Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life – Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain has been in print for more than 40 years. Her novels and short stories have earned her the Orange Prize, the Dylan Thomas Award, the Whitbread Novel of the Year award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, amongst others. It’s always hugely exciting when talented writers turn their pens on themselves, so I was looking forward to this one.

Rosie covers the period of Tremain’s life from birth (in 1943) to the early 1960s. She grew up in post-war London where, according to the inside cover blurb, ‘food and affection were fiercely rationed’. With a distant father, frustrated playwright Keith Thomson, and a mother, Jane, seemingly incapable of love, Tremain lived for the family’s trips to Hampshire, where they spent summers at her grandparents farm deep in the countryside. However, aged 10, everything changed when Keith left them to start a new family with a much younger woman he’d fallen in love with while working on a play in York.

Not long after Keith’s departure, Jane began an affair with his cousin, Ivo Thomson, who she eventually married. Tremain and her older sister Jo found themselves dispatched to boarding school in Hertfordshire, where Rosie had to start over, searching for the friendship and love that she had never been able to take for granted.

Although I’ve read a number of her books, I didn’t know anything at all about Tremain’s personal life – it came as a surprise to find she’d had a more unusual upbringing than most. The most shocking thing is the lack of love she experiences. Her mother makes it disarmingly plain that she doesn’t love her daughters, but it’s not expressed as indifference. There are occasions when it seems more like maliciousness or jealousy. Tremain explores the idea of Jane’s jealous feelings towards her daughters; the idea that she sees them as unbearably privileged compared to her own experience as the surviving, unloved daughter of parents in perpetual mourning for the beloved sons they lost (one aged 16 to a burst appendix, and the other killed at Furstenau in 1945 in the last month of the war). We can only imagine Jane’s lonely, guilt-ridden childhood. Tremain attempts a degree of balance in the way she acknowledges it, but it can’t quite disguise the fact that she still feels a lot of hurt about the way she was treated – little barbs litter the text.

There are interesting meditations on the idea of love as a learned behaviour. Jane didn’t receive love so she was singularly incapable of bestowing it. Tremain considers her true role model to be her live-in nanny, Vera, with her from birth to the time she was sent away to boarding school. Even after that Vera was a feature in her life – it was to Vera’s home she was sent when illness forced her home from school for a few weeks. She regarded Vera as her angel, the one who saved her by loving her.

Tremain’s memoir is, of course, also about the origins of a writer. I loved the occasional footnote tying Rosie’s real-life experiences to incidents in her later novels. She also describes in detail an event, aged 13 or 14, when she had an epiphany on a beautiful summer evening while walking home across a hayfield. Simultaneously struck by the beauty of the moment and a sense of utter desolation at its fleeting nature, she casts around for a way to preserve it, so it can be ‘captured and locked way, not just in capricious, gradually fading memory, but in some more concrete form’. And so the adolescent Tremain decides that writing is her calling. She wouldn’t just write about her memories, so much ‘sentimental nostalgia’; instead her experiences would be ‘transfigured by becoming fiction… experienced afresh.’ She would ‘assert her divinity over it’. Writing is definitely one of those professions that seems more calling than ‘job’ and you always imagine a moment like this when you romanticise the unleashing of the writer within. It was particularly satisfying to read about Tremain’s ‘lightbulb’.

Throughout the rest of her journey to adulthood we see that resolve tested, particularly when she’s taken out of boarding school, having finally established herself there, and sent to finishing school in Switzerland, where the emphasis is all on how many words per minute you can type and how to marry well.

Interestingly Tremain seems furthest of all from her writing dreams at the end of the book, on the cusp of leaving ‘Mon Fertile’ (yes, really truly), her finishing school. I wonder if she’s planning to write more, covering the long period between school and the moment when she became a published author. It feels like a cliffhanger, but then it also feels like Tremain wrote this book in part to exorcise ‘Rosie’ (she definitely separates herself into Rosie – powerless child – and Rose) and partly to work through her complex feelings towards her mother.

Whatever her reasons for writing, I found it a fascinating insight and will continue to lap up books in which writers write about being writers.

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[From the archives: 2013] The Art of the Novel – Milan Kundera

While carrying out a recent laptop ‘spring clean’, I stumbled on a file containing a load of book reviews that I never posted. Not sure how I managed that. Although I’m genuinely intrigued as to what else I might find languishing on my hard drive – perhaps I DID write that novel and just don’t remember doing it… Anyway, I thought I’d post a forgotten review up every once in a while; a kind of ‘from the archives’. Today, we’re going back to November 2013.

