Howard’s End is on the Landing, A Writer’s Reading Journey

There is much to love in books about a reading journey, just as there is in an exhibition of a well-known painter’s own personal collection, especially when those collections include the work of their friends and personal anecdotes.

Susan Hill certainly comes up with many personal anecdotes of interactions with some of her favourite writers as well as some ‘I almost met…’ which made me laugh because with each of those non-encounters, she says the same thing, that most likely she would have had nothing to say anyway. I am sure that would not have been the case, being so widely read, she would be able to find common ground with almost any great writer, though ever humble a writer be of their own work perhaps in the presence of an idol.

Susan Hill Reading YearHoward’s End is On The Landing is Susan Hill’s account of a year spent reading from home, her collection easily the size of a small library from the way I read it, one bookshelf alone contains 743 books and this a country house of many rooms where books have snaked their way up the stairs across the walls and had bespoke shelves made to measure for hard to fit nooks and crannies.

At the end of the book, she includes a list of the final forty; it’s a page I refer back to often as her journey of short chapters includes picking up an author’s many works and often struggling to decide which one should go on the list. She loves her Victorians, perhaps more than anything, so Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot and Emily Bronte are all there.

I have spent a long time among the Victorians this winter but the year is on the turn, the first spring crocuses are pushing up through the grass. It is not yet warm, there are no leaves on the trees but just perceptibly the nights are drawing out.

I am restless for the twentieth century again. Upstairs then, to the landing. Why Forster sits next to Graham Greene, or Anita Brookner is tucked in beside V.S. Naipaul, let alone why they are interspersed with odd volumes of the Finn Family Moomintroll, is one of the mysteries of the reading life.

It doesn’t really matter whether I have read the books or not, it is not only recognition of similar books we may read, it is as much about sharing the joy of reading, its ability to provoke, to uplift, to question. It is the consequence of reading and the confirmation of how different we all are in these observations that continues to prove the reality, that somewhere out there that same book will have been both adored by one person and despised by the next.

Just this morning I read a passionate review by Vishy the Knight of Nicole Brossard’s Yesterday, At the Hotel Clarendon in which he describes the effect of reading prose that to him was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. Well, I don’t know about Brossard’s prose, but I was enjoying Vishy’s. He went on:

After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose.

Then, at the end of his review, he mentions he was able to find two other reviews of the book in Canadian literary magazines and only one review on Goodreads, which said “I just can’t stand this book anymore.”  Just like films, the only way to really know is to see or read it yourself! And as I alluded to in my previous post, books and reading tell us and others who we really are. As for me, I trust Vishy’s judgement, I love lyrical prose.

Susan Hill’s book is very much influenced by the English tradition and I feel compelled to balance that a little by mentioning another book in a similar vein which I adored, Pat Conroy’s A Reading Life.

Conroy Reading LifeI have only read one of Pat Conroy’s books, The Prince of Tides, but would not hesitate to read more, especially as a summer read –they do tend to be big, bold, compelling books, great for a summer read. His reading life unfolds by the chapter in a mesmerising, delightful way, his storytelling and anecdotes within the book are captivating.

He is loyal to certain influential bookish people in his life and they often reappear throughout the chapters. The chapter on the influence of his mother and references to both the book and film of Gone With the Wind is a great story in itself. But my favourite chapter and one that has stayed with me in the years since I first read this, was Chapter Eleven A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe, because he is so honest and appreciative, ignoring intellectual snobbery and sharing what he describes as a pivotal event of his life – his reading of Look Homeward, Angel and though not knowing it at the time, entering into “the home territory of what would become my literary terrain”.

I have read very good reviews of Will Schwalbe’s book The End of Your Life Bookclub and know that one day I will venture into its pages, but have been warned, this one is a real tearjerker, so timing is important. There is no rush, just many future reading pleasures that will lead to even more.

And the one stand out book from Susan Hill’s reading year, that made me decide I must have a copy? Well, it’s not even on the list, but that’s because it seems to be permanently at her beside and I see Persephone Books have reissued a copy of it as well. It was Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.

I have never exhausted  A Writer’s Diary, and never will.It gave me what I needed at 16, and it continues to give.

