Wednesday, June 30, 2010

{lit link}

The New Criterion (April 2010)
on the revival of
Dorothy Parker's poetry
(& what happens when editors sue)

Complete Poems (Penguin Classics)

Monday, June 28, 2010

{review} greengage summer

Rumer Godden's (1958) The Greengage Summer is a book to which I return every couple of years. Each re-reading offers further rewards and I suspect that I enjoy it more each time, appreciating the excellent writing that enables it to function on both a teen and an adult level. 

It is a coming-of-age story: the Grey family (mother, Joss 16, Cecil 13, Hester 10, 'Willmouse' 7 and Vicky 4 - "Three years separated each of us children - Father's expeditions usually lasted three years") go on holiday to Vieux-Moutiers in the French Marne region in the late 1950s. Things do not go to plan: their mother is hospitalised, the eldest sister Joss becomes ill, and the younger children roam unsupervised about the hotel and its environs. They are unwelcome guests at the hotel, confined to the worst rooms and the dreaded lavatory "à la turque", but their behind-the-scenes status lets them observe that things are not what they seem at the Hotel Les Oeillets. This sense of wrongness is, on one level, overt, as the hotel specialises in entertaining char-à-bancs of visitors on pilgrimage to the battlefields of northern France, for whom the staff put on lunch and a macabre show:
The bullet-holes were real, but when the staircase was painted they were not closed up but picked out again; the stain in the cupboard was made freshly every now and then by Paul with blood from the kitchen; and one day...he beckoned me out into the garden and showed me what he had in its hand, the skull. It was gruesome, with its eye-sockets and long cheekbones...He had to shut Rita and Rex in the kennel or they would have dug it up at once; he buried it under the urn in the middle of the flowerbed and with it put a piece of raw liver. 'Le pourboire,' he said and laughed again.
The story is narrated by the thirteen year old girl Cecil, and Godden's characterisation of her naïveté yet concomitant loss of innocence is astonishingly good. It really is a remarkably candid book, with its references to menstruation, sexual awakening, homosexuality, illegitimacy, rape and murder - all seen from the teenager's point of view. Consider the characterisation of the hotel-boy Paul ("found in the American camp when it was broken up"):
One day Paul said, "J'avais une p'tite soeur."
"A little sister?" By then Hester was beginning to understand.
"Une mulâtre," said Paul carelessly, and, seeing we did not understand that either, he said "Une négresse," and showed half on his finger.
"Negro? But you are not mulat... what you called it," we said, puzzled, and asked, "Where is she, your sister?"
Paul shrugged.
"Don't you know?"
He shook his head. "Elle a disparu."
"Morte?" I asked sympathetically.
"Perdue," said Paul, "Pssts," and he made as if to throw something away.
"But you don't lose sisters." Paul's silence said clearly that you did. We felt dizzy.
The children are attracted by a mysterious Englishman, Eliot, who lives in the hotel and Eliot's shady enterprises are increasingly endangered by his contact with the idealistic English children and, in particular, by his infatuation with the ripe (yes, just like the greengages) Joss:
She [Joss] would not undress with me any more, and I was glad because my pinkness was still distressingly straight up and down while she had a waist now, slim and so supple I could not help watching it, and curves that tapered to long slim legs, while her breasts had swelled. I knew how soft these were and that they were tender, for once, out of curiosity, I touched them and she had jumped and sworn at me... "Is Joss beautiful?" I asked with a pang. "Just now," said Mother, "just now".
Eliot's decides to use the motherless children's presence to make his own residence in the hotel seem more innocent. Cecil overhears him explaining to his mistress, Mademoiselle Zizi, the patronne of the hotel, who dislikes his interest in them:
...there was the sound of a kiss; but Eliot said something else, something odd and . . . not pleasant, I thought, "Those children can be useful."
"How useful?"
"Stop people talking."
"Let them talk," said Mademoiselle Zizi.
"Don't be silly, Zizi. This is a little town and you have to live in it. The children will give me a reason for being here. After all, now I'm their guardian. They can be camouflage."
The book is filled with fascinating cross-currents: the ageing Mlle Zizi burning with jealousy over Eliot's infatuation with the young Joss; Mlle Zizi's protectress Mme Corbet loathing Eliot's attentions to Mlle Zizi ("Parce qu'elle en tient pour Mademoiselle Zizi" - "A lady loves a lady?") and writing "the figures into our account as if the pen could poison the paper"; the absent botanist father versus the vibrant neo-father Eliot ("He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolise Eliot for us... Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive"); or the only boy in the family, 'Willmouse', crafting couture doll's clothes: at the Gare de l'Est, "Willmouse disappeared. 'Il est parti voir les locos,' said the attendant, but there was a new Vogue on a kiosk and he had gone to look at that."

