The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington

Originally published in 1974 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet had been languishing on my shelf for more than a year (I could say that for most of the books that keep streaming into the house endlessly) and it was Kim McNeill on Twitter and her excellent #NYRBWomen23 reading challenge (there are many gems on that list) that finally prompted me to pick it up.

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. It soon becomes clear that Marian is not welcome in that house; the family considers her an embarrassment. Marian has been allotted a room that opens into a little garden and she pretty much keeps to herself for larger parts of the day hardly venturing into the main house. She seems content in her own little world with a couple of cats, a red hen and her fanciful daydreaming to occupy her time. She also enjoys the company of her spirited and loquacious friend Carmella with her penchant for conjuring up unrealistic and improbable schemes and ideas.

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

One day, Carmella in a considerable state of excitement gifts Marian a hearing trumpet she purchased in a market.

When Carmella gave me the present of a hearing trumpet she may have foreseen some of the consequences. Carmella is not what I would call malicious, she just happens to have a curious sense of humour. 

It’s a thing of beauty (“encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn”), and with its aid Marian’s hearing is now amplified to such a degree that she can hear conversations hitherto inaccessible to those with normal hearing. Until one day, she inadvertently chances upon a conversation between Galahad, Muriel and Robert plotting to dislodge her from their house and park her in an old age home much against her true wishes.

Marian internally seethes but realises that resistance is futile and resigns to her fate. When the family finally arrives at the old age home, Marian is completely taken by surprise; the institution (the building itself and the area around) run by the overly pious Gambit couple gives the impression of an enchanting medieval castle quite unlike the bleak, cheerless structure she had envisaged.

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards, cloisters, stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets, railway carriages, one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation. 

Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. Indeed, in the middle of the book, the story goes back several centuries in time to a convent where this Abbess takes centrestage, an iron-willed woman with her proclivity for unimaginable luxuries and riches, an unconventional way of life and her daring quest to restore the Holy Grail back to the Goddess of Venus. Also enmeshed in the story are Marian’s reminisces, her carefree childhood spent in the company of her mother “who had lived a constant round of dizzy pleasure” that involved trips to Paris, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Sicily and so on.

Murder and mystery, cross-dressing, hunger strikes, rebellion, midnight dancing and revelries, poetic riddles and the spectre of a looming frozen apocalypse are only a few of the smorgasbord of ingredients that spice up everyday life at the old age home.

How will this all end? In a deliciously unexpected way in what is a highly original story in the first place, reveling in taking the reader down surprising paths right from the very beginning.

There are so many facets to The Hearing Trumpet that makes it such a captivating read, the first and foremost being the characters. Marian Leatherby is a terrific creation; she may be hard of hearing but has lost none of her zest for life.

Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still a useful member of society and I believe still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit.

She is, of course, distressed at the prospect of spending the rest of her days in an old age home, uprooted from the life she had grown used to, separated from her pets and her friend Carmella, but she takes it in her stride, and keeps her mind open to new experiences at the institution, even to new adventures of which there are plenty. Then there’s Georgina Sykes, an elegantly dressed woman (at least to Marian), irreverent and opinionated who has caught Mr Gambit’s fancy much to the chagrin of Mrs Gambit and is often involved in a hilarious slinging match with the grating, phony and self-righteous Natacha Gonzalez.

“Georgina Sykes is an obscene old woman,” said Natacha with unction. “She is a sex maniac and ought not to be allowed to mix with the other members of the community. She warps their minds.”

“I shall have to talk to her at once,” said Gambit in extreme agitation. “This might ruin the reputation of the whole Institution!”

“That is not all,” added Natacha. “She insulted me outrageously. Naturally I hurried to her bungalow to transmit the Message, with all the purity of mind I have cultivated for my Mission. Georgina,’ I said gently, ‘I have a message for you.’ She replied very rudely, saying: ‘If it’s a message from Heaven stuff it up your something or other.’ 

Mrs Gambit leads a self-improvement cult at the institution, bizarre as hell, with its emphasis on dodgy principles of Christianity and goodness. Other characters include the meek Maude Wilkins who unwittingly finds herself at the centre of a sinister plot, the imposing Vera Van Tocht, the overburdened Anna Wertz with her propensity to chatter away, the painter Veronica Adams who practices her art on reams of toilet paper and the Marquise with her tales of war and the battlefield. Last but not the least is the fiery Abbess whose tale wonderfully leaps off the pages for both Marian and the reader.