Have you read any of these books, or do you have another favourite book of a writer’s reading journey?

Canada by Richard Ford

A recommendation from my like-minded, book loving Aunt, I was fortunate to pick this up at our library, a wonderful facility, though only a few bookshelves dedicated to works in English, so to find a recently published book was a real find.

Bibliotheque Mejanes, Our Library in Aix-en-Provence

Bibliothèque Méjanes,
The Entrance to our Library in Aix-en-Provence

Richard Ford is a familiar name for many, a Pulitzer prize-winning author for his book Independence Day, however he is an author I was not thus far acquainted with.

Canada is a coming of age novel written from the perspective of Dell, a 15-year-old twin, whose sister Bernie is on the verge of asserting her independence, something she is ready to do, unlike Dell, who is more of a ‘wait and see’ type of individual, though even this more submissive attitude doesn’t occur without serious consideration of all the alternatives. Regardless of whether he is ever likely to pursue those thoughts, he considers them before watching them pass, pondering how they may have changed the course of events, though rarely if ever acting on them.

The course of these siblings’ ordinary lives is altered drastically when their father, aided by their mother, decides to rob a bank to pay a supplier when his middleman status finds him stuck in between having delivered the goods and not having been paid as agreed.

The first part of the book is Dell’s recollection of the events of those weeks surrounding ‘the event that would change their lives’ with a little of the wisdom of hindsight and the knowledge he has gained from subsequently reading his mother’s journal (fifty years later).

Saskatchewan Ghost Town by R Smith @ominocity

Saskatchewan Ghost Town by R Smith @ominocity

In Part Two, Dell is at the mercy of his mother’s plan for the children to go to Canada, while the parents are in prison, only Dell departs alone; he believes he is going to stay with the brother of his mother’s friend Mildred and so begins his life ‘after the event that changed his life’.

No longer attending school, he assists a man named Charley with preparations for goose hunting and cleaning rooms at the hotel owned by Mildred’s brother, while living in an almost ghost town somewhere in Saskatchewan.

Richard Ford is an adept writer, a straight forward storyteller and reading his work reminds me a little of Jonathan Franzen’s way of writing. His use of language is plain, spare and as a consequence there are few sentences or paragraphs that I have highlighted, few metaphors, except perhaps the title, though perhaps being one word it is more of a symbol than a metaphor. Canada is the frontier, another country, another life, another citizen.

Canada1While he doesn’t coat his words with poetic language, Ford in the literary tradition, delves deep into the mind and thoughts of his protagonist, sharing events in a stream of consciousness narration. Dell methodically dissects everything that happens around him referencing the recent past in relation to what happens, the things he may have realised with hindsight but didn’t. It is a psychological journey into the mind of a 15-year-old sharing thoughts of himself and others around him leading up to and during those two events that changed everything.

I can’t make what follows next seem reasonable or logical, based on what anyone would believe they knew about the world. However, as Arthur Remlinger said, I was the son of bank robbers and desperadoes, which was his way of reminding me that no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from–anything at all can follow anything at all.

As such, not much happens, but the storytelling remains compelling, as he comes to understand the motivations of those around him and who they really are, preparing himself for what they are about to do. In the first part the bank robbery, preparing him for what will happen when he crosses the frontier.

The more we read, the more we come to understand what our preferences are, what we adore, what we find difficult to tolerate and as a result it could be said our reading narrows with age, because we come to know ourselves and our inclinations better, we become a better judge of whether a book is likely to meet that desire or not. That is one of the reasons a book-club can be so interesting, often forcing us to read outside our comfort zone and showing us the many responses to the same book, all equally valid. I know I don’t just read for pleasure, I am often curious to read outside my preferred style of book, and across cultures and language not wishing to be limited to only that which is written in the English language or tradition.

I enjoyed Richard Ford’s Canada and look forward to reading more of his work.

