Wednesday 28 July 2021

Janet Frame, Victoria Woodhull, Muriel Spark, and a poetry anthology by Alan Bennett


An Angel At My Table: The Complete Autobiography, by Janet Frame, The Women’s Press (2001).

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s a literary book – the life story of a writer and poet – but also of someone who both had terrible things happen to her, and went her own way in life, all of which makes for terribly interesting reading.  The writing itself is wonderfully, creatively dense; not in a way that makes it difficult to read – it is just packed with recollections.  (I am very envious of her ability to remember things and the order in which they happened.  At one point, discussing her childhood, she seems to recall each year distinctly.)

Frame was born between the wars, and grew up in rural New Zealand.  Her family was large and poor and her mother seems to have been overworked and overwhelmed by family, but despite this – and despite losing two sisters to drowning – Frame’s early childhood seems to have been happy.  She is shy though, and compliant, and self-effacing.  When she goes to college, she stays with an aunt, and – so as not to cause any trouble – insists she doesn’t eat much, and she’s happy to eat her dinner in the hall.  It is only when her younger sister joins her, and angrily threatens to write home and tell their parents the aunt is mistreating them, that the ridiculousness of the situation becomes apparent.

I did not quite follow the thought process that led her, as a young student, to walk away from a teaching career.  At any rate, she evidently wasn’t happy and, in confiding her troubles to a friendly ear, naively accepted the suggestion that she enter a hospital for some respite – ‘asylum’ in the more innocent sense – and was then diagnosed with schizophrenia (a diagnosis which is later found to be mistaken).  This allowed her to be detained involuntarily, but it is far from clear that the long periods of time she spent in mental hospitals were completely involuntary.  She had a desire to please, to follow orders, to avoid causing trouble, which apparently made it easier to incarcerate her, but also she found in her diagnosis a means of escaping her problems, and she seems to have gravitated, almost helplessly, towards institutional care in times of crisis.  

In an often cited episode she escaped a lobotomy when one of her doctors heard that a piece of her writing had won an award: writing really did save her life. 

But for much of her youth, she wrote hopelessly; even publication didn’t help her.  The turning point of the book seems to have been her meeting the writer, Frank Sargeson, who gave her both the space (a shed in his garden, where she could live and write) and the encouragement – maybe the permission – to choose writing as a way of life, a job.  He also encouraged her to travel overseas which, in spite of the fright it caused her occasionally, seems to have given her more independence of spirit, more resilience.

I love reading about how writers become writers (having always wanted to write) but this was also a story of an escape, and the pursuit of happiness, and about a woman who discovers she works better alone – albeit with supportive individuals nearby – and successfully lives her life on that basis.

The one thing missing is an actual account of her years in hospital: she omits this because she has written about it elsewhere, in a novel called Faces in the Water, which I hope to go on to read.

Mrs Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria Woodhull, by Johanna Johnston, Macmillan (1967).

Another book I bought years ago and finally got around to reading (and another book with fantastic cover art): I did not particularly enjoy it.  I’m not sure which I disliked the most – Victoria Woodhull, or the way she was written about.  Woodhull was an American, born in 1838, to parents who were poor, religious and enterprising to the point of not caring what side of the law they were on.  Her childhood reminds me of that of the poet, Anna Wickham.  Woodhull seems to have spent her youth moving from place to place, being put on stage, telling fortunes and providing spiritual cures.  She and her sister, Tennessee, are two of a kind and, with their large family following in their wake, they go to New York and become variously successful – Wall Street’s first female brokers, newspaper proprietors, free love enthusiasts, blackmailers, proponents of women’s suffrage, candidates for political office.  Woodhull is later involved in a major scandal involving the integrity of one of America’s most popular preachers, Henry Ward Beecher.  She then comes to the UK and marries very a rich man, and – despite it bubbling up repeatedly – manages to live down what comes to seem like a particularly indecorous past.

Woodhull does not seem a very likeable figure, and Johnston does not seem particularly concerned to describe her as such.  I suppose I was hoping that beneath the sensationalist book title, there would be more shades of grey.  But story and title alike could have been pieced together from tabloid newspapers, and perhaps they were – one can only write history from the available sources, after all.

But I felt as though more context (and thus more understanding) could have been given on the doctrine of ‘free love’ and why it might have appealed to women whose options were terribly limited.  And, as Woodhull collected male devotees, who apparently worked assiduously to make successes of her various enterprises, there is definitely an implication in the book that she was a figurehead – beautiful, sad-looking, quietly magnetic – short on intellectual abilities.  But Johnston does not seriously address the question of exactly how much input Woodhull had into the articles and pamphlets published in her name.  Surely this is important.

I also felt that context was lacking on the question of her oratorical abilities.  Johnston describes some of Woodhull’s stage successes in detail.  She was apparently a very compelling speaker, and the story brought to mind various other women from the period – Mrs Henry Ward, for example – but with the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, it must have been an era of talented female speakers.  I thought that Woodhull’s accomplishments lost some of their shine in being described so singularly, in isolation.

In this book, Woodhull also reminded me a little of Marie Stopes, of whom I read a biography a little while ago: both self-publicists who broke boundaries through sheer force of personality when younger but who became laughable in later years.  Woodhull, having married her rich Englishman, returned frequently to the United States to pursue her presidential nomination, and quickly returned home when stories from her past came up in the press.  Her devoted (and apparently clueless) husband steps in to defend her at every point.  Then she gets into a very public argument over money with her sister, where her sister says that ‘Victoria sent her money from time to time certainly, but only so that she, Margaret Ann, could put it in a private account for Victoria, from which she could withdraw it as she wished without her husband’s knowledge.’ (291) Back to England they go.  

