Monday, 29 January 2018
Recently I learned on Facebook the term 'joyreading': taking a book from a friend's shelves and becoming immersed. This was just such a find, on a recent stay with a good friend. I dipped in, was soon hooked and asked to bring the copy home when I left.
Till then I'd had no idea that the admirable Joan Aiken - famed for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and many other highly-acclaimed children's titles - had produced a group of books based on Jane Austen novels. This one, subtitled A Novel to Complement EMMA by Jane Austen, published in 1990, fills in and elaborates on the life of the young woman described in some editions as 'the second heroine' of Emma.
In the first and much longer of the two sections we follow Jane Fairfax through childhood and adolescence, to her prolonged stay in London with Colonel Campbell and his family, briefly to the West Indies and back, to the point where she returns to Highbury and we join the well-known events of Emma. The seeds of resentment between Emma Woodhouse and her less privileged companion are sown early: the two girls share a piano tutor who finds Jane far superior in both talent and application. Jane - dressed in hand-me-downs from Emma and her sister Isabella - becomes a favourite of Emma's mother (who soon dies in childbirth) and also of Mr Knightley. However, while Emma looks forward to a life of comfort and indulgence, Jane will be expected - as we know - to earn her living as a governess.
In Emma, Jane is often seen as frail and nervous, susceptible to sore throats and chills as well as frequent headaches (in Aiken's hands she's clearly a migraine sufferer); but here she is spirited and often outspoken during her time with the Campbells, taking a protective role towards the Colonel's anxious daughter, Rachel. In London and during an extended trip to Weymouth we meet character types familiar in Jane Austen: vapid young men, spoilt and coquettish young women, elderly grande dames and brusque military men. Less typically, Mrs Campbell is a social reformer, much preoccupied with campaigns for penal reform and against the slave trade. Like most of the authors now drawing on Austen, Joan Aiken gives a wider sense of England's social gradations and its colonial transactions than we find in the originals.
Aiken cleverly embellishes Jane Austen's details of Frank Churchill's circumstances and those of the Campbells and their Irish friends the Dixons - supplying plausible reasons for Jane's embarrassment when she returns to the limited Highbury circle and is taunted by both Emma and Frank about her association with Mr Dixon and the gift of a piano. Along the way, readers familiar with Jane Austen will appreciate echoes not only from Emma but from other novels too. Jane receives a proposal of marriage from a boorish young man convinced that he has only to ask to be instantly and gratefully accepted, recalling both Mr Elton and Pride and Prejudice's Mr Collins. Dreaming that Mr Knightley will one day notice her, Jane imagines him finding her with a sprained ankle on a hillside, like Willoughy and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.
When we reach Part Two, readers of Emma will feel thoroughly at home at Highbury as we move through a series of social occasions: the dance at the Crown, strawberry-picking at Donwell Abbey, the disastrous picnic at Box Hill. To Jane, Highbury and its endless gossip are dull and parochial, something the full-of-herself Emma doesn't realise. We bustle through this section rather quickly, but Aiken focuses our attention on Frank Churchill and his flirtation with Emma - is he taking deception too far, and enjoying it too much? The reticence of the formerly livelier Jane is made plausible by her dislike of concealment and her resentment of Emma, now a rival, which she tries to suppress.
I've recently read Jo Baker's Longbourn (surely one of our guests will choose to review that excellent novel here before long?) which similarly takes a sideways look at a Jane Austen work rather than continuing the main character's story. Both are in their different ways highly enjoyable. While Jo Baker favours a sensuous, descriptive vein more reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte, Joan Aiken imitates Jane Austen's style with considerable success. Punctuation, cadences, vocabulary and speech patterns are so skilfully emulated that for much (though not all) of the book it's possible to imagine that this really is Jane Austen. She is particularly good at the condensed, character-revealing monologues that typify Mrs Elton, Miss Bates and, here, her own invention, the snobbish Mrs Fitzroy: "So very odd to bring in a child from outside - such an atrocious mistake! - unknown origins, probably no better than they should be - Fairfax all very well, but Bates - what sort of a name was Bates? - child just what might be expected from such a mongrel background - encouraging Rachel to insubordination and all manner of foolish nonsense - music? of what importance, pray, was music?"
This was an unexpected treat, and now I'm eager to see what Joan Aiken has made of Mansfield Revisited.
Jane Fairfax is published by Gollancz.