Life after Life after Life…

It was suggested to Kate Atkinson, that the above might be a more apt title for her book, as the lives relived by the protagonist Ursula in Life After Life are many. In this book, the author has written something unlike anything that precedes it, a return perhaps to the kind of books she was writing before she started on her crime series featuring the fictional detective Jackson Brodie.

life after lifeLife After Life presents numerous versions of Ursula’s life story, a life whose course sometimes changes when her response to an event or an encounter is different to how she responded previously. It is not a conscious change, although she does possess a sense of déjà vu at times, however she is more propelled by instinct than any knowledge of having already lived, or perhaps she is responding to the ever strengthening morphic fields (see link below), that ability to tap into our own and the collective consciousness of remembered events, that link across time between the past and the present, which inevitably become stronger in someone who keeps returning, preparing them for future events.

The story begins (or does it end?) in 1930 before going back to her birth in February 1910. Her earliest lives pass quickly, birth at that time being as traumatic as, if not more difficult to survive than war. When the doctor can make it through the snowstorm and unwrap the umbilical cord from around her neck, she will have a better chance of surviving.

St Paul's during the Blitz

St Paul’s during the Blitz

Ursula’s story for its many stops when darkness falls and restarts, takes place predominantly between 1910 and 1941 in England and Germany, with much of the narration taking place during the war, in particular the 57 consecutive nights of bombardment in London from September 1940, “the blitz”, when more than one million homes were destroyed and over 40,000 civilians killed with many more injured.

There are significant turning points in her adolescence connected with the lecherous friend of her brother and a passing stranger with insidious intent, otherwise she makes it to an independent life in London during the second world war in scenes that Atkinson brings alive in unimaginable ways, a city where nowhere is safe from the nightly bombs that will fall, their paths of destruction unpredictable, those who survive, forever changed by that traumatic experience.

WWII_London_Blitz_East_LondonIn the same way that one never knows which choices will lead to life and which to certain death as bombs rain down on London, so too as readers, do we turn each page with similar trepidation, never quite sure when darkness may fall again and our story begin over. Unpredictable, because subsequent experiences don’t necessarily guarantee a longer life, Life After Life has a simple structure, yet leaves the reader aware of the countless possibilities that could manifest.

The BBC interviewer asked a question I had been pondering, suggesting that for a writer, there are numerous outcomes possible when plotting a story and in a sense this book is like stringing together several drafts, however Atkinson says that although you could consider it like that, it is not her method to write like that, it seems that she set out with this structure in mind, that she always knew how it was going to end, although I am unsure whether this story can ever end, you can see how it might go on forever.

BlitzaftermathThe appeal of the story for me is intricately tied to that structure and in fact I find it hard to think only about the story itself, which begs the question, which version of the story is the story? This is not a typical tale of transformation of a protagonist, while we recognise Ursula’s character in the many lives she lives, the story shows just how different our lives could become, based on even insignificant choices we make as well as the random events that can interrupt that path and change its course indelibly.

Life After Life is also a turning point for Kate Atkinson who says she won’t be writing another Jackson Brodie novel for a very long time, having felt some relief at being set free from the intricate plotting involved in crime writing and enjoyed getting back to just writing. She mentioned two possibilities for her next novel, either a companion novel to this one about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, called A God in Ruins, or an homage to Agatha Christie, about a group of people stranded in a countryside hotel in a snowstorm during a murder mystery weekend called Death at the Side of the Rook.

It is clear that Kate Atkinson refuses to be bound by genre, labels or form, preferring freedom in her approach, she resists categorisation which makes her an exciting and unpredictable writer, even if she risks occasionally losing her readers as she embarks on a course to suit her own writerly desire and imagination and not the expectations of any particular audience. That I truly admire.

So let’s see how the judges of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 respond, this title having just made the long list.

Additional Resources

Morphic Fields & Morphic Resonance – Rupert Sheldrake interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun Literature Magazine Feb 2013

Interview – Meet the Author – Nick Higham of the BBC speaks to Kate Atkinson.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Not the Orange Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

Womens prize logoThere may not be a new sponsor yet, however 20 books appear on the long list for the international Women’s Prize for Fiction and although there are certain predictable inclusions, such as Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Zadie Smith’s NW, it is great to see such a diverse range of excellent books.

life after lifeI have managed to read a few already, here are links to my reviews of Elif Shafak’s HonourM.L.Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I enjoyed all three books, but won’t be trying to guess the winner, it’s much too subjective to choose, read the reviews and see what appeals to you. I am sure there is something for everyone.

