Saturday 7 November 2020

Lynne Truss, Alice Munro, and Claire Tomalin

 Good morning!  Back into lockdown; back to reading practically full-time.  It's alright for some, isn't it(!)  I'm definitely feeling for those people who are not being furloughed and don't have anything to fall back on.  I am counting myself very lucky, and keeping my fingers crossed that the restaurant I work for can keep going, and that I keep my job.

In the meantime, here are the next three books I've been reading...   

I was a bit worried about this one.  I don't remember ever having been taught punctuation at school.  I suppose I must have been at some point, but in general I think its one of those things you pick up through reading.  So the idea that there was a book of rules which might show that everything I think I know is wrong, was a little daunting.

Fortunately, it's not as bad as all that.  There were some things that were new to me.  I might as well be honest, and confess them here:

(1)  When writing the time, the numbers should have a full stop in the middle - e.g. 7.30.  Using a colon (as in 7:30) is the American way of doing it. (p.25)

(2)  Writing about, for example, 'the person who's details are given in section 02' is incorrect.  In this instance, the possessive form of 'whose' should be written without an apostrophe - as with the possessive form of 'its'.  'Who's' is a contraction of 'who is'. (p.53)  I'm pretty sure I've always been aware that I didn't know what I was doing when writing 'who's' - so that's that sorted out.  Now if only someone could tell me the difference between while and whilst!

(3)  On p.86, Truss articulates a rule about commas, which I don't understand - although I think I probably abide by it inadvertantly.  With lists of adjectives, she says, you use a comma where 'the modifying words are all modifying the same thing to the same degree' - as in, 'it was a dark, stormy night'.  However, when talking about 'an endangered white rhino' or 'Australian red wines', you do not use a comma.  'This is because,' Truss writes, sounding rather woolly, 'in each of these cases, the adjectives do their job in joyful combination; they are not intended as a list.  The rhino isn't endangered and white.  The wines aren't Australian and red.'  Hmmm...?  Although I agree with the rule, I don't understand the explanation at all.  I have a feeling the reason you don't use a comma in the example of the wine is because the thing that is being modifed by the adjective 'Australian' is, not just wine, but red wine.  So the word 'red' is effectively being treated as part of the noun.  I don't think that's the correct way to articulate it though.

(4)  When talking about colon usage, Truss says 'there is the "Ah" type, when the colon reminds us there is probably more to the initial statement than has met the eye'.  The examples she gives are, 'I loved Opal fruits as a child: no one else did', and 'You can do it: and you will do it'. (p.119)  I can't imagine using a colon in either of those two circumstances (a semi-colon, maybe - omitting the 'and' in the second example).

At any rate, for much of the rest of the book, the rules she relates were reasonably familiar and nothing to worry about.

It's a very funny book.  Truss writes with a sort of hyper-active humour anyway, but there are lots of examples of instances where erroneous punctuation has completely changed the meaning of a sentence ('go get him, surgeons!', p.82), or where simply omitting the punctuation altogether would be problematic (because extra-marital sex is quite different from extra marital sex, p.168-69).

Then there are the literary slurs - as when Truss invokes Shakespeare's phrase, 'I am too much i' the sun': 'a clear case of a writer employing a new-fangled punctuation mark entirely for the sake of it, and condemning countless generations of serious long-haired actors to adopt a knowing expression and say i' - as if this actually added anything to the meaning.' (p.38)  Truman Capote apparently said of Jack Kerouac's efforts, 'That's not writing, it's typing' (p.191), which is funny even if it isn't specifically about punctuation, and George Bernard Shaw had some pithy things to say about people who disagreed with his opinion on the way titles should be printed. (p.187)

It's a lovely novelty to have punctuation itself under the microscope; it makes one feel quite nostalgic and attached.  I enjoyed the various descriptions of the function of punctuation (not something I've ever questioned before).  For example, from the style book of one national newspaper (which one I've no idea; Truss is very hot on punctuation, but not at all interested in footnotes), it is described as 'a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling'. (p.7)  Later on, she quotes Thomas McCormack as saying that the purpose of punctuation is 'to tango the reader into the pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken line would convey'. (p.202)  I thought it was an interesting, charming little book, and I very much enjoyed reading it.
And (P.S.), I particularly appreciated the information on how to type a dash (as opposed to a hypen) on an Apple laptop (it works)! – – –

This is the first time I've read any Alice Munro.  The book is a collection of twenty-three short stories.  I was thinking a little while ago about what makes a good short story.  The ones I like are either those with a really neat, circular plot (like the adventures of Sherlock Holmes) where something is raised and then settled by the end, or those that - whilst lacking that sense of resolution - describe something really quite curious; hair-raising even.  The curiosities in Munro's short stories are not individual eccentricities to find humour in (as in Frank Muir's definition of English humour); rather they concern relationships - mostly heterosexual or parent-child relationships.

And, far from being humorous, they are really quite miserable!  There were definitely a few stories which I don't have anything more to say about.  However, there was a series of three in the middle - 'Royal Beatings', 'Wild Swans' and 'The Beggar Maid' - which were particularly disturbing (in addition to being miserable), and two linked stories at the end - 'Carried Away' and 'Vandals' - which I also found rather chilling (and did I mention miserable?).  I feel like these were right on the limits of the short story form though, if they could be called that at all, being linked chapters.  'The Progress of Love' though, and 'Differently' were both isolated short stories which I found just as affecting.