Yet despite its leanings towards fantasy, humour and banter, there are a variety of timeless themes that form the nucleus of the book. Growing old is, of course, one of them, and the way Marian is considered a burden to her son and daughter-in-law reflected in the cold manner in which she is treated is a grim reminder of the heartaches of old age. The Abbess is a symbol of feminism – her leadership skills and daring exploits, however dubious, is a breath of fresh air in a world and time largely dominated by men. The book also explores politics – the powerplay, hierarchy, scheming and favouritism rampant in the old age home is akin to the deceptively simple environment children experience in school (they say old age is like second childhood, don’t say?) and palpable even in the complex world of adults.

The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Indeed, Carrington’s creative vision is laced with its own interior logic – daydreams blend with reality in a sort of homage to Surrealism; historical fiction, comedy, fantasy and an embedded narrative (the literary equivalent of a Russian doll) effortlessly co-exist within the seemingly limitless boundaries of the author’s vivid imagination. A hearing trumpet, a painting of a derisive winking nun, a magic elixir that facilitates levitation to name a few are the hallmarks of Carrington’s delightful flights of fancy; much of the humour comes from Marian’s keen observations on her surroundings and its people as well as the interaction between the oddball residents of the institution; we have a book within a book that transports the reader to the 17th century replete with a maverick, cross-dressing Abbess, plots and intrigues that involve the cultish Knights Templar, Goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.

But that’s not all! The icing on the cake and a lovely surprise are the illustrations peppered throughout the book (her son Pablo Weisz Carrington is the artist) – quirky and playful that perfectly capture the mood and eccentricity of this heady, surreal concoction.

The Hearing Trumpet, then, is a triumph; a novel that radiates charm, joie de vivre and a forceful personality of its own that makes it utterly singular. Highly recommended!

Source: NYRB

Autumn Rounds – Jacques Poulin (tr. Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds was my first foray into the works of the Canadian author Jacques Poulin, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m keen to explore more of his work, which like this one has been published by the excellent Archipelago Books.

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

Our protagonist is an older man called the Driver whose job involves lending books. He has a milk van now converted into a bookmobile, and he makes three trips every year, visiting the small villages between Quebec City and the North Shore. No longer in his prime, this could very well be one of the Driver’s final trips during the year.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off.

While the Driver’s bookmobile and the school bus broadly halt at the same villages, they are not always together during their journey. Sometimes, the Driver would arrive at a village and find the band members already present putting on a show, at other times he is the one to reach first always looking to spot Marie.

Meanwhile, at the villages, the Driver enjoys meeting the network leaders who drop off previously borrowed books and collect new ones for their readers. Occasionally, individual readers pay the Driver a visit with the sole purpose of borrowing books. The Driver is a kind man; he lends the books to all sorts of readers and does not make a big deal about books not returned, his motto is to not deny any one the delights of reading.

That’s really the basic premise of the books and what makes it such a joy to read is the burgeoning relationship between the Driver and Marie, it is so nuanced and understated, really beautifully rendered. The conversations between them are the most striking feature of this novel; the two share a spontaneous connection fuelled by common interests as they discuss books, life, Paris and the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and the majestic landscapes unfurling around them…and it’s immediately obvious to the reader that they are steadily falling in love, a relationship replete with possibilities even when both are a little past middle age.

The power, bliss and comfort of books is one of the central themes of the novel. At every village where the Driver stops and meets the network coordinators, we are given an enticing glimpse of the books chosen – some are well known works such as The Little Prince, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, others are a slew of French poets, a few titles are in French, not yet translated but fascinating nonetheless.

“With the row of windows, it reminds me of the sun porch that we had when I was a child. That’s where I discovered books. It was a very special place.”

He described the long sun porch with the bookshelves at either end, the wicker chairs, the small desk, and the row of windows with a shelf underneath where you could rest your feet. The porch was closed in winter and opened again in the spring, as soon as the sun was warm enough. He’d spent part of his childhood reading in that room flooded with light, sitting in a deep armchair with his feet resting on the window ledge. And over time, because the sun had brightened him and warmed him while he was reading, his mind had associated light with books.

“That’s why I wasn’t surprised later on when I saw Shakespeare and Company in Paris one autumn evening, with the golden light that came from the books and spread into the blue night. It confirmed what I’d known since I was a child. Do you understand?”

Occasionally there are streaks of anxiety and melancholia that come to the fore. The Driver is at times consumed with ‘dark thoughts’ and confesses some of his fears to Marie. He frets about growing old and increasingly feels that he can’t cope with a body that is gradually on the decline. There are even moments when he feels utterly lost, but he finds comfort in talking to Marie who patiently hears him out. There is one particular set piece where a young reader asks for books that he can’t provide (“a book that answers questions on why we live, why we die”), an encounter that deeply disturbs him.