On the same page, Johnston quotes from Woodhull’s attempt at autobiography: ‘Sitting here today in this north room of 17 Hyde Park Gate, London – dreary, smoky, foggy, insulated as you are in the customs and prejudices of centuries – I am thinking with all the bitterness of my woman’s nature how my life has been warped and twisted out of shape by this environment’.  She then gives up on it, but publishes the fragment as a pamphlet.

Despite finding it quite funny in places, I was a bit uncomfortable at being encouraged to laugh at a woman who, it seemed to me, the book did not make much attempt to understand.

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark, Virago Press (2018).

I love Muriel Spark’s writing, although this wasn’t one of my favourites of her books.  I was going to say initially that her books always have very strong plots, but actually I think what they have is a very strong idea, and very strong character back stories.  The direction of the novel seems less prescribed.

In Memento Mori, the central theme at first seems to be the anonymous telephone calls, but this turns out to be a more abstract, spiritual idea than you would have thought.  It doesn’t actually have much effect on the direction of the novel.  There’s also the destructive machinations of Mrs Pettigrew with regard to Godfrey and Charmian’s marriage, and this does resolve itself, but Godfrey’s showdown with Mrs Pettigrew is cut short by the announcement about Lettie’s death – which goes back to the issue of the telephone calls.  So there are these two ideas, one practical and one more philosophical, which cut across each other.

Spark’s characters, and the way she tells the story, are very genteel, humorous, polite – very British – but there’s some sturdy stuff underneath.  The scene where Lettie Colston dies is particularly stark – partly because it was so sparsely described; partly because the gentle writing lulled me into a false sense of security.  I love the scene where they have a meeting about the telephone calls: “When Godfrey came in he glanced round at the furnishings with an inquiring air.
    ‘Is this the right room?’ he said.
    Alec Warner thought: He is probably looking for signs of a tea-tray.  He probably thinks we are not going to get any tea.
    ‘Yes, I think this is the most suitable,’ said Henry, as one taking him into consultation.  ‘Don’t you?  We can sit round the table and talk things over before tea.’
    ‘Oh!’ said Godfrey.  Alec Warner congratulated himself.” (p.148)

Spark is very minimal in her descriptions of appearance – hair, clothing, and so on.  In the first chapter, for example, we are introduced to Lettie, Charmian and Godfrey, but we’re not told what any of them looks like.  There is a description of Olive’s appearance (p.86), but this stands out for being one of the few – and she is appearing as a ‘love interest’ (or object of desire) to Godfrey in that scene, so her appearance is perhaps especially relevant.  Even when Dame Lettie is scared by the appearance of two strange men, their appearance is not actually described. (p.183) I suppose I find this remarkable because, whenever I have attempted creative writing, I have felt like I have to describe the characters’ appearances in minute detail before getting round to plot.  Spark’s insouciance with regard to the visual aspect is refreshing, and the book does not suffer from its lack.  Indeed, perhaps it benefits.  AL Kennedy writes in the introduction that there are no long Muriel Spark novels: they are very succinct.

I like also the way Spark retains an authorial voice – she doesn’t speak through any one character – so she can describe how one character feels, and then go on to talk about them; she has no particular investment in a single protagonist.  Again, whenever I attempt creative writing, I immediately become heavily invested in the protagonist, to the detriment of every other character, and the story becomes one-dimensional very quickly.

Spark also has a rather ominous way of describing the actions of characters, and making their motivations perfectly clear, without actually stating them expressly – as on p.80-81, where Mrs Pettigrew smells food burning, but goes back upstairs and says nothing about it.  And on p.85, where Godfrey first visits Olive.  His movements are described minutely, but the purpose of his visit is not revealed – until it eventually becomes plain.

I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy this as much as I have some of Spark’s other books – possibly just tired from too many early mornings!  I think it lost focus for me as the plot was diluted by other themes and personalities.  You could say similarly of, for example, Barbara Pym’s books, but Pym’s books – those I have read – do have protagonists, which provide a focal point as the story bobs its way along.

Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin. An Anthology by Alan Bennett, Profile Books (2014).

There was a great deal of poetry in Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table: not only did she write poetry herself, but her mother was fond of it, and it was something that Frame grew up with.  I didn’t, particularly, but I’m always quite envious when I read about people for whom poetry is important: it’s a world apart from the one I know.

But who better to introduce it than funny, awkward, colloquially English Alan Bennett.  I admit I found the commentary more interesting than the poetry.  Who knew that Thomas Hardy didn’t like to be touched, or that his cat came to be called Kiddleywinkempoops Trot.  Such gems warmed my heart, which had been thoroughly frozen towards him by the first chapter (and decidedly no further) of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Then there is Bennett’s description of Auden’s status among the 1930s poets (p.157), or his quotation from MacNeice about his Oxford days: ‘‘Homosexuality and intelligence, heterosexuality and brawn were almost inexorably paired.  This left me out,’ he said, ‘and I took to drink.’’ (p.153)

Nonetheless, after this, I would happily pick up books of poetry by Hardy (‘Christmas: 1924’), A. E. Housman (‘I Did Not Lose My Heart’), and John Betjeman (‘Business Girls’), and perhaps even Louis MacNeice (‘Death of an Actress’, although I’m not sure I understood much of Larkin or Auden.

