Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Something To Send The Album Out With A Bang


the book: Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

originally published  1994; 2nd revised edition 2005

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

Beatles Colm

[11 February 1963, Abbey Road studios: The Beatles famously record their first LP, Please Please Me, in just over 12.5 hours.]

…the clock in Studio 2 showed 10pm. The Beatles had been recording for twelve hours and time was officially up. [Producer] George Martin, though, needed one more number – something to send the album out with a bang. Accordingly he and his team retired with the group to the Abbey Road canteen for a last cup of coffee (or, in Lennon’s case, warm milk for his ragged throat). They knew what they had to do – the wildest thing in The Beatles’ act: TWIST AND SHOUT, their cover of a 1962 US hit by black Cincinnati family act The Isley Brothers. An out-and-out screamer, it was always demanding. That night it was a very tall order indeed.

Back in Studio 2, the group knew they had at most two chances to get this arduous song on tape before Lennon lost his voice. At around 10.30pm, with him stripped to the waist and the others ‘hyping’ themselves by treating the control room staff as their audience, they went for it. The eruptive performance that ensued stunned the listening technicians and exhilarated the group (as can be heard in McCartney’s triumphant ‘Hey!’ at the end). Trying for a second take, Lennon found he had nothing left and the session stopped there and then – but the atmosphere was still crackling. Nothing of this intensity had ever been recorded in a British pop studio.

commentary: If reading that excerpt didn’t make you want to listen to the track it’s about, immediately, this amazing book is probably not for you. If it did: you might never get tired of dipping into it.

Ian MacDonald places every known Beatles recording (in chronological order) into context. And by context, I mean not just who wrote it and where and when and why, what they recorded before and after it, what they argued about, who played what on what instrument and who wasn’t even there, who was in the control room, where they went after the session and so on; but also what was happening elsewhere in London and the world, among their peers and rivals and fans and in society as a whole. The subtitle The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties is in fact a fair indication of its scope. Everything is relevant for MacDonald, even what John Lennon felt forced to watch on TV when he was feeling suffocated by his conventional marriage. (The sitcom Meet The Wife, mentioned in the song Good Morning, Good Morning on the Sgt Pepper album – made in 1967 but it feels as though it was a generation later than their first.)

It’s a long book, but The Beatles didn’t record much, by comparison for example to The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. (Only 188 proper recordings, including songs they gave to other people and the posthumous tracks based on Lennon’s demo tapes.) So there is room for a page or two or even three about a single track. But you trust MacDonald because – although he clearly loves a good 75% of the band’s work – he’s never afraid to dismiss something as throwaway or trite. Books that go into this kind of detail sometimes go too far down the road of completeness, obsessing over alternate takes or live versions, stating authoritatively that they are ‘better’ when this judgement is entirely subjective. But MacDonald always regards the officially released version of a song as key. You can always find your way to that, and read about the other takes within the same entry.

I’m old enough to remember new Beatles records coming out, and have heard some of these recordings literally hundreds of times. But on almost every page I read things I didn’t know, and discovered mistakes and clunky edits and weird noises I’d never noticed. There is a mass of fascinating trivia for those of us who like such things: I knew Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith, who had a few hits as a singer in the 70s, produced the earliest Pink Floyd records, but I didn’t know he was also the engineer on just about everything The Beatles recorded before Sergeant Pepper. I didn’t know Paul McCartney was on holiday with Jane Asher when he wrote For No One. Or that the original lyrics of In My Life detailed a very specific journey through Liverpool, past real life landmarks dear to me and the original Clothes In Books.

One thing Ian MacDonald was not much interested in is clothes, but in this case he does at least let us in on the fact that Lennon was topless when he dragged this deathless vocal out of the exhausted recesses of his body. In the photo, however, he’s the only one with his top on. (L-R: George in sandals and socks, Paul, John, Ringo. The person flat out behind them is unconnected, as far as anyone knows.) The picture was taken in July 1963 in Weston-Super-Mare, when The Beatles had already had three hits, including two No.1s. But full scale Beatlemania would not start until She Loves You – written 26 June in Newcastle, recorded 01 July, released 23 August – went straight to No.1 a few weeks later.