There is an interesting article in The Guardian today with links to a synopsis and reviews for all of the books. They include reader reviews as well as journalist reviews. The Guardian Bookshop is an interesting alternative for buying new books in the UK, particularly as they don’t charge an additional delivery charge for every book.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 is awarded for the best novel of the year written by a woman. Any woman writing in English of any nationality, country of residence, age or subject matter is eligible. The shortlist will be announced on April 16. Happy Reading!

The Longlist of 20 novels


Kitty Aldridge A Trick I Learned From Dead Men

Kate Atkinson Life After LifeHonour

Ros Barber The Marlowe Papers

Shani Boianjiu The People of Forever are Not Afraid

Gillian Flynn Gone Girl

Sheila Heti How Should A Person Be?

A M Homes May We Be Forgiven

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

Deborah Copaken Kogan The Red Book

Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies

Bonnie Nadzam Lamb

Emily Perkins The Forrests122012_0454_TheLightBet1.jpg

Michèle Roberts Ignorance

Francesca Segal The Innocents

Maria Semple Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Elif Shafak Honour

Zadie Smith NW

M L Stedman The Light Between Oceans

Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds

G. Willow Wilson Alif the Unseen

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, 627 miles in 87 days

There is something appealing about the idea of making a pilgrimage and reading about it is almost as satisfying on another level, even when the pilgrim in question doesn’t know that is what he is doing.

Unlikely PilgrimageHarold Fry was not prepared for a pilgrimage at all, he was on his way to post a letter, a note written in haste that the closer he came to the post-box, the less satisfied he was with what he had composed, as if the letter had somehow come to represent all that he had achieved with his life – showing him up as incapable of stringing together the appropriate words that might express the sentiment he wished to convey – while harbouring his mild but growing discontent, he continues on to the next post-box and then the next and then one thing lead to another…

Harold’s letter is a reply to Queenie Hennessy, an ex-colleague whom he hasn’t seen since the day she disappeared from work, a disappearance that is in some way connected to Harold.  Queenie’s short letter informs Harold of her illness, he learns she is lying in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the very northern tip of England, about as far from Kingsbridge, South Devon as one could possibly be.

The walk to the post-box and an encounter with a young shop assistant in a garage prove to be the tipping point for Harold, he sets off to Berwick, convinced that by making his pilgrimage, he might save Queenie from certain death.

Harolds journey

Harolds journey up England

Harold is propelled by instinct, an urgency to make some kind of difference and as his feet carry him North, little by little he comes to understand the significance of his undertaking, as the layers of his self-protective habits built up over the years, peel away at a similar rate to the soles of his shabby yachting shoes, until eventually even words are no longer required to explain; his purpose and inspiration shine out of him, attracting followers and making him almost unrecognisable to the woman he has lived with for the past forty years, his wife Maureen.

Harold believed his journey was truly beginning. He had thought it started the moment he decided to walk to Berwick, but he now saw that he had been naïve. Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcomings and overcome them, and so the real business of was walking was happening only now.

Rachel Joyce’s debut novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, however it would be wrong to think of her as a novice writer and as the back pages inform us, she has written over twenty original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4 as well as adaptations television drama. It is clear right from the first pages that this is a confident and accomplished writer and I couldn’t help but imagine these characters already on-screen, it is as if we have seen Harold before, so much of that reserved part of his character seems so familiar, even if he does appear to fill a stereotype, however he does not remain typecast for long, yet neither does he change completely.

It may be stating the obvious, but this is a very English novel – well how could it not be when the protagonist is an Englishman traversing his country from one end to the other; it is not just the landscape, it is the slow unmasking of Harold, a man who barely made a ripple in his working life having done his best to keep unpleasant matters from being aired or making a fuss.

He had always been too English; by which he supposed he meant that he was ordinary. He lacked colour. Other people knew interesting stories, or had things to ask. He didn’t like to ask, because he didn’t like to offend. He wore a tie every day but sometimes he wondered if he was hanging on to an order or set of rules that had never really existed.

