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.
I’m taking a break from my blog for family reasons. See you in a while.
I’ve been reading these with great pleasure. All of these interviews with leading writers have been published before – the earliest (Dorothy Parker) in the Paris Review of 1956, the latest (Joan Didion) in 2006, but they all bear reading again. They’ve been selected by Philip Gourevitch and what a selection, Kurt Vonnegut rubs shoulders with Rebecca West, Billy Wilder with T. S. Eliot. The interviewers were chosen with as much care as the subjects and there are some great pairings, Rebecca West and Marina Warner, for example. I loved the piece on Robert Gottlieb which juxtaposed the comments of his authors with his response to them. He was an editor to die for – and I especially liked the Michael Crichton’s explanation of what a good editor can do: ‘you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you are in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it seems to me as if your propellors are going to have to be fixed.’ The book is full of insights in the creative process and incidentally, good advice. too. Both Hemingway and Robert Stone make a pont of stopping the day’s work when they know what they are going to write next. (‘Leave it pointing down hill,’ as I think Graham Greene advised). This is one of three volumes that are planned. I can’t wait.
I enjoyed this collection of William Boyd’s miscellaneous writings. I’ve only read one of his novels, years ago, AN ICE-CREAM WAR. Nothing since. This made me think I might read more. I particularly liked his accounts of his rebarbative public school and his childhood in Africa. And the eulogies to two particular institutions, the British caff and the mini-cab – Boyd describes them perfectly, brought back fond memories of my life in London in the 1980s. Once a week or so (more would have been too hard on the arteries) my house-mate, Jonathan and I used to go to the Choumert Cafe in Peckham (long gone, sadly) and eat exactly the kind of meal described here. I usually had omelette and chips. This, served with fried tomatoes and mushrooms, was as healthy as it got. Another friend used to favour a caff near the Strand and consume sausages sandwiches (white bread and margarine, naturally). I shudder to think what was in those sausages. As for mini-cabs – I sometimes used to get one from Chiswick to Peckham – and Boyd is spot on – the driver with no English and no idea where he is going – the sticky carpet underfoot – the dodgy driving. I must have been mad.
This is a huge book at 650 pages and unwieldy, awkward to read in bed or the bath and this does matter. I think some of the early book reviews could have gone, but much of it was a treat – and in such short bites that it’s ideal for a busy person.
No blog this week. Back on 4 June.
This marvellous book, edited by Jenna Bailey, is a collection of extracts from the magazines of the Cooperative Correspondence Club. This was simply a group of women, with a somewhat shifting membership, who between the 1935 to 1990 contributed letters and articles to a magazine edited by one of their number and circulated privately amongst them. This privacy and the use of noms de plume allowed them to write with sometimes startling frankness about sex, marriage and motherhood and poignantly, as the years progress, of ill health and widowhood. All of them were intelligent women – most university-educated – all of them were mothers and most were confined to the home. Families tended to be large and labour-saving devices few, at least in the earlier days. Accidia’s account of her life in the 50s with five children, no washing machine, no vaccuum cleaner and a kettle that runs on batteries – well, words fail me. The CCC was a lifeline for women like this and created a precious sense of community for them. The isolation of some of these women – and the selfishness, regrettably, of some of their husbands – made my heart go out to them. It’s hard to pick out particular passages from these fascinating chronicles of everyday life. I was particularly gripped by Isis’s account of her almost-consummated love for her GP and her conversion to Catholicism, but the whole book was endlessly fascinating. There’s so little whining, and so much courage and good humour. In the end I can’t do better than to repeat the words of the reviewer in the TLS: ‘ordinary goddesses, grand girls, every one.’ Yes, indeed.
I loved Georgina Lee’s Great War diaries, HOME FIRES BURNING, written for her baby son, Harry, and got completely absorbed in her world. She married her solicitor husband when she was 41 and had her adored only child when she was 43 or 44. I identified with her as an older mother, though my life is very different from her’s with its background of servants, nannies, and so on. At one point near the end, nanny is away and Georgina proudly records that she has nursed her little boy through a cold all by herself. She was often parted from him – he spent some of the war with her family in Wales to avoid the zepplins – we tend to forget that London was attacked from the air and civilains died too during this war. She is clearly torn between her longing to be with him and what she saw as her duty to stay with her husband, whose health was not good. She is admirably level-headed, reasoning that statistically the risk of being killed or injured is low. She is well informed about the progress of war and has two brothers-in-law in the army. Her rather unconventional upbringing with her widowed artist father in France had made her an independent thinker – her judgments are shrew and she predicts that Churchill, whose political fortunes, took a nose-dive, would return to do great things. She does her bit for the war effort by working for the Belgian Red Cross in London. Hers wasn’t a very unusual or especially exciting life, but she was a remarkable woman all the same. She lived into her 90s, not dying until 1965. I wish I’d known her. I bet she was a lot of fun.
Sometimes the very fact that someone presses a book on you sets up a resistance that makes you disinclined to read it. Contrary, I know, but there it is. This happened to me recently with INJURY TIME. a memoir by poet and all-round man of letters, D. J. Enright. I hadn’t read anything by him as far as I could remember, and it sounded a bit old fogeyish and grim. It is his last book, written in old age while he was being treated for terminal cancer. I put it in the bathroom, intending rather grudgingly to pick it and read the odd page or two now and them. And of course it it turned out to be wonderful – I had to surrender and remove it from the bathroom for proper reading. It is really a commonplace book rather than a memoir. Two things I found especially funny. In a list of exam howlers: ‘Voltaire invented electricity’ (as Enright points out, ‘a brilliant inference, worth half marks’). And this: ‘A paper in the north of England ran an advertisement on its “Lonely Hearts” page which read: “Professional man, 45, head on a stick, seeks similar woman”. When readers asked what freakish practice or rare condition was encoded in “head on a stick”, it emerged that the secretary in the office had taken the message over the telephone and what the man had intended was “hedonistic”.
Some weeks I just don’t know what I want to read and I’m not happy with anything. I pick at this and that, but can’t settle. Reviewers never come out and say ‘I wasn’t in a very good mood when I read this, so maybe the problem is with me, not the book’ but I bet that sometimes happens. IIn truth it’s hard to know. Last week I needed to sink down and forget myself in a good story and I picked up Michael Connolly’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER. I’d had one or two false starts with this, but I like his books and this one was recommended to me. The first that I read was THE CONCRETE BLONDE, which I picked up because someone had left it behind in a hotel in Greece and I needed something to read. I couldn’t put it down and I went on to read the others. I still think that novel and THE LAST COYOTE are the best. But with THE LINCOLN LAWYER, I was never really caught. I found myself skipping and – with one big exception – wasn’t really surprised by the plot twists. Is it me or him? A bit of both maybe. After that I read HOLE IN ONE by Catherine Aird. I usually enjoy these short, slyly witty crime novels, but this time I couldn’t be bother to get some rather similar characters straight and I didn’t go for the golfing background. Is a coincidence that I’m struggling with my own novel at the moment (won’t dignify this with the term writer’s block)? I think there is such a thing as reader’s block which is similar to writer’s block, when nothing seems interesting and the words just lie there on the page – but at least the reader can blame the writer!