Both this book and Janet Frame’s are reassuring on the point that it’s fine to enjoy poetry for it’s rhythm and sentimental appeal, even if some of the sterner stuff remains a bit foggy in meaning.  

I can’t help thinking though that poetry is one of the big advantages of public libraries.  I’m sure I once bought a book of Auden’s poems, aspirationally as it were, thinking – ‘come on, he is highly-acclaimed – of course I’ll enjoy it’ but, as here, I couldn’t really make a dent in it.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

House photos

I have given up trying to write about my attempts to decorate my house.  Not only am I not an interiors writer, but I don't have a clue what I'm doing.  So instead, with minimum wordage, here are some recent photographs.

This is the rose on the front of the house, coming into bloom,

The hole in the front garden filled in - although sadly there'll be another trench at the end of the month - for the fitting of the gas pipes.

Newly green back garden.

Gorgeous poppies, planted by the previous owner.

Lots of copper pipage going in for the gas.

A... some-or-other.  Conditioner?

New Ikea units and shelves in the ktichen.  Haven't gotton round to painting the wall yet.  I am getting very used to the pale pink of the bare plaster!

Lots of new radiators, including shiny new towel rail in the bathroom (scuzzy polystyrene ceiling tiles not shown).

Me looking at myself in the mirror!

Pet woodworm(!)  It might have been the wrong decision not to have the woodworm treatment done.

New water connection!

Really sweet little second-hand display cabinet, bought on Gumtree.

My house at night, with Freecycle table lamps.

Mirror on the wall above the sofa.

And, much needed, after living here for several months with just a brush a pan...

Hugo Gryn, Albert S. Lindemann, and Adrienne Rich


Chasing Shadows by Hugo Gryn, with Naomi Gryn, Penguin Books (2001).

My mother's husband used to listen to Hugo Gryn on Radio 4 and admired his calm, compassion and restraint when talking about the Holocaust.  I bought this book for him - in the mistaken belief that everyone wants to read the biographies of people they admire.  Really I think, it was me that wanted to read it, but it was during the non-reading period of my life, so it has sat on the bookshelves ever since; a sort of aspiration.  I was inspired to dig it out again after reading The Hare With the Amber Eyes, recently.

    I did very much enjoy it.  I have to say that the beginning, which focuses on Gryn’s family history and early childhood, didn’t particularly grip me.  There was something very lovely though, in his portrayal of the Jewish community of Berehovo, where he grew up; particularly in its communal inter-dependence, and it’s focus on learning.  I’d like to be able to say the same about my family, although I suspect for us, as for a lot of people, formal learning comes to seem like a young person’s game.  In Gryn’s case too, I suspect I am idealizing – for by learning, I think he is referring for the most part to a quite narrowly religious study.  Nonetheless, I do very much admire (and aspire to) the idea of continual learning and study.

    Much of the early part of the book is made up of funny stories about his childhood and his relatives and he makes frequent use of exclamation marks! – which makes him seem warm and open, but also old-fashioned and maybe limited as a writer.  Clearly though, as Nazi policies begin to affect Gryn and his family directly, his writing takes on what is becoming the familiar tone of testimony – witness being borne to something horrendous.  I suppose the nearest thing I have to compare it to is the first part of Primo Levi’s book, If This Is A Man.

    For me, there is something very different about Gryn’s account though.  He seems freer, more resilient, even strangely light-hearted at times.  I think this is down to several things – his youth, for example.  I think I read that he was 15 when he was liberated, at the end of the war.  Perhaps because of his youth, there were people in positions of power in the camps who took to him, and tried to help him out occasionally (e.g. p.221).  He also writes about smuggling himself out of the brick factory in Berehovo, where the Jewish people had been detained prior to being taken to concentration camps, and then smuggling himself back in again, having dug up a small stash of bank notes he had buried in the garden before his family were taken away (p.152).  He wanders around observing people and asking what they’re up to (p.148), and at Liberose, the labour camp he went to after Auschwitz, he talks about occasionally being able to find some secure spot during the day and hiding out for several hours (p.230).  Certainly such possibilities never arose in Levi’s account.

    There’s a measure of personality difference too though.  As noted earlier, Gryn comes across as warm and open, a teller of funny stories alongside the somber ones, and these don’t stop altogether on his family’s internment.  He also has a habit of taking time to appreciate the comparatively pleasant moments – although sometimes this comes across rather strangely.  For example, he talks about when his family were loaded into the train to Auschwitz: ‘We were the first to get in, and secured a corner.  Most of the people in the wagon were friends of ours and we were confident that we would come to no clashes, though nobody entertained illusions about any pleasantness.

    ‘When everybody was inside, gendarmes came round and shut the doors. As it was still early afternoon, the light coming through the windows was quite sufficient, and soon everybody was preparing to settle down.’ (p.168) It sounds almost genteel.  

    Then his description of his first shower at Auschwitz: ‘speaking for myself, it was the first thing I really enjoyed.  A hot shower!  I washed myself and then Dad’s back, and Dad in turn rubbed my back.  This went on for a few minutes until suddenly the water stopped, but before we had time to say ‘Oh, dear!’ a fresh shower of ice cold water came pouring down.  That was hell!’ (p.179-80)

    His inadvertent discovery of, and near escape from, the gas chamber (p.190) sounded a little disingenuous, retrospectively staged.