Monday, 22 January 2018
I've always loved short stories, can't get enough of them, and I have collections of stories from all the big hitters of the genre plus every imaginable other kind of story ranging from the sublime to the execrable. It's hard to choose a favourite short story writer but H.E. Bates has to be near the top for me. I'm not mad on Bates's longer fiction and I can't stand the Pop Larkins but as a short story writer Bates holds me in a state of wonder. It's not just his evocations of rural England in the first half of the last century, his beautiful prose writing, his empathy with nature, his characterisation or even his humanity, apparent on every page, that set him apart for me. It's something else that he does with his stories, and I come back to the word 'wonder'. Where a Maupassant or a Saki might kill us with a twist, Bates's stories almost always turn on what Anthony Burgess called 'a small epiphany': a moment of revelation or transcendence at the spiritual apex of the story.
The Cowslip Field, the first story in Bates's collection entitled The Watercress Girl, is a good example. A small boy is being taken to the cowslip field by his guardian, a young woman called Pacey. He likes Pacey. She's kind and good humoured and she doesn't mind his leg-pulling about her country dialect. She patiently answers his questions, joshing with him about what ants do all day and why the sky doesn't fall down on us, and she doesn't even mind when he asks if she's got a young man. 'Oh, they're like plums on a tree,' she says. 'They all want to marry me.' We know that's not true. It's been made clear from the start, through the eyes of the boy, that Pacey is no looker. She's small, dumpy, has a mole on her cheek, and she wears outlandish glasses and a big felt hat. They make their way to the field, pick cowslips together, and thread them into chains, his much smaller than hers, then, for the first time, he notices that she has taken off her hat and has a huge wodge of hair rolled up 'like a heavy sausage'. He asks her to let it down so he can place a cowslip crown on her head. She doesn't want to but he persists. Let Bates take it from here…..
'She started to unpin the sausage at the back of her head, putting the black hairpins one by one into her mouth. Then slowly, like an unrolling blind, the massive coil of her hair fell down across her neck and shoulders and back, until it reached her waist. He had never seen hair so long, or so much of it, and he stared at it with wide eyes as it uncoiled itself, black and shining against the golden cowslip field.
'That's it, 'Pacey said, 'have a good stare.'
'Now I've got to put the crown on you,' he said.
He knelt by Pacey's lap and reached up, putting his cowslip chain on the top of her head. All the time he did this Pacey sat very still, staring towards the sun.
'Now yours,' he said.
He reached up, draping Pacey's own longer necklace across her hair and shoulders. The black hair made the cowslips shine more deeply golden than before and the flowers in turn brought out the lights in the hair. Pacey sat so still and staring as he did all this that he could not tell what she was thinking and suddenly, without asking, he reached up and took off her spectacles.
A strange, transformed woman he did not know, with groping blue eyes, a crown on her head and a necklace locking the dark mass of her hair, stared back at him….'
…….and there's the small epiphany, the moment of wonder: for the boy, for Pacey, for us. It only lasts a few seconds before Pacey remembers her modesty, mutters something, and restores her appearance to its former state. They joke a little more, then head for home, laughing, having fun, but somehow, in a subtle way, changed. And the story ends. H.E. Bates showing us how it's done.
The Watercress Girl is published by Bloomsbury.
Monday, 15 January 2018
I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson and I’ve found her books getting better and better, even after the high standard set by Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She’s uncompromising, mind-blowingly inventive, writes whip-tight wry prose, is mistress of conjuring a whole character in a few clever brushstrokes and tells a cracking story. She’s also a very nice woman: I met her when the Society of Authors in Scotland had a research trip to a police station. We made it into her next book; I forget which one but if you come across a group of authors eating pink wafer biscuits in a police station, picture me there.
I don’t know what you call a book which is neither sequel nor prequel but runs alongside another book but let’s say that A God in Ruins is a paralleloquel to Life After Life, the extraordinary novel where Ursula is born and dies again and again and again and again, imagining very different results of a series of tiny events. (I had a similar idea in Wasted – I did it first but Atkinson obviously did it rather better!)
A God in Ruins focuses on the life of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother. Teddy was a bomber pilot in WW2 and I honestly don’t know how Atkinson was able to describe in such visceral detail the physicality of the cockpit. But this is mostly a book about what happens after war ends, the human ruins that it leaves. Or, crucially, that it might leave.
