Walking London 5 : Fitzrovia & Bloomsbury

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Books: My Reading Year

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No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.

Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.

Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.

I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.

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Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.

Res 13

McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.

Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.

And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Dalloway

At Monk’s House …

Virginia, that is, not Thelonious. I’ve showed these photos on the blog before, but seeing Patti Smith’s black and white photographs of Monk’s House at Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday, along with others – Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, for instance – which she took in the course of a literary tour, or tours, of the country, I was prompted to post them again.

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling
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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

 

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Books 2016

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The reading year for me began more or less as the last one ended, re-reading my way through Virginia Woolf – soon to be joined, looking for a little balance perhaps – or is that ballast? – by Don DeLillo. By midway, I was convinced of the excellence of Libra and the brilliant assurance of Underworld‘s first 270 odd pages;  pleased to (re)discover that Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves are every bit as good – as groundbreaking – as I thought when I read them previously and to hope that if I’m still around and compos mentis in another five year or so’s time I’ll enjoy reading them again.

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I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson before this year. Since when I’ve read The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, in which she follows and comments upon the trial of the man accused of sexually assaulting and murdering her aunt; Bluets, comprising 240 paragraphs containing her thoughts and memories devolving from the colour blue; The Argonauts, part-memoir, part-intellectual disquisition on the linked subjects of pregnancy, mothering, gender and sexual identity; and – still not finished – Women, The New York School and Other True Abstractions, which does more or less what it says on the tin. Of these, The Red Parts, while being in no sense an easy read, is the easiest to read and The Argonauts, though hard work in places, is the most distinctive and the most rewarding.

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity will know how impressed I was by Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection of (mostly) linked short stories The Pond. As I said before …

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

Pond

Along with The Argonauts, The Pond is  my book of the year. But there were other good things, too. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a nice fat collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin, contains a good few of them. James Sallis’ short novel, Willnot (he doesn’t do big novels, not Jim) is a perfectly pitched story of small town American life that somehow doesn’t seem to owe much to anyone else, save Jim himself. Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (soon to be on your TV screens) is an expertly and tightly-wound story of sexual attraction and betrayal that dares you to set it aside and wins hands down. Otherwise, I’ve read and really enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge,  three of Anne Enright’s novels set in Ireland – The Green Road, Yesterday’s Weather and The Forgotten Waltz – and happy submitted to the charms and excitements of Mick Herron’s series about the Slow Horses, a bunch of only oddball and occasionally competent spies put dangerously out to pasture.

And, right now, thanks to Bromley House Library, I’m about half way through Emma Cline’s The Girls, which is pretty compulsive reading and could turn out to be almost as good as many people say it is.

 

Pond

As I’ve recounted elsewhere (a tweet, I think) the first thing that made me think I should read Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story collection, Pond, was the strong recommendation it received from a barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee, where I’d take refuge so as to fill in time before the first day of auditions for the Nottingham Playhouse production of Darkness, Darkness, which I’d adapted from my own novel, and which were to take place in the basement of the American Free Church nearby. There I was, sitting patiently waiting for my flat white (think New Zealand time) and reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, when the barista interrupted herself from her task long enough to call across, “That was the best book I read the whole of last year.” After which, while I was still waiting for my flat white, she further said, “If you like that, you should read Pond.” And I thought she said Pound and was about to say I didn’t think so (my good friend Tom had recommended Pound to me when we were both at Goldsmiths, many years ago – the ABC of Reading, if I remember correctly – and I hadn’t really got on with it, though of course I would never have admitted it at the time) but then I realised she had said Pond and not Pound, at least that’s what I now thought, so,  to be sure, I asked her again and wrote the correct title down in the back of my notebook before leaving.

The book, when I came across it a few days later, face out on the shelf in Foyles (the Charing Cross Road branch) made me want to pick it up immediately, and I would, in all probability, have done so even without the earlier recommendation, it looked so perfect. White text on a strong and plain blue background, just the title and the author’s name and the name of the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. Great job, Fitzcarraldo! Just to be sure, I checked with the guy who works in the fiction section who’d previously recommended Lucia Berlin, and whose judgement could therefore be trusted, and when he gave it the thumbs up, without further hesitation, I bought it.

You know how sometimes you start on something you’ve been really looking forward to, the spaghetti vongole your partner has been labouring over in the kitchen, for instance, or an old and lovingly remembered episode of Homicide or Hill St.Blues, and almost immediately doubts appear? Well, I have to say, that happened here. After three weighty quotes in the frontispiece, one from Nietzsche, the first story, “Voyage in the Dark”,  just over half a page long, seemed worryingly precious and rather transparently ‘meaningful’, and I had the kind of feeling I used to get stepping into the rooms at Tate Britain showing the work of that year’s Turner Prize nominees, namely, Oh shit I ought to like this or, at the very least, I ought to defend the right of others to like it, but then, mercifully, and before that thought could be fully formed or acted upon, I turned the page to the second story, “Morning, Noon and Night”, which begins …

Sometime a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take all that well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort.

