Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bits of Spark

On Monday, one of my colleagues at the library was emptying a courier box full of books and two of them were for me.  The Everyman's edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie comes with The Girls of Slender Means which caused me to do a little happy dance right there on the spot.  This Muriel Spark Reading Week is going to have an extended run at my house.

Last night I took Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel up to bed with me and flipped randomly through episodes of her life...and death.  Is it just me or does anyone else take a nosy little leap to the end of a biography to despair over the subject's demise?    Oh this is a complex and fascinating woman to say the least.  When she was nineteen she met thirty-two year-old Sydney Oswald Spark who was planning to emigrate to teach in Africa.

'Muriel was attracted to this exotic prospect and to his apparent lack of machismo.  She had no intention of becoming a housewife.  He promised servants to leave her free to concentrate on her poetry.  Above all, she wanted to escape from Edinburgh and its claustrophobic social microcosm.'

After a year of 'chaste courting' they sailed aboard the Winchester Castle but all was not bliss.  Muriel flirted with a young South African on the boat, things went far enough that his parents invited her to stay and marry the young man.  I'm not sure what her intended knew, or thought, about all of this.  Perhaps she should have entertained the idea.  Her wedding night with 'Ossie' was horrible, she had no idea he became violent while he was drunk, he also had a revolver which he liked to fire off in the courtyard.  Apparently Africa brought out a wee bit of machismo in the man.  He also hid the fact that he had been seeing a psychiatrist before the marriage from Muriel.  Two months into the marriage she discovered she was pregnant and things went from bad to worse.

I love having Spark's short story collection at hand as this paragraph has enticed me to begin reading A Member of the Family.

'There is a fragment of Muriel's psyche in both characters: the tough and skeptical woman and the sociable 'girl'...who loved loved her accessories and delighted paralysing people with charm.  Indeed, after that Murray interview, Muriel decided to rejuvenate herself.  Photographs of her over the next decade appear to reveal her steadily increasing youth.  Unlike Trudy, however, she did not do this to catch men but to maintain her independence, to escape the judgemental eye, and for the sheer pleasure of perfect form.  It was a magnificent mask, a game, a defence.  It was fun.  It was her public image.  If language was power, so too was beauty.  As the artist at home she would slop about in jumpers.  When she left the safety of Mrs Lazzari's house or invited guests to it, she dressed to kill.'

I have so much admiration for people who come from humble beginnings but go on to achieve great things or wade through insurmountable odds to emerge at the top of their desired field.  Muriel Spark had incredible drive but paid heavily along the way it seems and there is still so much of her biography to discover and be fascinated by.  Has this reading week spurned you on to learn more about Muriel Spark's life or writing?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Hireling by L.P. Hartley

Who loves being drawn in by a splendid cover and then experiencing an absolutely fantastic read?  My Penguin edition featuring the Cecil Beaton photo on the front was just too enticing too resist.  Having never read anything by L. P. Hartley before I simply took a chance and plunked down my money.  Both the book and the author have been wonderful discoveries so in this case chance paid off in spades.

While a particular year is not detailed in the book it is set some time after The Great War.  Lady Franklin is still in her twenties but the sudden death of her older husband has left her feeling depressed, isolated and extremely guilty.  Like you do when your husband dies while you're out dancing the night away at a cocktail party.  She is advised by a doctor to seek out conversation, with strangers if need be, to prevent herself from withdrawing further from society.  Hiring a car to drive her out to Canterbury so that she can admire the Cathedral as a way of paying tribute to her husband's love of architecture she meets Stephen Leadbitter.

Initially the driver is not an easy fellow to warm up to.  Being a hardened ex-army officer he is adept at keeping his emotions carefully in check while Lady Franklin's endless chatter about love and loss grates on his nerves.  While the driver's ego is fed by women finding him attractive, Leadbitter has a disdain for women that reaches back to childhood.  When Lady Franklin begins to ask him about his home life, Leadbitter selfishly thinks the tips will be more generous if he spins a somewhat spiteful yarn to placate his client.  And so the lies begin. 

If only this were one of those charming stories resulting in a coming together of the class divide but the plot does thicken.  There is another layer of deceit against Lady Franklin by two of her acquaintances, Hughie and Constance, which Leadbitter overhears while on duty.  To a man whose loyalty has always been to himself this raises a measure of inner conflict.

