Non-Fiction, Reviews

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography by Jean Rhys (1979)

IMG_2701I first read Jean Rhys at university when her novel Good Morning, Midnight was on the reading list for a course about the 20th century novel. Since then she has been on my radar and I have kept most of her books on my long term TBR. I read Wide Sargasso Sea a few years ago, but apart from that I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read more of her work.

I am on a bit of a non-fiction kick at the moment, and the purchase of Smile Please was part of that. It was an obvious choice, as it was by an author I already knew I liked, who I knew had had an interesting life, plus it’s quite short and you can buy a beautiful Penguin Modern Classics edition with a picture of Jean Rhys on the front with a dog – which I did.

I would very much recommend reading the foreword to this book, written by the editor and author Diana Athill. Athill was Rhys’ editor for Wide Sargasso Sea, and also worked with her on Smile Please. Given that the book is unfinished, it certainly needs to be put in context, and Athill does this perfectly, drawing a vivid picture not only of Rhys and what it was like to work with her, but of the writing of this book specifically.

Only one section of the book could be considered finished, and that is the first, also titled “Smile Please”, about Rhys’ life in Dominica. As some readers may know, Rhys was born in Dominica and lived there until she was 16, at which time she came to England with an aunt. Rhys describes her early life episodically and with little dialogue because, as Athill describes in her foreword, she only wanted to write what she could remember accurately. This adds to the vividness of the narrative and takes us straight into the young Jean Rhys’ world. She tells us about certain events, such as having her picture taken (the origin of the title, as the photographer instructs her to smile), and when she jealously smashes a doll owned by her sister, that she wishes was hers. She also covers more general things such as her various aunts, her relationships with her parents, and what they always did on Sundays. In general Rhys paints quite a happy childhood, punctured only by feelings of social awkwardness and inadequacy, and the pain of not knowing how to act in certain situations. Like all childhoods there are moments of joy, and of pain.

The two further sections in the book are considered unfinished, although the first of these still reads very well. Athill has named it “It began to grow cold”, as Rhys never gave it a title, and it describes the first few years of her life in England, carrying straight on from the end of the previous section, where she begins her journey across the Atlantic.

Rhys had a dream of England as some sort of perfect place, and while it is not awful when she finally gets there, it is not as she imagines. This section is written much like the first, episodically, though there are fewer details and Rhys admits that she does not remember quite so much, and so clearly, as her childhood. She works as a chorus girl and tours the country with the troupe, lives in a so many different flats that you lose count, and eventually begins to drop in mentions of men and love affairs. She does not go into much detail about anyone except Jean Lenglet, who became her first husband. We begin to see the influence of her own life on her work, and indeed it is during this period that she first starts to write. Despite having a job and ‘love affairs’, and later a more serious relationship with Lenglet, Rhys still seems rootless, wandering, never having quite enough of anything and always at the mercy of landladies. She becomes disillusioned with England, and with London.

By the end of the section she and Lenglet are married, and have begun to travel in Europe with his job. Living in different cities seems to give Rhys a bit more spirit, and the section ends with the first real interest in her writing, and a mention of Ford Madox Ford, who became her mentor. We can see that her life will never be perfect, but she will be able to write, at least.

The last section is “From a Diary: at the Ropemakers’ Arms”, which is literally diary entries, and isn’t really finished work. Rhys begins the section with a note saying that these pages were written in the 1940s when she was separated from her third husband, Max Hamer, and living above a pub (The Ropemakers’ Arms) in Maidstone. It is rough and a bit random, a stream of consciousness that covers her own self-doubt, the family that own and run the pub, her rooms, her feelings about England and London, and her own existence. It is the most ‘unfinished’ part of the book, but oddly it works as a conclusion because it shows us a snapshot of her life after the events of the two earlier sections.

In Smile Please we see three distinct stages of Rhys’ life and the disparity between them, but also the similarities. In Dominica and in England, she is always somehow lost, not quite fitting in, not quite satisfied. Like the protagonist in Good Morning, Midnight, she uses several different names throughout her life, including her real name and her pen name, and this seems to exemplify her feelings of alienation and rootlessness, of being Other and never quite belonging.

