut novel, the wonderful ‘The Sweet Shop Owner’ featured both Upper Sydenham (perhaps then home to his maternal grandparents) and Wandsworth; ‘Shuttlecock’ was set…

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Barbara Kingsolver – Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints, ‘Pigs in Heaven’ is no exception to this literary ‘rule.’ The novel is a essentially a sequel to the earlier ‘The Bean Trees,’ where a child is deposited on the front seat of a Taylor Greer’s Volkswagen in Oklahoma, close to a Cherokee reservation, by a Native American who immediately disappears.  Taylor essentially keeps driving until her car breaks down in 1000 kilometres away in Arizona.

pigs-in-heavenRoll the lives on three years from ‘The Bean Trees’ and, at a visit to the Hoover Dam, the ‘daughter’ who Taylor names Turtle due to her grip, notices someone fall into a drainage channel.  A man with learning disabilities is eventually rescued and mother and ‘daughter’ appear on ‘Oprah’ as a result. One of the viewers is a lawyer from the Cherokee Nation who notices a Native American daughter with a mother that appeared not to be.   The lawyer starts to dig a little deeper and Taylor, worried that she might lose Turtle, flees.  A poverty-stricken road trip with cheap motels and worse jobs ensues which eventually ends up back at the Native American reserve at Heaven, Oklahoma.

Don’t expect a fast moving plot, it isn’t Kingsolver’s style – the narrative is subtle, thoughtful and thought-provoking; the real power of the writing lies in the warmth and depth of the characters, mostly women, women who have been left or have had to leave:

Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.

There are men, but they are flawed and almost incidental to the plot:

She married him two years ago for love, or so she thought, and he’s a good enough man but a devotee of household silence. His idea of marriage is to spray WD-40 on anything that squeaks. … The quiet only subsides when Harland sleeps and his tonsils make up for lost time.

The final denouement is possibly a little contrived and leaves perhaps too many loose ends – it was probably deliberate, life doesn’t always have tidy endings, novels shouldn’t either. Perhaps part of the reasoning may have been leaving the door just slightly ajar, to allow the potential for developing the characters elsewhere.

Dorothy Richardson – The Interim

I have written about Richardson’s work a couple of times before, both here, in relation to The Tunnel and in my other blog, Running Past, about the first volume of Pilgrimage, and particularly Pointed Roofs. Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately although were subsequently brought together in four volumes by Virago; they describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised fictional self, Miriam Henderson. The Interim is the fifth novel in the tridecology and sees Richardson’s fictional alter ego still in the lodging house in Bloomsbury, still working as a dental assistant.

PilgrimageIf The Tunnel can be seen as a book about exploring London and exploring ideas, The Interim is perhaps more about exploring people – observing those passing through the lodging house where Miriam has an eyrie-like room in the eves, overlooking the roofs of the city. It is a masterclass in people-watching, perhaps only bettered by Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Slaves of Solitude’, written 25 years later in a very similar setting.  Possibly a lodging house is a setting that ideally lends itself to the observation of others.

The focus on the people though doesn’t mean a move away from some sublime descriptions

Windows were being pushed open up and down the street.  The new year changed to a soft moonlit breath stealing through the darkness, brimming over the faces at the doors and windows, touching their brows with fingers of dawn, sending fresh soothing healing fingers in amongst their hair.  Eleven … twelve.  Across the rushing scale of St Pancras bells came a fearful clangour.  Bicycle bells, cab whistles, dinner bells, the banging of tea-trays and gongs.  Of course.  New Year.  It must be a Bloomsbury custom.  She had had her share in a Bloomsbury New Year.  Rather jolly … rowdy; but jolly in that sort of way.  She could hear the Baileys laughing and talking on their doorstep.  A smooth firm foreign voice flung out a shapely little fragment of song.  Miriam watched its outline.  It repeated itself in her mind with the foreign voice and personality of the singer.  She drew back into her room.

The Interim was published in 1920 but much of it was serialised the year before in the ‘Little Review’, an American journal which promoted modernist writing set up by Margaret Anderson with links to the likes of Ezra Pound.  ‘Little Review’ had begun serialising ‘Ulysses’ in 1918 an continued until 1921 when the US Post Office refused to distribute, claiming it was obscene; there was a subsequent trial which found against ‘Ulysses’ and the ‘Little Review.’

It is apt that the work Richardson and Joyce appear side-by-side, both were ground breaking, but is seems strange that Richardson’s work has been largely forgotten – she deserves a much wider audience.