Overall, a most enjoyable read and I am sure we will be seeing more from Rachel Joyce, she is at work on her second novel, another “celebrating the ordinary, linking laughter and pain” story, she has said.

BBCInterview – Rachel Joyce discusses how her background writing radio plays informed the novel and how her father (to whom she dedicates the book)and others shaped the character of Harold.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed – my last review of a different kind of pilgrimage, the true story of Cheryl Wild’s hike of the Pacific Crest Trail

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Honour by Elif Shafak

US edition cover

US edition cover

Elif Shafak comments in her essay on identity The Happiness of Blond People about the stereotyping or tendency of books written by or about women from the East, that they often sport covers with an image of a veiled woman.

It is something that makes her other books stand out, because they don’t do that. The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love (at least the editions that I read) have enticing covers that invite you to enter another world, depicting vibrant, warm colours and referencing stunning forms of Eastern architecture, curves, arabesques, spires and sparkling elements.

When I first spied the UK cover of her new book Honour I thought ‘Oh no’, not one of those books – I was disappointed as it looked like it belonged to that genre, the misery tale of a woman’s lot in a society where the veil is used as a symbol of varying degrees of oppression. That was before I read and reviewed the essay I refer to above, in which she cites those books with similar disdain.

It was some comfort to see that the US edition has nothing like that cover, preferring the safe symbolism of the open arches, inviting us in to take a look within its pages, no veils, no dark colours, no fear, no buying into outdated stereotypes. It would be interesting to know which cover  attracts the most readers.


UK edition cover

There is a plethora of lifestyles among Muslims, a variety of personal stories to consider; and yet only some of these stories come to the fore. They almost always happen to be the most problematic ones: we seldom hear about happy Muslims, in particular about happy Muslim women. Honour killings, female circumcision, child brides, the veil, gender segregation, lack of freedom… Gender is the number-one topic where the so-called Clash of Civilisations is manifest and crystallized. It is no coincidence that a considerable number of books related to Islam have female images on their covers, and in many, if not most cases, these females appear to be sad, silenced, secluded or suffering. Women with their mouths covered, or eyes peeking out from behind their hijab, or heads bowed miserably down… Elif Shafak, The Happiness of Blond People

Book covers aside, this is a very credible story, one that many women who have uprooted their lives and brought up or given birth to children in a foreign culture may relate to. Narrated by her daughter Esma, the story centres around the life of Pembe, identical twin to Jamila and one of eight educated daughters of a family raised in a Kurdish village, the desire and constant striving for a son eventually taking the mother in childbirth.

Life here is a precarious path for young woman, where one wrong step can easily lead to condemnation. One of the twins dreams of a life far away, the other seeks to learn from those around her, from nature and experimentation. Love is the sacrifice that will enable them to attain their so-called dreams.

Their adult lives are lived far from each other, Jamila becoming a renowned village midwife and Pembe, fulfils that desire to live elsewhere, travelling further than she ever dreams, her husband Adem, from Istanbul, brings her to live in East London where they will raise their three children Iskander, Esma and Yunis.

To her the future was a land of promises. She had not been there yet, but she trusted it to be bright and beautiful. It was a place of infinite potential, a mosaic of shifting tiles, now in a seamless order, now in mild disarray, for ever re-creating itself.

To him the past was a shrine. Reliable, solid, unchanging and, above all, enduring. It provided insight into the beginning of everything; it gave him a sense of centre, coherence and continuity.

Through the story, which alternates between 1940’s Kurdistan and 1970’s London, we come to know each of these family members and begin to understand how their individual and collective experiences has moulded them, Pembe and Jamila in their traditional village with its elders, family, traditions, superstitions; Adem with an alcoholic father and angst-ridden mother who eventually abandons her children, unable to cope with the Jeckyll and Hyde character of her husband. Each has been in some way touched by the repercussions of a ‘loss of honour’.

Iskander is raised in London with memories of his early life elsewhere, carrying memories of disappointment like molten rock deep within. He is sensitive to a vibe between his parents he doesn’t understand, something that makes him want to act. When his father leaves home and it becomes clear that his mother is moving on, the pressure of that molten rock within him causes him to explode.