Most of the stories are based in rural Canada in (I think) the 50s and 60s, and concerned particularly with poor communities, and the women in them.  There is something subversive about the way Munro writes about women, and I have rewritten this paragraph ten times (and reserve the right to do so again) trying to describe what it is.  Her stories suggest to me that traditional, moralistic, social ideas about women may restrict female behaviour a lot less than is sometimes assumed but, more seriously, may also create a dysfunctional mindset and problems that can last years down the line.

It was an interesting book anyway - not a happy one, certainly - but curious enough to be absorbing.

Claire Tomalin's name has cropped up several times for me lately.  Not so long again, I think she published a memoir of some sort which was well reviewed; and I recently read an interview with another writer who had enjoyed the Pepys biography.  Years ago, studying A-Level history, I did my major piece of coursework on Mary Wollstonecraft, about whom Tomalin has also written a book.  Annoyingly, whilst I felt that Wollstonecraft was someone I should be impressed and inspired by, I disliked both A Vindication of the Rights of Women (which is terribly convoluted) and Tomalin's biography which - I felt at the time anyway - portrayed Wollstonecraft as petulant, selfish, and thoroughly unlikeable.

Of Tomalin's current subject, Samuel Pepys, I knew only vaguely: a diarist who buried his Parmesan in the garden during the Great Fire of London, who died before the period of history in which I've always been the most interested, and - as someone reminded me recently - who was caricatured in the Goon Shows ('... hello Mrs Fitzsimmons!').

Anyway, all this is just preparatory to saying that I liked the tone of this book immediately (the Wollstonecraft biography perhaps deserves a re-read): it was interested and scholarly, wide-ranging, well-contextualised, and non-judgemental without glossing over the problems of the subject (of which, more later).

What struck me first was its sweeping descriptions of both London, and specific, jaw-dropping, history-defining moments, which would usually leave me sceptical of such specificity, but which seem to work in such a relatively small, localised London as existed in the seventeenth century - surrounded by fields, navigated fastest by boat, served by an old Roman road.  There is, on p.14, a description of how, one day in January 1642, Charles I ran out of the House of Commons in pursuit of five men - MPs who he wanted arrested.  He was mobbed by a crowd and escaped, scared but unharmed.  He and his family left London a few days later - the last time they would see it before the Civil War.  It's the kind of story that brings history to life.
Another thing that reminded me that there are things I enjoy about the early modern period was a passing comment Tomalin made - a quote from Christopher Hill emphasising the importance of the intellectual revolution which accompanied the Civil War, and pointing out that it is often difficult for us now to understand how people thought before that point.  Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, theorised about the invention of the printing press and how it may have changed the way people thought, promoting empathy and the idea of putting yourself in other people's shoes.  The history of how people think is fascinating and I think I forget sometimes - in a general concern with ordinariness over the fancy, elite bits of history - that those headline-grabbing bits ('the history of great men') are responsible for a lot of paradigmatic shifts in thought.

I liked the structure of the book which - although broadly chronological - also treated its subject thematically.  Particularly, I liked the fact that Tomalin has a chapter entitled 'Speeches and Stories' which seemed to be specifically for quoting interesting bits of the diary which don't fit in anywhere else.  Having said that, there wasn't actually a whole lot of quotation in this book - which I found a little disappointing, since it has roused my interest in the diaries.  I suppose I should read them myself - which brings me onto my next point...

...which is that what puts me off actually reading the diary itself is Pepys's harassment of women throughout the book.  Paradoxically, this was sometimes hilarious and sometimes mildly terrifying.  On p.191, during a national crisis, after a rout by the Dutch navy, and when there was talk of Pepys being taken to the Tower, 'Pepys launched himself into some private sallies, on his cookmaid Nell and the Penn's maid Nan, and another attempt to get Pegg Penn on her own; in the office he fondled Mrs Daniel's belly'.  That was the bit that made me laugh - the hopeful, indiscriminate nature of his amorousness, and the way it was undiminished by what was presumably a very stressful time for him in other ways.

But of course, what appears comic from Pepys's perspective was unlikely to be amusing for the female servants in question.  Doubtless, he had willing, consensual partners (although I don't recall any specific evidence to this effect, and I don't see why it should be assumed in an era where women didn't have a whole lot of choice in the matter) but there seems to have been a long series of female subordinates (both of his household and those of others) who he routinely pressed his attentions on, and who either put up with it, or left their job - some never to be heard of again, others who he pursued to their next post.  Pepys's behaviour is particularly unsettling with regard to Deborah Willet - the 17 year old he employed as a companion to his wife, Elizabeth (see chapter 19) - but, as Tomalin says, the case probably stands out because it's the only one of his 'affairs' that Elizabeth found out about.

It is difficult at one and the same time to appreciate the brilliance of someone's achievements whilst, at the same time, acknowledging the revolting nature of their behaviour elsewhere.  I suppose the temptation is to come down on one side or the other, which is probably a lazy way of thinking.  I liked the way Tomalin dealt with the matter: despite her overwhelming admiration for his diary-writing, she does not minimise the less attractive parts of that document, examining and highlighting instances which make him appear creepy, predatory and sometimes, by today's standards, criminal.

I really enjoyed this book.  I felt like it introduced me to a new literary and historical source which I had not previously known much about, and provided an incredibly appealing window onto seventeenth century politics and society.

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