The song Twist And Shout was co-written by Phil Medley – no relation to Bill, of The Righteous Brothers – and Bert Berns, who played a major part in the early career of Van Morrison. Under his pseudonym of Bert Russell, Berns wrote an amazing number of great songs.

To read more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Go-Between by LP Hartley–part 2

published 1953

Go-Between white 3

What they thought, what they did, how they occupied themselves, was a mystery to me. The young men down from the University (as Marcus assured me they were), the young women with even less to identify them, would greet me on their way to or from the tennis court or the croquet lawn; the men in white flannels, white boots, and wearing straw boaters, the women, also in white with hourglass figures and hats like windmills; all white, or nearly white, save for the men’s black socks that sometimes showed above their buckskin boots. Some found more to say to me than others; but they were only part of the scene and I never had, or felt I ought to have, Go-Between white 2the smallest personal relationship with them. They were they, and Marcus and I were we – different age groups, as we should say now. And that was why, for the first day or two, I never properly took in the fact that one of ‘them’ was my host’s son, and another his daughter. Blond (as they mostly were), dressed in white, swinging their tennis-rackets, they looked so much alike!
commentary: I explained in a previous entry how I came to read this book, and how much I loved it. There, I looked at the young boys’ outfits: here are the marriageable young men and women who are flirting and looking each over at the house party.

Clothes are important in the book, and it’s obvious that Marion –the female protagonist - is quite daring, though she is never going to go too far. And there is a nicely symbolic moment where one character asks Leo how close he sits to her in church, and his painstaking reply is
‘Well of course her dress - ’
‘Yes, yes…These dresses spread out quite a long way.’
There is an extraordinary discussion of what she might wear to ride a bicycle:
She’ll come in riding it, and wearing tights, she says, if Mama will let her, which I doubt. She may have to wear bloomers.’ I closed my eyes against the enchanting vision.
…‘Are bloomers safer than tights?’ I asked.
‘Safer, good heavens no, but they’re not so fast.’

The tights would, I think, resemble modern leggings more than current pantyhose – tights in those days were worn by gymnasts and acrobats and music hall performers – but still it’s an interesting idea.

There’s also a description of the huge baggy outfits the women wore for a swimming expedition:
Marian’s [bathing] suit, I remember, seemed to cover her far more completely than her evening dresses.

Go-Between bather

But again, we can see significance in the fact that as the costumes becomes wetter, more is revealed:
Their thick clumsy dresses began to cling to them and take on the soft outlines of their bodies.
People bandy the word Proustian about, but this book is touched with the same genius as In Search of Lost Time, and has the same ability to make you think you can actually see and feel and imagine what is being described on the page. And to have moments that are so real, and beautifully described, but also work on another level. This is from the fabled cricket match in the book, when a ball is lost:
A scatter of small boys darted off to look for it and while they were hunting the fieldsmen lay down on the grass; only Ted and his partner and the two umpires remained standing, looking like victors on a stricken field. All the impulse seemed to go out of the game: it was a moment of complete relaxation.
And there is the hilarious fact that Leo is obsessed with what you might call the midden:
I preferred the rubbish-heap, for there I had a sense of adventure…
Leo, despite being very much of his time, is the most real child ever – he doesn’t resemble any modern boy, but still you can understand and sympathize with him the whole time, even when he is being annoying and tiresome.

A perfect book.

The man and woman are from a Danish magazine of the era.

