Thursday, 31 May 2012

Neverwhere group read - week 2

Sadly, time constraints mean that this group read is my only contribution to Once Upon a Time Challenge  this year. So I can't resist using one of the challenge's delightful buttons for this week's post. Isn't this little fox prince just a darling? And it's still been a huge pleasure re-reading Neverwhere, even if it's hard to fit it in around work and trying to make some impact on the much-neglected garden. 

Here are Carl's questions for week 2 and my answers. There will be spoilers here.

1.  Chapter 6 begins with Richard chanting the mantra, "I want to go home".  How do you feel about Richard and his reactions at this point to the unexpected adventure he finds himself on?

Poor Richard, he's a nice young man and there's such a lot to deal with in London Below. By the beginning of Chapter 6 he's honestly not doing too well - if Door hadn't come back to rescue him I wouldn't give much for his chances, but if he'd leapt in and starting behaving as though he was comfortable with the situation I think he'd be a much less likeable person. And would probably have managed to get himself killed within a very short time. So although he's being a bit of a wimp, I think that's okay. And, as we see, he begins to grow up quite quickly after the Ordeal - I guess that's been the problem, in fact - he's never really needed to grow up until he finds himself in London Below. People don't seem to need to, nowadays, until they face something in their lives that precipitates it - and in Richard's case, Jessica certainly wasn't encouraging him to - she was much too happy being in control.

2.  The Marquis de Carabas was even more mysterious and cagey during the first part of this week's reading.  What were your reactions to him/thoughts about him as you followed his activities?

I am certainly feeling more sympathetically towards him now he's suffering at the hands of Messrs Croup and Vandemar, but whether I should be ... I still don't know about that. But right now he's the underdog, and I always warm to them.

3.  How did you feel about the Ordeal of the Key?

Richard comes out of it well, at last, and we're all proud of him. And he's gained some respect from Door and Hunter, which he really needs. It must have been difficult, I think, to write the ordeal, because it's not, in itself, very frightening to the reader - to see the terror in it makes a big demand on your imagination. You've got to be ready to really immerse yourself in what Richard's going through, and to think about it, for the impact to be real to you.

It's interestingly topical, too: at the time when Neverwhere was written homeless people were very noticeable in London - they are less so now, which probably reflects aggressive policing rather than any improvement in the lot of the poorest members of society. They are still pretty evident in other UK cities and it becomes necessary - uncomfortably - to ignore them to a large extent, but even as you ignore them, if you have any imagination at all, there's still a feeling of "there but for the grace of God..." and I guess that's what drove Gaiman to write the scene in those precise terms. It demonstrates what a humane writer he is, while being a good bit of storytelling...

4.  This section of the book is filled with moments.  Small, sometimes quite significant, moments that pass within a few pages but stick with you.  What are one or two of these that you haven't discussed yet that stood out to you, or that you particularly enjoyed.

They are elegant little vignettes, aren't they, that Gaiman is so good at - reminiscent of those very short stories in Fragile Things. My head is full of pictures: dining on the platform with the Lady Serpentine as the train rushes past - I get a feeling of such loneliness from that, without being sure why; the Earl quoting Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is another of those timeless moments, reminding you that time behaves strangely here; Jessica's exhibition being about angels - so there's synchronicity, too.

5.  Any other things/ideas that you want to talk about from this section of the book? 

Only one thing, I think: this is really quite a short book, but it's so stuffed with images and little details that catch your attention as you pass  - like the one about the Earl's poetry sounding like Anglo-Saxon. It's so economical, but adds so many extra layers of meaning just in those one or two lines. It goes back to what I said in week one about mythology - Gaiman plays on both our deep mythologies, about angels and talking animals and bogeymen, and on the more recent ones, the urban myths which tap into and become entangled with the deeper ones. He has the art of taking something straightforward and imbuing it with layers of meaning - for the willing reader this can turn what looks like a simple story into a deeply enriching experience.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Mariana by Monica Dickens - Classics Challenge

Published 1940

I'm sneaking this in at the last minute as a contribution to the Classics Challenge. In her May prompt Katharine asks: 

What literary movement is the prose or poetry you're reading from? What are the values or ideals of the movement? Name other writers of the movement.