And so it goes for eighteen pages, expanding its focus outwards and inwards from bowls strategically placed on the window sill to display aubergines and squash, and some more discussion of the possibilities of breakfast, to the place where she now lives, the place where she used to live, her interest in and aversion to gardening of various kinds,  baths, the language of love and her relationship, hinted at, with a man who may (or may not) live close by, finally settling for a detailed description of the stone cottage, in the kitchen of which she’s standing, chopping walnuts. All in prose that could seem long-winded and unnecessarily tortuous if it weren’t for the fact that you can read it aloud almost at first sight without ever stumbling, so well-judged is it in its balance, its distinctive rhythms and repetitions.

As the man from Foyles said, it doesn’t always work but when it does …

The stories centre around the narrator living on her own in a fairly remote stone cottage which I venture to guess from the weather is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. She’s on her own, but not quite on her own; there seems to be at least one gentleman caller, though sometimes she calls on him (them?) and returns with her knickers worn inside out over her tights. As the blurb writer puts it nicely on the back jacket, she is “captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire.”

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s  method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

As the barista might say, it’s the best book I’ve read so far the year.

Pond

 

 

 

 

Last Batch of Books I Read

  • Willnot : James Sallis
  • Point Omega : Don DeLillo
  • The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial : Maggie Nelson
  • The Waves : Virginia Woolf
  • White Noise : Don DeLillo
  • The Crime Writer : Jill Dawson
  • The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson
  • Libra : Don DeLillo
  • Slow Horses : Mick Herron
  • Black Water : Louise Doughty
  • Apple Tree Yard : Louise Doughty
  • The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright
  • The Glorious Heresies : Lisa McInerney
  • Fortunes Neck : Kevin McDermott
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin
  • My Katherine Mansfield Project : Kirsty Gunn
  • Intruder in the Dust : William Faulkner
  • White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World : Geoff Dyer

Poetry :

  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream
  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them
  • Plus lots of Frank O’Hara and, always, Robert Hass

Currently reading :

  • Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett
  • Billie’s Blues : John Chilton
  • Austerity Britain 1945-51 : David Kynaston
  • Pierre Reverdy : NYRB Poets in Translation [Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery et cetera]

As the above suggests, I’m continuing to make my way back through Virginia Woolf’s fiction (aided by her diaries and Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, which nicely links her life to the novels) while working rather haphazardly back through Don DeLillo. (Nearly succumbed to the latest in Foyles this afternoon, but, after looking a the price – £17 almost for a slender book with largish print – opted to wait for the paperback. Writing as good as DeLillo’s doesn’t date, right?)

I’ve avoided reading Louise Doughty for a while; she’s a friend of a friend and frequents some of the same North London cafés as myself – she’s usually working at her laptop or correcting proofs when I see her – and if she doesn’t look too engrossed I’ll say Hi and we’ll chat a little – all of which means I ought to have read her before now, but look, suppose I did and didn’t like what she’d written … ? But the thing is, I did. Read and like. Very much. The most recent novel, Black Water, is largely set in Indonesia, with a background involving the CIA, the Cold War and Civil Rights. If it reminded me of anyone else, it was Graham Greene – partly for the Asian setting, partly the mix of excitement and adventure with the questioning of an individual’s morality. Straight after that, I read Apple Tree Yard, a very cleverly plotted book about latter-day lust, obsession and  betrayal, told within an absorbing courtroom framework and – as it says on the jacket – absolutely unputdownable once you’ve begun.

When she saw me absorbed in Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (more court room stuff here), the barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee told me it was the best book she’d read for ages, and that absolutely the best book she’d read since was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which was strongly recommended also by the nice chatty guy who works in the fiction department at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, and since he’d put me on to Lucia Berlin’s stories, I took him seriously. They’re both right: the stories are interestingly off-the-wall and surprising, self-indulgent but in  way that’s oddly acceptable and written in a style that doesn’t remind me of anyone else at all. Not only that, it is a lovely book to look at and to hold, beautifully published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Finally, the most delightful and unexpected book in the bunch was James Sallis’ Willnot.
Mainly known as the author of terse and elliptical crime novels, Drive amongst them, Willnot simply will not be pinned down. Woody Haut writes about it clearly and enthusiastically on his blog and I commend that to you.