The tennis picture is from the  NYPL, as are the bathing suits.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Fashion and Fiction: Linda Grant

The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant

published 2009

Thoughtful Dresser

[Christian Dior launched what became known as the New Look in 1947]

The ‘Bar’ suit: …an off-white shantung silk jacket with sloping shoulders, and ballerina-length pleated black skirt, an outfit which requires a twenty-one-inch waist and very severe, rib-deforming corsetry, as depicted in an accompanying short film at the exhibition. Nevertheless I appreciated its qualities as I might a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. I know now that the effortless elegance of the ensemble, as my mother would have called it (quaint word, now out of use), including the inverted saucer-shaped straw hat and the black gloves, the white pointed-toe shoes which look as if they are already dying to grow up and become the as-yet-to-be-invented stilettos (Roger Vivier, Dior’s shoe guy will later create those by installing a metal rod in the heel), is a masterpiece of engineering.

The illustration that would appear in French Vogue showed ‘Bar’ as an airy creation, almost ethereal. In real life the wearer was held in place by a series of agonising restraints. ‘Bar’ is not so much sewn as constructed, using, Dior confided, ‘solid fabrics whose weight was reinforced with taffeta or cambric linings’, not to mention underpinnings in the form of underwired bustiers, girdles, tulle and horsehair petticoats, and a strap-on device called a peplum that padded the hips in order to draw attention to the waist. Sheer torture, but I don’t care. It is the most elemental, iconic, feminine garment of the twentieth century.

observations: Earlier this year I went to the first Fashion and Fiction event at London’s V&A Museum – this blog entry on Margaret Atwood was the result. Journalist and writer Rosie Goldsmith is organizing this series of evenings, and can you imagine anything more Clothes in Books? The latest event in the series took place on Tuesday this week.

Linda Grant is one of my favourite authors anyway – on the blog I have featured I Murdered my Library, Upstairs at the Party, and The Clothes on Their Backs, and she and I come from the same part of Liverpool, and visited the same bookshops when we were young. She writes great, intelligent novels, with wonderful heroines, and she knows why clothes are important. She gave a fascinating talk at Tuesday’s event, and then participated in a conversation with Rosie and answered questions from the audience. She is a terrific advocate for clothes in books, and helps the cause because her books are taken seriously, despite being entertaining and containing clothes descriptions…

The Thoughtful Dresser is non-fiction, and states Grant’s case for the importance of adornment and clothing via the story of her life in clothes, with a series of anecdotes about herself and her family, and the stories of others – in particular, an Auschwitz survivor. Linda Grant meets her because she is researching the existence of a red shoe in the pile of shoes in the camp memorial. The woman she finds has a transcendent story, and one that would make the stoniest heart weep.

And Grant also tackles other questions: the clothes above, as she says, are very beautiful. Should women wear torturing clothes to look beautiful? Why do we wear heels we can’t walk in, dresses we can’t run in? She has a refreshing view on everything. She talks about the difference between car style and street style; she knows about buying

two cosmetic products  because if you do, you will receive, absolutely free for nothing, a make-up bag containing samples of other products, half of which you’ll give to a friend’s teenage daughter.

And I loved this reason for always having  a beautiful coat, no matter how old you are:

I like the image of ruined old women, sitting in their last mink in a cafĂ©, smoking a cigarette and drinking a small, appetite-suppressing cup of coffee. I buy my coat against that potential future. Even if the lipstick bleeds into the cracks, at least we’re seen. In a recession you cannot allow life to turn beige.

Grant also talked about the Paul Gallico book, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, in which a Cockney charwoman saves up for a Dior dress - blog entry here.

The picture, taken by Willy Maywald, is from Kristine’s photostream, and this is the caption:
In 1947, Christian Dior presented a collection of wasp-waisted and hip-padded designs. The "Bar" suit was considered the most iconic model in the collection, manifesting all the attributes of Dior's dramatic atavism. Featuring rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a long pleated wool full skirt, backed with cambric, which is exceptionally heavy. The 'New Look' celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence in women’s fashion. Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief, Carmel Snow, named Dior’s revolutionary direction, ‘The New Look.’ Although Dior created many notched collars, he was a fervent advocate of shawl collars and curved necklines. Arguably, the shawl collar plays effectively with the curvaceous forms Dior articulated at the shoulders and hips.

