Fiction, Reviews

Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)

I bought this book about three years ago in the lovely Persephone bookshop in London, and for some reason have only now got around to reading it. As a rule I love Persephone books and am keen to read more of them. I hadn’t heard anything about Amy Levy, or Reuben Sachs, when I found the book in the shop, but gave it a go based on the blurb and the first page. It is what I would describe as a quite gentle society novel about a young man and his extended family – and as the preface by Julia Neuberger points out, it is also about being Jewish, in London, at the end of the nineteenth century. Levy was Jewish and, has Neuberger explains, had somewhat mixed feelings about this, and was acutely aware of the snobbishness and hierarchy that she observed in the London community.  This is shown throughout the novel in the differing opinions of the Jewish characters, and their approach to life in ‘the Community’.

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While Reuben and the character of Judith Quixano are at the centre of the book, their extended families move around them throughout, organising dinners and parties, and having conversations that seem light-hearted but often underlie more serious issues. Each is given a general standpoint, a perspective from which to comment on their shared life and that of their Community. I have to admit that if I hadn’t read the preface first I’m not sure I would have been aware of the more nuanced social commentary throughout Reuben Sachs, so casually is it thrown into the dialogue. I did, however, appreciate Levy’s gentle sarcasm and irony in this novel, and her wit plays a great role in showing the reader the ridiculousness of some of her lesser characters, such as the Jewish convert Bertie Harrison-Lee. He holds a unique position among the characters of the novel and is seen as something of a curiosity, and a person about whom almost everyone feels the need to make a comment. He becomes a friend of Reuben and in that way ingratiates himself to the five intertwining families who make up the cast.

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And now to the character of Reuben himself: the novel starts with a sweeping introduction, telling us about his success in school and his early life, and the fact that bad health had taken him abroad for some time just before the start of the novel and he has now returned. We also learn that he is a lawyer with political aspirations; but beyond that, even in moments where free indirect speech allows us a glimpse into his mind, I did not feel that I got to know Reuben Sachs. He is a well-drawn character in that we see him from the viewpoints others and one can get a good overall impression, but I did not feel that his personality and character were really explored and developed all that much. Aside from his love for Judith we do not see much of his emotions. I feel like we see more of the emotions of even one of the lesser characters, Judith’s cousin Leo, than we do of Reuben’s.

Judith meanwhile is much more open to the reader. We spend a few scenes alone with her and go through various emotions and feelings, towards several different people and her own position in life. She is a ward of the Leunigers, her cousins, and her unusual social position is well explored – the Quixanos are higher up in the hierarchy of the Community, being Sephardic Jews, but they have fallen on hard times and are forced to send Judith to live with her more ordinary cousins. Personally I found Judith to the most interesting and well-rounded character in the novel, and I liked her a lot. She seems to see the faint ridiculousness of the Leunigers more than anyone else, with their obsessive materialism and dislike of books. We also see Reuben through her eyes quite often, which helps to round out his character – a little.

At only 148 pages Reuben Sachs is quite a quick and unchallenging read, but I very much enjoyed it. It is ultimately a very pleasant book with pleasing social scenes and family drama, as well as an underlying love story, and the politics of the Jewish Community peppered throughout. It is a novel that deserves to be preserved by Persephone Books and to be discovered by a new readership. I think I shall have to go and read more of Amy Levy’s work.

*

Originally published in 1888; I read the 2007 Persephone Books edition (pictured above).

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Fiction, Reviews

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

I bought this book last year, and somehow have only just got around to reading it. Too many books as always. Despite being about life during the Second World War I knew that it would not be a heavy read – and so I took it with me on holiday to Mallorca.

The introduction and afterword provide plenty of information about Mollie Panter-Downes and the context in which these stories came about: they were all published in The New Yorker during the course of the War. Panter-Downes was their ‘writer in London’ and these stories were her way of communicating what ordinary English life was like between 1939 and 1944. Also included in the book are two of her ‘Letter from London’ articles that were also published in The New Yorker – one from 1939 and one from 1944. They bookend the stories and remind us that while these are fictional tales they are based on the realities of civilian life in this period and place.

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Mollie Panter-Downes was a journalist as well as writer of fiction and this is demonstrated in the matter-of-fact nature of her storytelling. Her characters live ordinary lives, fully realised, that become extraordinary in one way or another – whether it a sewing group arguing over whether to make pyjamas for Greek troops, or a husband leaving his wife to go and fight. Domestic drama becomes a microcosm of the conflict and change that every country involved experienced during the War. The silent pain of a housewife represents the pain of all those who have lost something.

The fact is that Mollie Panter-Downes was a beautiful writer. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the pure loveliness of her language, the nuances and the perfectly captured moments. There is great emotional depth in her stories, but it is buttoned up by the characters and their will to ‘keep calm and carry on’. They are so very English in their desire for life to continue and to prevent their world from falling apart.

The story that the book takes its name from,’Good Evening, Mrs Craven’, is one of the most heartbreaking. The woman in question is called ‘Mrs Craven’ by a restaurant owner who doesn’t know she is in fact Mr Craven’s mistress. When he is called to fight she has no way of knowing if he is still alive, and resorts to calling the real Mrs Craven and pretending to be an old friend of her husband, asking if she has had any news. Their conversation is so well composed that it seems real, and you can feel the pain of both women.