In a way I liked that the unfinished nature of the book means that she does not consciously try to sum up her life and say ‘there you go’. Being unfinished, and written episodically, makes the autobiography feel more like real memories, like the way a real person would talk about their life. A life cannot be summed up so easily in words, but this book can be: an unpolished gem, essential reading for any fan of Jean Rhys.

*

Originally published by André Deutsch in 1979. I read the 2016 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

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Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Looking back on the books of 2016

This is another overdue blog post, but one that I’ve really been looking forward to writing. I read 31 books in 2016, of varying quality, but overall it was a good reading year. I tried to branch out, accepting a total of eight review copies from publishers – which is a lot for me these days. Of these the highlights for me were (links go to my reviews):

The last of these is not out until May 2017, so my review will come a little closer to the time. It was offered to me by Georgina Moore at Tinder Press and I am very glad I accepted. It is a wonderful blend of crime fiction and historical fiction based on real events, coupled with multiple narrators (all unreliable) and some really beautiful writing. In case you didn’t know, it’s about Lizzie Borden, and I loved it. You can read more here. And just look at that beautiful cover!

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(image via goodreads.com)

I read a lot of history books in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction. One other historical novel I must highlight is The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. I’d been intimidated by its length (over 900 pages) but finally gave it a go earlier in the year – and I was not disappointed. It is a fictional autobiography of a former Nazi officer which the author spent five years researching, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it brilliantly written but it is deeply philosophical and challenging, and I greatly admire Littell for somehow managing to write it.

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I read a handful of other books about the Second World War and three of the best were written by and about women, real women of the War who faced huge challenges and trials but who remained strong and determined throughout. The first of these was Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. The book is a compilation of her stories (recorded on tape and put together by her son) from her time living in Berlin during the War as a Jewish woman. She lived ‘underground’, in hiding, using an alias and constantly moving. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Similarly, I also read A Woman in Berlin. It is an anonymous account of the last few months of the War by a German woman living in Berlin. She is not persecuted as Jalowicz Simon was, but her whole life is destroyed and she suffers immensely. It is a harrowing but necessary book and shows the cost of the War on ordinary German people that often gets overlooked. I read these two books close together and wrote about them in one blog post (linked above) and they have really stuck with me. I think they are vital reading for anyone considering the experience of women in Europe during the Second World War.

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Another book that fits into that category is If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a massive book so I waited until it was out in paperback before I read it, the delay making my expectations quite high – and they were all met. It is the first book dedicated to the story of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built specifically for women, and it was one of the most incredible books I have ever come across. I had read If This is a Man by Primo Levi so I had some idea of what to expect; but of course each story is unique, and these women all had incredible stories. Sarah Helm is to be hugely admired and respected for telling these stories, for doing the research and making sure each name is mentioned, each life is honoured in some way. I will not soon forget this book. I should note that in America the title is simply Ravensbrück.

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Towards the end of the year I wanted to branch out from history, and so I read The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, which was just brilliant. I was already a fan of Jackson’s writing but I’d never actually read any of her short stories. Some of these are still quite fresh in my mind (least of all the title story) and I am desperate to read more. Luckily I was given two more volumes of her short stories for Christmas, so I have those to look forward to. These were Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales.

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The other highlights of my reading year, which I don’t have space to write more about here, were:

I have enjoyed reading other ‘best of 2016’ posts – it was a good year for books – and I look forward to a great 2017 filled with marvellous things to read. I am on my second book of the year at the moment and frankly I am dying to get back to it, so I shall finish here. Happy 2017!

 

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Fiction, Non-Fiction

Overdue update on Christmas and birthday books

As I said in my last post, life has rather gotten in the way of blogging over the last month or so (probably more than that), so I am only just getting around to organising posts I meant to write and publish a while ago…

First I must ask you to cast your mind back to the excitement of getting presents at Christmas, and then double it, because my birthday is just after Christmas and so I get lots of presents around that time. Not too bad.

I actually received fewer books than I expected to, seeing as I asked for quite a few, but I am so pleased with the ones I did get. And aren’t they pretty!thumb_img_9248_1024

These were all on my wish list apart from The Prose Factory, which was a pleasant surprise from my fiancé’s mother.  I’d never even heard of it but it looks fascinating so I’m looking forward to getting into it at some point.

