This week’s book haul

Just two books this week, but what books!

Firstly Deborah Levy‘s ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’. I LOVED her last novel, ‘Hot Milk’ and can’t wait to leap into this.

The second book is ‘Tastes of Honey‘ by Selina Todd, a look at the life and work of Shelagh Delaney and her impact on the post war cultural revolution. Delaney’s play ‘A Taste of Honey’ and the film from 1960 are firm favourites of mine and I fear that Delaney has often been overshadowed by more productive (and male) contemporaries. Hopefully this will help reset the balance. The fact that I am going to see a production of ‘A Taste of Honey’ in Delaney’s Salford only adds to the frisson of excitement…

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Music Time: Neneh Cherry

My record of the summer, 2019

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Terrance Dicks 1935 – 2019

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Like that familiar ‘wheezing, groaning sound’ you’ll never be forgotten.

Thank you for everything.

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A book haul…and holiday reading!

Just a couple of purchases this week (I’m learning!).

Firstly a book I didn’t even know existed: ‘Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret’ by Leila J Rupp and Verta Taylor. This is very much an academic work, looking at the lives and work of the drag queens of this club in Key West, Florida.

‘Weaving together their fascinating life stories, their lavish costumes and eclectic music, their flamboyance ad bitchiness, and their bawdy exchanges with on another and their audiences, the authors explore how drag queens smash the boundaries between gay and straight , man and woman, to make people think more deeply and realistically about sex and gender in America today.

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Claude Cahun

The second book is one which I’ve been meaning to read since it was published last year but never got round to: ‘Never Anyone But You’ by Rupert Thomson. This is a novel based on the lives of the two young women who meet at the turn of the century and whose love affair takes them to Paris where they transform themselves into Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, artists ‘mixing in the most glamorous social circles and producing art of great power and strangeness.’ Cahun is a figure always on the periphery of my attention so this will, hopefully, be a great introduction…and completes my holiday reading list! So, with my holiday a week away, the books I’m taking are:

 

‘The Stonewall Reader’

‘The Complete Short Stories’ – Muriel Spark

‘Ancient Sorceries’ – Algernon Blackwood

‘Never Anyone But You’ – Rupert Thomson

‘Dolores’ – Lauren Aimee Curtis: a first novel about Dolores, a young girl taken into a convent but still troubled by her past life of discos, motels, a boy called Angelo and the baby growing inside her…Nuns, why so fascinating? And, since you ask, I’m not a Catholic.

‘Summer Cookery’ – Elizabeth David: Simply because I’ve realised that Elizabeth David, alongside Agatha Christie, is perfect, relaxing holiday reading. And it has a beautiful cover!

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So, a nice mix of classics and recent fiction, history and food. Hope you have a great summer holiday, wherever it may be!

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Some short cuts…

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‘Three Women’ – Lisa Taddeo This book confused me. Pre-publicity led me to believe it was going to be an exploration of the lives of three American women, their ‘unmet needs, unspoken thoughts, disappointments, hopes and unrelenting obsessions.’ Hmmm, I’m not sure it delivered on any of those. Basically, the books follows three women at a crux in their lives: Maggie, whose teenage affair with a school teacher haunts her until, years later, she accuses the teacher of inappropriate behaviour; Lina, trapped in a dull marriage and now finding exciting sex with another man; Sloane, a woman with a lifetime of struggling with her body image, finds her happy marriage spiced up with sex with a third party. The problem is that we never really get further than detailing of events. What are the women’s thoughts on what is happening to them? What about the context of the situations, the thoughts of those who also form part of these stories? Without a complete picture the reader is forced to fill in gaps and come to conclusions which may, as a result, be groundless. And sometimes the book is a little confusing: For example, when Maggie’s former lover is in court, the trial descends into the now familiar tale whereby a woman is not believed because she isn’t good looking enough, she isn’t cultured and fashionable enough or that she is simply too bolshy to deserve sympathy:

‘The people who believe Maggie Wilken is doing it for money are often the same people who believe women who don’t keep themselves pretty will be responsible for losing their men.’

I’m not saying this conclusion is necessarily wrong, but how is this conclusion reached?  Whose conclusion is this Maggie’s or the author’s? It smacks of lazy writing.

Also why were these particular women selected to be trailed for eight years in order to record their stories? Were these women selected because of the situations they were in and, if so, what is the author suggesting these stories tell us about women’s position in society? There is nothing unfamiliar in these women’s lives, their stories of being on the receiving end of both blatant and subtle everyday misogyny often told, and maybe that is the point. But without sparkling prose, bright and sharp analysis the reader is left with a huge ‘and?‘ by the end.