Most of the stories focus on the women left behind, but there are men too – those too old or unwell to fight. We see their frustration at not being able to go, and their sadness that another war has come. No one escapes the pain of being caught in this impossible situation, but while these stories are sometimes sad they are ultimately uplifting as a whole. There are moments of humour scattered throughout and the overriding impression is that although life has changed irrevocably, it does in fact go on. The English spirit perseveres and Mollie Panter-Downes reminds us that there is always something to fight for.

*

The stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven were originally published in The New Yorker, 1938-1944, and published as this collected by Persephone Books in 1999 and 2008.

Purchase from Foyles and Wordery.

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Fiction, Reviews

Meeting Persephone Books: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

I purchased Cheerful Weather for the Wedding while out with other bloggers and book-tubers when we visited the lovely Persephone shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, and it is the first Persephone I have ever actually read, despite having admired their books for some time. I would encourage a visit to the shop if you love 20th century fiction and hidden gems – the shop is a hidden gem and so are its books, as Persephone’s remit is to publish forgotten or lesser known books from the 20th century, all in their elegant grey covers. The bestselling titles are given the honour of becoming Persephone Classics and are republished with beautiful illustrated covers. My first Persephone was one of these, and very attractive too.

2009 Persephone Classics edition (image: goodreads.com)

2009 Persephone Classics edition (image: goodreads.com)

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was originally published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1932. Virginia’s praise for it is something that I expect will keep it in print! She said: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ (Taken from the introduction to the Persephone edition.)

The book is a sweet little novella that takes place on the wedding day of a young woman torn between old love and new. It is at once a comedy of manners, a satire of the middle classes, and a desperate story of lost love. And all this in under 200 pages. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it is enjoyable and interesting, with great flashes of humour and wit as well as sharp observation and unsentimental emotion. I read it in two days, on holiday in France, and it was the perfect thing to read at the time. Light but not fluffy; complex but not complicated. It is quite ‘of the time’ and in keeping with a lot of the Bloomsbury set’s work, I think. Like a simpler version of Mrs Dalloway it is a ‘day in the life’ that manages to expand over time and space and incorporate so much more than the events that it relates, and I really loved this about it. You learn snippets of background information here and there, mostly through conversation, and this felt very natural and free-flowing.

Julia Strachey also seems like quite an interesting character, and I very much enjoyed reading about her in the introduction written by Frances Partridge (who knew her in real life). It has sort of renewed by interest in the era – I say sort of because I know I’m not about to go on a Bloomsbury set spree – and I will definitely read some more Persephones. On the same day I bought Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, which I am really looking forward to.

I would also love some other Persephone recommendations if you have any…

*

Originally published in 1932 by the Hogarth Press; reprinted by Persephone Books in 2002 and as a Persephone Classic in 2009.

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Articles, Events

Book blogger/book tuber meet-up!

The brilliant Kirsty invited me to a meet-up of book bloggers (most people were ‘book tubers’, I was like the only person without a YouTube channel) in London on 25th July. I’ve met other bloggers before, but this was en masse, so I was nervous but excited. We met at King’s Cross, by Watermark Books and the Harry Potter shop, and we all milled and said hello – it was amazing to meet Kirsty after talking online for so long, and it was great to meet lots of other bloggers. The day was a bookshop tour, led by Jen Campbell of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops fame, who carried an umbrella like a tour guide and was a fantastic host. We visited:

  • Watermark Books
  • Words on the Water – but it was closed!
  • Hatchards
  • Skoob
  • Persephone
  • The London Review Bookshop
  • Foyles

I was trying to ‘be good’ and not buy too many books, so I didn’t buy anything until Skoob, which is a really cool secondhand bookshop just behind Russell Square station.

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Here’s what I bought at Skoob:

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I read some Mansfield stories at uni and loved them, so I jumped on the chance to read more! And this is a nice edition.

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Can’t go wrong with some Didion! And again a nice edition – I think it’s a US one.

Then it was on to Persephone Books, somewhere I have been meaning to visit forever, but never seemed to have the chance. As I’m sure you know they publish and sell beautiful editions of lesser-known 20th century books, all in their distinctive grey covers. I bought a couple of their Classics, which have illustrated covers, as well as some lovely postcards. It’s a very pretty little shop, and the assistant on duty was very sweet and helpful and spent lots of time discussing books and making recommendations. You’ve got to go there.

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Here’s what I bought at Persephone:

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Next we made our way to The London Review Bookshop, which is just across from The British Museum. There is a cake shop too, and we took the opportunity to rest our tired feet and have a sit. We felt like old ladies after all our walking carrying lots of books!

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I bought a book I’d been meaning to read for ages, and Kirsty assured me Mary Beard is a legend!

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Our last stop was the new Foyles – my first visit there – and I actually didn’t buy anything. I think I was all shopped-out! I also managed to fall really hard on my knee at King’s Cross so I was more than ready to go sit on a train back to Oxford.

Lots of people took photos of all of us, one of which you can see here.

Thank you Kirsty for inviting me, and I am glad to say I have lots of new people on Twitter and Facebook, and new blogs and YouTube channels to follow. A really great day.

Yay for bloggers and books and bookshops!!

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