My Best Books of 2022

2022 turned out to be a superb year of reading. Purely because I wanted another reason to showcase my reading highlights, just like last year, I decided to strike a balance between sticking to a specific number and yet not being too rigid about it. So, 21 books it is!

I didn’t read as much translated literature as I would I have liked, something I hope to remedy in 2023, but in the meanwhile from the ones I did read, 6 translated works made the cut covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Danish, Russian and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 18:3).

2022 was also the year when I committed myself to a long reading project – the 13 volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – thanks to the #PilgrimageTogether reading group on Twitter led by Kim McNeill and Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books. It was both a challenging and rewarding project (I plan to read the last three novels this month) and I’ve written about the first ten throughout my monthly posts this year but I want to highlight that the fourth novel The Tunnel was to me the best so far.

Coming back to this list though, it is a mix of 20th century literature, contemporary fiction, translated literature, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2022, in the order in which they appear in the picture below (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

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.

THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R C Sherriff

The Fortnight in September is a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years. The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to leave for the seaside town of Bognor, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. That’s really the crux of the novel and it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between the two women, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to beautifully convey not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let the ways of society dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.

O CALEDONIA by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is an immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet, our protagonist, clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. 

THE ISLAND by Ana María Matute (tr. from Spanish by Laura Lonsdale)

Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. Dona Praxedes, her grandmother, is a domineering woman, who takes matters into her own hands ensuring that Matia is sent to live with her. The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to the book. Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

GENTLEMAN OVERBOARD by Herbert Clyde Lewis

The first of the Boiler House Press titles (from the Recovered Books imprint) that made this list Gentleman Overboard is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. But when the hours slip by and the Arabella disappears from the horizon, Standish is forced to confront the possibility that he is likely to die. It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic.

FOSTER by Claire Keegan

Foster is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change, she becomes absorbed in the Kinsella household’s daily routine and begins to blossom under their care. This book is a mini marvel and one of its greatest strengths is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, where Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space.

TIME: THE PRESENT SELECTED STORIES by Tess Slesinger

Another excellent Recovered Books title, Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable. Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

Some examples – “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation, while Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky.” “Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a relationship, while “Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (tr. from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop. The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt)

Woman Running in the Mountains is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly signaling she’s in labour. Takiko is hell bent on going to the hospital by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time dealing with her dismal family circumstances.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.

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 TORTOISE AND THE HARE by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing. Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. We then meet Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village, about the same age as Evelyn. To Imogen, Blanche is an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude. Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn begin an affair with Blanche, a development that pushes Imogen into a state of crisis.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. from Danish by Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness is a biting, scalpel-sharp collection of stories with its devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style.

Some examples – In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. In the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles. The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.

This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. from Russian by Robert Chandler)

A wonderful, wonderful book, big on ideas, set at the heart of World War Two during the historic Battle of Stalingrad. The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.

But the throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two. There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues, shifting points of view and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings. The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh. When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. Later, when Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately, they set in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is meticulously researched, painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, ageing and loneliness. It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2023 too. What were some of your best books this year?

Cheers and Merry Christmas,

Radhika

Letters to Gwen John – Celia Paul

I love books on art and creativity as well as hybrid narratives where the boundaries between genres are blurred – recent case in point being Nathalie Leger’s superb Suite for Barbara Loden. Celia Paul’s gorgeous work Letters to Gwen John, therefore, ticked all the right boxes for me.

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, aging and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

THE SIMILARITIES – A SMORGASBORD OF ASSOCIATIONS

Celia begins her narrative by highlighting the four postcards of paintings that are her personal favourites; one of them being the work titled The Convalescent by Gwen John (“Just one look at this reproduction of Gwen John’s painting and my breathing becomes easier”), and which also caught my attention because it graces the cover of my Virago edition of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  

We learn that both Gwen and Celia were students at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Gwen, particularly, came from an artistically inclined family. Her mother Augusta, an artist, named her younger brother who she loved dearly Augustus, and later there would be Auguste Rodin in Gwen’s life. Augustus was the first to gain entry into this prestigious art school, and Gwen subsequently followed.