I am looking forward to future Fashion and Fiction events – you can find the Facebook page here, and thanks again to Rosie Goldsmith for taking such a great idea and running with it…

ADDED LATER: Meanwhile, blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam left a comment below regarding the dating of the iconic photograph. He recommends this blogpost from Jonathan Walford - which suggests that the photo is from 10 years later and has subtle differences from the original. Well worth a read, and the comments on the post (including some from Daniel) are particularly fascinating and detailed and informative.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Thursday List – Books with Theatrical Settings


Once again Christine Poulson and I are doing one of our joint lists – see previous lists and links here. We decided this time to go for books with theatrical settings, a genre we both love.

So here are my top 10 books set in or around a theatre - and you can see Chrissie's list here.

The links in the piece are to blogposts on the books:
Stage Fright

1) I am unashamedly picking Chrissie’s own book: Stage Fright by Christine Poulson. It’s one of her series of Cassandra James mysteries, and my blogposts on her excellent and underrated books are the reason we became online friends. Stage Fright concerns a group of people putting on a modern production of the classic Victorian melodrama East Lynne – this is what I said about it: ‘this is excellent, with its restored Victorian theatre, mysterious figures in cloaks, bustling backstage atmosphere, and array of temperamental characters. And Poulson certainly makes you feel you would love to see this modern production.’

2) W Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, republished as Being Julia when the film of the story used that title. I love this book, and also the film – both are truly excellent. I think Maugham is another underrated writer, and one who does marvellous women characters, much better than other writers of his generation. Julia is a fabulous creation: a great actress who is aging and wondering what the future holds, but who isn’t going down without a fight. The scene where she upstages a young actress is hysterical, and perfectly reproduced in the film – one of the funniest scenes ever, in both.
Julia being grand
Julia being rather grand
3) Pretty much the entire oeuvre of Noel Streatfeild – most of her books had theatre settings. But I will go for Ballet Shoes, as one of my favourite books of all time, one I have been reading regularly for more than 40 years, a Desert Island book.
Ballet shoes costume
Fossil sisters dressed as fairies

4) Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows, with its completely enveloping world of vaudeville in Canada at the beginning of the 20th Century. Why this book isn’t an accepted classic is a mystery to me.
Little shadows  1The Belle Auroras in Endicott’s book

5) I love the school stories of Antonia Forest, (written in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s) for many reasons, but one is that she does wonderful descriptions of schoolgirl productions. There’s Prince and the Pauper in Autumn Term, the utterly wonderful Nativity Play in End of Term, and The Tempest in Cricket Term.

6) Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca isn’t bad as a murder story, but as a novel of manners it is perfection, and outstandingly funny. There is an extended scene where an advanced young playwright insists on staging a reading of his new work during a country house party. As I said, ‘The general feeling is that play-reading is possibly worse than murder, and the surprise is that the author wasn’t the victim.’ The scene advances character and is an integral part of the plot, but it is also extremely funny.

7) Ngaio Marsh, with a long theatrical history of her own, did several books set at performances. I have chosen an early one, Enter a Murderer, this time, though as I work my way through her books this may be replaced in my affections. And I’m going to sneak in her Colour Scheme – which is set in a thermal spa hotel in New Zealand, and has a Great Actor and his entourage visiting, to splendid effect.

8) Pamela Brown, The Swish of the Curtain. I loved this book, and its sequels, as a child. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Noel Streatfeild, and you can tell that the author was around 16 when she wrote it, but - I had and have absolutely no stage talent, and no interest in sewing, but to this day my heart beats a little faster when I read a description of penniless young theatricals skimping and striving to make a costume or an audition dress. Pamela Brown made you feel that you too could put on a play with your teenage mates.

9) Wise Children is my favourite Angela Carter book. Carter features lots of theatres and productions in her books, but this one is the best, with the lovely twins and their rampage through the various media of the 20th century, from music hall to Shakespeare to end-of-the-pier to F Scott Fitzgerald.

10) Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. I love this book, and heroine Sally Jay Gorce’s terrible theatrical experiences are very entertaining. But the real reason she has to be in this list is that she says “The question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”
And, in the early days of the blog, I wrongly attributed this quotation to a different fictional character (I have edited the piece now) so it seems only right to give Sally Jay back her line.


Chrissie and I didn't have books in common this time - check out her list here.  But we both noticed that, surely surprisingly, Agatha Christie didn’t set any books in a theatre (there’s a short story based on a performance of the opera Tosca, a cabaret act is important in Lord Edgware Dies, and there are actors all over the place). Also, Josephine Tey was more famous as a playwright than a novelist when she was young, but although the theatrical world is always impinging at the edges of her books, and there is a recurring character in the famous actress Marta Hallard, there are no actual theatre settings.

I had trouble keeping this list down to 10 – there are so many great books set in theatres. Please make good on my omissions, and add your own ideas below.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: An Agatha Christie list

Agatha Christie portrait
Agatha Christie in her prime

Curt Evans is a passionate crime fiction fan and expert, and has a great blog over at The Passing Tramp. And he came up with this plan:
I want to announce the formation of The Tuesday Night Bloggers: an international blogging "club" comprised of myself, Bev Hankins, Brad Friedman, Helen Szamuely, Jeffrey Marks Moira Redmond [that’s me, Clothes in Books] and Noah Stewart.
Each of us will do a Christie-related post every Tuesday night for the next six weeks (or so the theory goes).
I will post links to everyone's pieces
here, so make sure you tune in on Tuesday and see what's being discussed!
I’ve just come out of my blog’s Agatha Christie Week to mark the 125th anniversary of her birth. It lasted 8 entries and two weeks, and I still think I have plenty to say, so am very glad to be taking part in this project. My entries might be about individual books, or might be posts taking an overview.

Curt collected together his own and many others’ lists of favourite Christie novels, and you can see one of his posts here with links to others – it’s most interesting to see which of the books make the cut, and which have unexpected defenders.

Chrissie Poulson and I did our own lists of her books – links here and here – though my top 5 varies from day to day and week to week.

And this is my entry for this Tuesday:  

My good friend Margot Kinberg, of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, did a wonderful post on her ‘Margot’s Agatha Christie’s Mosts’ – Most ingenious plot twists, Most memorable lines etc. Inspired by that, I’m offering some highs and lows - carefully spoiler-free:
The most unusual way to administer poison I consider to be in lotions, through the skin – two different books, at least.
Runner Up: You can’t underestimate the importance of hat paint – see blog entry here – but it is a poison in itself. Housemaids commit suicide with it.
(The most ordinary way to administer poison is via food - always beware the liqueur chocolates, and cake can be doubtful too.)

Best name: my favourite name in all Christie is Claude Luttrell. He is the archetypal lounge lizard/gigolo in the Parker Pyne stories, and I think it is the perfect name. I was reading a book about the poet Philip Larkin, Zelig to this blog, and was delighted to find that in the second half of the 20th C there was an academic at Leicester University called Claude Luttrell – he would have been a colleague at the English Dept of Larkin’s long-term partner Monica Jones. (And he sounds a most respectable man, not at all a lounge lizard.)

Party you would least want to attend Either of the two disastrous celebrations in Sparkling Cyanide. Beware the table, the evening bag, the waiter and the moment when, ironically, health is being drunk. (I almost said 'toast' but then it sounds like the category above.)

Tuesday 1

Best fashion makeover (this is Clothes in Books, after all) is in The Moving Finger – Megan must stop being ‘so slack’ and become a beauty. Runner up: Mystery of the Blue Train, where Katherine comes into money and is enabled to buy dresses with names like Soupir d’automne.

