Lisbon: City of Books

I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:

Lisbon scape 2

This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.

We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.

Lisbon street art
busker in Alfama

We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.

Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.

On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.

I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.

Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.

The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.

Lisbon arch
Igreja do Carmo

In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.

When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.

Lisbon graffitti
street in Alfama

Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?

For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)

Lisbon nativity scene detail
Details from a nativity scene in Sao Roque

Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.

Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.

Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”

Lisbon praca do comercio
Praca do Comercio

I’ll write about The Book of Disquiet next week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.

Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading  Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.

Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

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Jane Austen recast

When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poem The Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.

Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I  thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)

As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.

Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well. But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times32441705. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.

Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. 50398Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.

Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of 14935metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.

Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights 1885
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.

It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the 45032abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.

I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emma least interesting of all the novels. Kelly len6969ds more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.

Kelly is least sure of herself talking about 2156Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).

I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Six degrees of separation

I found this book game on Janet Emson’s blog Fromfirstpagetolast.*  The idea is to start with a book and then see what other book it leads to and so on for six books. They don’t all have to be linked, only each subsequent one.

35529108Lying on my coffee table is Don’t Panic I’m Islamic. I’d heard of this first on Linda Hill‘s blog. Shortly afterwards, I was visiting my son at Goldsmiths, and came across “The Word” bookshop, New Cross Road. I took him inside to show him the joy of browsing in an independent bookshop – his politics are admirable but he doesn’t read enough books. Immediately, in this small one room shop, I found several things I wanted to buy. Yet in Waterstones I frequently come out empty handed, bemused by the vast choice…Has anyone else found this? I believe there’s a theory about it.

Dowd 17Anyway, Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic… It belongs on the coffee table (or in the loo) because it’s a book to dip into. Very funny, in parts. Sad in others, cheeky, angry too. There are poems, cartoons, colouring pages and paintings as well as essays, commissioned in response to President Trump’s travel ban on Muslims. Most contributors are Muslim, though I’m not sure about Carol Ann Duffy or Chris Riddell. My favourite essay was instructions on how to get through US immigration if you’re a gay mixed race man who’s visited Lebanon and Libya that year (the successful strategy will surprise you). It wasn’t the only article on being Muslim and gay, and it struck chords with Queer and Catholic that I reviewed recently. The Word bookshop didn’t have Don’t Panic... (small shops can’t stock everything) but they ordered it which was a good ruse for getting Rob back in there to pick it up for me.

61twx2rf9vlOne they did have, which Don’t Panic… had reminded me of, was The Good Immigrant – which I reviewed here. It also contains references to barriers for BAME travellers at US customs, a sore point well before Trump’s ban. Both The Good Immigrant, a bestseller essay collection last year, and Don’t Panic… offer timely reminders that Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) can be clever, dense, witty, irritating, funny, peculiar, maddening, thoughtful, cruel, compassionate, generous, devout, autistic, dyslexic, able bodied, queer, unhealthy, scientifically-minded, parents, violent, twee…etc…but only a miniscule minority of Muslims (and Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists…etc) are likely to be terrorists.

9780008191153The bookshop assistant (owner?) and I chatted about recent lively, polemical books as I placed the order, which reminded me to ask for Attack of the 50ft Women, which I want to give my son for Christmas. (I think it will be a surprise: he doesn’t read my blog. If it isn’t a surprise, this description of how/why women are STILL not truly equal will fit well with his sociology/media/critical theory/history courses anyway.) 32938157As the Sunday Express review said, “Buy it for yourself, your husband or partner. Most importantly, buy it for your children.” But much as I love them, it’s not out in the cheaper paperback until January – so I browsed other books on what I assume was the minorities/women’s table, and found Words from Wise, Witty and Wonderful Women, a compendium of extracts from Woman’s Hour interviews over the past 70 years. I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it’s another dip-into coffee table/loo book, because on the way home I remembered my friend’s birthday, stopped for paper, sellotape and a card, and took it to her. (There was something cosy and appropriate about being saved from forgetting to buy a birthday present by Woman’s Hour.)

