21 March 2020

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

This is one of those moments in time that will produce stories in the future about what we were doing when, how we coped and how we adapted.  The library has been closed for one week with a proposed return date of April 6 (we'll see).  The grocery stores are in good shape with a limit of two on any one item, gasoline is .72/litre, non-essential stores are closed and restaurants are operating with take-out only.  My husband pointed out during our walk with Kip this morning that he hadn't heard a plane fly overhead.  We've been back home for a few hours and I have yet to hear that familiar hum.

I'm feeling much better after coming down with a cold last week and believe me, the sight of a tissue in someone's hand has never had such an unnerving effect.  In happy news, we've never seen so many people out walking their dogs in the park.  I'm not sure how far afield they're coming from but as long as they're using best practices it's a cheering sight.  And now on with the project at hand.

The setting is eighteenth-century France....

  'In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women.  The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots.'

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is unceremoniously delivered on a hot July day amidst fish heads and guts.  The woman who gives birth to him was never interested in being his mother, walking away only to be arrested and condemned soon afterward.  A strange baby from the very beginning, Grenouille is raised by a wet-nurse until she notices he doesn't smell like other babies.  In fact, he has no smell at all....surely a sign of the devil, so Grenouille is hastily left at the cloister with a priest.  Fostered once again, Madame Gaillard marvels at the boy's ability to survive on watery broth, that he eludes death from childhood diseases, and that he can smell the tiniest of worms in a cauliflower.  When he starts identifying villagers several blocks away by scent alone, Madame Gaillard becomes spooked and packs him off to a tannery in the rue de la Mortelleri,  Grenouille is only eight years old.

After several years of working with foul-smelling hides, Grenouille grabs his first chance to introduce himself to Baldini, a once famous perfumer, while delivering saddle leather.  Baldini used to be a trailblazer in producing heady aromas but his inspiration and vision have been reduced to almost nothing. Grenouille pesters the doubtful perfumer for one chance to replicate a famous scent from his beakers and bottles of distilled oils and blossoms.  Not only does Grenouille replicate the perfume, he then betters it.  Baldini is back in business.

As Grenouille hones his skill as an apprentice perfumer, his own lack of personal scent frustrates him.  He creates a 'perfume' that allows him to blend in among his fellow villagers made from rancid fish, rotten egg, horn shavings, singed pork rinds and animal droppings.  Grenouille is at his most proud when he shoves himself between other villagers while at a celebration and goes unnoticed.

There are novels written so vividly you are able to imagine landscape and place as if you were holding a book filled with photos.  Perfume is fascinating in that, yes there is imagery but its readers are also delving into bold associations of everything that has ever wrinkled your nose or made you lean in closer for a gloriously deep whiff.  Is it a coincidence that while reading this book I bought a bottle of Jo Malone's English Pear and Freesia as well as Fleur de Vigne by Caudalie?  I digress.

Grenouille's pursuit of the purest, most exhilarating scent will also be his downfall because it emanates from girls on the brink of womanhood.  The book's subtitle provides the spoiler.  I suspect it was reading about this young man's neglectful childhood, the way he was exploited, his life spent devoid of any partner, that made me root for his safe get-away while he was murdering young women.  Grenouille is not supposed to be likable but somehow that's what happened.  Sorry.

Perfume:  The Story of a Murderer is unlike anything I've read for a very long time and were it not for the serendipitous find at a library sale I doubt I would have sought it out.  But I'm so glad we've crossed paths....a strangely wonderful book for these days when things are not so wonderful around the world.

Keep well.

This woodcut engraving from the mid-16th century depicts the process of distilling essential oils from plants with a conical condenser. 

The Wellcome Library, London

3 March 2020

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

Listening to a podcast in the middle of the night is my favourite way to fend off insomnia.  It's a rare thing to remember more than a few minutes of an episode so I have to repeat it during my walk with Kip in the morning.  But just over a month ago I put on an episode of The Bookseller podcast.  The guests were discussing titles they were looking forward to when Square Haunting was mentioned.  In less than a minute I was wide awake, on Google, looking up the synopsis and price.  My copy arrived two weeks later.

Of the five women Francesca Wade writes about, I was familiar with one (Virginia Woolf), vaguely familiar with another (Dorothy L. Sayers), and knew absolutely nothing about the other three (H.D., Jane Ellen Harrison and Eileen Power).  Themes running through the stories of each woman's life include the impact of war, inequality, the challenge of expectation as it relates to a woman's place in the home and/or society, and education. Their address in Mecklenburgh Square, and in one case on Mecklenburgh Street was a common link to all five.

To read about incredibly smart women being denied a degree or having their work rated from a male perspective made me feel such frustration on their behalf.  But, in most cases, these women were more than capable of standing up for themselves.

