In a recent blog, Martin Edwards referred to the rather old-fashioned habit of putting a list of characters at the beginning of crime novels. I could have done with one recently when I read THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS’ NEST, the last of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy. These novels, in particular the last two, are not free-standing and long as they are individually, together they make one enormous story. Some of the characters have rather similar names, too, and I didn’t always remember who was who from the second volume. I thoroughly enjoyed it: gripping reading. But what I find hardly credible as a writer is that he wrote the whole lot without looking for a publisher – of course, it wasn’t his day job, just something he knocked off in his spare time for fun. And that’s even more staggering. Just the thought of it makes me want to lie down with a wet towel round my head.
After I wrote about SICK HEART RIVER in last week’s blog, I got to thinking about other works of fiction that deal with the intense cold, not least because we’ve had a bit of that ourselves and have been snowed in. I realised that some of the most memorable books I’ve read have dealt with weather conditions of snow and intense cold.
I first read Apsley Cherry-Gerrard’s THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD (1922) about twenty-five years ago when a friend and I were house-sitting in Sussex. It was written by the youngest member of Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole. Cherry-Gerrard was part of the rescue team that found the frozen bodies of Scott and three other men. I recommend this book as a cure for mild depression, because as you read it you begin to feel profoundly grateful that you are not there. At least, you console yourself, you haven’t been driven to eating the ponies. So things can’t really be that bad.
Solzhenitsyn’s A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH I always associate with the winter I spend as a postgraduate at Keele University. Hardly the gulag, I agree, but it was very, very cold and there was still snow on the ground at Easter. Transport connections were lousy and I had a bad case of cabin fever.
Peter Hoeg’s best-seller, MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW, was gripping for about the first two thirds, but the plot became preposterous after that and it is largely the evocation of a wintry Copenhagen that stays in my mind.
Finally, Jack London’s short story ‘To Build a Fire’ (1908). I first read this years and years ago – probably as an undergraduate – and I have just found the full next on the internet. It is about a man travelling in the Yukon whose only hope of survival is to build a fire and it is just as chilling in every sense as I remembered. I don’t want to spoil it for you. Go and read it – and shiver.
A friend who reads my blog asked me, ‘How do you manage to read so much?’ I don’t read nearly as much as I have done at some periods of my life, but still . . . ten minutes sometimes over an early morning cup of tea, half an hour over lunch, always at bed-time, maybe even for a couple of hours in the evening. It all adds up. I can read pretty fast, but I don’t tend to unless the book has lost its grip on me and I just want to get to the end. I prefer to let the writer set the pace and really sink into the novel.I did manage to get through a fair bit of reading over Christmas and the New Year. Here are some that I rate highly.
Stefan Zweig’s BURNING SECRET is really a novella, published as a very attractive little book by Pushkin Press. It is set at a turn of the century German watering place. The philandering young Baron is determined to seduce an attractive married woman, almost past her prime, holidaying with her twelve-year old son, who at first provides the Baron with a way into her affections and then is an impediment to the consummation of the affair. Zweig is a wonderful writer with a deep understanding of human nature. I galloped towards the end, heart in mouth, desperate for things to turn out well, and fearing that they wouldn’t. I won’t say what happens. Do read it.
John Buchan’s Edward Leithen stories were recommended by Natasha Cooper at St Hilda’s last summer. They are good fun, and the last, SICK HEART RIVER, which takes place in the frozen wastes of Northern Canada, is a lot more than that. It is about coming to terms with mortality and about wresting meaning from life in the face of death. Buchan writes so well. I could almost feel the cold coming off the page and it’s touching to reflect that it was written at the end of his own life and published posthumously.
Finally Marilynne Robinson’s fine noveL, GILEAD, which I should really have read before HOME – discussed elsewhere on this blog- because it was written earlier and essentially tells part of the same story from a different viewpoint. A full realised world and a tour-de-force of technique and imagination. Brilliant, really.
Margaret Drabble’s book is subtitled A PERSONAL HISTORY WITH JIGSAWS. It is partly a history of jigsaws (a little too much of this for me) and partly a memoir, focusing on her Aunt Phyl with whom she shared a love of jigsaws. Aunt Phyl was a key person in Drabble’s childhood. Drabble remarks that it was almost impossible to please her mother, but almost impossible not to please Aunt Phyl. A primary school teacher and single, she liked playing with children and was pretty much the perfect aunt. We get sidelight too onto Drabble’s parents, her difficult, depressive mother, and gentle Quaker father. At one point she wonders what he would have thought of Hugh Kingsmill’s words about the Kingdom of Heaven which ‘canot be created by charters and constitutions nor established by arms. Those who set out for it alone will reach it together, and those who seek it in company will perish by themselves.’ This fascinating thought makes me what to find out more about Kingsmill, who was the first subject of biographer Michael Holroyd (Drabble’s husband).
I ended this book liking Drabble for her modesty and honesty. And wondering if I should take up jigsaws, which she suggests is an excellent pastime for writers. It switches the brain onto the visual track and gives the verbal part a rest. Gazing out of train windows and going to exhibitions also fulfill that function for me.