Happy reading!

Books of the Year, 2015

  • Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel
  • Between the World and Me : Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Our Souls At Night : Kent Harouf
  • The End of Vandalism / Hunts in Dreams / Pacific : Tom Drury
  • Assorted Fire Events / The Secret Goldfish : David Means
  • Orchid Blue/ Blue in the Night / The Blue Tango : Eoin McNamee
  • The Darkling Spy/ The Whitehall Mandarin / The Midnight Swimmer : Edward Wilson

According to my notes, I’ve read close to 60 books this year, fiction and non-fiction, and there are two that stand out from the rest: both non-fiction and both books about America, American lives, and distinguished by a quality of writing and sense of purpose that make them difficult to set aside or to forget.

David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service is a sequel to The Good Soldiers, his account of the time he spent with an Infantry Battalion on the front line in Baghdad. This later book describes, in painful and compassionate detail, the difficulties that some of those soldiers faced when they returned home.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter to his son, a letter in which he describes what it is like – what it has been like since the days of slavery – to be a black person in America. “Here,” he writes at one point, “is what I would like you to know: in America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”

In comparison, none of the fiction I read had the same vividness or power.

But there were good things, nonetheless. Discoveries, too. I picked up Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism because Jon McGregor’s name was on the cover and he had written a foreward, and I’ve learned to take McGregor’s recommendations seriously. After that I read all the Drury I could lay my hands on and enjoyed them all, Hunts in Dreams and Pacific, the other two Grouse County novels set in the rural mid-West, especially.

At first you read Drury – this was my experience, at least – with a sense of precarious enjoyment; the characters are unbelievable and yet all too believable, they behave in ways that are unpredictable but make a kind of sense, pulling the narrative in directions that confound and confuse yet seem sort of okay, sort of right. This oddness – their oddness – seems to be holding them at a distance rather than encouraging us into any strong sympathy, but then sitting us down on our backsides with a thwack when we realise, as the end approaches, that we’re more emotionally involved than we might have thought possible around page 90 or so. How did he do that?

Kent Haruf was no new discovery. Our Souls at Night will be his last novel – a novella, really – finished, I imagine, not so long before he died. And it has, in its telling of a friendship and brief affair between two ageing people, more than a strong sense of mortality. Like all of Haruf’s work, it is tender and unflinching and written in prose that is direct and evocative. I know I shall re-read this and his earlier books with continuing pleasure.

Three other discoveries: Eoin McNamee’s overlapping crime & conspiracy novels set in Northern Ireland – Orchid Blue, Blue is the Night and The Blue Tango; Edward Wilson’s espionage novels – The Darkling Spy, The Whitehall Mandarin and The Midnight Swimmer (thanks to Woody Haut for putting me on to these); and – quite brilliant, (most of) these – David Means’ short stories, collected in Assorted Fire Events and The Secret Goldfish. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jon McGregor liked those, too.

And finally, with Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, a biography arranged around the work, and VW’s own diaries as my guide, I’ve begun re-reading Virginia Woolf’s novels in chronological order, a project that will continue, happily, next year.

Monk’s House & Gardens

Continuing a line from my previous blog about James Schuyler’s poetry and his love – obsession, almost – with flowers and gardens, English ones in particular, here are some photographs from a recent visit to the gardens at Monk’s House, the country home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from 1919 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

Monk's House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk's House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk's House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk's House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk's House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk's House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

James Schuyler: Last Poems

I’m following a link here: one that takes me from my previous post – A Question of the Light – to a visit made this Sunday just past to Monk’s House in Sussex, once the home of Virgina and Leonard Woolf, and from there to James Schuyler, perhaps the least celebrated of the New York Poets, an Anglophile who never set foot in England, but who was fascinated by the English countryside and English gardens and read about them continuously, amongst his favourite sources being Virginia Woolf’s diaries.

One of the books I am most proud to have published under the Slow Dancer imprint, is Schuyler’s Last Poems, which brought into print in the UK for the first time thirty poems written towards the end of his life, along with a perceptive and affectionate afterword by Lee Harwood.

Here’s one of the poems …

The Light Within

and the light without: the shade
of a rainy April morning:
subtle shadows
cast backward by lamplight
upon daylight,
soft unforceful daylight
the essence
of cloud cover
descending mistily into the street:
and the unwhitely
white surround of a curling photograph
models itself
as north light
modeled the face in the photograph:

and against a window
a tree shows
each lightly tinted leaf
another shadowy shade, some
transparently, some
not: and, in the corner
the dark bisected
by the light that falls
from without (created
by its absence)
lies luminous within itself:
the luminous dark within

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