The back cover describes the book as “deliriously funny and emotionally devastating”. It’s certainly the latter but the former? I have a high laughter threshold, admittedly, but even I found my lips twisting with the humour, in the same paragraph as my heart was being ripped to pieces. Atkinson is searingly witty, that’s for sure.
For me, the emotional devastation comes mostly from the wrecked character of Viola, Teddy’s daughter. She behaves appallingly; she’s cold, snide, unpleasant to her children, unlikeable. “What kind of a mother doesn’t see her child for a decade?” she asks of herself. Late in the book she says, “Her excuse…was that she had been exiled from love after her mother died.” As Viola had been six when her mother died of cancer, this would have been entirely plausible if it weren’t that she hadn’t been likeable before her mother died. Much later, she wants to start again, although “there are no second chances”, and then she would “learn to love”. She does have a second chance and may or may not succeed in taking it. Actually, the extraordinary twist at the end gives her simultaneously another chance and yet no chance at all.
Viola has a better excuse for her damaged heart. She knows something about her mother’s appalling death – though not, crucially, the whole story. Neither Teddy nor Viola knows what the other knows, and that lack of knowledge is at the novel’s and Viola’s devastating core.
Not many books are “unputdownable” for me nowadays, with my easily-distracted mind, but this one was. The way Atkinson draws the reader in to a complex and cracking plot and then plays mind-games and emotional croquet is some kind of genius.
A God in Ruins is published by Transworld.
Monday, 8 January 2018
Guest review by Michelle Lovric: THE HISTORY OF CALIPH VATHEK by William Beckford. "Enough Gothic to give ten cathedrals indigestion...'
I bring you The History of the Caliph Vathek by William Beckford, an eccentric personage who has a habit of haunting my own historical novels. I’m currently very interested in caliphs and gaiours. So was Beckford. And so was Byron, who acknowledged Vathek as his Bible. In fact, I suspect the poet of identifying with the self-indulgent eponymous hero. Other writers with debts to Vathek include H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.
The picture at the foot of this page shows my own treasured copy, printed in 1887. It comes with endpaper advertising for Schweitzer’s Cocoatina and Linen Collars, Cuffs and Shirts by Robinson & Cleaver, Belfast. Before reviewing, I checked that Vathek’s still available in various print editions and on Kindle. Appropriately, my edition lived for ten years in Venice, where Beckford himself suffered some misadventures and enjoyments. My book was recently repatriated to London. So I’ve been rereading it, and finding more of interest than I ever did before.
In today’s context, what do we make of Vathek’s plot, in which the protagonist’s willful rejection of Islam’s core values leads to unspeakable atrocity against the innocent and endless torment in Hell for the protagonist himself? Meanwhile, Vathek’s stark storyline is rigged out in enough Gothic ornament to give ten cathedrals indigestion.
Beckford claimed to have written the work (in French) in a single sleepless sitting of three days and two nights). The year: 1782. Beckford was twenty-two, a febrile individual reputed the richest in England, gripped by the prevailing fashion for Orientalism. The previous Christmas he’d collaborated with the set painter Philip James de Loutherbourg to produce a lavish orientalist entertainment. Vathek was inspired by that work. But the book also shows the influence of the new literary Gothic, as epitomised in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, with its relentless parade of bizarre and sustained fantasy, terror, direful secrets, abominations, decadence, corruption and sacrifice of the young, graveyards, bodies and the full catalogue of gloomy, soaring architecture, from towers to castles (on earth and in hell).
An English edition of Vathek appeared in 1786 as An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript. Beckford’s name was not initially attached to it.
Beckford’s narrator adopts a mannered, arch story-telling voice that does not waver, no matter how many mutilations or excesses it describes. The story runs as a continuous narrative, like an all-night tale spun round a fire. Beckford does not attempt much interiority in his characters, preferring to describe their deeds and their effect on others, dwelling with a kind of distanced tongue-in-cheek pleasure on the dark, the ludicrous, the painful and the depraved.
