Sunday, 17 January 2016

EVENT: THE BOOKS THAT BUILT LOUIS DE BERNIERES. 9TH FEBRUARY 2016

Louis De Bernieres

Louis de Bernieres is the best-selling author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, Birds Without Wings and A Partisan's Daughter.  Throughout his life he has written about matters of the heart, and with poetry his first and greatest literary love, he is about to publish a beautiful collection of love poetry: Of Love & Desire, with influences ranging from Pablo Neruda to the classical Persian poets. I have been dipping into the collection over the Christmas and New Year break, and it's evocative, lyrical and alternately witty and poignant: I adore it - it's quite rekindled a long dormant love of poetry in me.
Here is one that particularly touched me, called A Short Night

[After Sappho]
I do remember that night that fled so fast,
When we were golden, beautiful and young,
When dawn surprised us from her yellow throne
And filled the room with gathering song.

Your face shone back at me, your lovely hair
Spread out across your breasts, your hand caressed
My face. You said, Let's always remember this.'
I said, 'I wish these nights were twice as long.'

  
Of course, Louis is best known for his novels - from the inventive magical realism of his early novels set in South America to the captivating Captain Corelli and The Dust That Falls from Dreams. His trademark wit and charm, coupled with his brilliant characterisation and great skill with language have made him one of our best-loved authors, and I can't wait to discover the books that he loves too. There's something of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts - will 100 Years of Solitude be one of the books that built him?

Join us on 9th February as we talk about how the books Louis de Bernieres loves meet the books he writes.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

LEMMY AND ME

 

'Stop. Cut. Jesus, whatever directors usually say.' The director, raking his hands through floppy, Brideshead hair, frowned wearily in the general direction of Lady Bracknell. 'Try 'A handbag.' again, and this time, less 'Kenneth Williams plays Edith Evans', more - I don't know - more bewildered.'

'A handbag?' [faintly]

'No, that won't work either. Try sounding exasperated'

'A handbag.' [plaintively]

'Christ, how many times? No sodding Edith Evans. Go again.'

'A handbag' [challengingly] 

'No.'

'A hand ... bag?' [tentatively]

'No'

'A handbag.' [wearily]

'And again.'

Rehearsals for the University Drama Society's production of The Importance of Being Earnest were not going well. It wasn't simply that the director's expectations were bafflingly high: Rehearsal Room B was right behind the main stage of the Student Union and any Lady Bracknell would struggle to make herself heard against a Motörhead sound-check - UEA being the default East Anglian concert venue in those days, the band were due on later that evening and from the sound of it were rehearsing as hard as we were.
Anyway, our director, flushed with the triumph of his 'Look Back in Anger' the previous term - some even said the cast's heroic battle with a collapsing ironing board added a symbolic dimension - was determined to put his own stamp on Wilde's classic - perhaps he hoped people might later refer to it as 'The Jonty Jones' Importance'. Jonty had updated the production to the nineteen twenties - motivated less by artistic intention than by availability of costumes, most of which had done service in last year's  Present Laughter. He cast a man as Lady Bracknell - very radical for the 1980's - and we had instructions to rehearse wearing a part of our costume, and with the odd prop so that we might better inhabit the role and collapse the artificiality of Wilde's mannered dialogue. I'm afraid, as Gwendolyn, I didn't take this terribly seriously; the best I managed at rehearsal was to fish a Letts diary and a pair of broken spectacles from my pocket ('Mama, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short sighted') but others of our troupe were more method. An aspididstra appeared. Miss Prism invariably brought a toaster, so we might eat muffins unrepentantly in the second act, there was a battered briefcase (barely big enough to have concealed a baby in a railway station cloakroom but still), Canon Chasuble had borrowed a chasuble from a friend at the Cathedral, Jack Worthing had taken up smoking ('a man must have an occupation of some kind') and Lady Bracknell wore a large picture hat, white gloves, a feather boa and a Cupid's bow of scarlet lipstick beneath his moustache. Our director had the added challenge of directing himself as Algenon, and wore tweed plus twos and a ritzy pair of co-respondent shoes. No one brought any cucumber, there being none available, not even for ready money.