A confusing disappointment. I’ll stick with Nancy Friday.

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‘Water Shall Refuse Them’ – Lucie McKnight Hardy. This book was always going to appeal to me: Great cover, lovely typography and folk-horror hints on the back cover.

Following the drowning of her younger sister, Nif and her family travel to a small Welsh village for the summer. It is 1976, hot and Nif is racing through puberty. The village is unwelcoming, blaming all new comers, including Nif’s near neighbour Mally and his mother, of being related to the witches who brought plague to the place, many moons ago.

Unfortunately for this book it the latest in a number of ‘coming-of-age’ stories set in the past and entangled with larger themes, possibly the best of these being Melissa Harrison’s ‘All Among the Barley’. This led to a little too much deja vu, but it was redeemed by the quite startling revelation(s) which hinted at a writer who, perhaps, could have written with more abandon and created something which is and of, itself. That said, I will definitely look out for her next book.

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Defunct Currency? – Niven Govinden

I’m currently reading Niven Govinden‘s novel ‘This Brutal House’ in which a group of New York mothers stage a silent protest at the treatment of their children both by the authorities and society in general. These are the ‘guardians of the vogue ball community – queer men who opened their hearts and homes to countless lost Children, providing safe spaces for them to explore their true selves.’

It’s a great book (I’ll discuss it in more detail shortly) but one passage, which leapt from the page, is so prescient and sums up what so many people (regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, class, country) are feeling right now about those who ‘lead’ us that I have to quote it here. (The picture is of drag queen Candy Sterling (photographer unknown) – with additions by me)

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‘We no longer use words because they are a defunct currency. What we say carries no value in this world; pennies rolled along the street that fall into the gutter; representing the ugliness of small currency that cannot be acknowledged. We no longer wish to contribute to the noise, deafened by the hollow talk that comes from the mouths of others. We are so used to hearing ‘no’, ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unable’, that these words have stopped making sense, becoming nothing more than a series of coos and grunts to wave us away. They have used ‘no’, ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unable’ as pacifiers, shushing us the way a nanny calms an agitated baby. We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard. There is more language – and honesty – in a punch to our faces than the babble with which we’re addressed.

Those we wish to hear from do not have the guts to show their colours in so visceral a way. They fear we would see the truth in their eyes.’

 

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The Hothouse by the East River – Muriel Spark

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‘King and Queen’ – Henry Moore (1953)

Muriel Spark is a tonic. Her books may be slender but what they lack in heft they more than make up for with a huge compression of the blackest of humour, the sharpest of prose, the cleanest of styles and the wildest imaginings. Like all great writers, you couldn’t mistake a Muriel Spark for anyone else.

The Hothouse by the East River was Spark’s 12th novel from 1973. It concerns Elsa who whiles away her days in a sweltering New York apartment, arguing with her husband Paul and receiving visits from her psychiatrist, Garven.

Elsa’s shadow also stands at odds with the physics of the light around her.

Paul and Elsa met while working in British intelligence in a place known as ‘The Compound’ in 1944. While there they crossed paths with a group who return to New York years later, among them Princess ‘Poppy’ Xavier who now farms silk and hatches the eggs of the worms beneath her ‘huge pink bulge of bosom’, Miles Bunting who takes the lead role in Elsa and Pauls’ sons’ reimagining of ‘Peter Pan’ with every actor over the age of 60, and Helmut Kiel, Nazi spy who may or may not have had a wartime affair with Elsa and who now works in a Manhattan shoe shop.

What does it all mean? To which the only correct response is: why does it have to ‘mean’ anything? It could represent the response of the victims of warfare to the onset of peace, wallowing in a glitzy bohemian world where the rules of normal existence no longer mean anything? It could be a farce – Spark appears almost Joe Ortonesque in the sequence when the garish cast, dressed inappropriately (‘a flame-coloured crepe evening dress with dark beads at the hem and wrists’) and luxuriantly slathered in jewels to attend her sons’ hexagenerian version of Peter Pan, acting like the grandest drag queens and arriving to a round of applause from the gay audience. ‘We’ve been far-out longer than they have’ sighs a complaining Princess Xavier before Elsa starts a riot by pelting the cast with rotten tomatoes. It could be a satire on the rich and their search for meaning in life (both Elsa and Paul have psychiatrists who play a large role in the book)

The brilliance of Muriel Spark is that her work could be all of these things but taking into account what Spark’s character, Mrs Hawkins – a book editor in ‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ – says about

‘…pensive men and women talking with judicious facial expressions about such mutilated concepts as optimism/ pessimism, fascist/ communist, extrovert/introvert, high-brow/ middle-brow/ low-brow; and this claptrap they applied to art, literature and life to the effect that all joy, wit and the pleasures of curiosity were quite squeezed out.’