    But the strength of the book I thought, came partly in the firsthand account that he gives, and partly also in his later reflections which his daughter (who published the book after his death) collected at the end.  Indeed, if you think – as I did initially – that Gryn didn’t really seem to experience the horrors that others did, the last couple of chapters will change your mind.  He talks for example, of being party to the killing of one particularly sadistic SS guard (p.235) and of another guard being caught and strung up in the courtyard outside the hospital after liberation, by ‘some of the boys’ – presumably liberated prisoners. (p.242-3)

    In the final chapter, he talks about the difficulty of maintaining self-respect, and therefore surviving the experience emotionally.  He also refers to the difficulty of believing in one’s own innocence, which I thought at first was a reference to survivor’s guilt – something he also talks about.  I think though, that actually he was referring to a different type of guilt – the kind one may be made to feel when accused and imprisoned of something, but no self defence is possible and no one else steps forward to intervene.  ‘Being in slave labour camps after Auschwitz,’ he writes, ‘gave me a measure of breathing space.  I had periods of reflection, especially about guilt – and one early realization was that I was not guilty.  I knew that I was innocent and that, contrary to appearances, it was our gaolers who were the guilty ones.  It was a conviction that I never lost, even though everything around us was designed to convince us otherwise.’ (p.249) I don’t think I ever considered this before. Nazi Germany seems such a clear case of evil versus innocence.  That those who were persecuted were ever in doubt about this never crossed my mind.

    Gryn also addresses the question of how to explain the Holocaust if one believes in God, which seems almost impossible to answer.  But Gryn came to his own understanding.  ‘People sometimes ask me ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’  I believe that God was there Himself – violated and blasphemed.  The real question is ‘Where was man in Auschwitz?’ (p.251) 

    The impression one is left with at the end of the book is of Gryn’s great moral conviction and courage – no so much in surviving physically, but in his emotional survival and strength, and his ability to address the issue, and to face Holocaust deniers, in the years since.

Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews, by Albert S. Lindemann, Cambridge University Press (2000).

When I was at university, I did a module on anti-Semitism, and this was the key text.  As far as I remember, they stopped short of insisting that everyone read it – stating simply that certain chapters would be up for discussion on certain days.  I remember at the time, being incredibly impressed by it (I bought it, didn’t I?), but at the same time finding the idea that I could read a whole, large, densely-academic book for a single module, quite impossible.  It wasn’t only that we had various modules (all with their own long book lists), and only a matter of days to get the required reading done, but also that I was living alone for the first time – struggling with loneliness and enforced sociability with people I didn’t have much in common with, and unfamiliar practicalities such as feeding myself, laundry, cleaning, managing my own time and money.  For most of my time at college, I think the major portion of my energy went into such mundane things.  Looking back, it’s clear that reading this should have been non-negotiable – and I should have read a whole lot more besides!  But, better late than never I suppose.

    Albert Lindemann enters into this subject extremely cautiously, as if into a minefield, whilst at the same time clearly having some vexations of his own to vent.  The field is marred, he argues, by a lack of scholarly thoroughness.  Looking at some of the late nineteenth century writers for example, who have apparently been presented as the predecessors of the Nazis for their antisemitic pronouncements, he argues that their positions were more nuanced than previously suggested.  Many of them would have been horrified by the thought that violence against Jewish people might in any way have been considered justifiable.

    In particular, Lindemann takes issue with two ideas that he says characterize previous scholarship.  Firstly, the idea that antisemitism is a completely irrational ethos, entirely divorced from reality, and usually found in people who have no contact at all with Jewish people.  Secondly, the idea that talking about ‘the rise of the Jews’ is somehow dangerous, and plays into the hands of antisemites.  On the contrary, he says, Germany did have a large number of Jews compared to countries like Britain and France; as a group, Jews did do well in the late nineteenth century; they were overrepresented in particular professions.

    The picture that arises from Lindemann’s analysis of pre-1914 Germany and its Jewish population was, for me, entirely new.  He describes a quite lively debate over the issue of Jewish assimilation, and a certain confidence, even arrogance, and a spirit of criticism among Jewish writers which caused much irritation among some of their Gentile counterparts.  Those Jewish responses to antisemitism that I have seen have always centred around the horror of the Holocaust, so it was fascinating to see a different perspective.

    It was interesting, (and often quite embarrassing) reading the marginal notes I wrote as a student.  One of the few things I agree with my twenty-year-old self about is that Lindemann’s discussion of antisemitism, and relations between Jews and Gentiles, creates quite a strange, indeed almost racist atmosphere – ‘racist’ in the sense of suggesting some kind of innate, determinative difference.  The subject matter means that, from the outset, Jews and Gentiles are divided, and treated as quite separate groups.  And whilst Lindemann starts out with the premise that today we don’t find any significant difference in ‘race’, in discussing a society where apparently everyone did, the objective (or modern) disregard for race is not always a key part of the discussion.

    This strangeness is intensified by Lindemann’s tendency to talk about ‘kinds’ of people, as though social tendencies are somehow integral and permanent.  For example, on p.233, he refers to ‘those members of society prone to violence and vandalism on the streets’, and on p.234, he says that ‘Captain Dreyfus’s story has been too tempting, too appealing to the popular, vulgarizing kind of historian’.