Do you ever pick up a book because it’s so cerebral that you imagine it will have some kind of profound effect on your intellectual abilities? Or get suddenly nostalgic about those challenging books you ploughed through in your university library while feeling utterly numb-of-brain and yet terribly worthy?

This is that book.

I found it in the library and the little voice in my head told me that I never really ‘challenge’ myself anymore and should read more widely.

The truth is, this was a really difficult read. I can’t hand on heart say that I understood even 60% of it. I’m not widely read enough to have picked up half the books that Kundera writes about (by authors like Husserl, Heidegger and Descartes). I’m not even widely read enough to fully appreciate Kundera’s backlist – making essays like ‘Sixty three words’, in which he expands on core themes from his novels as a response to unsatisfactory translations of his work, more of an introduction than a consolidation.

But all that said, I still feel this was worth the effort. I felt rewarded for my decision to read it more slowly and carefully than my normal habit allows. Feeling the cogs turning and the scraping of rust in areas of my brain long left idle was a good reminder that I really do need to challenge myself more but it’s ok if I don’t achieve Donne-like levels of reading know-how overnight.

In summary, The Art of the Novel is a collection of essays about the art, design and purpose of the European novel. Going any deeper than that would risk a clumsy paraphrase of Kundera’s thesis. I’d suggest this is a good book for those who bristle at the idea that someone might consider time with a book to be wasted or misspent. It’s for those who find that the act of reading, the joy of stories or words, brings them escapist pleasure and a deep, almost transcendent fulfilment. Kundera skilfully elevates the novelist and, by extension, the readers to sit alongside the great philosophers and I was left feeling the novel might really just save us all. Take this for example:

‘Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said. This light that radiates from the great novels time can never dim for human existence is perpetually being forgotten by man, and thus the novelist’s discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us.’

Or this:

‘The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth…but where everyone has the right to be understood…’           

Of course, I didn’t agree with Kundera on everything. That’s the fun part of reading literary criticism – the counter-argument. I often found myself wondering ‘where are all the female writers?’ And I objected to the idea that truly great ‘moral’ novels – those that manage to avoid the dreaded ‘kitsch’ about which Kundera writes at length – are restricted to those that he himself cites (particularly when he leaves out every female writer of note). For me, the wonder of the novel lies in its fluidity of interpretation. If a novel reveals a ‘hitherto unknown segment of existence’ to me but not to you, or vice versa, then I think that novel has still fulfilled its purpose. If, as he says, novels ‘hold the “world of life” under a permanent light’ I think we must allow for the possibility that your world is not the same as mine, or Kundera’s for that matter. Life is too contradictory, sprawling and questioning to be so neatly defined. Which means that any book can be great to someone, somewhere. And that’s a comforting thought.

Educated – Tara Westover

Back in April, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at the Stratford Literary Festival in which Tara Westover discussed Educated, her book about growing up in Idaho in a Mormon survivalist family. The book was still on my library reservations list so I was approaching things somewhat blind, but I knew I’d read it eventually. Finally, in July, I was able to link the speaker who so impressed me with the words that she wrote.

Westover grew up the youngest of seven children. Her father – who likely suffered with bipolar disorder, although was never formally diagnosed – was opposed to public education and pretty much every other form of state-sanctioned enterprise. Her mother initially practised as an unlicensed midwife, before establishing herself as a renowned healer and herbalist. As a child, Westover spent her time helping her mother prepare her essential oil and herb blends, laying in supplies for the ‘end of days’, or working up on the mountain behind their home in the junkyard run by her father. The latter work was physical and dangerous, and both Tara and her siblings sustained serious injuries on the site.

The first time Westover attended a school she was seventeen. Prior to that, although her parents claimed to be home-schoolers, she’d had little to no formal education. In one of her first lectures at Brigham Young University, Westover shocked her professor and classmates alike by asking what the Holocaust was. No one genuinely believed she didn’t know and it was less embarrassing for her to admit it was a joke in poor taste than to confess the truth about her lack of education.

Once begun, Westover’s learning journey accelerated, taking her from BYU to Cambridge, then to a visiting fellowship at Harvard, before she achieved her PhD at Cambridge in 2014.

