6 July 2021

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Did you know that Nabokov is one of the top three authors whose books are stolen from a bookstore at the Toronto Eaton Centre?  Their online catalogue showed two titles in stock but there was a gap where 'Nabokov' should have been.  When I asked one of the assistants if the books could be somewhere other than in regular fiction, he offered his theory about their missing status.  He added that theft had risen by 20% since the pandemic, and was extremely sympathetic to the hardship of people out of work saying "there is a lot of need, at the moment".   Once that sad reality had been thought about for awhile I realized I never asked the store clerk who the other two authors are who frequently go missing. 

So how did Nabokov cross my path, you might wonder.  Laughter in the Dark was chosen by Jason Watkins to feature on A Good Read which is one of my favourite BBC podcasts and hosted by Harriet Gilbert.  The other guest on the programme was Yasmeen Alibhai-Brown, who thanked Watkins as she had previously sworn off Nabokov down to her distaste for Lolita (she might have used the word 'hate').  After a few minutes of commentary I thought this novel, first published as Kamera Obscura in 1933, would be a good place to start if I wanted to explore the writing of this controversial author.

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus.  He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

Albert Albinus is an art critic who has lately been occupied by the notion of turning the art of great masters into moving film clips.  Inheriting a sizeable fortune from his father, Albinus lives in a spacious but reserved flat in Berlin with his wife Elisabeth and their eight year-old daughter Irma.  Elisabeth's brother Paul is a frequent guest but his relationship with Albinus isn't an especially remarkable one.

As a young man, Albinus was happy enough but charisma seemed to elude him.  A deficiency he yearns to overcome despite being successful in every other aspect of his life.  A series of dark thoughts runs through his mind, abhorrently involving the death of his wife while she gave birth to their daughter.  With Elisabeth out of the way, Albinus would be free to pursue a young woman and have his wicked way with her - in the marital home, no less.  I know, I know....why should we care about such a callous man after an admission like that?  But I was compelled to learn more.   

Escaping the rut his life has become, Albinus visits the cinema and sees a beautiful young woman working as an attendant.  Margot Peters is a mere seventeen years-old, but has buckets of street smarts having grown up with a shell-shocked father and an abusive mother.  Her older brother Otto and his leering friends can be added to a list of reasons why Margot endeavors to leave home as soon as possible.  With aspirations of becoming a film star, the teen grabs an opportunity to become a life model as a first step to achieve her goal.  Soon afterwards she meets an elderly woman of goodly proportions with a genteel manner by the name of Frau Levandovsky, who really isn't a nice woman at all....

   'You can't do without a boy friend.' declared that lady complacently as she drank her coffee.  'You are much too lively a lass not to need a companion, and this modest young fellow is looking for a pure soul in this wicked city.'

Fast forward to the magnetic pull Albinus feels when he sees Margot working at the cinema after several return visits.  He suggests they get to know one another but Margot plays coy to build anticipation.  She is frighteningly calculated when it comes to getting what she wants.  As is so often the case, Albinus wants to keep both wife and mistress but Margot will not rest until everything that belongs to Albinus, becomes hers.  At the exact moment of her choosing,  Margot sends a letter to Albinus's flat that leaves no doubt as to the nature of their relationship, knowing that Elisabeth will read it. 

From this point on I couldn't put the book down.  The tone of this aptly named story spirals towards an ever darker place when Margot's former lover joins forces with her; it is now two against one in a dangerous game of winner take all.  The arrival of an acquaintance named Udo, while in the South of France, tip the scales in Albinus's favour when he unwittingly reveals the extent of Margot's deceit.  Nothing could have made me put the book down while reading the last few pages.  Laughter in the Dark has made me wonder why I don't read more noir?  It was fabulous.   

There are early whispers of a new film adaptation starring Anya Taylor-Joy.  Fingers crossed!

Pauline Waiting by Sir Herbert James Gunn
1939

28 June 2021

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

This is a quiet gem of a book that I picked up at a nearby United church sale a few years ago.  I would almost bet that I didn't bother to read a single page before tucking it into my bag - it's Penelope Lively.  The blurb on the back cover mentions an incident in which an elderly woman is mugged on a London street.  Similar to the butterfly effect, the act of violence committed against Charlotte (over in the blink of an eye) tips the first domino in a series of events that will impact the course of several characters' lives.  