    So too, there was something a little odd, I thought, about Lindemann’s attempts to refute the idea that antisemitism was based on fantasy and had little to do with Jews themselves.  ‘It is particularly inaccurate and misleading,’ he says, ‘to insist that these anti-Jewish leaders were lashing out at targets they knew nothing about.  Nearly all of the prominent anti-Semites of these years had regular, even intimate contacts with Jews… Von Treitschke’s ire at Graetz’s writings was hardly the result of baseless fantasies, and Goldwyn Smith’s anger at Disraeli was based on the fact that Disraeli had mocked him.  Smith and others who attacked Disraeli in anti-semitic language also simply differed with Disraeli on political and foreign policy issues.’ (p.271) But there is a world of difference surely, between one man disliking another simply for personal or political reasons, and his extending that dislike to an enormous group of people who he feels must share the characteristics of the one.  Lindemann has explained the first position, but not the second; even after his analysis, it is still perfectly sensible to say that antisemitism has little to do with Jewish people as a group.

    I loved the territorial breadth of this book, and the temporal breadth.  By discussing the situation of Jewish people in Europe before the First World War, it felt like the book filled in the missing first half of the story.  I thought that it gained something by not centring directly on the Nazis – although obviously the Holocaust was still a dominant presence.  I also loved that academic thing where the writer begins by reviewing the field of study as a whole and evaluating its weaknesses.  It does seem strange that the book has no bibliography though.

Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, by Adrienne Rich, Virago Press (1987).

Back in college (and not reading my course texts), I collected books on the women’s movement.  The second-hand bookshops of York were apparently hotbeds of second-wave feminism, so I had lots of books published in the 1970s.  I didn’t read many of them (this was my non-reading period) – it just seemed important to keep them.  I bought this book back then.  I had heard of Adrienne Rich elsewhere but I was not (am still not) familiar with her poetry.

    I do really like her prose writing though.  She has both sincerity and authority about her, and although the book was in parts particularly dense and theoretical, there were many moments of wonderful clarity.
    One thing that struck me quite forcibly was her discussion of racism within the feminist movement.  Rich grew up in the American South, and the issue seems to have been one of immediate importance to her.  It surprised me how much of the language and argument she uses has echoes in the Black Lives Matter movement today. She talks about intersectionality and ‘having work to do’ within herself, and the term ‘anti-racism’ crops up repeatedly. (p.82-84) For some reason, I had assumed these were modern phrases.  It made visible the links between academic work and popular movements, that I hadn’t appreciated before.

    I found Rich very pragmatic and helpful on a subject which, sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be any way of addressing at all. ‘I have come to wonder,’ she writes, ‘if guilt, with its connotations of being emotionally overwhelmed and bullied, or paralysed, is not more a form of defensive resentment or self-protection than an authentic response to the past and its warts… I would like to ask every white woman who feels that her guilt is being provoked in discussions of racism to consider what uses she has for this guilt and how it uses her, and to decide for herself if a guilt-ridden feminism… sounds like a viable way of life.’ (p.82) In other words, whilst we should all be trying to ‘unlearn the norm of universal whiteness’, as she puts it elsewhere, guilt is not a particularly productive response.

    In ‘Towards a More Feminist Criticism’, she has this to say.  ‘No one is suggesting that the women with all or many of the privileges of white skin, heterosexuality, class background is thereby disqualified from writing and criticizing.  However, I believe she has a responsibility not to read, think, write, and act as if all women had the same privileges, or to assume that privilege confers some special vision.  She has a responsibility to be as clear as possible about the compromises she makes, about her own fear and trembling as she sits down to write; to admit her limitations when she picks up work by women who write from a very different culture and sourcement [sic?], to admit to feelings of confusion and being out of her depth.’ (p.95) It makes perfect sense.  My reservation would be that several things I have read recently suggest that it has been characteristic of women particularly, to hedge their words, temper them with qualifications and apologies, anything to soften their impact and avoid causing offence.  I suppose the subject matter makes all the difference.

    Coincidentally, having just read two books about antisemitism and the Holocaust, it turns out that Rich was also Jewish, and the book includes several essays where she examines her Jewish identity.  It’s quite a sad story of her father, who was an assimilated Jew, and had nothing to tell her on the subject.  When she went, by herself, to watch newsreels of the Allied liberation of the German concentration camps, her parents were not pleased, and she was unable to discuss it with them.  When she herself married a man from an orthodox, eastern European Jewish family, her father saw it as a betrayal and refused to attend the wedding.  She talks about how the women in her family were urged, particularly, to be quietly spoken – anything too flamboyant or aggressive would be seen as Jewish.  

    I think this is one of the things I really liked about the book – this mix of the personal with the political and academic.  

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Jonathan Franzen, Julian Barnes, Lucia Berlin, and Siddhartha Mukherjee.

 I'm finally getting some reading done again!

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate (2002).

This is another book from the Guardian's best-dressed list and I enjoyed it very much.  It was a rather anxious read - no one in it seemed particularly happy - but since I was getting ready to move house at the time and feeling rather stressed, it fitted well with my mood.

It’s a book based around a family, Albert and Enid Lambert – an elderly couple – and their children who have grown up and moved away.  Albert is developing Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and his worsening health is the sort of loose, central thread of the book.  Of their children, Gary, the oldest, is ambitious and financially successful, with a dysfunctional but apparently fairly stable marriage, and three kids.  Chip is the younger, academic, left-leaning son who messes his life up, and eventually – at the bottom of his spiral – flies out to Lithuania to help patriotic Lithuanian mobsters defraud westerners of their money.  The daughter, Denise, gets into a pattern of sleeping with older, married men, becomes a successful chef and then is fired for sleeping with her boss’s wife.  Right at the end of the book, they all return to their parents’ home for Christmas, and find their father’s health is deteriorating much faster than anyone thought.