There were times while reading this story that I read at a frantic rate to find out what would happen next.  I love those moments with books when not even the house crumbling around you could separate you from the plot at hand.  Hartley expertly pushed all the right buttons and then delivered a coup de grace ending that left me feeling completely wrung out but not to worry, the residual feeling is one of hope.  I have to say the feeling was reminiscent of another excellent read, To the North by Elizabeth Bowen. 

Do not let this book languish on your shelf if you own it and if you don't then buy it, borrow it, or sign out a copy from the library.  You can thank me later.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

There just isn't enough time in the day to read as much as I would like to so generally I steer clear of reading challenges and just go where the pages take me.  But when the bloggers who have given me so much host a challenge there is no question - I'm in. 

As many of you are aware, Simon from StuckInABook is hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week from April 23 - 29.  I am also excited that Harriet is co-hosting as her blog has become another favourite place for me to drop by and discover new book titles or lovely art.  Last but far from least, Thomas designed the gorgeous button everyone has been posting in support of what is surely to be an informative and entertaining reading event.

The reason I chose A Far Cry From Kensington is two fold.  First, it was the only title by this author on the shelf at the library branch where I work.  Second, when Virago issued their clothbound 30th anniversary editions in 2008, I had no idea who Muriel Spark was so I passed this title by.  Shocking, but still, I can't be picking up every book with a pretty cover on the off chance I'll be totally enamoured with the writing at some later date now can I?  Better late than never though, it must be said.  So without further ado...

It's 1954 and Mrs Hawkins is a widow, her husband killed during World War II.  Despite being only in her mid-twenties she exudes an aura of someone older with her comforting advice and generous waistline.  Her fellow residents in the rooming house located in South Kensington are much like an extended family with a varied cast of interesting characters (but aren't we all?).  Mrs Hawkins spends her working day in a converted Queen Anne house which is the office of Ullswater Press, a small publishing company.  Her travels throughout various neighbourhoods of London made me want to do something silly and click 'Book Now' on the British Airways website.  I digress.

One day while strolling in Green Park, Mrs Hawkins is approached by the annoying Hector Bartlett who is a tad over-confident about his writing skills.  Knowing that Mrs Hawkins works at Ullswater Press he strikes up a conversation with her but is quickly struck down with the cutting moniker of 'Pisseur de copie', the translation being something like 'urinates frightful prose'.  A statement which became more hilarious every time I knew it was about to be handed out since Mrs Hawkins is nothing if not faithful to her assessment of this pest in a suit.

Back at home, the tenants of the rooming house are faced with a mystery when Wanda, the Polish dressmaker, receives an anonymous letter.  She is threatened with exposure to the authorities for not disclosing her business details and income.  As everyone speculates about who this mysterious person(s) could be, Wanda's paranoia grows.  As horrifying and sad an image as this could be, Spark has employed clever humour and made the storylines one of the most delightful combinations of mystery/whimsy/comedy I've ever had the pleasure to read.  Perfect stuff for chasing away rainy day blahs or cuddling up with during dratted flu episodes so don't pass up an opportunity to add it to your bedside table.

Thanks to Simon for bringing yet another wonderful author to my attention.  I've read that Loitering with Intent is another popular choice in Sparks' oeuvre but if you have another particular favourite, please share with the rest of us.  The more the merrier!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Brightness by Elizabeth Jenkins

'...Marion Sugden, whose house it was, produced a cigarette pack from her bag; the cigarette she put into her mouth was the last, and she threw the empty packet with its pulled-out silver foil and tissue-paper on to the grass, chucking it as far as she could, for naturally she did not want the litter just outside her own front gate.  The weightless object dropped too near for her satisfaction, and she took a step after it, scuffing it with her toe a little farther off.'

Persephone Books has just reprinted Elizabeth Jenkins' book Harriet which I look forward to reading but in the meantime it is another of her books which has been occupying my time.  After stumbling upon a gorgeous black Virago edition of The Tortoise and the Hare two years ago and quickly becoming a fan of Jenkins' style of writing, I went back and scooped up Brightness for 75¢.  It's worth ten times that amount and then some.