Vathek is young when he becomes the ninth caliph of the Abassides, but his personality is already well formed. He’s greedy and sensual: with a ‘liquorish’ taste for ‘good dishes and young damsels’. He’s also clever, curious about science, particularly astronomy. He builds a tower with 11,000 steps for studying the stars. He creates five extravagant pleasure palaces, one for each of the senses. Vathek tolerates no disagreement. The fury in one of his eyes can – and does – kill. His eunuchs pinch his concubines until they bleed. His mother, Carathis, is one of the great psychopathic grotesques of all literature, a bloodthirsty grave-hungry woman riddled with evil, who facilitates her son’s every hellish act and desire. Her familiars are ‘fifty female negroes, mute and blind of the right eye’ who squint ‘in the most amiable manner from the only eye they had’. The laboratory of Carathis is filled with mummies, the oil of venomous serpents, rhinoceros’ horns and ‘a thousand other horrible rarities’, procured so that ‘she might one day enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers to which she had ever been passionately attached.’ Her camel goes by the name of Alboufaki and can infallibly scent a graveyard.
Curiosity leads Vathek to buy some sabres from an ugly man who purports to be a merchant from India. (He is, in fact a demonic Jinn). The sabres glow with unreadable words. Vathek’s feared evil eye fails to extract their secret from the merchant, who escapes. Scholars struggle interpret the sabres’ text. Eventually it becomes clear that the messages are unstable: the swords yield new words on each reading.
The Jinn, named ‘the Giaour’ (infidel/blasphemer), tempts Vathek to renounce Islam. If he does so, the Giaour promises to lead him to ‘the palace of the subterranean fire’ where Vathek shall become master of unimaginable treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans and the talismans that rule over the world.
It’s no great moral struggle for a spoilt voluptuary like Vathek to give up the Islamic tenets of prayer, fasting and charity. But the Giaour also requires Vathek to sacrifice fifty young boys. The Caliph tricks his nobles into sending him their adored offspring. Once they realize the fate of their children, the nobles revolt. Vathek is rescued only by his mother and his vizier. But the full blood-price is not yet paid. Next Carathis and her son use her armoury of venomous unguents to create an explosion of light at the top of the astronomy tower. Loyal subjects run up the 11,000 steps to save their caliph, only to be sacrificed to the Jinn.
Now there’s dangerous journey to be undertaken to Istakhar by the caliph and his opulent household. After attacks by wild animals, they’re invited to rest in the by mountain-dwelling holy dwarves who try to re-convert Vathek to Islam. The caliph is persuaded to stay by the local Emir, Fakreddin. Not least of the attractions of Islam is the Emir's beautiful daughter Nouronihar, whom Vathek is easily able to lure away from her effeminate ‘bauble’ of a fiancé with a promise of ‘the Carbuncle of Giamschid’.
Mohammed himself beholds Vathek’s excesses with exasperation. Mohammed receives a request from a good Genie. Can he try to save Vathek from his eternal damnation? Taking the form of a flute-playing shepherd, the Genie offers dire warning about Eblis, ruler of Hell. Vathek may be saved, the shepherd tells him, if he destroys his tower, casts his mother out of power, and becomes once more a continent, respectful Muslim. He refuses.
Vathek and Nouronihar arrive in the underworld. But they soon discover that the palace of flames offers not endless wealth and power but eternal torment. Even Carathis is unable to save them. All three begin to feel the pain of remorse. Their hearts begin to burn, literally, with eternal fire.
It is partly the terminology and its deployment that make this book so interesting. A ‘Caliph’ is the ‘Caliphate’s’ head of state. It can also be the title for the leader of the Islamic Ummah, or international Islamic nation/borderless homeland. In this context, Vathek becomes a kind of Everyman. Jinn are also part of Islamic creation mythology, predating the invention of mankind. Allah conjured them out of ‘smokeless fire’. Eblis, or Iblis, is Islam’s first and foremost Jinn, expelled from Paradise for disobedience. In the Qur’an, he more often appears as ‘Shaytan’, similar not just in sound to the Christian and Hebrew ‘Satan’.
How to explain Vathek? I can detect faint threads of autobiography. There’s the feasting, for example. Beckford’s father, twice mayor of London, ‘gave very sumptuous dinners that made epochs in the life of feeding men’, according to the introduction to my 1887 edition, which also suggests, perhaps facetiously, that the hellish torment of perpetual fire in Vathek’s breast might have been inspired by the young Beckford witnessing or experiencing postprandial heartburn. The excesses of his father’s household, might also explain the number of exotic luxuries that sustain Beckford’s caliph – apricots for the Isle of Kirmith, muslin from ‘the Irak of Babylon’, chintz from Masulipatam, flagons of Shiraz wine, amber comfits, porcelain vases of snow.