I’ve just finished reading the book about Katherine Howard and have a blog post in the works. It has made me really want to read more about the women of the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII’s other wives, as well as Elizabeth I and Mary. I am particularly keen on reading about my namesake as she has always held a certain mysterious magic for me and I would love to understand more about her life and reign, and her character.

I also asked for every Shirley Jackson book that I haven’t already got, and I am very pleased to now have Let Me Tell You and Dark Tales, especially as the latter is a very nice little hardback with a bright green back cover. I can’t wait to get back into more of Jackson’s eerie and wonderful short stories.

I asked for The Devil in the White City as it’s something I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. The book is set in 1893 and “tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the [Chicago World’s] Fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.” (quote from GoodReads). I think both these men have interesting stories, and it just sounds like a fascinating time. It also doesn’t hurt that H.H. Holmes was the inspiration for the character of J.P. March in American Horror Story: Hotel – and for the hotel itself.

My fiancé’s amazing brother and sister also got a set of Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, which was a lovely surprise.

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I’ve some of these but not all, and I’m very glad I get to read them in such lovely editions! I plan to start with A Room of One’s Own as I’ve never actually gotten around to reading it…

So there you go – lots of amazing reading to be getting on with. I did also get vouchers for Foyles so there may even more books soon, what a surprise!

Happy reading!

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Fiction, Reviews

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)

I’ve read three of Shirley Jackson’s novels, so it only felt right to try some of her short stories; and after all, The Lottery is heralded as one of the most brilliant (and controversial) in the genre.

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2009 PMC edition

At first, some of these stories reminded me Truman Capote’s with their edge of uncertainty and fear underlying the safe environment of the home – I particularly thought of his story Miriam, with its creeping unease. But as this collection goes on the stories become more and more unsettling, until the story of the title is reached at the very end and the reader is left bewildered and amazed.

I already knew that Jackson was a wonderful novelist, but now I know that she is also a master of the short story. Her ability to create not only tension and uncertainty but also vivid characters and settings with so few words really is impressive. She also makes liberal use of ambiguous endings to leave the reader wondering if they really understood what they just read, or if she misled them the whole time. It’s like the bewilderment at the end of her novel Hangsaman repeated over and over.

Like most of her work that I’ve read so far, these stories of Jackson’s are often concerned with the fragility of the positions, statuses, and environments that women have created for themselves in society. Housewives are under threat from forces trying to disrupt their marriage or their neighbourhood; an executive is threatened by the presence of a new receptionist and the confusion over her relationship with her boss; and several female characters are pushed to the edge of their sanity. There is much to fear in the apparently safe worlds of home and work. Even the husbands and boyfriends can pose some sort of underlying threat.

Most interesting to me was Jackson’s repeated use of the name James Harris for male characters; this name first appears in the story The Daemon Lover. This is also the name of a Scottish ballad – that is also known as ‘James Harris’. Jackson’s story features a young woman waiting for her fiancé on their wedding day, who happens to be called James Harris. This name appears again and again various forms (sometimes ‘Mr Harris’ or simply ‘Jim’) and the reader wonders if he is a symbol for the harm that men can do to women through their attitudes and treatment. Jackson’s James Harris is the man your mother warned you about, the stranger who stares at you, the boyfriend you’re not quite sure about. It is a potent symbol of the threat to women’s rights and happiness in society and the home.

This collection was first published in the late 1940s, and we must remember that this was a time when women were expected to return to their subservient pre-war roles, and the men were returning to the work force. Jackson’s women yearn for more than their small domestic lives – or they guard them fiercely. There is a sense that the world one has created could so easily be destroyed by one person or one decision, and women are particularly vulnerable to this. These underlying issues make these stories even more brilliant than they are on the surface, and made me realise how sharp and intelligent Jackson’s writing is, and how wonderful it is to read.

I’m now on a mission to read everything she has ever written!

*

Originally published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 1949. I read the 2009 Penguin Modern Classics edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery and Foyles.

 

 

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Fiction, Reviews

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.

Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.

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2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)

I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.

Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.

The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.

There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?

I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.

*

First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Purchase from Foyles

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Comment, Fiction

In Praise Of: Horror!

Yes, horror. As in the genre, not the feeling in real life.