51kykr2uvxlThe same display table yielded Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I’ve already written about at admiring length here, and the paperback of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical. When I got home I realised I’d been given (and not yet read) the hardback last Christmas, so Oxfam did well out of me that day too. I’ve started reading it today, and so far I’m thinking: blimey, this is not the Jane Austen of wet shirted Mr Darcy or gently clopping pony traps! Freud must be rubbing his hands vigorously in his grave (at least I hope it’s his hands) at how Helena Kelly interprets the thoughts of Austen’s Catherine Morland. The Women’s Equality Party could quote her in their manifesto; and Momentum members would enjoy Kelly’s interpretation of Austen’s views on wealth distribution.

32441705So there they are: six – no, dammit, seven – books, tenuously linked. Who’d have thought reading (without panicking) about Islamic drag queens and a Beirut bus driver’s thoughts on Donald Trump’s hair, could lead to Jane Austen?

My choices suggest a penchant for political, radical, left of centre sociology. They make me look like a great reader of nonfiction, but usually I read novels. So I’m tempted to start the game again, with one I read recently, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. If any of you have read that, I wonder where it led you? I bet you can’t guess where it took me…but I’ll leave that for a future blog post.

*Janet Emson found the game on three other blogs. If we add mine, that makes five blogs. Would you like to add yours, and then we’ll have six (or more) book blogs separated only by a link, all playing Six Degrees of Separation with the books they’re reading! What would your six (or more) books be?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Books for older readers

A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”

pennyjenkins-300x225
Singing for the Over 50s
with Penny Jenkins
… fun course is for all singers, any ability, no upper age limit! Rediscover the joy singing brings …make music for many years to come. Benefits to health, happiness, general well-being. 

(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble –  coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)

I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of  comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now  79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).older people 4

However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.

(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)

Older people 1
Book “department” – local Waitrose

Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.

Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I  researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)

As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..

After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first  and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.

 

Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)

But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!

Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.

Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.

402252I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.

Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

A patchwork of King Penguins

Please ask your parents and grandparents if they remember King Penguins. I put a whole set in order last week in my pre move book sort out. My father collected them because they were beautiful and he thought they might one day be worth something. He didn’t use the Internet so sourcing them was a labour of love. It meant paper correspondence with antiquarian book dealers and occasionally going against his natural instincts to root around second hand bookshops (as a man who’d made his living selling new books, he was ambivalent about the second hand trade).

Ian paid between £2 and £8 for most of them, although I found a couple with £35 written inside and Egyptian Paintings (1954 first edition, with dust jacket) was £40. But the set as a whole turns out not to be worth much, which is great because there’s now all the more reason to keep it.

In keeping with the original ethos of Penguin books, King Penguins were designed to be educational, affordable, and portable. They’re like a written form of evening class, that endangered species that used to give so many people so much pleasure. There were 76 of them, published between 1939 and 1959, with hard covers and sometimes dust jackets, and they cost from 1/- (now 5p) to 5/- (you can work that out). The format was simple at first: text at the front, for about three quarters of the book, and then well reproduced colour plates to illustrate it. Later on illustrations appeared among the text as well.

The authors were at the top of their game: taking them down at random Tulipmania is by Wilfred Blunt, then Head of Art at Eton; others are by university professors of Zoology or Art History, or by Keepers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Somehow Dickens sneaks in with A Christmas Carol although the rest of the list is non fiction.