Charlotte Rainsford is at the hospital waiting for her daughter to arrive.  She takes stock of the items she had in her purse....

   A handful of Three for Two's at Waterstones?  A ticket to Covent Garden?  It'll have to be Upper Circle, I'm afraid.  A subscription to the Friends of the Royal Academy?

By page six I had already decided that Charlotte and I would get along.  I can't quite remember if Charlotte's hip was actually broken when she was pushed over, but in any case she is now on crutches.  Rose makes up one of the bedrooms so Charlotte can be looked after properly while she recover.  With Rose and Gerry's son James working in Singapore, and daughter Lucy away at college there is plenty of space.  Mother and daughter get along but both women silently acknowledge they are looking forward to having the intimacy of their own home again soon.

Busy with her mother, Rose has to take some time away from work as a personal assistant to Lord Peters; he's asked her to call him Henry.  Formerly head of Royal Commissions and advisor to a prime minister Henry is an endearing character in that he is firmly living in the past.  While most of the world has gone digital, Henry is not about to forego his filing cabinet or landline.  Lately he's been toying with the idea of presenting a six-part series on the essence of the Augustan age.  Delia Channing, an executive in broadcasting is mildly entertained by Henry's pitch but will have to find a way of putting the brakes on his enthusiasm.  And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Corrie, Henry's cook whose menu repertoire hasn't moved very far from the 50s.  

Henry's niece Marion steps in to help out as his PA while Rose takes some time off.  During a talk Henry is giving in Manchester, Marion strikes up a conversation with George Harrington, a self-professed 'money man' with an interest in Marion's line of work, sourcing expensive furnishings for wealthy clients.  There is a property in Hampstead he would like to have renovated and would she mind having a look?  

Marion can't believe her luck as the recession has dried up business.  A new prospect might be the turn of events she has been waiting for.  And Mr Harrington is looking decidedly more interesting than her current fling, Jeremy Dalton.  Jeremy is in the same line of work as Marion but he specializes in reclamation.  Being the opportunistic sort, Jeremy has a string of clichés at the ready and little thought for anything other than his own satisfaction.  His sister-in-law is wise to the sort of man he is...if only Gill could convince her sister to remove the scales from her eyes.    

As Charlotte's hip begins to heal, she craves some purpose to her day.  Handing over the leadership role to Rose feels foreign and leaves her feeling worthless.  Charlotte calls the coordinator of the adult literacy course where she teaches with a suggestion....could she tutor one of the pupils while at Rose's house?  Enter Anton, a handsome Eastern European accountant learning to read English so he can move on from his manual labour job on a building site.

How It All Began is a lovely story, the sort that fall into your lap and end up being so much more than you were hoping for.  I never tire of London as a setting and its boroughs came alive as characters went about their day.  Descriptions of shopping on Oxford Street, strolling in Richmond Park or taking in the exhibits at the Victoria and Albert museum cheerfully reminded me of my own visits there.  And Penelope Lively writes sympathetically of the immigrant experience, their effort to fit into British culture.   With Rose as his mentor and friend, Anton learns the finer points of an English picnic and the nuances of vocabulary.  The crew of Polish builders working for Marion on the Hampstead project are hardworking and dedicated, and people flock to Charlotte's adult literacy classes from countries around the world.  But my favourite takeaway sentiment from How It All Began is the beautifully blended storylines of young and old, past and present.

I hope the person who donated this book to the church sale read it before passing it along.  If not, they have missed out. It is a very good read!



Detail from The Schoolroom, 1938
Vanessa Bell

14 June 2021

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

It's raining at the moment so a blog post will come before the garden.  The dogwoods seem to have survived their brutal pruning to cut out a fungus, the rambling rose on the back fence has made a lot of bees happy with its yearly mass of blooms, and on a whim we've recently added a patio pond.  Water lettuce and hyacinths float on the surface while aquatic forget-me-nots and a cattail have been sunk in planter baskets.  An inexpensive pump keeps the water moving and makes a nice trickling sound that makes reading outside even more relaxing.  I had a moment of worry that Kip would think the new mini-pond was either a large water bowl or a small paddling pool but it seems he couldn't care less - which is a relief.