The book drew me in from the first page with its blissful description of an autumn day in St Jude – it reminded me of one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories.  Then there was the humour, also from the first page, which also made me feel very much at home.  The book has a very insistent, sometimes ugly, truthfulness to it, and finds humour in the obvious, the visceral, and the ridiculous.  There’s a scene right at the start for example, where the postman knocks on the door.  Enid answers it, but Alfred doesn’t hear her do so, and she can hear him shouting for her all over the house, but he can’t hear her calling back to him.  ‘Alfred had emerged from the basement, bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, “There’s somebody at the door!” and she’d fairly screamed, “The mailman!  The mailman!” and he’d shaken his head at the complexity of it all.’ (p.5) Then there’s Chip and his red chaise longue for making love on; he cleans off the worst stains when his parents visit.  When he and his friends are chased by ski-masked police in Lithuania, driven off the road, and made to strip at gunpoint in the snow, he has to physically hold his buttocks together to stop his bowels releasing.  It sounds terribly crass, but it was funny in context.

Then there was Denise walking in on her father giving himself an enema (‘Whoops!  Sorry!’) – funny but not funny – and when the pompous Gary first arrives to see his mother at Christmas, he washes his hands and then – standing in front of her – sniffs the towel before drying.  That made me laugh out loud too; I don’t think I’d forgive anyone who did that to me.

Strangely, given the subject matter, I didn’t find it a sad book – bitter at times, but not sad.  Partly, this might be down to the fact that Alfred’s problems are not clearly visible until the end.  Much of the book follows his children, who live far away and don’t really know what’s going on.  Partly, the lack of sadness may be down to who he is – a retired engineer, who seems to apply his problem-solving brain to each new challenge relatively calmly, even when the challenges are basic, day-to-day things.  He’s also quite a self-contained character: there wasn’t the enormous sense of injustice and regret that one might expect.  Denise does have regrets by the end of the book – relating to something she finds out about the way her own youthful conduct affected her father – but I’m not sure it had a great deal of impact on the way I viewed Alfred.

There wasn’t much comfort in the book either, for people with dementia in their lives.  I don’t know whether you’d call Franzen’s portrayal pessimistic or realistic, but it was very noticeable to me that, when he ties up all the loose ends in the final pages, everyone seems to get some kind of happy ending except Alfred.  More than that in fact, Alfred gets a sort of final kick in the teeth, because in his incapacitated state, his wife is able to berate him without any rebuttal and treat him as she has always wished  to do.  That is her happy ending; but it sounds terrible for him.

Finally, I couldn’t help marveling (and raising an eyebrow sometimes) over the range of characters Franzen takes on in the book.  It’s not that it’s particularly densely populated, but he goes into all five of his main characters in quite some depth.  If we were talking about an actor taking on roles, those taken on here would be quite astonishing; I’m not sure it’s all that much different with an author.   That’s not to say I didn’t query the way he wrote some of them – Denise, for example.  She wasn’t unrealistic, but it’s strange reading a middle-class white man putting words into women’s mouths – particularly words about men, and about sex.

Anyway, I did very much enjoy reading this.

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape (2013).

It's certainly a great cover design.  However, I’m not sure I was really able to give this book the appreciation it deserves.  It doesn’t feel right even to be just lukewarm about a book which is about someone’s grief, but I suppose I didn’t really understand the structure.  

The book is divided into three parts.  The first is about three early hot air balloonists – it’s interesting and funny and lovely to read.  The second part is an apparently fictional love  story between two of these balloonists.  One of the reviews I read online – in The Lancet – called this an ‘enjoyably sensuous encounter’, which I thought was a strange way to put it.  To me it was rather wooden and uncomfortable, and ruthlessly capped off when Sarah Bernardt demonstrates her refusal Fred Burnaby’s offer of marriage (quite needlessly I thought) by inviting him to come to her dressing room to watch her leave with someone else.  It was all a bit Venus in Furs

In the third part, Barnes writes about the period that followed the death of his wife.  He talks about the responses he hated from people, that they supposed to be comforting; he talks about suicide; about telling a Christian friend that his prayers hadn’t had much effect (p.94); and taking to opera, as an art form in which sudden, wild emotional responses are perfectly normal (p.92).  He is refreshingly bad-tempered, although off-base, I thought, when complaining about the phrase ‘lost his wife to cancer’, comparing it to ‘we lost our dog to gypsies’ or ‘he lost his wife to a commercial traveller’. (p.83) Who on earth would use those last two phrases!

I am assuming that Barnes is trying to draw attention to a parallel between hot air ballooning and grief, or perhaps love.  Blake Morrison, writing about this book in The Guardian, said ‘the themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure. We've work to do’.  Although there were substantial bits of the book I enjoyed reading, I did struggle to see the connections Barnes seemed to be trying to make.

Morrison has a few suggestions: just as every love story is a potential grief story, every balloon ascent is a potential disaster.  But the book is not about ballooning disasters - it has little to say about them at all.  I felt Barnes focused more on the eccentricities of the balloonists.  This – and the fact that one of his recurring phrases is ‘you put two together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed’ (e.g. p.31) – made me wonder if he saw himself and his wife as a particularly unusual pairing; their meeting as particularly unlikely, fortuitous.