King p 21-24
Volumes 21-24

There’s fun to be had from the juxtapositions: Garden Birds (no 19) next to English Ballet (20), Spiders next to Balloons at 35 and 36; and I think I can see why Magic Books from Mexico might segue into Semi Precious Stones (64 and 65).  Why does Romney Marsh get a book to itself when the Isle of Wight and A Prospect of Wales are the only other regions covered? Misericords and Russian Icons, Highland Dress and Early British Railways may have been Christmas presents for difficult uncles (ending up in charity shops, but I like to think they were carefully studied first). The text is serious stuff, thoroughly researched, didactic in a “come on this journey of discovery” way, sometimes opinionated and designed to be used on the most earnest of field trips. Were the subjects commissioned, or offered? Did they reflect the editors’ interests, or the persuasive powers of a professor lunching an old school chum at his club?

There’s just one for children: A Book of Toys (1946) with perhaps less colour in the overall design than many of the others. Perhaps it wasn’t a success as there were no more, but it’s a very clear account of the history of toys through many lands and epochs. As an ex infant teacher, I did sigh at the use of upper case to make it clear to children though. It’s so hard to unteach them that!

King p toys 2
From “A Book of Toys” by Gwen White, 1946

But what I love them for most is the design. I’d have it on wallpaper, fabric, tea cups any day. You want vintage? THIS is vintage. Here are my favourites – do you agree? Or to see the ones I haven’t shown, look up this list, select and comment below and I’ll add them. Enjoy the show!

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Dirty books and dusty friends

I have lots of dirty books. They gather dust, on their “foxed”  woolly edged yellow pages and their warped covers with water marks where somebody may have read them in the bath. And they smell. Many of them are not pleasant. Yet I seem to have done nothing but chuck out books since just before moving three years ago. Of course, that’s three more years of aging, for the ones that survived the cull.

Now I may move again. Every time I move, bookseller’s daughter that I am, I take care to pack my books alphabetically and by classification, with directions on the box for their destination. (Years ago, a removal man burst out laughing: “French Drama in the Back Bedroom eh? Can I come round when you’ve unpacked?”)

books - ductionary uses
New uses for a dictionary

Yesterday, on a whim, I organised and shelved them properly. You could call it fiddling while Rome burns, as I should have been tidying up for the estate agent to take his photos (despite that old Anthony Powell novel, Books Do Furnish a Room). In this house, there had been so much decorating to do, the books had travelled economy class straight into the loft and been unearthed haphazardly as I felt the need of them. It suddenly seemed important they should take their proper place at this address, albeit briefly. So I had the usual experience of meeting and greeting old friends, despairing how they’d aged, reacquainting myself with loved ones I thought I’d lost, regretting the dear departed, and wondering what I’d ever seen in others.  

Here too were books inherited from my parents: a lovely set of Virginia Woolf, my father’s Proust. Why keep that? I was supposed to read it in French at university (I managed volumes 1,2, and 9), and anyway the Scott Moncrieff translation has been superseded by a new one. But he did persevere with it, because my mother was taking her French degree at the same time and if he couldn’t beat her he’d join her (he never beat her in any sense of the word.) Here’s his “Catch 22” with some original publicity postcards inside it, and my mother’s childhood “Just So Stories” with Kipling’s mesmerising illustrations. 

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Shelving alphabetically gives happy accidents. There’s an MA thesis waiting to be written on what besides the first two letters links MArquez and MAugham, or JM COetzee and Wilkie COllins. (Taking out the Collins, I see it cost 6s 6d and the front is inscribed: “EVERYMAN, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.” That’s timely.) Meanwhile the juxtapositions remind me of my own attendance at the Great Amazon Dinner Party.  Oh NO, here’s my book, sitting to the right of my father’s.

Here’s a full set of “King Penguins”. I think I’ll save them for a blog post of their own. Here are all the Virago Modern Classics. Books King Penguins 2Here are my travel guides and phrasebooks. My dictionaries are redundant, arguably, since the Internet, but they have other uses and it would be sad to offload them after so many distractions in their alphabetical juxtapositions. Here are some old children’s books, also agog for their own blog post, and my father’s novels which I don’t imagine anyone will ever read now. Here are novels that have come with me from London to Brighton, to Paris, back to Brighton, to Dijon, to Sheffield, and then through three moves within London. I can almost hear their fragile pages sighing, “…not again! Don’t move us! Only the dust and grease is still holding us together.” From some: “Why not re-read us, while you’re at it?” And from one or two, despondent, quietly, almost not daring to utter: “Why didn’t you ever open me?”