RumiHonour touches on many great themes and then excels in sharing all the familial details, the interactions between its characters, the people and culture around them, to the point where we identify with each character as we spend time seeing things from their perspective and then experience a sense of anxiety knowing that these perspectives are likely to clash and the outcome will not be good.

And then there is Zeeshan, a character who arrives unexpectedly, but one I recognise instantly, knowing of Shafak’s interest in Sufism and the work of the 13th century poet and philosopher Rumi; Zeeshan is a gift and offers a lifeline to Iskender representing hope.

Elif Shafak is a writer with an interesting perspective, as she herself says, she has one foot in Istanbul and the other travels and makes connections in cities around the world.

Writing that crosses cultures and observes characters doing the same invokes a sense of empathy, she is a writer whose work I will be following and whose city I look forward to visiting in May this year.

Elif Shafak speaking in Sophia, Bulgaria Photo courtesy of Tayna Tzvetkova

Elif Shafak speaking in Sophia, Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Rayna Tzvetkova

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Hare with Amber Eyes, A Hidden Inheritance

The Hare with Amber Eyes

What a story this hare could have told should he have possessed the gift of speech. Instead we see him hunched there, ears pinned back, quivering, stunned by the journey he has taken, the events that have occurred around him, surprised to have survived when so many of his companion artifacts, the more sturdy furnishings, grand paintings and even other ceramics, did not.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a Japanese netsuke, a miniature sculpture (though they can be wood or ivory) invented in the 17th century, not just as an objet d’art, but a functional kind of toggle to attach to the end of a cord for a pouch that a man might carry, since most of the garments they wore did not contain pockets (the two Japanese characters ne+tsuke mean “root” and “to attach”).

The hare is part of a collection of 264 netsuke purchased by the third son of an aspiring and ambitious Jewish family, Charles Ephrussi (son of Leon).

By 1860 the family had become the greatest grain-exporters in the world. In 1857 the two elder sons were sent out from Odessa to Vienna, the capital city of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire. They bought a huge house in the city centre, and for ten years this was the home to a shifting population of grandparents, children and grandchildren as the family moved backwards and forwards between the two cities. One of the sons, my great-great grandfather Ignace, was tasked with handling Ephrussi business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from this Vienna base. Paris came next: Leon, the older son, was tasked with establishing the family and business there.

Hare Amber EyesBeing the third son, Charles was spared the obligation of being groomed for the financial sector in the family business (though it may well be he was not cut out for it either as de Waal speculates), preferring to frequent the cafes, salons and a certain boudoir of an older, married woman, attaching himself only ever temporarily to that which he admired – having already lived in three large cities, with his languages, wealth and a passionate interest in the arts, he had plenty of time to indulge his many passions.

It was through his pursuits in the arts, the start of his own collection, mingling with artists, other collectors and art dealers, writers about the arts, that he became interested in Japonisme, a rarity when it began appearing and so desirous. He would purchase a large collection of netsuke from the Parisian art dealer Philippe Sichel who travelled to Japan in 1874.

There is a wonderful connection to Proust throughout this part of the book, one that was a pleasure to discover, without the necessity of having read him, if anything it is an interesting introduction to that group of intellectuals of the 1880’s – 1900’s, Charles Ephrussi himself one of the models for Proust’s depiction of Swann in Swann’s Way.

The author of the book, Edmund de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi family and has inherited the 264 netsuke. He is a ceramic potter himself and spent two years studying in Japan, after many years as an apprentice in England. It was in Tokyo, while visiting his Uncle Iggie (another Ignace) that he first laid eyes and hands on the family netsuke that would eventually become his, learning a little of their journey from Paris to Vienna, London and back to Tokyo. Eventually he would spend five years researching what would become this incredible book.

He too, is the third son, though his is no longer a global banking family with the same expectations of its protege. Although he shares similar characteristics to his ancestors, those who did manage to escape the family business and were able to develop that appreciation and eye for a work of art, going beyond casual observation; it is as if he converses with these objects and reads them as if they have living, human qualities.

