‘On her way home, Val goes over all the details of Jonathan’s apartment, the smell of old smoke and stale laundry, the sound of honky-tonk trickling in from the bar . . . In bed, she continues to replay the entire afternoon at the music teacher’s apartment, examining it until the sheen comes off, until she can no longer conjure the thrill of her lips on his. Until her obsession with the details makes the details lose their meaning.’
One of the great pleasures of following book blogs is discovering books that it wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to you to read. As you get older, you can get a little set in your reading habits, only choosing books that you already know that you will like. So I probably wouldn’t have read Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street if I hadn’t read a review by my good blogging friend, Moira, at Clothes in Books – http://bit.ly/1BuDYr8 – and decided I’d try it. It took me a while to get into it – I don’t generally like books written in the first tense – but once I did, I was hooked. There is some wonderful writing here – the description of Val’s teenage crush is typical of the way Pochoda captures the state of mind of her characters.
It begins one night in Brooklyn during a heat wave. Val and June are fifteen and longing for adventure. They set off on a pink rubber raft, meaning to float along the shore. They have no idea how cold the water is or how strong the current. In the morning Val is discovered still alive, but unconscious, under the pier. What has become of June and how can this multi-racial community come to terms with her loss? That is the thread that runs through the novel, tying together a vividly realised cast of characters. There was a warmth in her treatment of them and I loved the sense of place. By the time I’d finished, I almost felt I could walk the streets of Red Hook myself, drop off for a coffee and pastry at Fadi’s bodega, watch the drunks staggering out of Lil’s Dockyard Bar, gaze over the bay at Manhattan sky-line.
‘For the one thousandth time I resorted to the nine-page plot outline, single-spaced, tattered and coffee-stained, that I’d fired off on a vainglorious April morning five years before . . . An accidental poisoning, a car crash, a house on fire; the birth of three children and a miraculous trotter named Faithless; a theft, an arrest, a trial, an electrocution, a wedding, two funerals, a cross-country trip; two dances, a seduction in a fall-out shelter, and a deer hunt; all these scenes and a dozen others I had yet to write . . . .’
Ah, the joys of the campus novel (Lucky Jim, Eating People is Wrong, The History Man): libidinous lecturers, hapless students, unwritten books. The variation here is that Grady Tripp is a lecturer in creative writing and his unfinished book is a novel with the title, Wonder Boys. Chabron’s novel, also titled Wonder Boys (1995), takes place over the single weekend of the yearly Wordfest conference and is almost as eventful as Tripp’s, involving a collapsing marriage, a pregnant mistress, a stolen car, a dead dog, a tuba, a boa constrictor named Grossman, the ermine-lined jacket in which Marilyn Monroe married Joe Dimaggio, and more. All the while, Tripp is tussling with his monstrous albatross of a novel. He himself was once a wonder boy, full of promise, but is he now a washed-up, dope-addled, middle-aged has-been who has never grown-up? Well, yes, but perhaps that’s not quite all he is. Chabron is a writer of such verve and exuberance and good will, that though I didn’t exactly sympathise with Tripp, I couldn’t help but be carried along and enjoy the ride.
Wonder Boys was also turned into an excellent film, starring Michael Douglas.
To give it its full title: The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel (1953). There is no-one quite like Edward Gorey whose illustrations conjure up a rather sinister, vaguely Edwardian world. I can’t really give the full flavour of the book without breaching copyright as the pictures are half of it. The cover will have to do.
Every year Mr Earbrass writes a novel and this is an account of the progress of The Unstrung Harp. So often Gorey is spot on (though I personally have never been so absorbed in a novel that I have met one of my characters on the landing) After writing the first draft: ‘Some weeks later, with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance Mr Earbrass begins to revise TUH. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse that writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.’ Indeed. There is a picture of him sitting on the floor with paper all around him, and I think of it whenever I am doing the same thing (so far without the sherry; perhaps I should try it).
At a literary dinner ‘the talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.’ Not much has changed since 1953. And I love Mr Earbrass’s reaction to the dust jacket of TUH: ‘Even after staring at it continuously for twenty minutes he really cannot believe it. Whatever were they thinking of? That drawing. Those colours. Ugh. On any book it would be ugly, vulgar, and illegible. On his book it would be these, and also disastrously wrong. Mr Earbrass looks forward to an exhilarating hour of conveying these sentiments to Scuffle and Dustcough.’ What a wonderful name for a publisher.