I'm forever drawn to the human element of stories from England during World War Two.  Whether the war is merely a shadow in the background, an inconvenience to the pantry, or horrifically described in a memoir I find it all very compelling.  When Claire of The Captive Reader wrote about The House Opposite on her blog I ordered a copy right away.  In this book, Noble encompasses the minutiae of people living in the theatre of war, the swiftness with which lives can be changed or lost, and she portrays characters in situations frequently shielded from readers in the 1940s.  When Claire wrote that The House Opposite is one of the best of its kind I wholeheartedly agree. 

Elizabeth Simpson has moved back to her parents' home on Wordsworth Road for the duration of the war.  She is employed as a secretary to Alex Foster, of Foster and Rowland Exporters in Soho Square.  Reminiscent of Mollie Panter-Downes poignant Good Evening, Mrs Craven, Elizabeth is having an affair with Alex, who has a wife and children tucked away in Oxfordshire.  At the end of her workday, Elizabeth places the cover on her typewriter, says good-night to her colleagues and waits for Alex at a sherry bar.   When she's not on air-raid duty, Elizabeth spends evenings at Alex's serviced flat, carefully navigating her way home through the darkness and debris.  Yes, dear Reader, a few silent comments were directed towards Elizabeth at certain moments as I read.  

Living across the road from Elizabeth's family are the Cathcarts, hence 'the house opposite'.  Occasionally Owen slips out of his bedroom window to watch the sky light up or look for shrapnel.  He is months away from being called up but instead of an understandable case of nerves,  Owen wonders if being killed in action wouldn't be for the best.  He adores his older cousin Derek in an all-consuming way that causes him to wonder about his sexuality.  Overhearing Elizabeth refer to him as 'a pansy' only increases his anxiety.

Both the Simpson and Cathcart families bear other secrets and Noble's portrayal of their shame is exquisite and palpable.  When Mrs Simpson has to be roused from a slumber during an air raid and the smell of rum permeates the air every attempt is made to spare her any embarrassment.  Who could fail to sympathize with someone trying to calm their nerves during nightly bombing raids?  During two other moments of caring intervention Mr Simpson shines as a supportive beacon when it was needed.  His kind and patient nature a complete opposite to the atmosphere of war and destruction.

Published in 1943, The House Opposite is a bold novel for some of its topics but the author resists allowing elements of melodrama to spill over the top.  Well, there is one moment when a pregnant woman faints due to her condition, something I have yet to see happen outside of daytime television, but it was necessary in playing the character's hand. 

 The way Barbara Noble brought together several themes on an epic scale in only 222 pages is something of a marvel:  heartbreak, unrequited love, deception, vice, compassion, and the value of having your eye on the long game against a backdrop of war.  Keeping in mind Noble had first-hand experience during the war it's difficult not to read her own thoughts into certain passages.....

Secretly, like the majority, they believed in their hearts (but would not dare to say) that bombs were things that fell on other people.  At the sound of one approaching, their conviction wavered but quickly reasserted itself when the immediate danger passed.  Combined with the feeling that it would be flattering to Hitler to appear over-concerned, it was easy to light yet one more cigarette with a steady hand, pick up the dropped stitch, count the tricks and find the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  In any case supposing, just supposing, that the next bomb was meant for you - well, it was meant.  Then and not before.  Why die before you must?

After only a few pages I found it incomprehensible that this book had been out of print.  Thankfully Dean Street Press have rectified that....long may they continue!

A Child Bomb Victim Receiving Treatment (1944) 
Ethel Léontine Gabain (1883 - 1950)

28 May 2021

The Selected Diaries Project....

The weather isn't being kind this morning; it's only 8C with grey skies and rain pelting the windows.  Until this morning May has been hot and dry, surely safe enough to pot flowers, stake tomatoes and plant sunflower seeds.  We can't seem to resist breaking the rule that says anything can happen before June 1 and Mother Nature has thrown us yet another curve.  As soon as I got home from work last night we pulled pots of flowers and herbs close to the house and my Meyer Lemon trees were brought inside.  We're crossing our fingers for everything else, poor things.