 

Helen Dunmore – Exposure

Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite modern authors, while she won the Orange Prize in 1996 for ‘A Spell of Winter’ she frequently appears not to get the attention that her wonderful, carefully crafted prose deserves.

exposure‘Exposure’  received generally good reviews at the start of 2016, but in the normal run of events it would not have been a novel I would have not read yet, the paper-back and paper-back priced, electronic editions are not yet out.  But I stumbled across it at the fantastic Blackheath and Greenwich Amnesty International second-hand book fair – held biannually in June and November.

The plot treads familiar ground, both in terms of the Dunmore returning to issues of the Cold War but a pioneering children’s novel that most will be familiar with, even if only via the film version, Edith Nesbit’s Railway Children.  By a pleasant co-incidence Nesbit lived for a while about 100 metres further north along Dartmouth Grove from where the novel was purchased.

The setting isn’t the Edwardian England of Nesbit but a London of 50 years later – a London that, despite the proclamation of Macmillan that Britons had ‘never had it so good’ in 1957, seemed to still be suffering from some of the privations of the early post war years and was ‘home’ to CND demonstrations as the post-war powers began a nuclear arms build-up.  The gloomy autumnal setting added to the rather melancholy feel to the Dunmore’s London.

Unlike the ‘Railway Children’, while some of the tale is told through the eyes of the three children, the narrative is through is generally through the perspectives of all the main adult characters.  As was the case in both ‘The Siege’ and ‘The Betrayal’ there is a real depth and warmth to main female character, Lily, the German Jewish émigré wife of the falsely accused Simon Callington. Dunmore fills Lilly’s life with a vast array of period household detail – much of it probably gleaned from her own upbringing.

Dunmore deftly flits from the 1950s to earlier decades, from character to character, and delightfully evokes both the detail of Muswell Hill as well as the isolated cottage on the coastal fringes of the former Kent coalfield. The twists and turn of the complex plot is subtly underplayed as she creates an excellent novel – it is so, so much more than the adult pastiche of the Edwardian children’s story it could have easily become.

Dorothy Richardson – The Tunnel

It was writing about Dorothy Richardson in my other blog that made me think about starting Unreliable Narratives.  I had been attracted to Richardson via Louisa Treger’s excellent ‘The Lodger’ – a fictional retelling of part of the Richardson’s life, particularly her affair with HG Wells.  The post in Running Past had looked at Richardson’s final Pointed Roofs in Beckenham, but was, in reality, an opportunity to write about Richardson’s fiction.

Dorothy Richardson is the almost forgotten pioneer of stream of consciousness writing in English, predating the internal monologues of Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (serialised from 1918) by several years.

Pilgrimage, is effectively a series of 13 autobiographical short novels which were published separately, although were subsequently brought together in four volumes.  They describe the life of Richardson’s thinly disguised alter-ego, Miriam Henderson.

Pilgrimage‘The Tunnel’, part of the second volume of Pilgrimage, is the fourth in the triskaidecalogy (or tridecology, if you prefer) and is a real coming of age novel, both as an author and for her semi-fictionalised self.  ‘The Tunnel’ marks a growing confidence from Richardson as a writer, a writer who has honed her skills in terms of her narrative style and in her description and is using them to explore ideas, explore her own consciousness, and to explore her new urban environment. There were hints of the former in the closing pages of the previous novel in the series, ‘Honeycomb.’

The coming of age as a person sees Miriam/Dorothy move from being a live-in governess to rich children to becoming a dental assistant on Harley Street, living in Bloomsbury lodgings. There is an explosion of new ideas and experiences from reading, from lectures, and from the people she meets – including a thinly disguised HG Wells.  The novel explores her nascent feminism

They invent a legend to put the blame for the existence of humanity on woman and, if she wants to stop it, they talk about the wonders of civilisation and the sacred responsibilities of motherhood.  They can’t have it both ways.  They also say women are not logical.

The highlights for me, though, are the descriptions of the Edwardian central London which are really brought to life

The trees in Endsleigh Gardens came along, gently waving their budding branches in bright sunshine.  The colour of the gardens was so intense that the sun must be going to set behind Euston station.  The large houses moved steadily behind the gardens, in blocks, bright white, with large quiet streets opening their vistas in between the blocks, leading to green freshness and then safely on down into Soho.  The long square came to an end.  The shrub-trimmed base of St. Pancras church came heavily nearer and stopped.  As Miriam got off the bus, she watched its great body in clear sharp outline against the blue.  Its clock was booming the hour across the gardens though the houses and down into the squares.  On this side its sound was broken up by the narrow roar of the Euston Road and the clamour coming right and left from the two stations.

It is a fantastic novel, beautifully written novel, one of my favourite’s using internal monologues.