The vibrant landscapes of the route between bustling Quebec city to the remote North Shore is suffused with the texture of a travelogue, it pulsates with the atmosphere of an alluring road trip punctuated with impromptu picnics.

While he was recounting these stories the landscape had changed. The narrow paved road was now squeezed in between the sea and a hill that was getting steeper and steeper. The tide was out and Marie was driving very slowly so as not to lose sight of the sometimes strange rocky formations that bristled from the sandbar. At L’Anse-Pleureuse they drove off Highway 132 and went to a rest stop along a river, on the road to Murdochville. They chose the picnic table closest to an embankment covered with closely mown grass that sloped gently down towards a lake; it was just a small lake formed by a dam on the river but the water, which was very calm, was emerald green.

The Driver stretched out on the embankment near a tight clump of birch trees, while Marie sat at the table to write postcards. Gradually some black clouds gathered above them and a breeze that heralded rain made the leaves of the birches and the surface of the lake shiver.

Autumn Rounds, then, is an ode to the simple pleasures of life – leisurely picnics on sandy coves or by the lakes; simple food and good wine; enjoying hot mugs of coffee in a cabin full of books; reveling in unexpected friendships and simple conversations.

After a fifteen-minute wait, a boat came to pick them up and they went back to the campground in Percé. Contrary to their usual prac- tice they ate in a restaurant that night, took a long walk, and went into some stores; Marie bought herself a blue sweater with a hood. They took boundless pleasure in doing little things together.

Inside the van the air was cool and damp, so they burned some alcohol and made hot chocolate. Again, they drank their chocolate sitting on the floor, facing one another and with their backs against the shelves of books.

It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart. Very much recommended!

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.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor

It was only a few years ago that I discovered the writing of Elizabeth Taylor. It didn’t help that she shared the same name with the famous actress. At the time, NYRB Classics had reissued her novel A Game of Hide and Seek, and since I am a big fan of the imprint, that was the first Taylor novel I read. It was excellent and what stood out for me was Taylor’s keen perception of human nature, and a sharp eye for describing the social mores of the period.

For reasons I cannot quite fathom, I didn’t read any more of her work since then. But lately there has been a lot of love for her novels on Twitter and the blogging world, and I knew that I had to once again jump on the Taylor bandwagon.

It was a tussle between Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A View of the Harbour, both highly regarded, and I finally selected the former. To make a long story short, I loved this novel.

It also means that this is the second novel on ageing I have read this year, the first one being the rather wonderful Memento Mori by Muriel Spark.

Mrs Laura Palfrey is an elderly lady, having recently lost her husband. When the book opens, she is on her way to the Claremont Hotel with the aim of residing there. We learn that she has a married daughter settled in Scotland and a grandson who works at the British Museum.

Staying with her daughter is not an option, which means that Mrs Palfrey has to fend for herself. Meanwhile, in a couple of sentences, Mrs Palfrey is wonderfully described to the reader…

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked as Lord Louis Mountbatten might in drag.

Once at the Claremont, she as well as the reader are introduced to the hotel guests, who have also been residents there for a while. It is hinted that aged people live at the Claremont for an indefinite period of time until it comes to a point when they become completely dependent. When that happens, it’s time to shift to a nursing home to spend the remaining days of their lives there.

At the Claremont we meet the regulars. Elizabeth Taylor’s descriptive powers are second to none and she has a knack for etching out the idiosyncrasies and the foibles of each of her characters.

There’s Mr Osmond, an opinionated man, who tries to push his views on the hotel staff or anyone willing to listen, which is pretty much no one. When he is not verbally airing his views, he is busy writing to newspapers and magazines mostly critical of a variety of subjects.

Mrs Arbuthnot is another resident who makes Mrs Palfrey feel welcome when the latter is trying to get accustomed to her new surroundings. However, Mrs Palfrey will soon get a taste of Mrs Arbuthnot’s malice, which she realizes is borne out of frustration.

Mrs Burton loves to have a rocking drinking session every evening in the hotel lounge much to the distaste of the other residents.

He (Mr Osmond) could not hide his annoyance when Mrs Burton came down to his part of the lounge and kept pressing the bell for whiskies. She spent a great deal of money on whisky, which was a marvel to the other ladies – throwing money down her throat, Mrs Post said. She had other extravagances, such as mauve-rinsed hair, and what Mrs Arbuthnot always referred to as chain-smoking although it was not. Mrs Arbuthnot, perhaps because of her arthritis, found it in her nature to be disparaging.

And last but not the least is Mrs Post, who Mr Osmond thinks is the silliest of the bunch.

