January and consequently 2022 has begun on a superb note. All the books depicted in the picture below are excellent. Please note that in Pilgrimage 1 consisting of three novels, I’ve read the first novel (Pointed Roofs), and I am halfway through Grossman’s epic 850-page Life and Fate, so both these books will feature in my February post too.
So, without further ado, here are the books…As usual, for detailed reviews on the first three books you can click on the links, while the reviews for the rest will come up in the coming weeks.
THE GREENGAGE SUMMER by Rumer Godden
The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.
Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky). Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.
But all their best laid plans go awry when the mother falls ill. Thus, once at the hotel, the children are largely left to their own devices and latch on to the mysterious Elliott who takes them under his wing much to the chagrin of his lover and the owner of the hotel, Mademoiselle Zizi.
This is a beautiful book with evocative descriptions of a languid French summer. Despite the joys of new experiences, there are darker currents with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide. I loved this book.
A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor
A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town.
The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.
Taylor is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved. This is one of her finest books, simply top-tier Taylor.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.
We are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.
Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel – Eleanor Vance, Theodora and the Hill House heir Luke Sanderson.
But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.
The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.
EVE’S HOLLYWOOD by Eve Babitz
I was a big fan of Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company – a novel that found a place on my year-end list in 2018 I think. It’s her death late last year that reminded me that I still had Eve’s Hollywood to read.
As a book, Eve’s Hollywood seems autobiographical presented in the form of vignettes that capture some of the memorable moments of her life.
Through these essays and striking pieces, Babitz talks about the importance of beauty, her preference for individuality and life as an adventuress, her tryst with LSD, a stream of unforgettable people she meets including friends and lovers. But more importantly, Eve’s Hollywood is a book about Los Angeles and its vibrant spirit, how she is the quintessential “L.A. Woman”. Babitz challenges the idea that Los Angeles is a wasteland, she describes how earthquakes, Santa Ana winds, swaying palm trees are interwoven into the fabric of L.A. life.
Eve’s Hollywood feels like a film montage showcasing Babitz in a variety of roles – schoolgirl, adventuress, journalist, writer, party goer…Her world is bohemian dotted with musicians, artists, writers and women who are the epitome of beauty and panache. The chapters read like interesting anecdotes expressed in a style that is irreverent and breezy so characteristic of her writing. I just love her voice – chatty, intelligent, charming, witty and worldly-wise. Another wonderful book.
POINTED ROOFS (PILGRIMAGE 1) by Dorothy Richardson
I started reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage novels as part of the Twitter readalong (#PilgrimageTogether). Even though her stream-of-consciousness style predates that of Virginia Woolf, she was an author I had never ever heard of before; certainly her work never achieved the kind of fame associated with Woolf’s books.
Pilgrimage is largely autobiographical (the heroine Miriam Henderson is the alter-ego of Dorothy Richardson) and the blurb on the back of my Virago edition states this: “Through her experience – personal, spiritual, intellectual – Richardson explores intensely what it means to be a woman presenting feminine consciousness with a new voice, a new identity.”
Pilgrimage begins with the first novel Pointed Roofs when Miriam is barely 17 years old. She is getting ready for her journey to Hanover, Germany to take on the position of an English teacher in a girls’ boarding school. Miriam’s father is a businessman but gives up his trade because of his aspirations to be a gentleman. Her mother is hardly alluded to (we know from Dorothy’s own life that her mother committed suicide), but Miriam has three sisters – the elders are Sarah and Eve and the one younger to her is Harriet. At the beginning we get the impression that Miriam looks forward to the prospect of travelling abroad, of carving out an independent life, certainly she feels constricted at home and wants to get away. But of course, the imminent change also fills her with dread.
Away out here, the sense of imminent catastrophe that had shadowed all her life so far had disappeared. Even here in this dim carriage, with disgrace ahead, she felt that there was freedom somewhere at hand. Whatever happened she would hold onto that.
A substantial chunk of Pointed Roofs, then, recounts Miriam’s experiences in the German boarding school and is awash with a range of sensory impressions – music, food, walks in a foreign city to name a few.
We are introduced to a slew of characters – the principal referred to as Fraulein, the French teacher simply called Mademoiselle; the German girls (Minna, Emma and Clara Bergmann, Elsa, Ulrica Hesse), and the Australian and English girls (Gertrude, Millie, the Martin sisters etc).
Music, particularly, plays a pivotal role in the book. During her first days at the school, an informal concert by the girls in the school’s drawing room transports Miriam into another world.
Miriam, her fatigue forgotten, slid to a featureless freedom. It seemed to her that the light with which the room was filled grew brighter and clearer. She felt that she was looking at nothing and yet was aware of the whole room like a picture in a dream. Fear left her. The human forms all round her lost their power. They grew suffused and dim…The pensive swing of the music changed to urgency and emphasis…it came nearer and nearer. It did not come from the candle-lit corner where the piano was…It came from everywhere. It carried her put of the house, out of the world.