One of the best-drawn relationships - also the most significant - and one constantly reassessed throughout the novel, is that between the narrator Cecil and the hotel boy Paul who bond, after coming to blows, over a Gauloise and the lees of the day's wine bottles. Paul is a lost boy, old beyond his years, dirty, overworked, amoral and violent:
I did not know about Paul in those days, but even then, in my carelessness and ignorance, I was worried by his face. We had come to see the battlefields and, though we did not know it, this face was a part of them.
Paul provides Cecil with an education of a sort:
He could not know that when he told me small prickles seemed to be breaking out all over me and the back of my knees felt hot. I had to persist. "You mean . . . you made love? When you were fourteen?"
But it is an education which Cecil herself sees as "a stain spreading through my bones": "I had become as stretched and as sensitive as an Indian with his ear to the ground, or as an insect's feeler or the needle in a compass to these doings". But how different is it to the education that her mother has decided to give her "abominably selfish" children?
"I shall take you to the battle-fields of France... So that you can see what other people have given," said Mother, "given for your sakes; and what other people will do in sacrifice. Perhaps that will make you ashamed and make you think... You need to learn . . . what I cannot teach you," said Mother, her voice quivering.
Of course, everything falls steadily apart as the children try to figure out the puzzle that is Eliot and his shadowy ventures:
"Were you ever a sailor? Joss asked...
"Probably," said Eliot.
"Don't you know?" asked Hester incredulous.
"I know I was a soldier," said Eliot. "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman . . ."
Will Eliot ("I didn't ask to be a hero") redeem himself as the good Englishman?
Joss put her hand on Eliot's knee. "Eliot, what has made you so unhappy?"
He looked down at her hand and I shall always remember his answer. "What has made you so unhappy?" Joss asked, and he answered, "Being perfectly happy for two days."
For so many of the adult characters in this book it is too late for redemption or salvation. The narrative's growing 'feel' of wrongness moves relentlessly towards the brutal denouement that ends the children's stay in this lush Eden. As Joss says, "We never came back."

The awakening of the two older children from their childish selfishness and dependency to an acceptance of adult responsibility - and the realisation that the adults they admire do not necessarily share their uncompromising black-and-white moral outlook ("'Must you be so appallingly honest?' He said it so harshly that we stared.") - is deftly handled:
On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did.
Obviously, I highly recommend this book and I plan to read as many more of Godden's books as I can (especially since many are being reprinted by Pan Macmillan).

Rating: 10/10

If you liked this... try Mabel Esther Allan's It Happened in Arles (1964; sadly out of print).

BTW, the image at the top is of the wonderful cover of my 1959 copy (London: The Reprint Society).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

{weekend words}

Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), 'Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting' (1931), in Illuminations [quotation p.61 in my Fontana 1973 edition, translated by H. Zohn with an introduction by Hannah Arendt].

Illuminations: Essays and 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

{lit link}

One for the TBR list: for the first time, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, one of Australia's most prestigious literary prizes, has been awarded to a crime 'thriller'. The winning book is Truth by Peter Temple.

Links: the Miles Franklin Literary Award (for a 'published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases'); about Miles Franklin herself (author of My Brilliant Career); a review of Truth from The Age newspaper (here's an excerpt):
He doesn't like to make things easy for the reader; indeed he likes to make things as complex as he can. That's largely for his own benefit - when he reads other writers of crime he finds them never as complicated as they should be. ''I hate having things spelled out to me.'' So he tries to be as elliptical as possible and his publisher, Michael Heyward at Text, can get a bit exasperated. ''He says 'I think you've compressed this to the point of incomprehension' and I say that is exactly what I was trying to do. He has asked me what does this mean.

{READ IN 2017}

  • 37.
  • 36.
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]