Books Castro
A book I’ll never read…

Here’s Kafka, sneering in a corner: the move won’t work, first you have to negotiate chains and gazumping and bureaucracy and surveys and searches and gazundering...Here’s Dickens: The house you like squats on a seeping marsh, held up only by the will of the long dead builder, mouldering and grimy and repository of of voluminous secrets and scandals… Here’s Jane Austen: The elegant bow window in which the company took up position with a view to examining the panorama, was thinly glazed and afforded  considerable draughts... Here’s C S Lewis: In one empty room there was nothing but a huge wardrobe, perhaps left behind by previous owners for whom it had been too large to move….Bill Bryson chortles as Dorothy Parker raises a glass sardonically. 

Books in the bedroom…the “children’s” rooms (the ones they left behind), art books in the living room, their reproductions poor by modern standards, their colours dated, their outlines blurred, and yet…this is how many people only ever saw great art, when we travelled less. Even books in the kitchen – the estate agent shakes his head. But surely he won’t mind books in the study?books and art 3

Like the ghosts of old retainers or clinging family my books accompany me from house to house, and I only manage to exorcise a few each time. Those “grown up books” first read and misunderstood as a teenager, those university textbooks, those introductions to teaching theory and translation theory, the light relief novels, the silent books that haunt you, the beautiful writing that’s as satisfying as a picture in an art gallery that pulls you in to look.  The new editions of the few books I loved so much I replaced their worn out predecessors. The relative newcomers (Dunmore, Tremain, Zadie Smith) ask  the old hands: “Is this the start of a lifetime climbing in and out of boxes?” 

Books replaced
Books I replaced with newer copies

The estate agent arrives to take pictures. He’s a chatty man, and his words donate me a new character for a novel I may write : “I have to watch politefully, you know, when my wife’s on the muscle shows.” He prowls, an animal poised for hunting. He crouches in peculiar positions, his camera at odd angles. I must have a querying expression. “Just trying to keep the books out of shot,” he says. So, dear readers, if you don’t like what you see on Rightmove, please find below this blog post an alternative brochure of house particulars, and contact me if you’d like to arrange a viewing.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

More to unite us than divide us

Last week I wrote about a book which resonated. I thought I might feel more detached about Mark Dowd’s just published memoir Queer and Catholic  – I’m neither gay nor Roman Catholic. Nonetheless our common humanity made it both pleasurable and instructive. We do have our age in common – he’s a year younger than I am. It was at university that I was first aware of so many fanciable young men coming out. The same year Dowd was nipping between stints on the adjacent Gay Soc and Catholic Society stalls at the Exeter Freshers’ Fair, I was consoling female friends in the Sussex Union bar when our fellow student Simon Fanshawe didn’t respond to their flirting. Also I did, briefly, go to a Catholic school, where as Dowd found there was relatively little bullying and much gentleness, though he was taught by Brothers rather than by Daisy (Sister Des Anges), Ratty (Sister Mary Raphael) and Revvie (Reverend Mother).

Dowd 17

Dowd grew up the son of northern working class parents, a decade or so after Alan Bennett and David Hockney, contemporaneously with Jeanette Winterson. He began training as a priest but switched to academia and then journalism, a practising but critical Roman Catholic through steady and not so steady relationships,  the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the homophobia of Cardinal Ratzinger, and the revelations of paedophilia in the church (he only came across one instance of this and is otherwise complimentary about the priests who taught him). His tone starts rueful and witty: he knew he was gay, or at least “different” from early childhood: “A Catholic blessed (or cursed) with same sex attraction is rather akin to the orthodox Jew who cannot get the smell of sizzling bacon rashers out of his head, or a fervent Muslim with an irresistible devotion to single malt whisky.” (p.8). See what I mean about common humanity? This is a kind book: to paraphrase Jo Cox, there is more in it to unite us than divide us. So we read his story of adolescent encounters, of fearing discovery, of naivety and disappointment and lust and adoration with, I hope, equal empathy whatever our faith and orientation.