I've addressed the question rather obliquely, but I think (I hope!) adequately - I didn't have a lot of time but I did want to contribute, because I've missed several months.

It also counts as a contribution to my own Century of Books.

Here's a book which fits comfortably into its genre, except that the author wouldn't remotely have considered herself to be writing a genre novel. Because it's very much a representative of that early twentieth-century phenomenon, the middlebrow: those endlessly interesting uneventful novels about little people and little things, the kind in which we see ourselves and our daily concerns mirrored and discover how we might ourselves deal with life's smaller vicissitudes and failures. If the broad sweep of life and death, war and peace is encountered here, it's at the domestic level, and is more likely to be a complaint about the servant problem during wartime than the death of a loved one, although many of these quiet books have moments of great poignancy. Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels written during the Second World War tell us a great deal about the drudgery and bleakness about life on the home front, with fear for husbands, sons and lovers a constant shadow, yet the women in the main move briskly and cheerfully through their days, reserving their anxieties for the moments when they are alone - and even then, refusing to indulge them.

Mariana is a coming of age novel. Its heroine, Mary Shannon, is first seen living alone with her dog on the Essex marshes, "brooding" while her husband is at sea - she's precisely the opposite of the Thirkell women, in fact, which makes her interesting in itself, because she's a different type, dreamy, liking her own company. But in the first chapter she hears that the destroyer her husband is on has been hit by a mine - just the barest details on the radio, and then she can't find out any more because she's alone in the middle of nowhere, with a storm raging outside and the phone is cut off:
She could not let herself think of that, not of the future. The past, the certain past, was the thing to hold on to. It was safer to look back than forward. While she lay and waited, watching the vague, agitated shape of the curtain at the mercy of the half-open window, hearing the wind and rain, and the barking of a foolish dog across the marsh, she thought of the things that had gone, the years that had led up to this evening - the crisis of her life. All the trivial, momentous, exciting, everyday things that had gone to make the girl who lay in the linen-scented darkness waiting to hear whether her husband were alive or dead.
Thus we move seamlessly to memories of Mary's childhood visits to Charbury, the country house of her father's family, where Mary and her mother spend their holidays (her father was killed in 1916) and where Mary falls hopelessly in love with her glamorous cousin Denys. When they are not at Charbury, Mary and her mother live in London with Mrs Shannon's brother. Geoffrey is an actor, once fairly successful in the upper-class twit roles, but now ageing and not finding as much work. We follow Mary's girlhood through school  after which, she confidently expects, it will only be a matter of time before she and Denys are married and her life as a wife and mother will be mapped out for her.

I won't say more about the outcome, but there is inevitably the gap between school and marriage to be got through, and Mary moves on first to drama school. Here I found much to identify with - it's very obviously based on Dickens' own time at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art and rings entirely true, believe me.
The first girl, a strange creature called Muriel Willoughby, with wild hair and spindly legs, was told to be the Spirit of Spring. As an impersonation of Nervo and Knox it was brilliant. One could not laugh; it was all so sad and embarrassing, and too painfully suggestive of what one probably looked like oneself.
The college I attended could easily have been the model for the Rockingham College of Dramatic Art, and was so ghastly one couldn't have made it up. In fact, I seem to have highlighted most of this chapter, so familiar and dreadful is it.

From college Mary moves on to Paris, swapping places with the eldest daughter of a French family, where she suddenly finds herself to be happy. It's not necessarily a happiness that's going to last - life is rarely that simple - but for a while she's able to experience that carefreeness that disappeared with childhood. But she still doesn't really know what she wants, and she's still too willing to let others decide for her, and that anticipated happy marriage is still some way off.