When I think of the horror genre, I think first of movies. I have always been a bit a scaredy-cat with them and let them get into my head, and find it hard to sleep after watching them. But this has begun to change recently, mostly because my boyfriend Dan is a massive fan of the genre. I used to refuse to watch horror films with him for fear of being too ‘bothered’ by them; but over time I have compromised and agreed to watch a few milder ones about possession or something. And I can now say that I am happy to watch horror films – though I still have a limit. I happily watched The Babadook, but I refuse to watch any of the Saw films, as they just seem to be gore on top of gore. Not my thing.

I have always loved The Others, the Nicole Kidman movie about a very haunted house, famously made with minimal special effects. It is really bloody scary, but I love it because I find it interesting. And as I have watched more horror films with Dan, and we have talked about them, and he has explained why he loves them, I have come to understand them more and realise what it is that makes them interesting. I think some people watch them for the thrill of the fear, but I think I watch them because not only are they interesting psychologically, they are also exciting, in a similar way to a gritty crime novel – what will happen next? What is the truth? As with Saw I don’t want to watch anything gory – that doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather something psychological with a mystery, and a few good scares along the way. I’ve always liked gothic themes and imagery, and this is a huge part of the horror genre.

Now, Dan loves horror movies, but he also like books that fit into the genre in some way, from ghost stories to strange fiction like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Aickman. I’ve tried reading Aickman and just couldn’t get along with it; but then Dan brought a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House with him on our recent holiday. He was reading The Amityville Horror, and I’d just finished Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and had nothing else to read, so I picked up the Jackson.

2009 PMC paperback edition (image: penguinclassics.co.uk)

2009 PMC paperback edition (image: penguinclassics.co.uk)

I loved her novel Hangsaman and already wanted to read something more by her. I loved The Haunting of Hill House from the start; the opening paragraph was enough to make me keep reading:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I mean, that is just fantastic. The last few words also made me think of Satan walking on the sphere of the Earth in Paradise Lost, which was a nice little bonus. And so ominous!

The novel tells the story of a professor who invites a group of people to stay with him in Hill House, and see if they can find any evidence of it being haunted. One, Theodora, has some sort of psychic ability; then there is Eleanor, our central character, who has experienced supernatural ‘activity’; and lastly Luke, who is the heir to the house. The professor’s wife also turns up later on and causes a lot of problems. Anyway. It is a classic haunted house story, with funny noises, inexplicable cold drafts, loud bangs, and lots of weird occurrences.

But the most gripping part of it for me was the strange effect that staying in the house seems to have on Eleanor. She begins to feel that it wants her there, that it is trying to talk to her… suffice to say as the novel goes on, it gets more and more intense, and stranger things start to happen. The pace is beautifully measured, and the reader isn’t sure whether or not to believe Eleanor, or to believe if there are ghosts in house or not. As I have realised Jackson’s work to be, it is engaging and beguiling, surreal and beautiful.

The Haunting of Hill House, as a book, is creepy rather than outright scary. The first film adaptation, released in 1963 is often called the scariest film ever made. I’ve yet to see it, but am eager to see the transition of the story to the screen – I can easily imagine that it would be much more frightening as a film than as a book. There was another film adaptation, released in 1999 and staring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, called simply The Haunting, which frankly looks a bit silly, but could still be good. I shall be watching both to compare!

So what do you think of horror?

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Fiction, Reviews

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson (1951)

I had never read anything by Shirley Jackson before this, and I don’t know what it was specifically that made me choose this book, Hangsaman, over her others. Possibly because it was just not the one that everyone has been talking about recently (that would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which honestly looks brilliant). Also I liked the PMC cover. Anyway, I chose Hangsaman as my first Shirley Jackson, and I am glad I did. You should read it too. Let me tell you why…