The two men in Celia Paul’s life (first Lucian Freud and then her husband Steven Kupfer) had girlfriends called Kate before they met Celia, and Celia has a younger sister Kate who she is closest to, while Steven’s mother was called Kathe. And then Lucian was named after his mother Lucie because “she sensed a special bond with him at first sight.”

LOVE, BURNING PASSION AND YEARNING

Celia Paul then goes on to elaborate how both women fell deeply in love with and were profoundly influenced by men – the sculptor Auguste Rodin for Gwen and the artist Lucian Freud for Celia.

Gwen’s passion for Rodin is all consuming and claustrophobic. Initially posing as a model for him, that professional relationship quickly transforms into an affair. The passion that Gwen feels for Rodin is so intense, that when he is not around, the pining and yearning for him destabilizes her to the detriment of her art.

Celia experiences something similar. She meets Lucian while still studying at the Slade and a passionate affair soon develops. His absences keep her on tenterhooks; the debilitating longing for him affects her art. Disillusioned by the painting techniques taught at the Slade, Celia draws inspiration from Lucian in many aspects while attempting her paintings. And yet it’s a relationship fraught with awkwardness. Celia outlines the contrasting attitudes of the two women while posing as models for their paramours; Gwen is uninhibited while sitting for Rodin and posing comes naturally to her. But for Celia it is sometimes a momentous effort, partly because she is disconcerted by Lucian’s objective, piercing gaze.

There are differences also in how these relationships play out. Gwen’s intense feelings for Rodin finds an outlet in a frenzy of letters she sends to him where she unabashedly writes about how his lengthening spells of absences torment her. The single-minded nature of her emotions alarm Rodin to the point that he is concerned for her, but is also gradually driven away. Celia’s relationship with Lucian goes one step further; she has a son with him named Frank. But this is a romance that also peters out, a development that Celia gratefully welcomes with a sense of relief as time rolls on.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Letters to Gwen John is a book about women artists establishing their own identity in a field often dominated by men. Although encouraged in her art by her brother Augustus, Gwen often feels smothered by his proximity and influence and longs to get away so that she can blossom on her own and evolve independently as the artist she wants to be.

Both women strive for personal space, a physical domain they can truly call their own, a stamp of their monk-like personality. More importantly, it is free from the influence of their lovers, Auguste and Lucian, who can enter this private world as mere visitors and nothing more, the sharing of space strictly forbidden.

This desire is born out of the need for freedom to pursue their art (“We can be free if we are unseen. We are like nocturnal animals”), as well as a way to connect with their inner world (“Your aim has, always, was to lead a more and more interior life. We remain remote”).

SOLITIDE OR COMPANY?

Celia Paul has very eloquently painted a picture of the conflict that rages inside her – the aching need for solitude to practice her craft…

The peace is profound and it enters your soul to the extent that, even when you step outside, all sounds seem to be at a remove. The silence of the great ancient yew trees surrounding the tower seems to be at one with your own inner silence.

…which battles with the craving for company to ward off loneliness and old age.

I often think of those old women whom I have painted, my mother included, and I wonder at their quiet patience, and what inner reserves of strength they must draw on to keep up their courage and power to endue, riven as they all must be by memories and fear of the approaching dark.

ART & MOTHERHOOD – A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

One of my favourite books some years ago was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmentary novella that dwells on the loss of identity and the mundaneness of new motherhood, where the protagonist laments that “she wanted to be an art monster.” Celia Paul experiences something of that as well. She wants to be a mother, Lucian encouraged it as well (although his relationship with their son Frank remained awkward and distant), and when the baby is born, Celia realizes that the demands of motherhood often clash with the discipline and quiet required for her art. And she struggles with this knowledge.

As a single parent of an angry adolescent son, I was in the spotlight, out of the shadows. Everything about me was exposed and judged. This exposure, and the world’s judgement that came with the exposure, is what prevented me from working truthfully. I was judged by Lucian, by my son, by my mother, by Bella. I lost confidence. There was no way, in the world’s eyes, that I could be a good mother – and I wanted to be a good mother now – while at the same time being a painter wholly committed to her art.

AN ODE TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I also loved the sections of the book that emphasized on the intricacies of the art-making process – the mixing of exotically named paints (Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Blue and so on), the challenges of the finished painting aligning with the artist’s vision, that ‘a-ha’ moment when you know that it has shaped up the way you had visualized it.