On the other hand, as Morrison indicates, Barnes is very close-lipped about his wife in the book; we learn more about her from the little publisher’s blurb at the back, than from the text itself.  He could certainly have been clearer if he were making a specific point about her character.  

Perhaps the phrase about ‘putting two people together’ is more generic; maybe this is just how people feel when they find exactly the right person for them – ‘what are the chances?’

The Lancet review mentioned earlier seems to see the hot air ballooning as a sort of sidelong, indirect way of approaching the difficult topic of the grief.  Perhaps this is true.  Maybe Barnes is not trying to suggest any particular connection but, in an abstract way, one topic reminds him of another.  Maybe Sarah Bernardt reminds him of his wife.

It is difficult, and not entirely appropriate, to speculate on the subject of someone’s grief.  Perhaps I am just unequal to the work Morrison refers to, but I do wish the point had been made more manifest.  

A Manual For Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin, Picador (2015).

I absolutely loved this book.  It was a book about tough lives (or a tough life) – something like Last Exit to Brooklyn – but smarter, broader, and female. 

When I started it, I did find it difficult to identify with the narrator.  I warmed to her very quickly though – her intelligence and her interest in other people – and the lack of common ground ceased to matter.  I found her very unexclusionary, and very easy to like.

She also has that thing – like Joan Didion (and the lady who wrote The Sixth Extinction) – of being quite unselfconscious.  It always surprises me about women writers, how they can not be physically self-aware – fail to mention things like weight, appearance, clothes – all the things women are expected to care about.  But it’s refreshing, almost masculine, to read someone so little concerned about her own person, beyond details of work, family, addiction, whatever.  Could you say there are two types of writers – those that look inwards (or both in and out), and those who only look outwards, like Berlin?

The book has quite a unique structure.  Initially, I had thought it was a collection of short stories, and it does seem like there are fictional parts, but actually the same people and circumstances come up repeatedly so the impression I got was that many of them are stories from Berlin’s life.  The line between fiction and memoir is very blurred.  It's an interesting idea that one could write about one's own life in a series of short strories.

There is a fabulous picture of Berlin inside the back cover, looking very glamorous and 1960s-ish, with dark eyeshadow and bouffant hair.  She comes across in the book – quite exotically to me – as young and Midwestern; having known what it’s like to have money at some point in her life, but also being very familiar with poverty; a single mother who has to work to feed her kids; a woman who struggles with alcohol addiction; a survivor.  She is also someone who stands out for the fact that, despite her pursuit of love and alcohol, she clearly values education and has worked some interesting jobs as well as the unskilled, low wage variety.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Scribner (2011).

This is a book on the history of the scientific study of cancer, tracing how doctors have understood and treated it (or attempted to treat it) over the years.  It is far from being just a list of progressive discoveries though – that would be boring.  The path of progression is shown to have been messy, jagged and often obstructed.  Cancer medicine had its titans – in terms of both clinicians and theories – who/which exerted such a powerful influence that no contradiction could be countenanced, and progress ground to a halt.  So too, it has struggled – at first to exert its own importance, and then to overcome powerful adversaries (such as the tobacco industry), and to acquire the necessary funding.  Even those apparently wholly on the side of the cancer doctors, enthusiastic devotees of ‘the war on cancer’ were not always helpful in the pursuit of a fuller (and inevitably therefore, slower) understanding of the disease.

In some ways, it is a case study in the creation of scientific knowledge.  I was taken aback by how near it sometimes seemed to being unethical.  The nineteenth-century paradigm of radical surgery, for example, which insisted that surgery should remove as much material as possible around the site of the tumour to lessen the possibility of regrowth, and led to women with breast cancer having large sections of their chest walls removed, clavicles, pectoral muscles, lymph nodes, the lot.  The post-surgery deformities must have been horrendous.  Can you call something unethical though, if it involves a genuine attempt to save someone’s life?  This no-holds-barred approach to medicine is perhaps what gives the book a slightly eye-watering quality at times.

For the most part, I very much enjoyed the book.  It took me quite a long time to finish it, but I didn’t have any trouble picking it up and going back to it each time.  I was surprised I understood what he was talking about at all; I think Mukherjee for the most part does really well at making the science accessible.  It was only at the end, where he discusses the current state of knowledge, that the jargon began to get too thick for me.  Perhaps I was just suffering some kind of science exhaustion by that point.  

His conclusions were very interesting though.  Mukherjee characterizes cancer, first of all, as something struggling for survival in much the same way as the human species has done – adapting and evolving to meet the challenges (and the drugs) it faces.  Secondly, he points out that whilst cancer can arise as a result of damage by carcinogens, it can also be just an accidental effect of human growth: ‘seemingly random errors in copying genes when cells divide’ (p.462).  So perhaps cancer is a sort of intrinsic part of being human – something built into the human genome; what Mukherjee calls ‘the leaden counterweight to our aspirations for immortality (p.466).  Perhaps we wouldn't be human without it.  Looking at it this way, the search for a complete cure appears like a useless exercise.  Mukherjee suggests that we should be revising our expectations of cancer treatment: instead of aiming to eradicate cancer, we should be looking, more modestly, merely to prevent cancer deaths before old age.

Monday 3 May 2021

Vegan cheese sauce

 I haven't written much about going vegan (in fact, I haven't been doing very well with the blog at all lately) and blogging about food with spur-of-the-moment, unstylized, mobile phone photos is probably a mistake; photos are everything when it comes to food blogging, even if some people manage to make their gorgeous photos look completely effortless.  