The scant regard for human life? The deaths reckoned in tens and hundreds? The Beckford wealth derived from slave labour on the family’s Jamaican estates.
The loving descriptions of the delicious bodies of the fifty boys sacrificed? And of the beauty of Nouronihar’s effeminate fiancé? (‘When Gulchenrouz appeared in the dress of his cousin he seemed to be feminine than even herself …’) Beckford had at least two passions for noble youths, one of which was outed in the British press.
The early ascent of Vathek to the throne? Beckford’s father died when he was just a boy, leaving him ancestral acres at Fonthill, Wiltshire, an income of £100,000 a year and a million in cash.
The Jinn (spirits of smokeless fire)? Beckford himself was described as ‘all air and fire’ by a family friend who uselessly advised his mother to keep the Arabian Nights out of his sight.
The Palaces of the Five Senses? In Fonthill Abbey, Beckford created a Gothic seat for himself and his extraordinary art collection. Beckford’s sense of the exquisite was perhaps the mostly finely honed and most indulged of all his senses. Hearing must have been important too. Beckford, who had been tutored by Mozart, composed music.
The 11,000 step tower? Fonthill’s soaring spire collapsed (in the dead of a winter night, of course). By that time Beckford had moved to Bath, where he built another great folly of a tower.
Vathek’s anti-pilgrimage can find parallel in Beckford’s own extensive Grand Tour, during which he managed some colourful scrapes.
The holy, righteous dwarves? Beckford employed a pair of dwarves, gorgeously garbed, to open the 40-feet-high Gothic doors at Fonthill.
Vathek’s a cautionary tale on the same cruelty scale as Struwwelpeter. But how do we properly account for a decadent young English aristocrat, a bisexual, becoming an apparent apologist for pious Islam?
That, I cannot piece together coherently.
I can only suggest that you take a look.
The History of Caleph Vathek is published by Pinnacle Press.
Monday, 1 January 2018
Jane’s best-selling debut, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen by Richard and Judy as one of 100 Books of the Decade. Her novel, Gillespie & I, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards. Jane’s work is published in 20 territories. Sugar Money is her third novel.
This was probably the most enjoyable book I read last year. It was my first Wolitzer novel - but it certainly won’t be the last.
The Wife is a provocative, satirical account of a marriage – more particularly, the flawed marriage between clever, diffident Joan Castleman and her narcissistic husband Joe, a successful writer. Joan helped Joe to become famous, sacrificing her own career for his. But there are secrets in this marriage. I was hooked from the first paragraph:
“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-five thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage, I could have said, but why ruin everything right now? Here we were in first-class splendor, tentatively separated from anxiety; there was no turbulence and the sky was bright, and somewhere among us, possibly, sat an air marshal in dull traveler’s disguise, perhaps picking at a little dish of oily nuts or captivated by the zombie prose of the in-flight magazine. Drinks had already been served before take-off, and we were both frankly bombed, our mouths half-open, our heads tipped back. Women in uniform carried baskets up and down the aisles like a sexualized fleet of Red Riding Hoods.”
This opening encapsulates most of what I love about The Wife. Not just the powerful hook – she’s going to leave him – but the stunning prose; the wit and humour; the incisive observations of contemporary life.
Joan and Joe are flying to Helsinki, where Joe is to be awarded a prestigious literary prize. Over the course of the novel - while they are being feted in Finland in the run-up to the ceremony - Joan revisits their lives together. Back in the 50s, she was Joe’s creative-writing student; he was her (married) teacher. He left his first wife for her but it turns out that Joe is fundamentally insecure and self-absorbed, only interested in himself and his writing career. He neglected their children while they were growing up and Joan ended up devoting herself to him, losing her sense of self in the process. However, as we learn, Joan is entirely responsible for her own loss of identity.
There is a secret at the heart of this feminist parable which is revealed only towards the end. I won’t give anything away - although readers may guess the truth at some earlier stage, as I did. However, even if one does figure out what’s going on behind the scenes, this doesn’t really detract from the overall joy of this scintillating novel.
Writing this little review has made me hungry to read more of Wolitzer’s work, so I have just purchased The Ten Year Nap, her 2009 novel about stay-at-home mothers, which I’m now impatient to read. I do hope that this snapshot of The Wife will encourage readers of Writers Review to discover the brilliant Meg Wolitzer for themselves.
The Wife is published by Vintage.