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?

In the Springtime of the Year

I seem to have been reading through the seasons this year, starting with Edith Wharton’s winter read ‘Ethan Frome’ then Susan Hill’s ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ and finally Wharton’s ‘Summer’. I don’t know yet what will appear for the one season that is missing but I am open to suggestions, is there a title that comes to mind for Autumn, the Fall? I am sure one must exist.

‘In the Springtime of the Year’ is a metaphor for existence, growth and renewal; after one dreamy year of marriage in which no one else but her husband seems to exist for the young bride, 19-year-old Ruth has become a widow, after Ben is killed in a freak accident. The pages carry us through Ruth’s grief, the calm, dormant stillness where she is frozen in her grief, unable to cry or speak, or be comforted by anyone. She doesn’t understand why they don’t understand this. While her husband’s family pour out their grief vociferously, they judge her silence as showing no feeling. Slowly her awareness returns and rises to the surface, she begins to see beyond her own immovable pain, to appreciate anew all that is around her, she is able to revisit the scene without suffering.

Susan Hill deftly captures each nuance of the young girl’s slow changing movement through her phases of grief, until like the branches of the tree that must eventually bud no matter how harsh the winter, she transforms and begins to emit a different vibe. She is witness to what she was and sees it anew; she develops an understanding for how others may have perceived her. She is able to make amends.

Rambling along in its quiet way, poetic line by line, Ruth’s perceptions change so subtly that when there is an actual event, it seems all the more dramatic for its contrast with the inner world we have been languishing within.

I first read of Susan Hill in a profile interview in Mslexia Magazine in January 2011, she had just published ‘A Kind Man’ and while visiting Daunt Books in London that same month, I spotted the slim hardback, which thanks to the lovely G and an approaching birthday came home with me along with Jenny Erpenbeck’sVisitation’. Since ‘A Kind Man’ I have equally enjoyed ‘The Beacon’ and ‘The Woman in Black’ and recognise that it is her style of writing that appeals so much.  This book was originally published in 1974 and has been rereleased in this Vintage edition.

All the books are situated similarly, in a small, poor village in rural England where not much happens except that we become witness to the inner transformation of characters after an event.  I would not suggest you read this however, if you’re looking for action, pace or plot, this is an inner journey. And it’s perfect as it is.

The Woman in Black

Long awaited and much anticipated (by me), Susan Hill’s ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’, though first published in 1983, is experiencing something of a revival with the film premiering this month and the ghost story genre currently ‘à la mode’.

Adapted to the stage in 1987, the play has been running continuously since then (it is the second longest-running play in the history of the West End of London), thus I have been eager to discover what lies between the slim covers of this intriguing book myself, since reading ‘A Kind Man’ and ‘The Beacon’ last year and becoming a fan of her books.

Knowing that Susan Hill is one of those writer’s whose work and combination of words I like to savour, I take my time and let the language wash over me, as I come to know Arthur Kipps, while he sits by the fire on Christmas Eve listening to his stepchildren narrate ghost stories. Though it is a festive occasion, a grain of discomfort winds itself between the lines on the page and there is a flicker of an unwelcome presence, a glimmer of something he does not wish to recall, despite being far removed from his past now.

The story unfolds as we are taken back to his early days as a young solicitor, journeying to the cold, misty, windswept marshes of Crythin Gifford where he must wind up the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs Alice Drablow. Ever prosaic, he takes the responsibility in his stride and tries to ignore the reluctance of locals to engage with him or have anything to do with the matters of the deceased widow and the eerie Eel Marsh House.

While I very much doubt that I will be seeing the film, though I am sure it is excellent and well-made, utilising known techniques to ensure viewers experience ever heightened tension, heartstopping anticipation and chilling unease to elicit that emotionally wrung out feeling – I say this if like me, you have an acute sensitivity to music which accentuates all those senses (I succeed in scaring those who weren’t scared by the movie), I do love how Susan Hill uses details of nature and the physical environment to keep the reader and her protagonist grounded in reality.

There is no music accompanying the reading of this book and so I too hang on to that ambiguous reality. When Arthur visits Eel Marsh House and for practical purposes stays the night (yes, he is rather stubborn), he reassures himself and us by opening all the windows, understanding the layout of the house, going for a walk, venturing out in the dark against his better instinct only to be confronted with something that may or may not be able to be explained. And it’s not just him, even Spider the companionable dog responds to the lure of noises that sound familiar but could indeed be sinister.

It’s the perfect ghost story, because so much is left up to the interpretation of the reader, you can be a believer or a non-believer and regardless come away from this story feeling intrigued, satisfied and wanting to talk to someone about how you understood it. I am already looking forward to the next Susan Hill book that comes my way.