I’ve recently read two novels which fit into this category. Giorgio Bassani’s THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS and Olive Anne Burns’ COLD SASSY TREE. In other ways they could hardly be more different. Bassani’s novel, published in 1962, is elegaic. lyrical,
and poignant. It is set in Ferrara in the 1930s and we know from the beginning that the Jewish family of the Finzi-Continis, including the daughter, Micol, with whom the first-person narrator falls in love, will end by perishing in the gas chambers – most of the narrator’s family too. Bassani grew up in the Jewish community of Ferrara and drew on his own experience of anti-semitism in the thirties.
In COLD SASSY TREE (1984), published when the writer was sixty, Olive Ann Burns was drawing not on her own life, but on the stories that her father told about growing up in Georgia at the beginning of the century. She writes from the point of view of Will Tweedy, a young man in his twenties, recollecting his experiences as a fourteen year old boy. It is a tour-de-force, never less than convincing, funny, touching, even bawdy as Will observes the marriage between his very recently widowed grandfather and a much younger woman turn from a marriage of convenience into a real love match – and suffers the pleasures and pains of first love himself.
It’s not surprising that so many writers should tackle this subject – that period of life is so vivid, so memorable. And it’s interesting too that these are often one-off novels. Olive Ann Burns planned a sequel, but it was never finished. And the one-off novels I wrote about in an earlier blog, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, LE GRAND MEALNES, were coming of age novels too.
I was eager to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the wonderful novelist and short story writer, Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve admired since quite by chance I picked up an old Penguin copy of A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR about twenty-five years ago in Austin’s second-hard furniture emporium in Peckham (long closed, alas). I was actually looking for a wardrobe – and I bought one too.
THE OTHER ELIZABETH TAYLOR certainly gripped me, because as well as being the other Elizabeth Taylor, a middle-class mother and housewife, married to a sweet manufacturer, she had another life as a member of the Communist party and as the lover of a fellow communist, an ten-year affair which began soon after her marriage in the early 1930s. I had no idea either that she knew David Blakely, who was murdered by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England.
And yet as I read on, I became ever more uneasy. There was so much speculation: ‘Elizabeth must have thought . . . Elizabeth would surely’ and so on. She was a very private person, so perhaps this was inevitable to some extent, but there was an awful lot of it. What I found even harder to take was a reference to ‘poor Elizabeth.’ The biographer’s relationship with their subject is a delicate one and in my view the biographer should never presume or patronise. I didn’t always agree with Beauman’s assessment of the novels either
The biography was authorized by Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, John, and the biographer certainly met him, yet there is a curious void where one would have expected him to be. I had little sense of him as a person and there isn’t even a photograph of him. Taylor’s children were, to use their own words, quoted by Beauman, ‘very angry and distressed’ when they read the manuscript and would not endorse it. Was this because of the book recounts extra-marital affairs on the part of both parents? It’s not made clear.
When I finished the book, I had a strange feeling. It was as if I had glimpsed Elizabeth Taylor in a mirror that had slightly distorted her.
…and it’s been so long that I have almost forgotten how to blog. No sooner was I recovering from the car crash – plaster off and walking on crutches – than I caught swine flu -and so did my daughter. There have been other problems too which I can’t write about, because they involve someone else. Suffice it to say that the last six weeks or so rank among the most difficult of my life. Housebound as I have been for much of the time and bedbound too for some of the time, books have been a vital comfort and escape. So thank you, Garrison Keillor, for LEAVING HOME which I read in the gaps between being wheeled around between the consultant, the X-Ray department, the plaster room, and the physiotherapy department at Chesterfield Hospital. Thank you E. B. White for the hundreds and hundreds of witty and humane letters that you wrote: perfect for sick-room reading. Thank you, Martin Edwards, for THE ARSENIC LABYRINTH, which made me forget everything for a while. Thank you, Jane Austen, for MANSFIELD PARK, which I re-read with immense pleasure. Thank you, Sara Paretsky, Ann Cleeves, and Tess Gerritsen for the fine crime fiction which beguiled many weary hours.
This blog is about books, but I want to say thank you to all my lovely friends who took me out and saved my sanity, drove me to hospital and my reading group, e-mailed me, sent me cards, even did my ironing. I’m a lucky woman.