Una Lambert lives in wind-swept New Broadlands with her son, Richard, just out of his teens.  Her husband drowned while serving as a naval officer barely two years into their marriage leaving her a young widow.    Raising her son while being useful to her neighbours and community keeps Una from feeling lonely.  She could not be more opposite in values to Marion Sugden whose family is very much part of the 'nouveau riche' set.  The local women who work part-time at the Sugden's house as domestics barely lift a finger as every mod-con in production make housework a breeze.  Their son, Derek, is nineteen years old and despite his father wanting him to make his mark on the family business he is not interested in anything which doesn't revolve around sports cars, flash clothes, women and himself.  I haven't run into such a narcissistic dynamic duo in literature as this mother and son in quite some time.

For the first three-quarters of the book the reader is immersed in the day-to-day events surrounding the Sugden and Lambert families.  Richard is beyond his years in accepting the Sugden's for what they are and through his words of wisdom and saintly guidance, Una, bears news of vacation plans and posh purchases with resolve.  One indulgence too many though brings about an horrific event that shatters these two families (note: tissues) and presents a dilemma to citizens within the community.  One voice in particular campaigns for justice and vows to stop at nothing until it is served.

If you thoroughly enjoyed Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare it is a cut above Brightness but the experience is still a richly satisying one so don't hesitate to pick it up...if you can find it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

My edition of this book comes with a keenly-observed introduction by Julian Fellowes.  The copyright is from 2007, and while he mentions Gosford Park, I wonder if he had any idea that a future project would eclipse its fame.  The 'upstairs/downstairs' storyline has always held massive appeal so for anyone who hasn't had their fill over the past couple of years of Downton Abbey get yourself a copy of The Shooting Party.

Set in Oxfordshire on the estate of Sir Randolph Nettleby, Baronet, the annual shooting party is about to take place during the autumn of 1913.  Gaslight fills the spacious rooms and the aromas of tobacco and perfume meld as the country house fills with guests from across the country and Europe.  Meanwhile in the outbuildings, stables, gamekeeper's cottage, gun room and kitchen, there is a flurry of activity as the staff work rigourously to ensure that everything runs smoothly.  The claret is ready to be poured when needed, there is cake ready to be sliced at a whim and while out on a shoot a gentleman need not take his eyes off of the fleeing birds as a freshly-loaded rifle is placed into his outstretched hand by his loader.

While this isn't Downton Abbey who could blame me for making comparisons?  At a dinner party where the guests are feasting on lobster vol-au-vents and drinking champagne, I laughed when young Cicely displays a playful wit. 

  "'Oh, but the Walker Kerrs are perfectly well connected too.  Mr Walker Kerr was a son of Lord Craven.  He was killed in the most ghastly circumstances in Africa.'
  'How terrible.  What sort of circumstances?'
  'He was eaten.  By a huge black Zulu.'
  'Oh really, Cicely,' Ida who was on the other side of the table had caught her daughter's last remark.  'You are naughty.  It was nothing of the kind.  He was killed in a perfectly straightforward manner in the Zulu wars.'
  'Exactly,' said Cicely, undaunted.  'In a perfectly straightforward manner.  For a Zulu.'"

A conversation which could easily have taken place amongst the Granthams at table.  Although, I'm still trying to decide whether the Dowager Countess would favour the lines of Ida or Cicely.  I digress.

Isabel Colegate examines the etiquette of the aristocracy in every single gesture from the studs worn in a man's shirt to the decision to begin an affair.  And the realization to some that none of it really matters.  The Great War is looming and among the staff downstairs there is the hope that it will be an equalizer, a chance to break free from their legacy of servitude.  A tragedy during the shoot brings into focus the concept of gentlemanly behaviour for Sir Randolph and some of his guests.  For one guest in particular though the incident is barely worth noting, an act that firmly places Cicely on the side of those less fortunate than herself.

The only thing that deflected some joy for me in the reading of this book is that there are so many characters introduced in the early stages of the story.  I resorted to making a quasi-family tree/guest list on a sheet of paper to keep everyone straight.  Other than that tiny distraction this is a brilliant novella and one I will be returning to time and again when I need a fix of the quintessential 'upstairs/downstairs' story set during the Edwardian era.  Thanks once again to Book Snob for recommending it to anyone who would listen.  She was right!