In A Very Great Profession, her book on the woman's novel, Nicola Beaumain suggests that Mrs Dalloway would be more interesting if we knew what was going on her in kitchen. It's true - literary worth is all very well, but it's not what I want to curl up with at the end of a long and tiring day. And one of the things I enjoy most about middlebrow novels is the amount of social history they involve - you know what people ate, wore, went to see. Admittedly, these things can be found in memoirs too, but we shouldn't assume that, because these novels focus on the domestic, there aren't greater lessons to be learnt from them. Noel Streatfeild's Saplings, for instance, has more to say about quiet, unnoticed suffering than many books lauded by the literary establishment. Mariana was rather harshly treated by the critics when it was published, but it's notable that it stands up well to the passage of time, and has been in print for most of the last 70 years while many of the literary lions of its time have aged gracelessly and perished.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Neverwhere group read - week 1

"Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts and sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day." (Peter Ackroyd, London Under)

In his introduction to the group read, Carl explained how this book is special to him, not because it's tremendously well-written work, but because it exemplifies his dreams and reaches back into his past, connecting his adult and childhood selves. I've joined in because it does something similar for me, although I actually met it first as the BBC TV series, which although flawed, had an irresistible pull for me, reconnecting my wide-eyed childhood impressions of London to my love-hate relationship with it now - my fascination with its unexpected corners, the way you can suddenly come across something bewitching amongst the grime, the way that place names evoke a forgotten and impossibly romantic past.

1.  What do you think of our two villains thus far, Messrs. Croup and Vandemar? 
This pair seem like supremely nasty villains to me, they are so sleazy and creepy. At the same time they are utterly believable because they "fit" so well with what I've read of those thoroughly unpleasant, real-life London criminals, the Kray twins. I'm sure Gaiman had those two and their equally unsavoury associates in mind when he wrote Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar. At the same time, with their London Below speech, especially at Richard's first meeting with them, they have a timelessness about them - they could easily be Shakespearean villains, or out of a Victorian melodrama.

2.  Thus far we've had a small taste of London Below and of the people who inhabit it.  What do you think of this world, this space that lies within or somewhat overlaps the space the "real world" occupies?
I so wish that I could find myself in London Below, I absolutely believe in it (except that I'm pathetically timid and wouldn't cope at all). But so often in London you can feel that it's almost within reach, it's so much the city Gaiman describes in Chapter 1, that you can't help but be aware of its age, that its layers of dirt are encrusted with history:
It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names – Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl’s Court, Marble Arch – and oddly distinct identities
My own favourite London placename is Dead Dog Basin, an inlet off the Grand Union Canal. I think it's a name which describes its history pretty well? I had to read up on the deeper-level tunnels Gaiman mentions - there were eight deep-level shelters built during the war, and lost of people may have seen the Camden one in Dr Who where it was used for the tunnels under Pluto (the link takes you to a good site with lots of Underground history - including the one and only spiral escalator! - and pictures).

3.  What ideas or themes are you seeing in these first 5 chapters of Neverwhere?  Are there any that you are particularly drawn to?
What draws me most, I think, is the way that the London Below characters are archetypal - that this is urban myth at its most powerful. When I first discovered the work of Jung, it was with a real sense of "rightness" - this explained, finally, all those inexpressible ideas I'd had about mythology and why, every now and again, why I'd read a work of fantasy that seemed to reach a deeper level in me than any number of Anna Kareninas, that seemed truly universal. I'm not expressing this well, I should go and look for a quote from Ursula Le Guin (she's bound to have said it precisely), but I've got a feeling that quite a few of my fellow bloggers know exactly what I'm talking about. But I'm sure it's something I'll come back to over the next 3 weeks, so I'll try to put it better in a future post.

4.  We've met a number of secondary characters in the novel, who has grabbed your attention and why?
Well, I do like the rats (which makes me rather uncomfortable because we live on a farm and I'm waging a battle against the local population, who are the fittest, best fed rats in Britain, I think!). I think going against convention and not having them on the side of villainy was inspired. So I have to like the rat-speakers too, of course, and felt more than a slight pang for poor Anaesthesia.

5.  As you consider the Floating Market, what kind of things does your imagination conjure up? What would you hope to find, or what would you be looking for, at the Market?
Oh dear, I'm the world's worst, and most indecisive, shopper. I doubt if I'd have a clue what I was looking for, and I'd end up being totally ripped off or, even more likely, coming away overwhelmed and empty-handed. But it was one of the best things about the TV series, for me, that I have a picture of what it might be like - chaotic, fascinating, frightening, both hideous ugliness and great beauty side by side, sleaze and squalor and wealth and delight...have I mentioned that I hate crowds? I do think it's possible, though, that I might come away from it with some article of very grunge-y clothing, something of velvet and patches, perhaps.