'Later in life, Sayers would ride a motorcycle and dress in masculine attire ('If the trousers do not attract you.' she insisted in an essay, 'so much the worse; for the moment I do not want to attract you.  I want to enjoy myself as a human being.')

Dorothy L. Sayers was certainly interested in having a partner but knew that marriage would result in barriers to her writing that wouldn't be an issue for a man.  She did have a child out of wedlock but there was no question of keeping him with her.  Dorothy was fortunate to have a cousin who fostered children so in time she was asked to look after the writer's son, but he remained a secret.  The drive to write successfully enough to make a living from it meant sacrifices both large and small but Sayers put her moments of penury to good use.   Lord Peter was written as possessing a large income....

'After all it cost me nothing and at that time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him.  When I was dissatisfied with m single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly.  When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.  When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.'

Another woman that Wade researched is Jane Ellen Harrison who left Cambridge University at the age of seventy-two.  She preferred living at the college because there were staff to do the cooking and cleaning which allowed time for study and intellectual companionship.  Although, as wonderful as it is to imagine a life free of domestic chores, Harrison's reason for leaving the college was the endless atmosphere of being treated as a second-class citizen because she was female.  This is a woman who learned to speak an Icelandic language so she could read Norse poetry.  It's outrageous!

I cheered Eileen Power for being outspoken while claiming her worth when offered a new position.

'The vacancy to which Power was appointed in 1921 had been originally intended as a readership commanding a salary of £800; when Power was approached she was offered, instead, the position of lecturer at £500 a year.  When she accepted the job, she expressed her hope that this offer was only the beginning, 'because I can't possibly continue for long making only that in a non-resident post in London.  I do not really think it is good enough for the amount of work.'

She also challenged the bank when they automatically changed her account to her husband's last name upon marriage.  She won the right to keep the account in her maiden name.  I have no end of admiration for this woman.  Indeed, for all of the women written about in this book.

Apparently, the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury wasn't the shiniest or most desirable of places to rent a flat.  Perhaps not to those from the upper classes, but a small flat overlooking a garden was just about affordable for a single woman and certain freedoms would be considered priceless.  The boarding rooms lining the streets and squares were filled with artists, writers, actors and poets; a ready-made community of like-minded people.  Virginia Woolf didn't wholly embrace her new lodgings in Mecklenburgh Square but her move there had more to do with being bombed out of Tavistock Square and she missed her familiar surroundings.

Square Haunting is a fascinating read, striking the right balance of research with intriguing personal detail.  The wider my knowledge of twentieth century authors and artists (specifically women) becomes, the more fun it is to connect the dots, so to speak.  And Bloomsbury is my home of choice while visiting London so I very much appreciated learning more about the history of the area.  The walk to Persephone Books takes me past Coram's Fields so I've just missed Mecklenburgh Square by a couple of minutes.  It will definitely be a stop during my next trip so I can imagine it all.

Finally, thank you Francesca for adding the sigh-inducing act of benevolence on the part of Goodenough College.  I love that they've traced the spot where Virginia Woolf's study would have been within the new building now standing there.

'Now, that room is given over each year to a woman student.  She arrives in London, nervous or excited about what the city may offer her as she embarks on her new course of study.  She crosses Mecklenburgh Square, climbs the stairs, turns the key in the door of her new home, and finds a book sitting on the desk, ready for her to turn the first page:  A Room of One's Own.'

     'Looking down on Mecklenburgh Square' by Margaret Jolliffe

15 February 2020

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Oh how I loved this story.  Blend together a literature-loving middle-class family in Cheyne Walk, a large and loving family of lesser means in Highgate, and a feminist campaigning from Russell Square for the right to vote.  Then add five characters who are either eager to propose, be proposed to, or questioning the point of marrying at all.  With Woolf's clever prose and some snort-inducing scenes of razor-sharp wit, Night and Day is one of my favourites by this author.  And it begins with a tea party.....

'A single glance was enough to show that Mrs Hilbery was so rich in the gifts which make tea-parties of elderly distinguished people successful that she scarcely needed any help from her daughter, provided that the tiresome business of teacups and bread and butter was discharged for her.'

Ralph Denham is a young lawyer, working at Lincoln's Inn.  His invitation to take tea with the Hilbery family in Cheyne Walk is through his association with Mr Trevor Hilbery, for whom he has written a few articles.  As the other guests are over the age of forty, Ralph and Katharine Hilbery are drawn together as young allies.  As the young lady of the house, she provides a short tour of the lounge, pointing out works on the shelves by her esteemed grandfather, the poet Richard Alardyce.  Ralph is quietly awestruck as he would love nothing more than to write.  Katharine has a passion of her own, one that would surely come as a shock to her literary family.....she loves maths, science and physics.