Funniest Christie: Contrary to some opinions, I find her a very funny writer – clever and witty. Mrs McGinty’s Dead is full of good moments, and so are The Man in the Brown Suit and Cat Among the Pigeons.

tuesday 3
Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in England

Strangest Moral Framework One of my favourites is Death on the Nile, and in this book Hercule Poirot shows much sympathy for the murderer – see my blog entry here. He also uses a Biblical story with heart-stopping effect. I have often said how affecting and surprising this is – Poirot and Marple very rarely show the slightest concern for murderers. I stand by the impressiveness of the moment – one of her finest endings - but when you think about the morals of the person concerned, I’m not sure the sympathy is warranted…

The most heartless moment in all Christie – comes after the culprit has been found in one of the books mentioned above:
‘I really do think – don't you? – that everything turns out for the best.’
Just for a fleeting moment I thought of X and Y in their graves in the churchyard and wondered if they would agree, and then I remembered that X’s boyfriend hadn't been very fond of her and that Y hadn't been very nice..and, what the hell? We've all got to die sometime! And I agreed that everything was for the best in the best of possible worlds.

Most ridiculous plot. Fictional murders are almost always crazy in this sense: however they pan out, would anyone actually sit down and plan to commit a murder in that way? – why wouldn’t they just find a quiet moment and hit the victim in an alley? Of course we as readers want the details that make the books such fun – the overheard conversations, the blackmailers who know something, the phonecalls with the speaker saying ‘I will tell you something important when I see you – oh the doorbell is ringing’. So I don’t really mind those elaborate plots – but for Christie surely The Body in the Library takes some kind of prize for bizarre planning. Who in their right minds could possibly plan a murder that way? It is completely unworkable, and ridiculous, and would actually have gone wrong in several different ways.

Great book though.
I’m hoping readers will make their own suggestions in these categories below….

Photographs of Agatha Christie, above and in previous entry,  are used with the kind permission of the Christie Archive Trust. There is a small but wonderful exhibition of her personal photos which has now left London and moved, appropriately enough, to Torquay.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Skeleton in the Grass by Robert Barnard

published 1987

Skeleton in the Grass 1

They took the Wolseley to the Wadhams’ party because they were all rather decked out. Not exactly in fancy dress, because it wasn’t that sort of party, but not normally dressed either. 
They had all rummaged around in the trunks and attics of Hallam to come up with something in the clothing line that would appeal to the Waddies…

Helen found a long drapey woollen dress, immediately post-war, three-quarter length and a rather slimy green, and said she intended to be a Bloomsbury lady…

Elizabeth found a costume which had been used in amateur theatricals, and which was labelled “Prince Orlofsky”. She made a handsome prince. Sarah decided on a weird and wonderful black and purple flowing dress that must have been left behind by some exotic visitor late in the last century.

skeleton in the grass 2

observations: This was Tracy K’s choice for a 1987 book (see Rich’s meme over at Past Offences, Tracy’s review is on her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery, my 1987 choice is here.) Her review made me go and look for it straightaway.

The book is set in 1936: Sarah is around 18 and has come as governess to a young girl: the setup is familiar. The family lives in a big house in an Oxfordshire village, her charge is 6 but there are older brothers. There are other posh families nearby, there are relations, there are rough and respectable people in the village. The subjects under discussion include fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and King Edward VIII and his female friend.

But Barnard makes something very unusual out of all this – this is nothing like, for example, the Angela Thirkell books set in (and written in) the same era. I found it a refreshing change that Sarah’s story is not bound up in snobbery, social awkwardness, puritanism. She likes the family, they like her. She meets someone and they start seeing one another.

The host family are left-wing intellectuals, and also committed pacifists. This is very unpopular with some people in the village, and there are some pranks/horrible violent acts (depending on your point of view). Eventually this ends in a death.