Every term, the cool kids in DramSoc got to do a Brecht or a Beckett for an audience of about seven and to rave reviews from the university paper's drama critic, who smoked a pipe and referred to himself entirely unselfconsciously as 'channelling the late, great Kenneth Tynan'. Every term, the less cool but more commercially-minded members of the society underwrote the inevitable losses of Great Art with a play that guaranteed bums-on-seats: the people of Norwich would turn out for endless Coward or Wilde at a tenner a ticket and so we balanced the books. Credibility was sacrificed on the altar of a full-house and cash-flow traded for predictably poor notices: there was little evidence of a Tynan-shaped Spirit Guide in the critic who wrote after the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, 'Jonty Jones' Algernon Moncrieff has all the aplomb of a wet Labrador in a production neither important nor earnest.' Fortunately, no one read the University newspaper, and as any actor will tell you, rapturous applause trumps a would-be hack's savaging any day of the week. Fortunately, as long as it was Wilde or Coward and nothing too avant-garde, and you said the lines and didn't fall over the furniture, the good people of Norwich would still come and see it, regardless of how you tinkered with the detail, and were very good at clapping, particularly if you added a strong clacque of parents to the middle of the stalls.

So there we were, less than three weeks to curtain up, full of enthusiasm, telling ourselves that saying our lines against the thrash of drum and guitar was good practice for projecting to the back of the circle, as Jonty Jones became more and more frustrated by the delivery of the play's most famous line, his tweeds bristling with artistic ill temper.

'Let me hear it again.'

'A HANDBAG' 
Lady Bracknell burst into noisy tears at the very moment the rehearsal room door was flung open by a skinny, long-haired, rather grubby looking man - be-jeaned and be-leathered. 'What the fucking fuck is this?' he said. 
'Lemmy. Blimey. I mean, gosh, Mr erm ... Lemmy,' Jonty Jones glided obsequiously towards Motorhead's lead singer, flicking back the Brideshead hair, 'How do you do?'
Lemmy ignored the outstretched hand and glared terrifyingly at the assembled company. Seen through his eyes we were a sorry sight, like refugees from the set of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum. With the exception of Lady Bracknell, who stopped sobbing and gave Lemmy a saucy, appraising look from underneath the brim of the picture hat, evidently harbouring fantasies of being carried off on the back of a Harley, we all imagined he might call the roadies in to give us a good going over with a length of bicycle chain. 'What the fuck are you doing in my Green Room?' Said Lemmy.
'This is a rehearsal of The Importance of Being Earnest - do you know Wilde? Er, no?  Well, you'll find the Green Room on the other side of the corridor - just go back out and the door is right in front of you.'
Lemmy turned on his cowboy boot heel and stalked off. As he slammed the door  behind him, the opening bars of 'Eat the Rich' came pounding through the breeze blocks that separated us from the gig.

Jonty Jones undid and re-tied his cravat in a more pleasing shape and turned back to Lady Bracknell.
'Lady Bracknell, Jack? Let's take it from "You can take a seat, Mr Worthing"' 

Monday, 4 January 2016

BOOK RESOLUTIONS 2016

The Box Set: A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time is a captivating, witty, caustic glimpse into the upper reaches of British society beginning sometime after the end of the First World War and ending in the sixties: it's somewhere between Proust A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga and, like both, runs into volumes, individually of varying brilliance, but a masterpiece taken as a whole. I read the First Movement last summer - the twelve novels of the cycle are much more easily digested in four parts. Don't be tempted to set yourself a target of a book a month for twelve months: like a good telly box-sets, it's designed for bingeing on, gobbling as much of its deliciousness as one can manage in a single sitting. It's not for ekeing out into smaller portions, not least because one will lose track of the marvellous and numerous characters who wander in and out of the narrative, and whose rediscovery at different points in their lives is one of the many pleasures of this great literary treat.

The Greatest British Novel (as voted for by the rest of the world)*: Middlemarch, George Eliot
I'm ashamed to say I've read very little George Eliot: I can only think it's laziness. Middlemarch is not a short novel at nine hundred pages, and it's utterly impossible to skim read it, as I discovered when Deborah Moggach chose it as one of her Books That Built Me. I read enough to recognise why Moggach loves it so, and why Woolf described it as "a magnificent book... one of the few English novels written for grown up people.' I began it anew over the New Year break and resolved to read and savour slowly - it is a literary superfood after all.   
*the BBC recently polled 82 critics from Australia to Zimbabwe, but none from the UK, to discover the greatest British novel (from a non-British perspective) - see the list here

The Blind Spot: Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
I didn't dare confess to Susan Hill, a Dickens devotee, that I had never read Little Dorrit. Nor did I let on that I was secretly relieved when she swapped Little Dorrit for A Christmas Carol for her Books That Built Me. However, if she feels it is Dicken's greatest novel, that's good enough for me. 