2013 PMC edition (image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

Firstly, Hangsaman is really quite odd and I really quite liked that. The first section especially is quite surreal and almost dreamy, and I have to admit it took a while to get into. But I still liked it, even though I wasn’t sure I got it yet, so I kept reading. I liked Natalie, our main character, who is young and awkward and weird, and just trying to understand the mess of life that surrounds her. That is probably how I would summarise the book, other than saying that most of the story takes place once Natalie has left home for college. Hangsaman was first published in 1951, and that appears to be the era in which it is set. Natalie attends a women’s college and moves into a house (what we would now call Halls) with her own room, which she loves, and she is surrounded by ALL THESE OTHER GIRLS. Jackson’s description of teenage girls, especially en masse or in cliques, is just spot on. Having gone to an all-girls school for fourteen years, I know how this bullshit works, and Jackson knows too. There is a particularly brilliant passage in which she describes the girls on their first night, gathered in the living/common room and trying to get to know each other. It is too long to quote in full, but it begins:

They sat around the living room of the house, the girls who were to live in it, eyeing one another, each one wondering, perhaps which of the others was to be her particular friend, sought out hereafter at such meetings, joined in the terrible sacred friendship of these years. Each one wondering, perhaps, who it was just and right to be afraid of in the room…

That ellipsis is mine, as it goes on from there. Natalie has to navigate this minefield and try to find someone to befriend and trust, two things that do not necessarily go hand in hand in this situation. Because other people are unknowable. And in a way, Natalie is unknowable, to either herself of the reader. The back cover of this PMC edition states that Natalie’s “identity gradually crumbles.” From the start she doesn’t know who she is, and her college experiences only confound this. There is a lot of wonderful free indirect speech within which we get glimpses of Natalie’s lack of surety and confidence in herself, including some wonderful moments musing on whether or not she is really Natalie at all.

But Natalie does make friends, for better or worse, and in the last third of the book meets “the girl Tony”, a mysterious figure who appears almost like a nymph or a fairy… or something darker. The reader is not quite sure, and neither is Natalie.The middle of the book is mostly concerned with college life, and Natalie starting to move from girl to young woman, and towards the end of the book, with Tony, Natalie seems to retreat more and more into her own mind. The weirdness gets weirder, and though this could have made the whole thing fall apart, Jackson manages to have enough control that there is still a coherent thread throughout. The last section of the book is the oddest of all, and we wonder which parts of it are real and which parts are in Natalie’s head. Mostly I was left wondering about the connection with the line on the back of the book, that says Hangsaman was “inspired by the unsolved disappearance of a female college student near Shirley Jackson’s home”. I’m still thinking about how that applies to the story, and I think there are multiple layers here that I will only manage to uncover over time, as I think about the book more and it sinks in a little. It is quite an intense book, and you’ve got to get comfortable with it, and used to it, to really get it I think.

As I mentioned to start with, I rather like the 2013 PMC cover – it is sparse and cold, but I think it works very well. Luckily GoodReads have their ‘Other Editions’ option that shows you previous covers. And Hangsaman has had some weird ones, which I will leave you with here…

All cover images from GoodReads, by the way. Also I’m not sure if there were any new editions between 1976 and 2013 – there must have been. Research needed.

Who else has read Hangsaman? Thoughts?

*

Originally published in 1951. I read the 2013 Penguin Modern Classics edition, pictured above.

 

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Fiction, Reviews

Sweet Francoise 

I don’t remember the impetus behind my finally buying a copy of Bonjour Tristesse, but I’m glad I did. Honestly it sat on my shelf for a long time – there are too many new books! – but deciding to do TBR20 made me pick it up again. I have a beautiful PMC edition whose cover promises romance, mystery, and lots of French sexiness.

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Gorgeous, isn’t it? I love these new editions with the white band at the top and bottom. This photo is also a really excellent choice for Bonjour Tristesse – a young woman and a (possibly older) man, sheltering her. Youth is so important to this story, in all its forms. Anyway. It’s a lovely book throughout, and Sagan’s language is simultaneously easy to read and elegant, charming, particularly when our narrator Cecile muses on herself:

I do believe that most of the things I took pleasure in during that period [in Paris with her father] simply came down to money – the pleasure of fast driving, of having a new dress, of enjoying those shallow pleasures, and anyway I only call them shallow because I’ve heard people say they are.  It would come more naturally to me to regret or disown any distress or fits of mysticism I may have had. My love of pleasure and happiness constitutes the only consistent aspect of my character. Perhaps I haven’t read enough.