Life at the Claremont is fairly routine and dull. For the most part, the residents are on their own compelled to find ways to amuse themselves. Occasionally, friends or family members may come to visit. These are visits the residents eagerly look forward to.

As she waited for prunes, Mrs Palfrey considered the day ahead. The morning was to be filled in quite nicely; but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch. I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she thought it would be. When she was young, it had always been later. 

Keeping up appearances matter at the Claremont Hotel. In her early days, Mrs Palfrey is flustered by her solitary life and the fact that she has no visitors. Her daughter is far away in Scotland and although they write to each other, we learn that they are not really close. Mrs Palfrey’s grandson Desmond is working at the British Museum but cannot be bothered to respond despite Mrs Palfrey’s attempts to persuade him to visit her at the Claremont.

One day, Mrs Palfrey is out on one of her regular walks, and falls on the pavement. She is helped by a young man Ludovic Myers or Ludo as he is called. From thereon, an unlikely friendship develops between them. What’s more, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to the Claremont for dinner and convinces him to pose as her grandson Desmond, a deception she subsequently enjoys despite some anxious moments of being possibly found out. Ludo is more than happy to play along hoping to find some rich material for his novel in progress.

Ludo, meanwhile, is a struggling writer, eking out a living on means that are meager. In a way he is like a real grandson that Mrs Palfrey always wanted but never had.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont then is a novel about aging – the increasing sense of loneliness as you become older, a sense of nostalgia for those good days in the past, and the fear of being dependent and unable to function on your own.

Here’s Mrs Post during one of her weak moments…

‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’

Mrs Palfrey, meanwhile, misses her husband and the companionship between them, of him not being there to accompany her on her walks or generally being around to care for her.

If all this sounds rather bleak, somehow it isn’t. In less capable hands the tone of the book would have felt downright miserable. But Taylor’s writing is so gorgeous that she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age.

But even in a subject matter of this sort, Taylor has a flair for humour. There is one particular set piece in the last few pages of the novel which is laced with comic moments. It is a party held at Mrs de Salis’ house, a temporary resident at one time at the Claremont, and here the eccentricities of the long term residents – Mr Osmond, Mrs Post and Mrs Burton – are in full display.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’ Mrs de Salis said, waving her hands. ‘Never again, I promise. It was a mistake, I admit. I was only trying to be kind, as is my wont.’

‘The little one in beige and grey was drunk, I think,’ Aunt Bunty said.

‘Well, serve her bloody right.’

‘The noisy one most certainly was.’

‘She had the gall to pick up that Meissen bowl and look at its bottom.’

‘Only it isn’t Meissen,’ Willie said.

‘Don’t fight with me, boy!’

Another set piece that I loved and was rather beautifully done was a cosy dinner that Mrs Palfrey shares with Ludo at his rundown apartment earlier on in the novel.

Paul Bailey, in the introduction of my Virago edition, aptly writes:

The residents of the Claremont are drawn by Elizabeth Taylor with a sympathy that is strengthened, not diminished, by her beady-eyed detachment from them. Her peculiar gift is for noticing the casual cruelty that people use to protect themselves from the not always casual cruelty of others. Her ear for insult is, every so often, on a par with Jane Austen’s.

Overall, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was an excellent read and is sure to find a place in my end of the year list, which I will reveal next month. Meanwhile, of her other novels, I have A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness on my shelves and those are the ones I will be getting to next, hopefully soon this time.

Memento Mori – Muriel Spark

For some inexplicable reason, I had never read Muriel Spark before. A few of her novels were languishing on my shelves, but I never felt compelled to open any of them.

But then, last year was Muriel Spark’s Centenary, and a newly generated interest in her books in the blogging world was just the push I needed to finally give her a go.

Also, although The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the one that seems to have gained the most popularity, it was precisely for that reason I decided to settle for another one.

And because I had the lovely Virago 40th anniversary edition of Memento Mori, it was a good enough reason, I thought, to be my first Spark novel.

memento mori
Virago Classics 40th Anniversary Edition

In Memento Mori, Spark touches upon the topics of ageing, mortality and relationships between the older generation, in a writing style that is caustic but laced with humour.

When the novel opens, Dame Lettie Colston (one of the main protagonists in the novel) is on the phone with Inspector Mortimer. Dame Lettie is persistently getting phone calls from a mysterious caller who only utters the words, “Remember you must die.” To be sure Dame Lettie is in her eighties and these calls frighten and perplex her. Moreover, she is convinced the police force is useless and not taking her seriously.