Painting is different from writing. A notebook or a laptop is a compact space for creativity. In order to paint you need paraphernalia: a palette, brushes, canvases, easel, and a room to yourself where it’s possible to be uninhibited – you need to be unconcerned about drips of paint landing on the carpet or staining the walls. We use words all the time. But painting is an acquired language that you need to practice every day, like playing an instrument: if you don’t, you lose your gift.

Akin to an image that quickly emerges from the deft strokes of a brush, these nuances of the artistic process are revealed to us in the later letters which focus on two of her paintings – “Copper Beech, Hampstead Heath” and “Weeping Willow”. Celia expertly illustrates the trials of completing these paintings, sometimes working on one painting only to move on to the other one and the unwavering focus required bringing it to fruition. And how the nature of the painting itself changes along the way.

BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WONDERFUL WRITING

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. Through her frank, unadorned, graceful narrative style, Celia Paul draws us into her solitary world where the sea that “gently washes and laps like milk tilted from side to side in a bowl”, and the incoming waves that “obediently follow each other, like sheep brought home to the fold”, has as much of a calming effect on the reader as it does on Paul. A fabulous fusion of biography and memoir, the book is an illuminating depiction of two female artists, their ascetic personalities, the desire to assert their independence while making art, and how their art becomes a steadying force and pillar of strength while navigating personal difficulties and turbulence in their lives. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

In a nutshell, the rich palette of themes, the quiet confessional tone of Celia Paul’s letters and the melancholic beauty of the artworks meld into a unique form that is a work of art by itself; the stillness and peace captured becomes a joy to truly savour.

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was relatively unknown when her first compiled collection of short stories called ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ was released three years ago, 11 years after her death. But this collection became a huge hit with readers and critics alike, and she gained recognition in a way that she never did during her lifetime.

I absolutely loved it too, and it found a place in my Best Books of 2016 list.

Hence, when it was revealed that Picador in the UK (and Farrar, Straus, Giroux in the US) were going to release two (and not one!) new books this year by Berlin, I was thrilled.

The two books are – Evening in Paradise, a short story collection (Yay! More stories from Berlin), and her memoir Welcome Home.

I rarely read memoirs, but given that Berlin’s real life was as endlessly fascinating, adventurous and rich as the stories that drew from these experiences, I was very keen to make an exception this time.

Welcome Home
Picador Hardback Edition

Welcome Home consists of Lucia Berlin’s memoir peppered with wonderful photographs (of her, her sons and family), and a selection of her letters (a majority of them to friends Edward and Helene Dorn).

The memoir comes first, and rather than a linear retelling, Berlin has focused on places she has lived in and the memories associated with them. It has a spare, impressionistic feel to it; the hallmark of Berlin’s writing.

It begins in Juneau, Alaska where Lucia was born, and the description is enchanting enough…

They said it was a sweet small house with many windows and sturdy woodstoves, screens taut against mosquitoes. It looked out on the bay, onto sunsets and stars and dazzling Northern Lights. My mother would rock me as she gazed down at the harbor, which was always crowded with fishing boats and tugs, American and Russian ore ships.

From thereon, Berlin writes about her childhood in places such as Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, El Paso in Texas and then onto Santiago in Chile.

The rate at which Lucia Berlin moved places both during childhood and adulthood is simply astonishing. Her father was a mining engineer and thus the family kept shifting often.

In Montana for instance, Berlin talks about how her father took her into the mountains every Saturday for weeks before the first snow. An old prospector lived alone in a cabin up there, and they carried winter supplies to him. This snippet of her life offers us a glimpse into Lucia’s early fascination with stories.

I carefully tore out pages from magazines and glued them onto the walls with flour and water paste, careful so as not to wet any of the text. The idea was to have a tight patchwork of pages all over the cabin, from floor to celing. All through the dark days of winter Johnson (the prospector) would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall.

I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity. What I knew for sure was his walls were a great idea. This way, since they were not in any order, whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it…

When her father gets called abroad for the Second World War, Lucia and her family move to El Paso in Texas to stay with Lucia’s grandparents, where relations between them and her mother are fraught.