Elsewhere in London Mary Datchet, in her mid-twenties, readies her flat for a gathering of 'free thinkers'.  It's possible that Woolf''s snobbery comes out while describing Mary's clumsiness as a suggestion of country birth and a descent from respectable hard-working ancestors.  Or we can give Woolf the benefit of the doubt and label her description as a humourous one.  Mary is the counterbalance to many Edwardian women in that she is fiercely independent, loves going to work in an office each day, and would rather be a spinster than marry a man for the sake of it.  Ralph Denham appears at her door as a member of the free-thinkers group.  The banter between Mary and Ralph flows easily; they're the best of friends. 

And then there's William Rodney.  He works as a clerk in a government office.  During his time out of office he is a frustrated poet.  He scores full marks with Katharine's parents in this regard but oh he comes across as one of the wettest characters I've stumbled across for some time.  It's been ages since a character has reminded me so much of Austen's Mr Collins.  After some hesitation and inner turmoil (and my silent pleas of 'Oh dear god, no!') Katharine becomes engaged to William.  Being a 'good' daughter during the Edwardian era wasn't easy; her head and her heart are all over the place.  She heeds the words of her parents, but since her acquaintance with Ralph that day over tea he has become unforgettable.  But Katharine's fate is not solely based on a man, she also considers the possibility of a future in the world of equations, something her mother describes as ugliness.  This comes from a woman who swoons over all things to do with Shakespeare.

Another character I thoroughly enjoyed was Aunt Celia.  She pops up now and then to meddle with other people's children because she's got none of her own.  Also, as a point of interest when it comes to London's tea shop history, this is the first time I've come across an A.B.C. tea shop in a novel.  There were at least two hundred of these shops in which a lady could rest and enjoy a cup of tea or small meal without a male escort but it's usually the Lyons Corner Shops that get the mention.

Night and Day is a brilliant novel for anyone looking for an undemanding introduction to Woolf's writing.  Which might be part of the problem.  When it was published in 1919, critics and friends found it to be slightly lacking, a bit light.  It doesn't even rate a mention in my copy of The Reader's Companion to the 20th-Century Novel which is such a shame.  I will be doing my bit to spread the word about this novel, and why a producer at one of the studios hasn't taken a look at this story as a series to get us through the winter, I'll never know.

    Edwardian Portrait of a Woman by F. H. Michael

21 January 2020

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

One of my favourite reads of 2018 was The Rare and the Beautiful.  A non-fiction book about the Garman sisters and their relationships with members of the artsy elite between the wars in London is fantastic.  When I found out that Connolly had a new fiction novel coming out I was interested to see if it would measure up.  Once again the focus is on sisters.

With dual timelines of 1938 and 1979, After the Party tells the story of Phyllis Forrester, her family and the events leading up to her incarceration at Holloway prison.  Unlike the usual path for most inmates, no charges or trial preceded her imprisonment.  A knock at the door followed by police rifling through cupboards and then a hurried push into a police car.  She's horrified to learn that her husband has been hiding a gun in the house.  Both Phyllis and Hugh have been identified as active members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. 

After living in Belgium for several years while Hugh worked for British Rubber, the Forresters and their three children have moved back to Sussex.  Both of Phyllis's sisters have offered to house the family while they look for a new home.  Patricia is a middle-class snob, consumed by appearances and etiquette, whereas Nina is carefree but extremely busy running a camp.  In actuality, it is a camp for Party members.  During the summer it is portrayed as an outlet for summer fun but older children are given pamphlets to hand out while wearing Cadet uniforms.  It's all dressed up as jolly good family fun but the message is clearly the promotion of Fascist ideals.

One of my favourite things about the book is how authentic the restraint of certain characters comes across.  Which is not to say there is a lack of outbursts.  When Phyllis is certain about a dalliance between her husband and someone close to her, but bears it in silence, that sense of a stiff upper lip is portrayed brilliantly.  Many times, when the family is together, it is what's left unsaid that creates the most atmosphere.  And class, status, and labels are everywhere.  A slash of red lipstick on someone considered ever so slightly too young is enough to bring out the smelling salts. 

The more I read, the more it seemed that Phyllis was on the outside looking in.  Except with Jamie, a childhood friend from a working class family.  Playful visits were begrudgingly allowed but he was never going to be appropriate as anything more.   

The combination of sisters, familial conflict, and living in the countryside during World War II reminded me of The Cazalet Chronicles.  I didn't quite feel as though I was sitting in the midst of the room as I did with Elizabeth Jane Howard's sublime novels, but I did enjoy being back in an atmosphere reminiscent of it.  The subject of Mosley, and the inescapable connection with the Mitfords, has piqued my interest enough to do a bit more reading.  That biography on Diana that I found in a church book sale should do the trick.

There are a couple of ways to interpret the title.  After the party might refer to changes in Phyllis's life as a direct result of being involved in Mosley's politics, or a tragic event following a misunderstood encounter at an exclusive gathering.  Either way, I like that the interpretation is yours to decide.

   Oswald Mosley with members of the British Union of Fascists