DeWaalThrough this book, he traces the history of these netsuke and his family, as they rise in ascendancy and are undone by the events leading up to the second world war. We come to know many of the family members and Edmund’s grandmother Elizabeth, a poet and a lawyer is a wonderful woman to learn about, the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of Vienna and passionate about her poetry, she corresponds regularly with Rilke.

This book was so fascinating and so sensitively handled, it was with an almost palpable sadness that I finished it and felt bereft, wondering where on earth I could go to from here, reading-wise, after such a story.

And then I remembered it has been two years since publication and so I consoled myself with following the work of De Waal, who has been rather prolific since 2010 and I was not surprised to see his recent exhibition A Thousand Hours, showing works behind vitrines, evidence of the longer term effect of his immersion into all that research and study of netsuke and other artifacts his family had preserved.

I leave a link to him commenting on that most recent exhibition and a wonderful article in the Telegraph, in which I learn that De Waal has recently returned from a trip to Jingdezhen, home of the purest clay in China, where porcelain has been made for 1,000 years. This was a research trip for his next book and for a collaboration with the Chinese porcelain collections at the Fitzwilliams Museum for an upcoming exhibition:

De Waal is animated, inspired, gesticulating with his long fingered hands; there is a hum of creativity around him. You can almost see the words fizzing in his head, feel the ideas taking root, springing up out of nothing and arranging themselves in little groups, to form stories, dramas, like his pots.

The Netsukephotos of some of the Ephrussi collection + family pictures

Article Edmund de Waal on his new exhibition, A Thousand Hours by Jessamy Calkin

Video Watch Edmund De Waal transform clay into beautiful works of art

The Romantics, A Novel

RomanticsAfter so much non-fiction and short stories, from my sick-bed this last week, I was trying to think what I had on the shelf that I could just sink into, a good novel and I thought briefly about Amitav Ghosh’s The Sea Poppies, which I know is there somewhere, but too high on the shelf, too heavy in hardback and so my arm reached out and landed instead on Pankaj Mishra’s  The Romantics.

This wasn’t just about needing to lose myself in a story, I wanted to escape to somewhere exotic but familiar and Mishra offered a view from a rooftop apartment in Benares (Varanasi) India, that instantly awakened pleasant memories, but did so via a young Indian protagonist whom I knew would give me another perspective to life there.

The Romantics is a story about a lost young Brahmin, Samar, whose family for centuries followed the same traditions, having been favoured by a sixteenth-century Mogul emperor who granted them land, passing on their legacy with little thought to the past or the future, tending their land at the foothills of the Himalayas somewhat oblivious to the subsequent twists and turns of history.

My own knowledge of the past went only back as far as my great-great-grandfather, in the last century, but I can’t imagine his own ancestors deviated much from the well-worn Hindu grooves in which he and his son and grandson spent their own lives: studentship in Benares, adulthood and marriage, late-middle-age detachment and then the final renunciation followed by retreat to the Himalayas.


The Ganges, Benares

With India’s independence this well-trodden familial cycle was thrown into disarray, lands and accumulated wealth lost, his father became just another citizen seeking employment. Samar has finished his studies but faces an uncertain future after the premature death of his mother and his father’s announcement that he wishes to spend his last days in Pondicherry.

Samar makes Benares his home and befriends Miss West, an English expatriate, and others who are ‘passing through’, idealist Americans, Buddhist contemplatives and the young Frenchwoman Catherine whom he falls in love with, despite her living with a young local sitar player, whom she imagines she will transition to Paris with.

The reality of my position was made more apparent by Debbie’s reply when I asked her what she was doing in Benares. ‘Passing through,’ she had said, and the words had stayed with me. They had suggested a kind of perpetual journeying through the world, a savouring of life in a way I had no means of knowing, the life itself seeming – as it did in the pictures in Miss West’s room – unimaginably adventurous.

He also makes the acquaintance of Rajesh, a fellow Brahmin, whom he suspects of being involved in shady political or criminal dealings; Samar passes his days between these two cultural thresholds, participating fully in neither, observing himself and others yet not quite able to stop himself from complicating his life unnecessarily, not so different from them all.