In passages like this Cecile seems remarkably self-aware for a seventeen-year-old (though she may be a little older when writing her reflections, but not by much). It’s moments like this that really made me fond of Cecile, and made me marvel at the duality of simple/complicated in this book. If you recount the plot, it is simple, but there are a million small, human, moments that perfectly demonstrate how difficult it can be to be young, to be jealous, to have desires. I was fascinated by Cecile’s relationship with her father and their dependence on each other. They are sort of like a platonic husband and wife, living life firmly together, and tolerating each other’s relationships whilst still wanting each other to be happy. The lack of Cecile’s mother is vital. It means that she takes that position of her father’s companion, and wants him for herself, and yet still craves a mother figure. For me this is what fuels her complex, contrary feelings towards her father’s fiancée Anne.

I wish I had read Bonjour Tristesse when I was in my late teens, and I would recommend it to anyone of that age, girl or boy. It is the perfect antidote to most ‘teen fiction’ and yet it perfectly captures the feelings you have at that age. Cecile’s experience is an extreme example, but it is wonderful to know that feeling like that isn’t wrong or strange. It is part of life, part of becoming an adult. I personally remember having about a thousand different feelings at once, and constantly changing my mind and opinions about people and things. It’s totally normal and reading about it in such a classic, revered, French book like Bonjour Tristesse makes it all feel valid. Thank you Francoise!

Francoise. (image: the100.ru)

Francoise. (image: the100.ru)

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Fiction, Reviews

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (Part of the Capote Readathon)

(image: penguin.co.nz)

(image: penguin.co.nz)

Like most people, I think, I saw the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s before I read the book. The film itself is so famous, so remembered for the iconic images of Audrey Hepburn with her pearls, and her sunglasses, and her cigarette in its holder, that I think sometimes the details of the story are overlooked. Yet if you sit and study the film, (most of) those details are there – the loneliness and hidden darkness of Holly and Paul’s lives, the strangeness of her story, and her desperation for a better life. The story goes that Capote thought Marilyn Monroe would have been a better fit to play Holly, which does not come as a surprise when you know how much he adored her – but also when you read the novella and you see the complexities of Holly’s character. She is beautiful and perfect, and yet utterly tragic and desperate underneath, much like Monroe. Hepburn is wonderful in the role, but a little too safe. When I read the book, I try to picture someone more like Marilyn.

(image: bedsidetablebooks.wordpress.com

(image: bedsidetablebooks.wordpress.com

Once you compare the film and the book it makes sense that Paul is our narrator in the latter. The story is all about Holly, but even in the film we don’t really see things as she sees them; we rarely get to hear how she’s actually feeling. She is made up of glamour and facade, eyelashes, and a cigarette – but underneath there is a real person, one that is sometimes hard to understand. Capote has her enter Paul’s life before they have even met. He hears about her from his barman, as if she is a myth, a legend, something that has to be seen to be believed. And though Capote succeeds beautifully in constructing Holly as a three-dimensional character, she is in many ways his ‘beautiful tragic girl’, the archetype of all his New York stories (Summer Crossing included). But for me she is the One, the best one, the ultimate one, of all these girls.

The relationship between Paul and Holly is one of the most enjoyable elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As in the film they have natural chemistry. The weeks before Holly plans to elope with her Brazilian millionaire are “blurred in memory” for Paul:

perhaps because our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chasing about that produce a friendship’s more showy, more, in the surface sense, dramatic moments.

They are really, truly, friends, and this is crucial to Holly’s happiness and her ability to leave him and go and live in Brazil (which she does, unlike the film). In Paul she finds the kindness and appreciation that she needs and craves – but for Holly, it is not that simple. She cannot just have a nice friend and live a nice life – she needs more than that. She needs the glamour, the dream, the impossible happiness. Her postcard at the end of the novella sums this up perfectly:

Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires best. Not Tiffany’s, but almost. Am joined at the hip with duhvine $enor. Love? Think so. Anyhoo am looking for somewhere to live ($enor has wife, 7 brats) and will let you know address when I know it myself. Mille tendresse.

But, as Paul says, the address was never sent. He wants to write and tell her about his life – and that he saw her lost cat sitting in a window “of a warm looking room”, evidently his new home. “He’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.”

(image: girlvsbookshelf.blogspot.com)

(image: girlvsbookshelf.blogspot.com)

You can see Kirsty’s review here.