All of which is a staggering achievement given the obstacles she had to navigate to get there.

It’s hard to read Westover’s book.  It’s hard to stomach her parents’ neglect and the abuse she suffered repeatedly at the hands of one of her brothers. It’s hard to imagine the kind of parenting that wouldn’t insist a child wore a seatbelt in a car being driven at speed through a snowstorm, wouldn’t rush them immediately to hospital when they sustained a terrible head injury or a burn that stripped most of the skin off their leg. I’d imagine the hardest task for Westover in writing her book was trying to help readers understand why she didn’t leave sooner, or seek help, or condemn her family more publicly: it’s too easy to judge a situation when you aren’t living all the emotions it entails.

One of the things that struck me while reading is that it takes a special kind of wisdom to be insightful about your own family. While they’re often people you know very well, emotion tends to cloud judgement. I thought Westover had an incredible ability to understand her family, and particularly her parents, despite the pain they caused her. I loved this quote about her father, ‘Gene’, and the land that shaped him:

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation… It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.”

While the emotions in the book are undoubtedly complex, there is a lot of love and respect in the way that Westover writes about her family and the place in which she grew up. Which makes sense given that her family was both the source of great betrayal and also the strength and support she needed in order to leave. Westover explores the notion of memory in her writing and repeatedly acknowledges, when describing significant incidents, that there is often more than one version of events. The extent to which she struggles with the idea that her own recollection may be faulty (when so many of us assume it’s correct by default) is really interesting and sheds light on why she chose her particular field of study:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement – since realising that what a person knows about the past… will always be limited, to what they are told by others. […] Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. […] maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught. Dad could be wrong, and the great historians… could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in.”

It’s public knowledge that Westover is now estranged from much of her family and that some of them have disputed, through lawyers, many details of her book. Westover herself reminded me that I was reading one of many versions of events and my overall impression was that she was fair and measured in her approach. It feels like her training as a historian shines through – she is adept at separating emotional response from fact, and at distinguishing fact from recollection. Given how much I felt myself judging people throughout, she is remarkably careful not to judge anyone too harshly for their actions.

When speaking in Stratford, she made a really interesting point about the timing of the book, describing how she wanted to write it while she was still in conflict about the decisions she made. Her view was that many books about estrangement were written some years after the fact, when reflection and time had changed the emotions involved. She also explained in part what caused her to write the book. Namely that stories tell us how we should feel about things/experiences and that her experience didn’t come with a story that allowed her to understand and process what happened to her. So she wrote it. Despite being so personal, she was quite happy for people to interpret the story and her decisions in whatever way they needed to depending on their own circumstances.

Westover’s education is the most fascinating of journeys. Some of it might be passive, sitting at home listening to her father expound at length on his latest obsessions, and some of it is dynamic as she struggles to fill cavernous gaps with knowledge that the rest of the world seem to take for granted. All of it represents an empowering attempt to put herself and her experiences in a context that she can understand and that will allow her to exist and to move forward.

Education for Westover is not always an unequivocally ‘good thing’: it brings with it complications and pain that make it far from the easy choice. But there’s a hunger in the way Westover acquires knowledge that feels deeply authentic. It’s like getting an insight into the way a child learns because, this time, the child in question has the ability to communicate their experience in a masterful, cognisant way. Westover learns in order to live, to experience, to understand, to grow and to break free. Not every student can be a Westover (and to be honest, nor would they wish to be), but her book reminds us of many of the underpinning tenets of education that we must be careful not to lose sight of.

Classics Club #1: A Room With A View – E. M. Forster

In July 2018, I joined the Classics Club. You can see my full list of books to read here

I’ve set myself a loose goal of reading one of my Classics Club picks a month and July’s book was A Room With A View. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with the premise but for those still TBR, it goes a little something like this.

In Part 1, Lucy Honeychurch is touring Florence with her ‘dismal’ cousin Charlotte (I’m totally stealing ‘dismal’ from the BCC of my copy because it’s such a perfect word to describe her!). This half of the book focuses on their experiences with the other guests at the Pension Bertolini, including romantic novelist Eleanor Lavish, the usually taciturn Mr Emerson, who is prone to bursts of alarming eloquence, and his son George, gripped by passions that unsettle Lucy’s otherwise orderly middle-class life and end up contributing to her impulsive dash to Rome. In the second part of the book, Lucy – now back in England at her family home, Windy Corner – has become engaged to the rather loathsome Cecil Vyse but all is turned inside-out again when the Emersons arrive once more, this time as tenants of Sir Harry Otway, an acquaintance of Lucy’s family.