Most evenings he (Lucia’s grandfather) was at the Elks club and my mother was at the Pomeroys’ playing bridge or in Juarez. The two of them ate in their own bedrooms and never spoke a word to each other.

Once the war is over, Lucia’s father comes back and they move to Patagonia in Arizona, and it’s a phase in her life where she wonders, “Is it possible that we were all happy every day that we lived there?”

It is during her teenage years that the family moves to Santiago in Chile, and here Berlin lives a rich life brimming with a buzzing social circle – friends, parties, balls, dresses and so on. Her mother cannot adapt to this high society life, always retiring to bed early with a bottle, and it falls upon Lucia to host these gatherings.

After moving back to the US during her late teens, Berlin goes on to marry a sculptor with whom she has two sons – Mark and Jeff. He ditches her and just before her second son  Jeff is born Lucia meets and marries the jazz musician Race Newton. This period of her life is also marked with moves and chaos as the family first settle in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then move on to the East, to New York City, where the jazz scene is flourishing.

Berlin finally marries Buddy Berlin, another jazz musician, who is brilliant, charismatic and dynamic but consistently struggling with a drug addiction problem. She eventually went on to divorce him too and never re-married.

However, Berlin’s memoir was unfinished at the time of her death, and she had left off at the time when the family was once again on the move in both New Mexico and Mexico (she had not yet divorced Buddy Berlin, which she would eventually do).

One of things that is so fascinating about Berlin’s stories and her memoir is the constant moving, travelling, never settling down anywhere for long periods. It only gave way to chaos and upheavals. One wonders why that is so….

Of course, she didn’t have much choice in her younger years given the demands of her father’s profession, but even in her adult years, she was never rooted to one place. It could be that on some subconscious level, she welcomed upheavals and the chances it offered to re-invent herself, as opposed to staying in stasis for too long at any one place and suffering boredom.

It is a mesmerising, fascinating life nevertheless, and gave Berlin a lot of rich material to work with when writing her stories.

At the end of the memoir, Berlin provides a list of the places she has lived in titled, “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived in”

Here’s a snippet:

Corrales Road, Alameda, New Mexico – No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. Two kids in diapers.

Thirteenth Street, New York City – Five flights up. Two kids, none walking. Blizzard, all streets closed, miracle. Rothko.

Acapulco, Mexico – Honeymoon. Three weeks of rain. Flood, dysentery, Mark electrocuted, more flood.

An article in the Los Angeles Times sums it up wonderfully…

As the list of her homes suggests, her 68 years were almost impossibly full of travel, adventure, loves found and lost, alcoholism and its defeat, and the struggle to get by as a single mother of four boys.

The second section of Welcome Home comprises her letters.

The first letter is a poignant one from her father when he is away at war and Lucia is 8 years old.

The reason I’m writing you this, Lucia, is that I’m so far away I can’t talk to you like I used to, and I just suddenly remembered, in the middle of this war, that you’re growing up without a daddy almost. I want you to know, now that you are the young lady of the house, that you are a partner in this family and we want it to be the most wonderful and happiest family in the whole world…

The second one is to a friend Lorna, where she confesses that she loves Lou (Berlin’s first love before she married) but is not sure she wants to marry yet given her desire to make something of her life. Berlin was 17 then.

I love Lou and we’re still going together, but all of a sudden I have become ambitious, and I want to finish school and there are so many bloody things I want to do…I never thought school would ever come between me and a guy…I’m real proud of myself…got two A’s in summer school…I like this idea of doing something and working for something that I can be proud of doing…

The later letters are mostly to her friends – poets Edward and Helene Dorn, and many are written in 1959, the period when she was in New York with her second husband Race Newton. And then on, she wrote from Mexico and New Mexico when she was married and living with Buddy Berlin. Essentially these letters correspond to the same time period as her unfinished memoir. They give a great feel of what was going on in her mind during those times, her struggles, and her attempts to churn out quality writing material often asking Edward Dorn to give the necessary feedback.

Welcome Home is a wonderful companion piece to Lucia Berlin’s short story collections. And it was just as much of a pleasure to get a glimpse into her real life, as it was to read her stories.