I thought that I might write about books that I HAVEN’T read recently, or rather that I have started to read and then put down, never to be picked up again. Some of these books have been highly recommended by reviewers and prominently displayed in bookshops on 2 for 3 offers, but are simply so badly written or lacking in narrative tension that I haven’t had the heart to go on. I used to feel a kind of moral duty to finish a book once I had started it, but no more. If the author can’t make me want to read it, then I can’t be bothered.
But why end the year on a grouchy note? Instead I’ve decided to write about a book I did like, FOUR SEASONS IN ROME by Anthony Doerr, a book of unassuming dimensions and scope, and all the better for that, beautifully written, touching and thoughtful. Doerr is a young Mid-Western novelist. On the day that his wife gave birth to twins he went home from the hospital to find a letter awarding him a fellowship in Rome; he didn’t even know he had been entered for it. Nine months later he and his wife arrived in Rome with their babies. They spoke virtually no Italian. They came from a town with hardly any history to a city and a culture steeped in it. That was one part of their adventure, and the new world of parenthood was another. A sense of Roman history and the day-to-day details of domestic life in a foreign country are woven together in a way that I found beguiling. During their year in Rome, Pope John Paul II died and Doerr’s description of the city as it waits for this momentous event and then of the funeral which he struggled to attend with his two sons is alone worth the price of the book.
When I had finished reading it, I longed to go on sabbatical myself.
I have a theory that glamourous women like to receive presents that suggest that they are secretly a bit of an intellectual: remember that that photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Heidigger (or whatever) with her specs perched on the end of her nose? Conversely a blue-stocking such as myself doesn’t want to appreciated purely for her towering intellect. So when it was my birthday last week, I very much appreciated Chanel No 5 from my husband, an elegant cardigan in a delicious shade of chocolate brown from my grown-up daughter, and a very pretty necklace from my son and daughter-in-law. However, my theory is somewhat exploded by the fact that I love to receive books as well (and as I recall, Marilyn wasn’t averse to a spot of Chanel No 5 either). So thank you to my old friend, Jonathan, for Richard Holmes’s THE AGE OF WONDER. which I have had my eye on ever since I read the excellent reviews, and to my writing buddy, Sue Hepworth, for E. M Delafield’s THE DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY: a very appropriate choice, for Sue has a good claim to be regarded as the E. M. Delafield de nos jours. Check out out her wonderfully funny novels and her blog.
A very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to anyone who reads this. I’m off now to listen to Elvis’s Christmas Album while I finish wrapping my presents.
My mother loved classic crime fiction, especially by American writers: John MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, and less well known, the novels of Elizabeth Linington. Linington wrote a truly stupendous number of books, under a variety of names: Anne Blaisdell, Dell Shannon, Lesley Egan. They are all set in Los Angeles, mostly in the sixties and seventies, and in some respects do show their age. The sexism and racism of those days are reflected in her books. Still at her best, she is skillful, highly inventive, and very readable: the detectives work on several cases simultaneously and into these she weaves the private lives of the policemen, whom we follow from novel to novel as they fall in love, get married, have children, become middle-aged . . .
I think the Dell Shannon books, which feature the Kipling-reading, cat-loving Lieutenant Luis Mendoza, are the best. My mother’s copies were battered paperbacks published by Bantam and or Keyhole Crime, or ex-library books picked up in book marts or in charity bookshops. A few years ago, as a Christmas present, I used wonderful Abe.books to track down the ones she hadn’t got.
On the first trip I paid to my mother’s flat to start sorting things out last spring, I packed up her Dell Shannon novels and brought them home. As I sit here typing I can turn my head and see them on my book shelf. It’s a comfort.
I’ve been reading Simenon’s Maigret novels. In some cases it’s re-reading, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t read them for the plots, which are slender and not very memorable. No, I read them for the character of Maigret and the opportunity to spend a little time on the streets of Paris. Julian Symons describes Maigret as ‘one of the most completely realised characters in all modern fiction.’ I agree. Maigret isn’t a maverick detective, he’s not an alcoholic loner. He’s real, he’s solid and he’s bourgeois. He is happily married to Madame Maigret, another of the most appealing characters in fiction. Not that we are told a lot about this marriage, but the way Madame Maigret appears on the fringes, playing a greater or lesser part, is one of the pleasures of the novels.
I’ve been wondering why the novels are so good: they are short and spare, almost minimalist, but every detail counts. Simenon is particularly good at describing the weather and has a marvellous sense of place. Occasionally Maigret leaves Paris to pursue a case in some other part of France, or even once in England, where he is disconcerted by the Mr Pyke, his punctilious English counterpart, but for my money the best novels are set in the capital. It is like slipping into a warm bath to open the pages and find myself following Maigret as he tracks some criminal through the streets of Paris, stopping now and then for a glass of beer or white wine and his favourite andouillette. I once ordered this in Rouen in homage and it turned out to be an earthy and pungent tripe sausage. Salut!
It’s time to resume my blog.
When I signed off around 18 months ago, it was because my mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and I wanted to cut down on my commitments so that I could spend time with her. We had trips away, went to the theatre, spent evenings sitting reading together. She was able to have some lovely times with her beloved grandaughter. She faced her illness with courage, good humour, and optimism. She spent her last weeks in a wonderful hospice in Scarborough and died on 13 March 2008. We miss her terribly. I’ll be dedicating my next book to her.
Rest in peace, Avis Dorothy Poulson.