The 'Greatest comic novel of the twentieth century': Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

Fond as I am of other members of the Amis family - Elizabeth Jane Howard, Martin Amis - I've boorishly written off Kingsley as too misanthropic and curmudgeonly to be bothered with. This breaks one of my few rules; to judge the work and not the artist and I'm rather ashamed of myself.
Christopher Hitchens believed Amis managed to 'synthesise the comic achievements of Evelyn Waugh and P.G Wodehouse' in Lucky Jim, and Amis remains one of only two comic novelists to have won the Booker Prize (the other is Howard Jacobson). So, I shall give it a go,

Saturday, 2 January 2016

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, VIRGINIA WOOLF



I've re-read To The Lighthouse twice this year - first for Deborah Moggach's Books That Built Me, and then again for Susan Hill's. 

It's Woolf's crowning achievement, I think. As a devotee of Mrs Dalloway, it has taken me a while to see that, but it is true.  Woolf herself wrote to Vita Sackville West "the dinner party the best thing I ever wrote: the one thing that I think justifies my faults as a writer...". She also sent her a copy inscribed, 'in my opinion the best novel I have ever written'. Inside Vita found all the pages blank. 

I fell across a letter of hers to Roger Fry earlier today, written towards the end of May, 1927, a few weeks after its publication -

"My Dear Roger, 
[...] I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions - which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can't manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether it's right or wrong I don't know, but directly I'm told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. [...]
Yr
V.W"

I promise I will write in more detail about Susan Hill's Books That Built Me before this year is much older, but one of the things she and I discussed in relation to Woolf, and particularly To The Lighthouse, is that an author must learn to trust the reader, to not feel compelled to spell things out, to take them from A to B to C, but to understand that the reader is clever enough to feel their own way, to pick up the trail of clues - to 'make it the deposit for their own emotions'.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

ADVICE FOR WRITERS II

At Susan Hill's Books That Built Me the other week week she said, 'the best way to learn to be a writer is to read books by writers far better than you'll ever be'. As a teenager, fixed on a literary calling, she went to the library in search of a book which might tell her how to be a writer and found Woolf's A Writer's Diary. It seems to have done the trick - before Hill was out of her teens she had published her first novel, reviewed by Elizabeth Jane Howard in Vogue, no less, since when she's written and published fifty six books.

So, if I've learned anything from the (nearly) two years of hosting The Books That Built Me, it's that inside every great writer is a careful reader - their craft honed on careful study of those 'books by better writers'.
One sees Susan Hill's admiration for Woolf in her precise, economic prose - the reader is never led by the hand, but has to dart behind the author, catching signs and clues in a conspiracy of reader and writer. Think of how she effortlessly conjures a disquieting, malevolent atmosphere, and then keeps on turning the screw. It is there in I'm the King of the Castle or Strange Meeting as much as it is in her ghost stories, her craft honed by a lifelong passion for Dickens' dank courtyards, misty Kentish marshlands, Marshalsea Prison, the flat, grey Lincolnshire wolds.

So, the best advice for would-be writers is to read, and read well. It doesn't necessarily mean excluding all but canonical texts, restricting oneself to a diet of Woolf, Proust, and Eliots George and Thomas. It does mean reading 'best in class'  - if you aspire to domestic noir, read Gone Girl and Before I Go To Sleep but also try Daniel Deronda and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (for the latter, look no further than Sam Baker's 'The Woman Who Ran', published next month); if crime fiction is your thing, read Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe as well as Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin.

If you want to write, read.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

MOTHER'S LITTLE HELPER


Is it too early for a Negroni?
No, I rather thought not.