…it is clear that Spark, at the very least, places the ‘meaning’ of  a novel way down in her pecking order of importance. (Of course, there are some recurring themes in Spark’s work: religion; a search for meaning, sinister plots by omnipresent shadowy groups or people)

But in this Sparksian universe where anything can happen we find damaged characters drifting in search of a life or a plot which gives us two further reasons for Spark’s greatness:

Firstly, her way with razor sharp miniature profiles which tell you all you need to know about a character. Take, for example, the introductions to the ‘not quite normal’ people running a publishing house in ‘A Far Cry From Kensington: : The ‘charming Doctor who had been struck off the rolls’; the ‘sweet natured, though vague, young woman, a Vicar’s daughter, her face frightfully marred all one side by a port-wine birth-mark’; ‘The head of the production department, totally incompetent but very witty, had a duodenal ulcer which he bore bravely, and limped from a war -wound’; The woman Director, ‘tough business-woman though she was; she was the daughter of a notorious mass-murderer of the early ‘thirties’ and possibly my favourite, the ‘very small, raddled and parchment faced photographer who called himself Vladimir’, a white Russian, who was said to beat his mother.’ Of course, his author photographs showed their most ‘unbecoming and grotesque aspects’, with any rejected being sold to a ‘clandestine shop in Soho for a modest fee’. Upon his death it turns out that Vladimir was actually Cyril Biggs from Wandsworth.

Secondly, in direct challenge to those ‘realist’ writers who believe their characters act ‘naturally’ Spark’s novels pay no heed to such notions. Her characters are the product of pure imagination – fully formed, yes, but purely of themselves in behaviour. They rarely take the ‘realistic’ option and in this Spark allows her characters to go where they want: each Spark novel I have read provides no hint or clue as to where it might be heading. In this respect (and the fact that Spark’s worlds are purely Sparkian, they could not be a product of anyone else) Spark’s novels are wonderfully camp: they are, to paraphrase Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’, ‘dead serious’ in that Spark is a novelist of the highest order yet her creations see the world ‘not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.’. Her work has ‘the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, the naive’ and could, by some, be considered ‘outlandish’ (‘When something is just bad (rather than Camp) it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do something really outlandish’)

Each Spark novel also takes on a different genre, a different form: while ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is a minimalist horror story about a woman’s journey to her destiny, ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ could be a murder mystery in the ‘Miss Marple’ mould.  This can sometimes disorientate a reader, in that you think you know what to expect from a Spark novel only to pick up another and find yourself in a radically different quarter. This must have made her really difficult to market when she was alive and can be difficult for the reader who isn’t prepared to come to the novel with an open mind and the willingness to  submit and surrender completely. Compare the following openings:

‘The other servants fall silent as Lister enters the room. ‘Their life,’ says Lister, ‘a general mist of error. Their death, a hideous storm of terror. – I quote from The Duchess of Malphi by John Webster, an English dramatist of old.’
‘When you say a thing is not possible, that isn’t quite as if to say it’s possible,’ says Eleanor who, although younger than Lister, is his aunt. She is taking off her out for clothes. Only technically is the not impossible, possible.’
‘We are not discussing possibilities today,’ Lister says. ‘Today we speak of facts. This is not the time for inconsequential talk.’ (Not to Disturb)

‘Daylight appearing over London, the great city of bachelors. Half-pint bottles of milk began to be stood on the doorsteps of houses containing single apartments from Hampstead Heath to Greenwich Park, and from Wanstead Flats to Putney Heath; but especially in Hampstead, especially in Kensington’ (The Batchelors)

‘This is rape!’ His voice was reaching a pitch it had never reached before and went higher still as he surveyed the wreckage. ‘This is violation!’
It was not rape, it was a robbery. (Symposium)

In many ways Spark mirrors aspects of my favourite author, Shena Mackay: both were born in Edinburgh and share an interest in the damaged and lost in life. While I have earlier commented that one word to describe Mackay’s fiction might be ‘melancholy’ with a wry sense of fun, Spark’s writing comes from a more strident place of cynicism and a wilder, crueller but no less funny humour. But, to paraphrase to Susan Sontag, ‘(Spark) is generous. (She) wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism (or, if it is cynicism it is not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism)…(Spark) relishes rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character’…’

Last year saw the centenary of Spark’s birth and there was a certain amount of hyperbole about her work, much of which I chose to ignore. Silly me.

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