Originally published in 1958 by Random House. My edition is part of A Capote Reader, published in 2002 by Penguin Modern Classics.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Grass Harp by Truman Capote (Part of the Capote Readathon)

This post is part of the Summer Capote Readathon with The Literary Sisters. Feel free to join in!

 

I first read this novella in 2008 when I was in the midst of an obsession with Capote and his writing. I tore through his books and declared him to be one of my favourite writers. And now, six years later, I am consciously revisiting his work with the help of my fellow blogger Kirsty. I am so happy that we decided to do a ‘readathon’ of some of his work this summer as otherwise I think I would have just left him on the shelf for much longer than was fair to do so – there are always more unread books.

 

photo 2

The Grass Harp is a novella, fewer than a hundred pages, and tells the story of one summer in the life of sixteen-year-old Collin. Like Joel in Other Voices, Other Rooms, Collin’s mother has died and he is sent to live with relatives – his aunts Verena and Dolly. His descriptions of his being foisted on them are simply marvellous. While Verena is cold and business-like, coming to collect him from his father’s (a useless man), Dolly is somewhat afraid of this new, young, male, person who comes to live in her house. Collin says he falls in love with Dolly once he sees her, and there is a particularly beautiful paragraph in which he explains that he understands why he was so alarming to her when he first arrived.

Imagine what it must have been for her when I first came to the house, a loud and prying boy of eleven. She skittered at the sound of my footsteps or, if there was no avoiding me, folded like the petals of a shy-lady fern. She was one of those people who can disguise themselves as an object in the room, a shadow in the corner, whose presence is a delicate happening. She wore the quietest shoes, plain virginal dresses with hems that touched her ankles. Though older than her sister, she seemed like someone who, like myself, Verena had adopted. Pulled and guided by the gravity of Verena’s planet, we rotated separately in the outer spaces of the house.

Apologies for that quote being a little long, but it is just so beautiful. ‘…a delicate happening.’ – that is so perfect, isn’t it? This loving description of Dolly is so vivid, so real, and yet also so magical and mythical – like Dolly herself. Despite this shyness and timidity, and what seems like a fear of Collin, by the time he is sixteen she has come to love him as much as he loves her. She and her friend Catherine dote on Collin and act as mothers for him, feeling protective and affectionate towards him. But he is still motherless, and fatherless in a way, and this adds a sense of loneliness and solitude to his character. He barely speaks throughout the story and instead acts as our guide through the events of that summer.

The ‘drama’ begins when Verena brings her new business partner home for dinner, which completely appalls both Dolly and Catherine. Dolly takes to her bed and refuses to see him, despite his being there specifically to see her. He and Verena plan to invest in Dolly’s homemade herbal dropsy cure, which she makes in an old bathtub in the garden – Dolly sees this proposal as a way of taking something away from her, and as Verena trying to control her. Affronted and angry, she marches out of the house, followed by Catherine and Collin. They go to sit in the ‘tree house’ near where they gather the ingredients for Dolly’s potion. It is more or less a platform built into a large tree, but they manage to make it homely with quilts and pillows and plenty of food and drink, and end up spending several days there as they protest Verena’s treatment of them. In such a small town as theirs, news spreads fast and soon the authorities (and the busybodies) are standing around at the bottom of the tree and shouting that they need to come down.

As the situation slowly escalates and various parties get more and more angry, Collin allows the action to happen around him, and thinks to himself about all the relationships, and why these people are acting as they are (himself included). He narrates the story from a future position of hindsight, years after the event, and so perhaps this is why his telling has quite a philosophical edge. It’s clear that Verena and Dolly are no longer around at the time when he is telling the story, and this reminds us of one of the main themes of The Grass Harp – that time continues to pass no matter what, and though we die we live on through our friends and family, and the stories they tell. It’s a beautiful, universal, sentiment that makes this story hugely enjoyable – but the sheer beauty and skill of the writing also make it a delight to read. I adored getting swept away into the Southern heat and the slow pace of life. I was also very happy to be reminded what a wonderful writer Truman Capote is.

photo 1

Originally published as a single volume by Random House in 1951. My edition is included in A Capote Reader, published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2002.

You can read Kirsty’s review here.

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