Forster’s central theme is the so-called ‘undeveloped heart’ of the English middle classes, here represented by Lucy who slowly comes to know herself better until she has the strength to fly in the face of convention. She’s sympathetically drawn, a little serious, a little naive, but you can see that her cooler outer demeanour hides a warm heart, increasingly confused by what is expected of her and frustrated by society’s limitations. Charlotte is a masterpiece of calculated deference and uses both extreme politeness and subservience as weapons of control. I love her and yet also wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of minutes in her company!

In fact, pretty much all of Forster’s characterisations are glorious – love them or hate them. He’s such a light, witty writer with impeccable comic timing.

‘Do you, by any chance, know the name of an old man who sat opposite us at dinner?’

‘Emerson.’

‘Is he a friend of yours?’

‘We are friendly – as one is in pensions.’

‘Then I will say no more.’

He pressed her very slightly, and she said more.

Forster has the ability to pinpoint the essence of a person in a few deft sentences. Within a few pages of meeting Cecil (who really is loathsome), we get this ‘Of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement.‘ and we know exactly what sort of man we’re dealing with. And of course Cecil is the kind of man who proposes to ‘rescue’ Lucy without once realising that the alternative he is offering her is just another sort of prison with different furnishings.

Lucy’s problem is that she is used to being told what to think and feel, either by books or other people: ‘There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the naves and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr Ruskin.’ So when it comes to matters of her own heart, it’s no wonder she finds herself completely unable to interpret her own emotions.

As the story progresses, we are eager to see her figure out what we already know, to expand her ‘undeveloped heart’ and break free from the confines of Victorian expectations and niceties. And I was totally up for the ride. This was a joy to read. The only part that fell slightly flat for me was Lucy’s central love story, perhaps because Forster just does humour better than straight-faced passion. Hateful though they are, I did find Charlotte and Cecil more fun to read about. Plus there’s a suggestion that Charlotte may just have come good at the end…  Ultimately I will never tire of reading about Victorian English people being terribly terribly English both at home and abroad.

So there we have it. My first Classics Club read! Just in time for me to get going on the August spin – Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

 

Classics Club Spin – August 2018

It’s time for my first ever Classics Club spin!

‘How to’: It’s easy. At your blog, before next Wednesday 1st August 2018, create a post that lists twenty books of your choice that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list. 

This is your Spin List.

You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the month. On Wednesday 1st August, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by 31st August, 2018. We’ll check in here then to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

I’ve only been doing the Classics Club for about a fortnight so I’ve loads to choose from. I opted to read 50 books in 5 years and finished my first one last week – A Room With A View. More on that soon. In the meantime, here are 20 books for the spin list, divided into categories for extra interest.

Five I’m most excited to read:

1. Daphne Du Maurier – My Cousin Rachel

2. Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

3. Mollie Panter-Downes – One Fine Day

4. Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping

5. EB White – Charlotte’s Web

Five from the 20th Century:

6. Willa Cather – O Pioneers!

7. Ford Madox Ford – Parade’s End

8. Somerset Maugham – The Painted Veil

9. EM Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front

10. Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea

Five pre-20th Century:

11. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning – Aurora Leigh

12. RD Blackmore – Lorna Doone

13. Voltaire – Candide

14. Ralph Waldo Emerson – The Essential Writings

15. Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass

Five epic reads:

16. WM Thackeray – Vanity Fair

17. Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

18. Seamus Heaney – Beowulf

19. James Fenimore Cooper – Last of the Mohicans

20. Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

Three lovely books about owls

I love owls. Everyone loves owls don’t they? How could you not?

I don’t have a lot of time for blog writing this week thanks to a mammoth work project, so I’m going to let these books largely speak for themselves.

Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird – Matt Sewell

Read this one if you’re looking for: a quirky field guide. The text is delightfully off the wall (the Eurasian Eagle Owl is described as having ‘talons like butcher’s hooks, wings like pub doors, a massive neck like a Turkish weightlifter…‘) and the illustrations are wonderful. 