Nonetheless... I am going to post my terrible photos anyway!  

Tonight I had my first go at making a vegan cheese sauce.  What I would really like to do is to replicate the cauliflower cheese pies from Higgidy, that we used to eat (and occasionally still sneakily do), but one thing at a time - I wanted to try to get the cheese sauce down first.

I was loosely following the idea in this recipe (all inadequacies are of course my own) - i.e. making a bechamel as you would usually, but with non-dairy fat, and vegan milk, then adding mustard and seasoning and nutritional yeast.  I used almond milk, and olive oil-based vegan butter.

In many respect, it did exactly what it was supposed to.  The floury taste had to be cooked out of course, but it thickened quickly when it came to a simmer, and it had a lovely shine to it(!)  However, the colour was unappetizing, and the taste disappointingly mild.  I would have kept adding the nutritional yeast, but although I do actually like the flavour and could eat it by the spoonful on its own, I don't think it really does the trick when you're trying to make something that tastes like a cheese sauce.  Adding more wouldn't have helped.  Really, it needed something with a bit more sting to it.  I used to think that nutritional yeast tasted a bit like marmite, and actually a couple of spoons of marmite would have done wonders for the flavour.  But it still wouldn't have tasted like a cheese sauce.

Other recipes I've found online suggest using vegan cheese in place of nutritional yeast - this one, for example.  

I am slightly worried about this.  I'm not at all joking when I say that you have to handle vegan cheese with kid gloves.  It took me months to get used to the flavour - not the stuff that tastes mildly of coconut, but the mature cheddar substitute which is really like something scraped out of the back recesses of Satan's refrigerator.  Even once... acclimatised... to the smell, you have to get used to its textural peculiarities.  It is very difficult to crisp up.  When laid over the top of some dish and gratinated, it goes slightly brown on the surface, and then weirdly smooth and creamy underneath.  Somebody said to me that the bit underneath reminded them of those foil-wrapped cheese triangles, and that probably describes it as well as anything.  Only once did I manage to get it crispy: I was struggling to get used to a new, more powerful oven, and at the same time I had arranged to take delivery of my new sofa just before dinner.  It took longer than expected to make the sofa feel at home, and by the time I got back to the oven, the veg was soggy and the ratatouille was almost black.  But the cheese was good.

So, yes, the prospect of melting it in a sauce concerns me slightly.  It's worth a shot though, because I didn't think the nutritional yeast version worked very well.

Actually, in a pie, it might be fine.  I think, more than I realised, the taste of cauliflower cheese comes from the roasted cauliflower.  With a sauce that was there merely for lubrication, it might still be reminiscent of cauliflower cheese.

By the way, can I just say that that thing in the foreground of the photo is a Tesco nut burger and, dry and uninviting as it looks, they're actually very nice!

Tomorrow, for the birthday of my aunt (who's favourite dessert is lime meringue pie), I'm going to make... vegan(ish) madeleines!  Madeleines, because a madeleine tin is the only cake tin I possess at the moment.  Vegan(ish), because I'll be using duck eggs - albeit from ducks that I know are genuinely free range, since they live in my sister's garden.  I'm only vegan for animal welfare reasons.  I might, or might not, post a photo, depending on how well they turn out!

Tuesday 27 April 2021



The new sofa went in surprisingly easily.  It turned out that the legs come off, and so it just slid straight in.  It made me wonder why we had such a palaver with the first one!

And here is the first one, crammed up under the window, with a beautiful view of the sky and the sunny terraces opposite.

 It does look a good deal darker with that beautiful pale floor covered up, but cosy hopefully!  The new sofa is perhaps not as smart as I'd like, but incredibly comfortable!  Which is good, because I find the first sofa beautiful to look at but not especially comfortable.

I'm having a bit of an issue with lighting.  Each sofa just fits in the space provided, both bordered by a bookshelf on one side and doorway on the other.  There is no room to put a table with a lamp on it (apart from right in the middle of the floor), and the bookshelves - being straight - don't allow any room for a lampshade, or the 'elbow' of a reading light. You can see in the first photo (above), I've squeezed in a yellow lamp, but it can only just turn round enough to cast a light on the nearest side of the sofa.  Anyone sitting on the other side had better find something else to do - no reading for them!  Perhaps some kind of wall sconce is required - in which case, it'll have to wait!

In the meantime, we've been digging the trench in the front garden for the new water pipes.  The incoming pipes are made of lead, which - although a lot of people seem to have them on my street - isn't recommended, so I'm having them replaced.  The water company will put a new connection in free of charge, so long as I take care of the pipes on my property.

Digging the trench might have been the hardest bit...

I have been worried about people falling down the hole, so I put a bin there.  This morning, the postman made a heroic effort and managed to get past the wheelie bin and shove a pile of junk mail through my letterbox!  Perhaps what I need is another wheelie bin directly in front of the door?

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Front room floor!

My new front room floor is in!

Today, the builders are coming in to finish off the skirting boards, and they've promised to put my venetian blind up for me.  Then on Friday, I am going to attempt to take delivery of a lovely, secondhand, Laura Ashley sofa from Facebook Marketplace.  I say 'attempt' because I'm not at all certain it will fit through the front door!  It is similar sized (plus just a few small inches) to the one I've got, so fingers crossed.  Otherwise the poor seller will have to take it away again(!)