CIMG3772Through Samar, Mishra writes with a quiet equanimity which permits us interesting insights into the lives of all the characters,  though his insights do little to prevent him making similar mistakes. Eventually he leaves, after an extended visit to his sick father and finds himself a job in Dharamshala where he will settle, until something reminds him of the past and once again, he will give in to a baser instinct.

The perfect escape novel and always interesting to read about the stayers, young people who went to visit India or any other country vastly different from their own, who end up for one reason or another staying.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Too many days have passed in a fog and even this is hard to write, because I had already written and lost it, so peeking out from the blur of la grippe (flu), I hope I find the inspiration that assisted me first time round.

A Winter BookI came across a review for Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book after spending an evening reading Katie Metcalfe’s sublime poetry here.

Metcalfe is a young contemporary poet from Teesside, in the North of England, who churns out poetry at an astonishing rate and has an abundant talent for getting to the heart of it, all of it, any of it, whatever it is she chooses to write about in that heart-felt way that only poetry can do.

Inspired by the Arctic and snowy landscapes, it was no wonder a book like Jansson’s would appeal to her. And something about it appealed to me too, a collection of tales to read in winter, semi-autobiographical bite sized vignettes of another creative spirit.

The Moomin Family

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was not known to me, but will be known to many as she was the author of the children’s fantasy Moomin books. The Moomins are a family of pale, rotund trolls with large snouts, resembling hippopotamuses. Sniff, Snufkin, Moominmamma, Moominpapa and more, they live in Moominvalley in the forests of Finland and have lots of adventures.

Jansson was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature in 1966.

Her first collection of stories for adults The Summer Book was published in 1972, and this more recent collection spans her writing career, like seaside keepsakes gathered over the years. I now have The Summer Book, but shall make that a seasonal read as well.

The daughter of creative parents, her father a sculptor and her mother an illustrator, Jansson’s own imagination has been given full rein and it comes out in her first stories, which are told from the perspective of a girl, whom I am sure was the author herself. In fact all through the book, I was left more with a feeling of reading non-fiction than anything else. This selection draws from five collections presenting the best of her short fiction.

In one story entitled Snow, she writes of a girl and her mother being snowed in, the light slowly disappearing as the windows are covered up and expresses her delight in having escaped the outside world, warm in the safe and secure presence of her cheerful mother.

“..we have gone into hibernation. Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!”

I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn’t have to worry a bit about what went on there outside.

Jansson spent every summer living and working on a tiny island off the coast of Finland, returning to Helsinki for the more difficult months and clearly spent many summers in boats and on the island during her childhood. Another memorable story was The Boat and Me, she is given her first boat at twelve-years-old and wastes no time in asserting her new-found independence, taking the boat out along the coast to look at her favourite spots from another perspective, with little regard for the hours that pass by or the hearts that might be fretting.

I go slowly, hugging the shore, into each creek and out round each headland; I mustn’t miss anything out because it’s a ritual. Now I’m about to see my territory from the sea for the first time, that’s important.

I pulled up the anchor-stone and rowed straight out into the path of the moon. Of course the moon’s path is lovely as a picture in calm weather, but when it’s rough, it’s even more beautiful, all splinters and flakes from precious stones like sailing through a sea set with diamonds.

And at that very moment Dad turned up…

Tove SquirrelBut my favourite story has to be the one that follows, in a section entitled Travelling Light, signifying the latter years, where annoyance is more likely the emotion of choice to greet uninvited guests in place of the enthusiasm or delight of her more youthful years. Even when that guest is an island-hopping squirrel.

Either I am incredibly gullible or this story will teach you something new about the intelligence of squirrels, as a reader I was right there with squirrel and hoping for the best, while Jansson was lining up his escape options, ill inclined to do anything to encourage the lonesome animal to stay.

She didn’t care about squirrels, or fly fishermen, or anyone, but just let herself slip down into a great disappointment and admit she was disappointed. ‘How can this be possible?’ she thought frankly. ‘How can I be so angry that they’ve come at all and then so dreadfully disappointed that they haven’t landed?’

Not just a quiet, honest collection of stories, but containing wonderful black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes and make us feel the heaviness and significance of that final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women. It is with a quiet sadness but knowledge that many happy hours were spent, that we turn the last page on that final visit.