6.  If you haven't already answered it in the questions above, what are your overall impressions of the book to this point?
I think people have probably guessed by now that I'm on a re-read because I love this book! But it's a very long time since I read, and then it wasn't the author's preferred text, so some of it will be new to me and I'm really looking forward to loving it even more by the end.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Some vintage crime

Here, as part of my Century of Books, are four crime novels which might all come under the category "acquired taste". Some, I imagine, will hate them.  One of the things which interested me about reading books spanning the twentieth century was that I could include mystery novels as a sort of sub theme, and these range from 1926 to 1951. The first is a one-off, a writer for whom this was just an interesting foray, the others all wrote more than one crime novel.

T.H. White, Darkness at Pemberley (1932)
Was this, I wonder, the first Jane Austen fanfic? It's become rather fashionable of late to give mysteries Austen settings - we've had Lynn Shepherd's Murder at Mansfield and P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley, but this little oddity predates them by 70+ years. What this isn't is a whodunit - because you know who, almost from the very beginning - or even a howdunit, because you know that, too. It's what happens next that's important. And as the action moves from its opening in Cambridge to Pemberley, the excitement steps up with not one but two thrilling chases, as Inspector Buller and his old friend Charles Darcy (scion of that Mr Darcy) join forces. Sort of Jane Austen meets John Buchan.

To say much about the plot would be to spoil the fun, but it starts with two bodies in Cambridge (and a wonderful disclaimer at the beginning) - it's a classic locked room mystery, but is it a murder and a suicide or, as Buller begins to suspect, a double murder? He's a conscientious policeman, but unusually, one with an imagination, and the outcome of his investigation leaves him so hugely disillusioned that he feels he has no option but to resign. In many ways, Darkness at Pemberley reminds me most of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen novels, having the same mix of suspense and glee, plus an absolutely implausible plot. You also need to make some allowances for the period - White was, after all, what one of his characters describes as "a bit of a nationalist" (along with a number of other writers with whom he shared his affinity for nature).

Gladys Mitchell, When Last I Died (1941)
I picked this, the first Mrs Bradley mystery I've read, pretty much at random. If you've seen Diana Rigg portraying her as cool and glamorous in the BBC series, you may be in for a surprise, as in the books she's described as a wrinkled old bat with an evil sense of humour and a disconcerting tendency to cackle. She has decided views on what we now call restorative justice (leaning much more towards the retributive kind), a line in political incorrectness the length of your arm, and a decidedly long-suffering chauffeur. As a psychoanalyst she can't resist the whiff of the supernatural, and in this book she combines an investigation of the disappearance of two boys from a remand home with one, prompted by personal curiosity, into a haunted house, which provides the opportunity for a very questionable bit of experimentation. You wouldn't get away with it nowadays.

Personally, I'd put Mitchell into a fairly long list of crime novelists who write perfectly good books with reasonably solid plotting, ideal for whiling away an evening or two with, but not so good that you rush out to acquire the next in the series. I note that Mitchell connoisseurs like to say that, though patchy, she's better than Christie, but - this far at least - I think Christie's funnier. If I get hooked on Mrs Bradley, of course, I may have to revise that.

Another that fits into the category of "good enough" is Victor L. Whitechurch's The Crime at Diana's Pool (1926). I really wanted to read another of his books, The Canon in Residence, which I'd read was very funny, and I was wildly jealous to read Simon's post about it here (I expect I'll succumb and hunt down a copy, especially as Simon liked it, but I am trying hard not to buy "real" books right now...). Whitechurch sounds rather fun himself -  a clergyman who wrote detective stories - but then, he liked railways, which is nice and safe and dull. The real hero of Diana's Pool, though the focus moves about a bit between him and the police, is eagle-eyed vicar, Mr Westerham, "an energetic, capable parish priest,a good organiser and a sensible preacher". He makes no apology for his interest in the events surrounding the murder of Felix Nayland, but he's so shrewd and down-to-earth that police don't mind. It helps, perhaps, that he moves in the same social circles as the Chief Constable - indeed, both were at the gathering where the murder occurred.

I don't know whether Whitechurch used Westerham in other books - he could develop nicely, I'd have thought, although he's not very interesting in himself: he lacks the quirks which make a fictional detective memorable. Although not prolific, apparently Whitechurch did have a recurring character who was a vegetarian railway detective, so he was obviously aware that readers need something distinctive to latch on to.