This is a little work of genius. Every writer should have a copy.
It is the 1930s and eighteen year old Fanny has been invited to a daunting house-party at Hampton Park. Her terrifying hostess Lady Montdore and the fashionable Mrs Chaddesley Corbett call her over and ask her, ‘Are you in love?’
‘I felt myself becoming scarlet in the face. How could they have guessed my secret? ….
“There you are, Sonia,” said Mrs Chaddesley Corbett triumphantly, tapping a cigarette with nervous violence against her jewelled case and lighting it with a gold lighter, her pale blue eyes never meanwhile leaving my face . . . “We’re not going to worm. What we really want to know, to settle a bet, is this, have you always fancied someone ever since you can remember? Answer truthfully, please.”
I was obliged to admit that this was the case. From a tiny child . . . some delicious image had been enshrined in my heart, last thought at night, first thing in the morning [There follows a long list, including Byron, Rudolf Valentino, blissful Mrs Ashton at school, the guard on the 4.45, Napoleon, and a pompous young man in the Foreign Office].
“There you are you see,” Mrs Chaddesley Corbett turned triumphantly to Lady Montdore. ‘From kiddie-car to hearse, darling, I couldn’t know it better. After all, what else would there be to think about when one’s alone, otherwise?”‘
This is from Love in a Cold Climate, which I am currently reading, having just read The Pursuit of Love, both by Nancy Mitford. I always read them together and I have lost count of how often I have read them. I bought them nearly forty years ago after The Pursuit of Love was mentioned by Mrs Fowle, my wonderful English teacher, and have loved them ever since. They are far from being straightforward romantic novels or even romantic comedy. There are dark accents and some penetrating insights into the pitfalls of love and marriage. And what a marvellous writer Nancy Mitford was: her ear for dialogue is perfect, and there is never a word out of place. The narratives flow so easily that one doesn’t notice how cleverly they are constructed.
She has not been well served by the covers of recent editions of her books (often sadly the case) so I show here the cover to the first edition of The Pursuit of Love.
I’ll begin by saying that I do buy a lot of books. But there are certain categories I tend to avoid. I already pay a hefty subscription to the London Library, so I try not to buy books that I can borrow: biographies, non-fiction more generally, Golden Age crime and ‘literary’ novels (ridiculous expression). So it’s especially a treat to be given a beautiful hardback novel as a present. I was pleased to receive Peter Carey’s Amnesia for my birthday in December, particularly as he is an author I don’t really know. It’s good to have one’s horizons broadened.
The London Library doesn’t stock a lot of new crime so that’s mostly what I buy in paperback or ebook form. But even then I might hesitate over something that seems a bit self-indulgently expensive and that is what happened with The Black Lizard Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, edited by Otta Penzler, which came out in November. £15 or thereabouts did seem a lot for a paperback, so I was thrilled to get this from my brother. Actually it is great value: 69 stories in 937 double column pages. The subtitle is ‘The Most Complete Collection of Impossible-Crime Stories Ever Assembled’ and I am ready to believe it. There are some well-known stories in here, but lots that I hadn’t read. I am savouring them: reading one or two a day. Perfect for these dark, wet January days. Oh, and I love the pulpy cover.
by which I mean still coughing, sneezing and streaming. I know I am not alone: others have been suffering from this exceptionally long-lived virus. Luckily I am not short of reading material. And one book I’ve particularly enjoyed is Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.
‘November, a dark, rainy Tuesday, late afternoon. This is my ideal time to be in a bookstore. The shortened light of the afternoon and the idleness and hush of the hour gather everything close, the shelves and the books and the few other customers who graze head – bent in the narrow aisles.’ How could I not love a books which so much reflects my own feelings about books and bookshops? The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop is partly a brief history of the bookshop,partly a memoir, focusing on the author’s early career working in bookshops and as a publisher’s rep, but above all an expression of the author’s love of books and bookshops. It is a beautiful little object in its own right as is fitting: an attractive cover, rough-cut pages of acid-free paper, type set in Concorde. It is a little expensive for a paper-back but well worth it. This would be the ideal present for the bibliophiles in your life.
I loved reading about Buzbee’s favourite bookshops, among them City Lights in San Franciso, and Shakespeare and Co in Paris. I’d find it hard to pick one favourite, but I am very fond of Scarthin Books in Cromford (a mixture of old and new), and for new books and crime fiction in particular, Heffers in Cambridge can’t be beaten. What are yours?