I’ve written elsewhere on my web-site about independent libraries. I have always loved libraries. I treasure my membership of the London Library: it is one of my favourite places and certainly my favourite library. I’ve sometimes had a fantasy that I could secretly live there, hiding among the stacks, and emerging after closing time. The same with Cambridge University Library and there the fantasy is fuelled by the first aid room which actually has a bed in it (no sheets though, as I discovered when I was ill once and had to lie down in there). And CUL has a cafe too (used to be famous for its cakes and cheese scone). With all the open stacks, too, it would be easy to lose oneself in there. I noticed once that the regulations forbid walking bare-foot in the library (conjuring up images of long gone hippy students with flowers in their hair) but it doesn’t say anything about not spending the night there.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just had a short story accepted by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s set me thinking about the form. There are not many modern writers who devote themselves exclusively to it, though one who did, Edward D. Hoch, wrote over 900 and famously published one in every copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for 34 years. Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore are best known for their short stories and there are other writers, like John Updike, who are as well regarded for their short stories as for their novels. Generally speaking though publishers are reluctant to publish collections of short stories and if it is difficult to make a living as a novelist (and it is!) then it is even harder if all you write is short stories. It didn’t use to be the case: the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were a golden age in that respect, think of the Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes. And it’s a pity because a well-crafted short story can be deeply satisfying for both reader and writer. It is possible to do things in a short story – for instance, write from an unusual viewpoint or sustain a particular tone – that might grow tiresome or be too difficult to pull off over length of a novel. The short story of mine that EQMM has accepted is set in the years following the Gunpowder plot in the early seventeenth century. I’ve never written any historical fiction before, but didn’t feel too daunted when it was a matter of a short sprint rather than a marathon.
The Strand has recently been revived, by the way, and is published in the US, where they seem more receptive to the short story as a form.
I’ve read a number of Anne Tyler’s novels and enjoyed them. I think LADDER OF YEARS and BREATHING LESSONS are particularly good. (As I write this, the cat has just climbed into my in tray – is he trying to tell me something?). But I wasn’t so sure about AN AMATEUR MARRIAGE, nor about the latest, DIGGING TO AMERICA which I’ve just finished. “|???? (Cat has just walked across key board – he definitely wants something). Yes, there is some marvellous writing: she perfectly catches the irrationality and pain and disorientation of bereavement; the themes of parenthood, belonging, growing old are in themselves endlessly fascinating; and she is so good on the petty anxieties and confusions of human relationship. And yet, and yet . . . I found myself skipping ahead. Partly it was that I didn’t like one of the main characters – Bitsy – what a name! – so bossy and judgmental – and there were just too many characters. I found myself flicking back to work out who some of the minor ones were – always a bad sign. And was there just a hint of saccharine towards the end?
Could it be that Tyler wrote her best books mid-career ? That seems to be have been the case with John Updike and of some other writers. One of them is Jane Smiley: A THOUSAND ACRES is a masterpiece. Has she written anything quite as good since that? I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to wonder if writers have a finite number of really good novels in them.
The full title is OUT OF SHEER RAGE: IN THE SHADOW OF D. H. LAWRENCE by Geoff Dyer and I am relishing it. Dyer set out to write a book about Lawrence. What he actually wrote was a book about trying to write a book about Lawrence. This sounds tiresomely post-modern, but it’s not. It’s funny and perceptive and mordantly self-critical. Dyer is a procrastinator, a hypochrondriac, a complete pain in the arse. He’s irascible and intolerant, and quite incapable of beginning his book about Lawrence. But he never lets himself off and because he doesn’t forgive himself, the reader can. Besides, it becomes clear in the course of the book – and Dyer admits as much – that is really the account of a kind of breakdown: ‘not a history of how I recovered from a breakdown but of how breaking down can become a means of continuing.’ You learn something about Lawrence along the way, too.
The point where comfort eating and comfort reading meet. A week or two ago I threw a big party for a special family birthday and did lunch for over thirty people. There was much list-making and anxious scanning of cookery books beforehand. This set me thinking about cookery books as a branch of literature. My cookery books can be divided into those that have a purely practical function (all of Delia plus The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book), those that can be read for pleasure (more on that in a minute), and those which I never consult at all. Elizabeth David exemplifies the genre of cookbook as literature, and hers are on the shelf, but I’m also fond of two books I bought in my student day: Georgina Horley’s GOOD FOOD ON A BUDGET and Jocasta Innes’s THE PAUPER’S COOKBOOK. There is something tremendously reassuring about the view of domestic life that one glimpses here: thrifty, even a little frugal at times, but life-enhancing and celebratory, too. Possibly my favourite cookbook simply for reading is Peg Bracken’s THE I HATE TO COOK BOOK, first published in 1961 and designed as she says for ‘those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.’ Some of the recipes have dated (though one day I intend to try Stayabed Stew, designed for ‘when you’re en negligee, en bed, with a murder story and a box of chocolate, or possibly a good case of the flu’), but the humour hasn’t.
One of the pleasure of having children is the excuse to read children’s books. There are some wonderful contemporary ones, but the one I want to write about today was published in 1958, so it is one I could have read as a child – and how I wish I had.
I first read Philippa Pearce’s book some years ago as an adult, and have just reread it in the 50th anniversary edition.
Tom’s brother has measles and Tom is sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle in the Fens. Some of the charm of the book for me is its setting, similar to that of my own novels, but there is much, much more to it than that. Restless and lonely, lying awake at night, Tom hears the grandfather clock in the hall strike thirteen. He goes down and opens the back door to find, instead of dustbins and an alley way, the midnight garden, in fact the garden of the house in the 1890s before the house was turned into flats. There he finds the friend that he needs in a little girl, Hatty. The door that opens into another world is a staple on children’s literature, but this isn’t the fantasy world of Narnia. It is one that is rooted in historical reality and so vividly realised that I could find my way round that garden myself. It is, too, a meditation on time and memory and change. At the same time it is intensely gripping. I won’t spoil the end for anyone who hasn’t read it, but it must be one of the most moving in all children’s literature. The book is a true masterpiece.
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!