The Secret Life of the Owl – John Lewis-Stempel

Read this one if you’re looking for: something more poetic. As far as nature writing goes, you’re always in safe hands with JLS. This is a slimmer volume and certainly doesn’t set out to be an all-encompassing guide to the owl. Instead, it’s a collection of brief descriptions of Britain’s owls – almost vignettes really – bookended by poems and essays that explore the history and mythology of owls where they intersect with humans.

Owl Sense – Miriam Darlington

Read this one if you’re looking to: get out into the field. Reading Darlington’s book was a bit like having a conversation with a friend. She’s interesting, personable and truly dedicated to getting her feet muddy and seeing owls in their natural habitats. While she acknowledges the folklore surrounding the owl, her focus is on separating myth from reality and experiencing owls as tangibly as possible, rather than as the fleeting shadow or distant hoot that is the closest many of us have come. It’s a book about connections – be they ecological or emotional – between people, and between people and owls.

[From the archives: 2013] Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

While carrying out a recent laptop ‘spring clean’, I stumbled on a file containing a load of book reviews that I never posted. Not sure how I managed that. Although I’m genuinely intrigued as to what else I might find languishing on my hard drive – perhaps I DID write that novel and just don’t remember doing it… Anyway, I thought I’d post a forgotten review up every once in a while; a kind of ‘from the archives’. Today, we’re going back to November 2013.

The ravenous youth in Guo’s affecting episodic novel is 21-year-old Fenfang, a bright young woman who travels 1,800 miles from a rural sweet potato farm to Beijing to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. The book presents 20 chapters or fragments in Fenfang’s life. Frequently there are significant gaps between the events of each chapter, making them seem like snapshots and perhaps highlighting the absurdity of summarising any one person’s complex existence in the space of 200 pages.

Building on that idea of snapshots, each chapter begins with a black and white photograph of seemingly mundane things from the everyday lives of people in Communist China. Their very ordinariness and the fact that they’re forever frozen in time makes them take on a significance that I was left puzzling over. Apparently Guo took the pictures herself and I’d love to know more about them. They have a bleak, sad quality to them that’s a little haunting.

Which is a lot like the story itself.

For Fenfang, the big city represents glittering opportunities and a life of independence. The reality is quite different. In Beijing, being too much of an individual is still a crime.

Fenfang is a compelling, complex character that I was instantly drawn to despite her prickly, brusque, almost clinical approach to life. At once a product of the world she grew up in, Fenfang also rebels in her own stubborn way. Her matter of factness helps make her so likeable. Economical with her emotions, her self-pity and her rage, she rarely rails against her lot, understanding that expending energy in this way will change nothing. When arrested for having an American boyfriend in her apartment, the only pity she shows is directed at a man in the police station who is refusing to give up his unlicensed dog.

Underneath her resilient exterior, it’s clear that Fenfang is profoundly depressed. However, unlike the deeply personal depression of many Western novels, Fenfang’s depression seems to represent the state of her nation and the many people oppressed by poverty or cultural restrictions. Despite her decisive move to Beijing, she frequently bemoans her lethargy and lack of action.

Throughout the book, there’s a powerful impression of claustrophobia. In her village, surrounded by yawning acres of sweet potato fields, Fenfang is driven mad by the rituals of daily life and her desire for change. Yet Beijing brings its own imprisonments, from the violent ex-boyfriend, the ‘old cocks and old hens’ in her apartment block who monitor her every move and report her misdemeanours to the police, to the succession of non-speaking acting roles that trap her in a vortex of silence.

Fenfang is ravenous because she is starved of the life she wants to be living, the possibilities that should be open to her. The book has an unfinished quality, refusing to offer neat answers or resolutions. I’d definitely recommend it as a way of getting closer to an understanding of what it must mean to live under that kind of regime.

As a side note to end on, it might interest you to know that the English translation of Guo’s book came ten years after it was written. It’s actually her first novel. Guo had this to say about the arduous process of beginning the translation:

‘[I was]…no longer happy with the original Chinese text…I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China. I wanted to rework each sentence…and fight with its young author who knew so little about the world…I wanted to convince her to become an adult.’

I wonder how many authors feel like their earlier creations are no longer a reflection of the story they wanted to tell?

If you enjoy 20 Fragments, do read Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which I personally loved even more. It has the same haunting sadness and poses really interesting questions about cultural divides and the nature of love.