Dowd 6
Handout for visitors to the Tate Britain Hockney exhibition, 2017

A theme throughout is the illogicality of the Catholic church not accepting same sex attraction, when so many of its practitioners are gay and so many of its practices are so attractive to gay men. At his interview for training to be a priest, Dowd is asked if there is anything the college should know about him. In trepidation, he stammers he is gay. “‘Put it this way,’ said Father Weston. ‘I don’t think you’ll be the only one.'”(p. 71)

It’s very funny in parts: the much older partner who pretends for the sake of appearances to be his father and the consequent difficulties of explaining two dads;  the intellectual Oxford Dominican friars who make peach wine in the bathtub; the Vatican priest who greets him with friendship in St Peter’s Square before realising he knows Dowd’s face from a BBC documentary about queer Catholics. It’s very touching: his parents never specifically accept his gayness but they give him brightly coloured nylon double sheets as a housewarming present when he moves in with his partner. Sometimes it’s touching and funny: at the funeral of an AIDS victim friend, the Mother Superior eulogises that his key attributes were “infectious” and none of the mostly gay congregation know where to look.

Dowd alludes with a light touch to the loneliness of longing for both sex and love, against the Church’s requirement of celibacy (for a compassionate and balanced fictional treatment of this, see John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness). His writing is increasingly emotional as the book goes on: where Winterson describes in Why be happy when you could be normal?  the (entirely justifiable) anger she has to resolve, Dowd learns to cry and then what his crying teaches him about himself and others. Anyone who’s read the recent Robert Webb memoir How Not To Be a Boy, or heard Grayson Perry talking about identity will appreciate this openness: Dowd bares his feelings and thoughts to the world with a candidness that is even now unusual. He’s narrated the audiobook himself and my guess is it would be an emotional listen. Think David Sedaris, but with a lot more shared insight. And for the memories of parents and home, think Alan Bennett, or Hockney’s wonderful pictures of his mother. They are all related, and related to us all.

 

The book is political with a small “p”: he discusses others’ research into homosexuality in the Church and poses the question himself: “How can you use the antiquated language of ‘disorder’ about a perfectly naturally occurring minority phenomenon…when you rely on such people to represent Jesus in the daily acts of administering the sacrament?” (p.143). In his BBC career he fronts documentaries about Rwanda and Sarajevo; he discusses male mental health and goes to El Salvador to help set up a radio station in a remote and poverty stricken area. But there is always a light touch, a joke, an anecdote, to help us through the darkest moments.

11395597It’s one to be read in conjunction with others: try Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit which jollies along in the caricature which was all the young Winterson could bear to reveal of her childhood, and the much darker Why Be Happy when You Could Be Normal? which tells us what really happened. The  title is a quote from her fearsome adoptive mother. Read it in conjunction with what Alan Bennett does NOT say; read it in conjunction with the fiction of John Boyne and Elena Ferrante. Read these books whether you are gay or straight or trans or whatever; whether you have faith or none; whether you are old or young or left or right wing or “apolitical”.

“…to this day the brass crucifix that my parents had given me, a holy communion present when I was seven…remains unstable and slightly skew-whiff on account of a botched repair job with the superglue.” (This after using it as a missile during a row). “So when I see the good Lord staring at me at an odd angle, I think of torrid times with Pablo and the brokenness of fallen humanity.” (p175)

Dowd 15

I think that means there’s hope for us all.

©Jessica Norrie 2017