In the same chapter, we are also introduced to Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian (the other protagonists in the novel). Godfrey and Charmian are aged 87 and 85 years respectively.

Charmian has been a successful novelist with many books under her belt, and in some sense Godfrey has lived under her shadow and has resented it. Charmian has had a stroke, and it immediately becomes apparent that she is having difficulty remembering people and incidents. For instance, she has a maid to look after her Mrs Anthony, but Charmian keeps calling her Jean.

Jean Taylor incidentally had earlier been Charmian’s maid for many years, but is now living the remainder of her life in a home for aged people. This section particularly has its funny moments (especially how the elderly in the ward judge the nurse in charge of them), and shades of poignancy when it comes to Jean Taylor’s plight.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally.

Then there is Lisa Brooke, who in some sense is the absent core of the novel. We are first introduced to her at her own funeral, but while she is not a living voice, we learn in a series of flashbacks, the influence she has had on the relationships of other characters, both while she was alive, and even now when she is dead.

Particularly, there is Mrs Pettigrew, who was Lisa Brooke’s maid. She is all set to inherit a substantial bit of her fortune if Brooke’s will is anything to go by but it is hotly contested by Brooke’s family and another dubious character Guy Leet.

As I write this piece, it has suddenly dawned on me of how many people and plot strands Spark has woven into this novel.

But I will focus on the main ones. And that is the relationship between Godfrey Colston and his wife Charmian, which to me was the highlight of the novel.

The first chapter, where we are introduced to them, is a hoot and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the hilarious exchanges between them.

Charmian has always been the successful one among the two giving Godfrey an inferiority complex, and a recent revival in her books only intensifies this feeling in him.

Hence, Charmian’s illness actually bolsters Godfrey’s sense of self allowing him to boss over and as Charmian puts it, ‘taking your revenge’.

Fifteen years ago, in her seventy-first year, when her memory had started slightly to fail, she realized that Godfrey was turning upon her as one who had been awaiting his revenge. She did not think he was himself aware of this. It was an instinctive reaction to the years of being a talented, celebrated woman’s husband, knowing himself to be reaping continually in her a harvest which he had not sown.

Moreover, it hardly comes as a surprise when we learn of Godfrey’s many infidelities – a fact he is desperate to keep secret from Charmian at all cost for fear of being judged by her.

But Mrs Pettigrew, who has recently been installed in the Colston household, now that Lisa Brooke is no more, manages to get wind of Godfrey’s secret and blackmail him.

Charmian, meanwhile, is no saint either and she too has a past which Godfrey is not aware of. In her own way she longs to be independent and free from Godfrey.

There is one particular section where both Mrs Pettigrew and Godfrey are out, and so she has no choice but to make tea all by herself. It’s a wonderful set piece that highlights Charmian’s immense pleasure in performing this task all on her own, giving her a whiff of independence.

When all was set on the tray she was tempted to have her tea in the kitchen there in Mrs Anthony’s chair.

But she thought of her bright fire in the library. She looked at the tray. Plainly she could never carry it. She would take in the tea-things one by one, even if it took half-an-hour.

By the second section of the novel, practically all the characters get these mysterious calls as did Dame Lettie initially; the message is always the same, calling to attention their impending death. But will this mystery get solved and how serious is it really?

There are also class differences that come across in the novel. Jean Taylor, particularly, wishes to go to a private home in Surry, but is thwarted by Dame Lettie.

Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

‘If only,’ he said, ‘because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.’

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, ‘Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours.’

Dame Lettie, meanwhile, is a snob in the way she deals with her family, the way she perceives the police, and the way she handles these mysterious calls.

As I wrote earlier, Memento Mori is the first Spark novel I read, and I was floored.

Old age is not a great place to be in particularly if health is not on your side (based on experiences in my family), and a novel where the focal point is old age can get depressing if it’s not well written.

But that was never the case with Memento Mori.

‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.’

Other than possibly Jean Taylor, all the characters are flawed and none are likeable, which to me actually was a positive. I found them all consistently interesting in their shortcomings and brilliantly etched by Spark’s pen. Her prose is so sharp, deliciously wicked and brimming with wit that I found the novel to be a delightful and addictive black comedy.

A.L. Kennedy, in her introduction, could not have expressed better:

The world according to Muriel Spark is a startling place, constructed with intelligence, relish and extraordinary precision.

Everyone in the novel is well past their prime, with the possibility of death imminent. But it’s a fact nobody wants to accept. Rather than let go gracefully, the vindictiveness and rancor continues as it did in the past when they were young and even in middle age.

Perhaps, they needed to be reminded that they must die? That now is the time to let bygones be bygones and show some compassion?