After visiting Monks House in Rodmell in 2019, I ordered a copy of Selected Diaries published by Vintage.  It's a title suggested by Hermione Lee on one of my favourite websites Five Books.  Type anything that interests you into the search engine and someone in the know, related to that field, offers their recommendations.  Be warned - you will spend more time browsing than planned.

The idea of having Virginia Woolf's diaries edited down to a single book was appealing but when it arrived I was so disappointed by the very small print.  It was set aside.  But that feeling would creep in every now and then, the thought avid readers with a few unread books on the shelf have, of being struck by lightening and leaving a good read behind.  The only thing to do was just get on with it.  A sunny patio makes all the difference so my goal is to read this collection of entries before being driven back inside to lamp light.    

Content-wise I could easily rip through all 503 pages but suspect the development of an eye twitch would begin by the halfway point.  Breaking this collection into thirds is probably the wisest plan, so rather than one overall review I am noting a few details from 1915 to 1923 that I found interesting for one reason or another....

The shop women are often very charming, in spite of their serpentine coils of black hair.  Then I had tea, and rambled down to Charing Cross in the dark, making up phrases and incidents to write about.  Which is, I expect, the way one gets killed.  (February 1915)

A day of fog in patches.  Last night the worst fog they say for thirty years, and old gents who escaped the raid walked in numbers over the edge of platforms and were crushed.  A cook stepped into the Thames, people walked by rapping our railings to keep the road.  (February 1918)

Monday was as usual a day for London and tea at the Club.  I was so foolish as to fritter three shillings - one and sixpence on the blue penholder with which I write, and when I don't write, suck; one and sixpence on paper, at a grossly extravagant shop in Pall Mall.  I justified these extravagances by the fact that you can get into the National Gallery for nothing.  (July 1918)

I had tea at Gordon Square; then dinner at the Isola Bella; talk with Clive and Duncan, Clive insisting that Eliot dislikes me, and further trying to convince us that Nessa, Roger, himself, Lytton and I are the most hated people in London; superficial, haughty, and giving ourselves airs - that, I think, is the verdict against the ladies.  I admit I hate not to be liked.  (April 1919)

There is little ceremony or precision at Monks House.  It is an unpretending house, long and low, a house of many doors, on one side fronting the street of Rodmell, and wood-boarded on that side, though the street of Rodmell is at our end little more than a cart track running out on to the flat of the water meadows.  (July 1919)

Oh the servants!  Oh the reviewing!  Nelly has vacillated between tears and laughter, life and death for the past ten days; can't feel an ache anywhere without sending for me or L. to assure her that aches are not certainly fatal.  Then she cries.  Never, never, never will she get over it, she says.  The doctor comes.  Innumerable pills and draughts consumed.  Sweats, sleepless nights, recur.  And nothing the matter save what one of us would call an upset inside and take a pill for.  This drives us to accept invitations, since if anyone comes here, the atmosphere lowers.  (July 1920)

To  change the subject, Rose Macaulay dined here last week - something like a lean sheepdog in appearance - harum scarum - humble - too much of a professional, yet just on the intellectual side of the border.  Might be religious though: mystical perhaps.  Not at all dominating or impressive, I daresay she observes more than one thinks for.  Clear pale mystical eyes.  A kind of faded moon of beauty: oh and badly dressed.  (February 1921)

I see I have said nothing about our day in London - Dr Sainsbury, Dr Fergusson, and the semi-legal discussion over my body, which ended in a bottle of quinine pills, and a box of lozenges, and a brush to varnish my throat with.  Influenza and pneumonia germs, perhaps, says Sainsbury, very softly, wisely, and with extreme deliberation.  "Equanimity - practice equanimity Mrs Woolf" he said, as I left; an unnecessary interview from my point of view; but we were forced into it by one step after another on the part of the bacteriologists.  I take my temperature no more till October 1st.  (August 1922)

Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that; and to be more close to the fact than Jacob; but I think Jacob was a necessary step, for me, in working free.  (October 1922)

My diaries project next picks up in 1923, shortly after Virginia becomes acquainted with Vita Sackville-West.

Virginia Woolf's writing desk in the Writing Lodge at Monks House, Rodmell