Miriam is a young woman with strong view and opinions, never voiced aloud but kept to herself. At a German church she ponders on the contrast between an English church and its German counterpart and also reflects on the salient features of the education system in England and how it is different (in a better way) to that in Germany. For instance, she recalls the literature master “reading to them as if it were worthwhile, as if they were equals…interested friends.” And then later…
She began to recognize now with a glow of gratitude that her own teachers, those who were enthusiastic about their subjects were atleast as enthusiastic about getting her and her mates awake and into relationship with something. They cared somehow.
Personality-wise, Miriam is introverted, awkward; forging a carefree rapport with the girls does not come easily to her as it does to Mademoiselle. She is also beset with fear. At first, the fear that gnaws at her is related to the classes she is expected to teach, although the first class does not turn to be such a challenge as originally envisaged much to her relief. But later she frets over the walks that the girls are encouraged to take by the Fraulein. It dawns on Miriam that these walks are designed as a ploy by Fraulein so that the teachers can informally impart language speaking skills to the girls – but Mademoiselle jauntily speaks French with the girls, Miriam, not having been blessed with an easy-going personality, finds these outings quite trying along with a sense that somehow she is failing in her duty.
There are hints of feminism on display…At one point in the novel, Miriam reflects on the pointlessness of sermons…
“…she would be told to listen to sermons in the right spirit. She could never do that. There she felt she was on solid ground. Listening to sermons was wrong. People ought to refuse to be preached at by these men.”
Miriam’s views on marriage are also unique; she was definitely well ahead of her time. While her pupils are content with the pay their future lives will pan out (marriage mostly rather than pursuing further education), it’s not a path Miriam much cares for. This is what flits through her mind while conversing with the school’s music teacher…
It filled her with fury to be regarded as one of a world of little tame things to be summoned by little man to be well-willed wives. She must make him see that she did not even recognize such a thing as a ‘well-willed wife.’
In Pointed Roofs, then, we see the world solely through Miriam’s eyes, which means her views on the people around her are strictly her own (a lot of her ideas are definitely bold, but in other ways her perceptions are coloured by youth and inexperience). That is why, the success of book depends on whether you enjoy being inside Miriam’s head and I certainly did. One thing – the book is dotted with French and German phrases and modes of expression. This annoyed me a bit given that my knowledge of both French and German is pretty much non-existent, but it’s not something that marred by overall enjoyment of the novel.
LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. Robert Chandler)
This marvellous epic is still work-in-progress; I am halfway through and should complete it next month, which means that this book will form a part of my February reading too.
The reading experience has been tremendous so far – the novel is ambitious and epic in its scope and is rendered so well, also effortlessly translated by Chandler. The action begins in late 1942 when World War Two is already underway – the Germans have made inroads into Russia and we now come to the crucial Battle of Stalingrad, a decisive, big turning point in this horrific war not only for Russia but for the world.
The cast is huge and we follow the lives of these diverse set of characters in provincial towns, in the steppes, in labour and concentration camps, and in the actual battlefields (fighting in the sky and on the ground). The biggest joy of this novel is its focus on humanity, the sheer range of emotions on display (grief, fear, despair, hope, happiness, uncertainty to name a few), as daily life must somehow carry on.
“You know what, someone ought to write a treatise on despair in the camps. There’s a despair that crushes you, another that attacks you suddenly, another that stifles you and won’t let you breathe. And then there’s a special kind that doesn’t do any of these things but somehow tears you to pieces from within – like a deep-sea creature brought suddenly up to the surface.”
The varied perspectives take on the shape of the effect of the war on ordinary families, the fear of an uncertain future, relationships, politics, the horrific Holocaust, and so on.
There are some vivid moments/set-pieces/chapters that are unforgettable either because they are memorable, or horrific or poignant. The letter written by the mother to her son Viktor (the novel’s protagonist) from a Jewish ghetto (a few days before her death in the mass killings), is truly heartbreaking (“I’ve realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.”)
Then there is the extraordinary chapter where Grossman discusses the brutality of Fascism and totalitarianism, a man’s yearning for freedom and why it’s important to fight such right-wing views if a man is to retain his individuality and ensure that Fascism does not rear its ugly head.
Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian State is doomed.
There is another wonderful chapter where Viktor is spending an evening with friends; there is a free exchange of ideas on art and literature and memorable discussion on the Russian greats – Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Early on in the novel, there is some terrific writing on the unreality of time…
Such is time: everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don’t even know it.
And so on.
I aim to write an individual post on this superb novel once I complete it, we shall see.
That’s it for January. In February, plans on the anvil include Alison Moore’s Death and the Seaside, the second novel in Pilgrimage 1 – Backwater, and continuing with Life and Fate.