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer (1951)
Heyer's mysteries can be fun, and in this, the third of her books to feature the redoubtable Hemingway, she reintroduces several characters that we met earlier in They Found Him Dead. The best of these is that thoroughly bumptious child, Timothy Harte, now grown to adulthood but not a white less bright and breezy. Hemingway has been promoted and is well-viewed by Scotland Yard, who regard him as a reliable man to put in charge of a society murder. His bagman, Grant, is reliable too, apart from a disconcerting tendency to exclaim in Gaelic - irritating to Hemingway, who's unable to pop home at the end of a long day and do a bit of quick Googling to make sure that they aren't aspersions about his policing techniques. Heyer is equally good at writing likeable and loathsome characters, and Mrs Lilias Haddington and her daughter Cynthia are pretty ghastly. I didn't find myself too hampered by not having a clue what duplicate bridge is (having firmly resisted OH's efforts to get me interested in card games, though unlike Hemingway, I could Google it). The story romps along with Heyer's usual aplomb and has the bonus of an ending that'll make you smile.

None of these books have the fireworks of many modern detective stories but they are all worth their re-issue, White and Whitechurch by Ostara, who have an entire list which makes my mouth water (and rather elegant covers). What they lack in showiness they more than make up for, in my opinion, in good writing and wit, which are qualities that endure.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

Published 1981

Every now and then you find a book which is just pure delight from start to finish. This was one - I eked it out across as many days as I could, just to stay with such an amusing group of characters for a little longer. From time to time I'd stop reading and go back to the beginning, to savour the pleasure of the opening pages, the warm glow of finding a writer whose humour so deftly combines the sardonic with the zany.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered is in large part epistolary, a narrative device which always pleases me. Most of the letters are from Julia Larwood - a young barrister noted for her scattiness except as concerns the Finance Act - who is holidaying in Venice. Although addressed to her friend Selena they are intended for all her friends at 62 New Square, Lincoln's Inn, and are explicit regarding her reasons for suddenly signing up for an Art Lover's Tour - namely, that she is bent on amusement and intends to seduce the first available young man. Her friends, knowing that Julia is as accident-prone as she is nubile, are apprehensive, rightly so, as it turns out, because barely have her first missives arrived, than they learn that she has been arrested on a murder charge.

The young barristers at 62 New Square - Serena, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort and Timothy Shepherd (who is soon to leave for Venice himself to see a client) are determined to rescue Julia and there is much discussion of her letters, which are read over coffee, lunch and dinner (the first two to the despair of their clerk, Henry, who thinks they really ought to be doing some work). They are armed with Julia's descriptions of her fellow Art Lovers, a good deal of detail about her itinerary, and a blow-by-blow (as it were) account of her seduction of the exquisite Ned.

The story is actually narrated by Professor Hilary Tamar, former tutor of Timothy, in London for the purpose of conducting some research. Hilary's style, somewhat reminiscent of that of Horace Rumpole, would be ponderous were it not so delicious, and it is entirely consonant with this style that we never learn the gender of the writer. Here is Hilary, newly settled into a colleague's flat as temporary cat-sitter, and getting down to the business in hand:
On my first day in London I made an early start. Reaching the Public Record Office not much after ten, I soon secured the papers needed for my research and settled in my place. I became, as is the way of the scholar, so deeply absorbed as to lose all consciousness of my surroundings or of the passage of time. When at last I came to myself, it was almost eleven and I was quite exhausted: I knew I could not prudently continue without refreshment. 
Hilary's work doesn't progress very fast, since Julia's dilemma demands longer and longer coffee breaks and lunches while her fellow Art Lovers are investigated. In pursuit of further information, the friends enlist the aid of Benjamin Dobble, a young man whom I instantly, despite his brown hair, cast as Boris Johnson. I mention this to give you a flavour of the kind of character to expect here - if you are not, however reluctantly, amused by Boris, you'll probable be indifferent to Caudwell's  wit and plotting, which both tend to turn upon niceties. For those who delightedly cast themselves upon Professor's Tamar's barbed erudition, there are three more books with the same cast: The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder and The Sibyl in Her Grave.