The Trefusis Negroni
15ml Campari
15ml Martini Rosso
15ml Gordon's Gin

The Trefusis Negroni differs very little from any other kind of Negroni - it's simply a little smaller because I lost the cocktail jigger, so resorted to using a tablespoon, which halves the usual quantity of alcohol and means one can have a second Negroni without fear of falling into the hedge the minute one steps outside.
 After much experimentation, a fairly ordinary gin like Gordon's works better than the swankier Tanqueray/Bombay Sapphire etc where the botanicals fight with the Campari & the herby Martini Rosso. 
The other moderate Trefusis variation is a marvellous golf ball of ice - the Negroni is particularly delicious when very, very cold, and these vast ice globes chill it fast and melt slowly. They're by Tavolo and are easily available on Amazon.

Shove in a slice of orange. 

Drink.

Feel better. 



Sunday, 6 December 2015

THE GOOD SOLDIER, CECCONI'S, WILTONS - NICE PLACES TO READ BOOKS

Cecconis, Mayfair, home of the finest Negroni this side of Milan.




"This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The opening of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, is up there with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen" as one of the most memorable first lines in fiction. It's also one of the most misleading; you assume it's a statement of fact - but you're no further than the end of the first chapter before you begin to question its trustworthiness. Dowell, the book's narrator, is not simply telling the story, he is the story - so from whom has he 'heard' it? From that moment, the reader begins to suspect that Dowell may be at best a compromised narrator, and at the least, unreliable, albeit in a sense that he doesn't always 'know how to put this thing down.' 

On the surface, the story seems not to be complicated: two well-born couples, one English, the Ashburnhams, one American - John Dowell and his wife Florence, meet at a German spa town, where they become 'a four-square coterie' and spend a companionable 'nine years of uninterrupted tranquility' together until it's discovered that Florence Dowell has been having an affair with Captain Ashburnham, the 'Good Soldier' of the story. But Ford's great skill lies not in exploring the nuances of a conventional love-triangle (love quadrangle?), but in unpicking, and gradually revealing and concealing and revealing again in Dowell's uncertain, bumbling impressions, confessions and revelations, the empty, desolate heart of both marriages. It's a story in which there are neither heroes nor villains, only delusions, self-deceptions and tragic, shameful concealed truths. The Ashburnhams - 'quite good people' - haven't said a word to each other in private for years, yet appear to be a model couple - Florence Dowell's ill-health for which her husband has worked to create a 'shock-proof world' is nothing more than an elaborate charade to conceal an illicit relationship pre-marriage. Yet their spouses aren't deceived innocents, but utterly complicit. It is the saddest story.

 So where are we with the 'ever heard'? In as much as Florence has deceived Dowell, he has conspired with the deception. Leonora Ashburnham goes out of her way to constantly uncover her husband's philanderings and debts whilst rigorously maintaining the front of being 'quite good people' and behaving as quite good people might be expected to. Dowell is different - he refuses to believe the evidence in front of him, he is immune to his wife's aunt's dark warnings and seems almost able to ignore the truth of Florence's past when a perfect stranger blurts it out to him. So he has had to be told, he has had to listen to his own story, and that distancing 'that I have ever heard' underscores the tragedy, it is something he has heard, it is hearsay, it may not be true?

Julian Barnes calls Madox Ford 'a proper reader's writer' - I love him because I enjoy his ingenious manipulation of the reader - he's not considered a modernist, and yet, on the evidence of The Good Soldier, I challenge anyone not to garland him with as many laurels for technical brilliance as Woolf or Joyce. Susan Hill with whom I'll discuss the book tomorrow at her Books That Built Me calls it 'the perfect novel form'.  I keep coming back to The Good Soldier and every time I'm blown away by Ford's extraordinary control over his novel - it is perfection, and I always wonder, 'just how does he do it'.


I managed to read The Good Soldier in some marvellous places - Cecconis, where the treat of a Negroni and a few chapters of The Good Soldier late one afternoon ( scandalously early for drinking cocktails) managed to restore my equilibrium after a shoddy day - and Wilton's, which is such a fixture of The London dining scene one can quite imagine the Ashburnhams dining there. It is heaven - here below is what they say about themselves. 
Its current Jermyn Street location, in the heart of St James's, is ideally suited to its clientele, which includes members of the government, businesspersons, film stars and British aristocracy. Service is discreet, professional and welcoming."

I tried to look like a member of the aristocracy but suspect I only managed 'businessperson'. Anyway, I drank an excellent glass of champagne and finished the Good Soldier as my good friend Wendy arrived to much feting and slaughtering of fatted calf by Wilton's  - they look after their regulars very well.