I have varied reactions to Robert Barnard books: there are a couple I loved, and I admire his book on Agatha Christie as the best one I have read. But I found some of his murder stories over-simple, full of broad satire and ridiculous characters. This one is completely different from any of his others, the ones I liked and the ones I disliked – it is much more like a straight novel, and is immensely clever and nuanced. Not because of its plot, but because of the way Sarah watches what is going on and tries to decide what she thinks about people. It reads as though written by someone completely different, tbh - although the local family the Waddies, the party-givers above, do seem to have wandered in from one of his other books. But just reading through the party scene to write the blog entry made me realize yet again how carefully plotted it was: Barnard planned it out beautifully.

There is a tour de force later in the book where Sarah starts looking at things differently, and the clues to this are planted perfectly, including in the scene above. It’s not that it is a crime-solving revelation, or a giant twist, but it is a great piece of writing.

The book isn’t perfect – would the people of the village really have reacted quite like that? Some of the time references seem shoehorned in. And I found the final scene very confusing, I had to read it several times and get some friendly advice – see below - to find out who had died in the ambulance.

But there are lovely contemporary details – the reason the film in the village hall breaks down, the audience who will buy chocolates to watch some filmstars but not others. ‘They would not have been indulged in for, say, “that Bette Davis” or Katharine Hepburn.’ Another guest at the party above is ‘The butcher’s wife… so it doesn’t seem too unkind to talk about mutton dressed up as lamb.’

Later, the investigating policeman is asking difficult questions ‘trying on delicacy as if it were a new suit.’

Overall, an excellent and memorable read.

TracyK’s thoughts are here: my friend Sergio, over at Bloody Murder, also has a really illuminating review of this book (and answered a couple of my questions  about the closing scenes by email).

The pictures are costume sketches by the great Leon Bakst, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to use pictures from this beautiful collection. Prince Orlofsky, from Die Fledermaus, wouldn’t have looked at all like this, but he should do….

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

first published 1951, in this form in 1966


[Mademoiselle is the young Nabokov’s governess. On the writing-desk in her room there are many photographs.]

Lording it over the rest was one in a fancy frame incrusted with garnets; it showed, in three-quarter view, a slim young brunette clad in a close-fitting dress, with brave eyes and abundant hair. “A braid as thick as my arm and reaching down to my ankles!” was Mademoiselle’s melodramatic comment. For this had been she – but in vain did my eyes probe her familiar form to try and extract the graceful creature it had engulfed. Such discoveries as my awed brother and I did make merely increased the difficulties of that task; and the grown-ups who during the day beheld a densely clothed Mademoiselle never saw what we children saw when, roused from her sleep Speak Memory Jezby one of us shrieking himself out of a bad dream, dishevelled, candle in hand, a gleam of gilt lace on the blood-red dressing gown that could not quite wrap her quaking mass, the ghastly Jezebel of Racine’s absurd play stomped barefooted into our bedroom.

speak Memory Jez 2

observations:  I did not like the last Nabokov book I read, Ada or Ardor, so to balance that here are his rather wonderful memoirs. The book sounds very cobbled together: different parts were written and published at different times, and he couldn’t stop tinkering with it. In the introduction he describes it as “a systematically correlated assemblage of personal recollections” ranging from St Petersburg to St Nazaire and covering 37 years, from 1903 to 1940. In the intro he helpfully points out some effects in the work that he is quite proud of – ones that he feels the critics failed to notice sufficiently. This may not sound charming, but it is. (Perhaps like Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm he could have helped out by putting asterisks by paragraphs he considered particularly good.)

Nabokov was part of a wealthy landed family in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his memories of growing up in that world cover very familiar ground – the clothes, the luxury, the countryside, the activities (fencing, skating, going out on a sleigh). But he makes them quite magical: perhaps it is his synaesthesia (where colours, words and facts all blend into each other visually – this is a terrible description, but I haven’t been able to find a better one) that makes his descriptions so perfect. The world of the governess is, again, a standard trope in these works, but the arrival of the lady above, and his attempts to describe her life, form a tour de force of writing.

The section begins with these sentences.
A large, alabaster-based kerosene lamp is steered into the gloaming. Gently it floats and comes down: the hand of memory, now in a footman’s white glove, places it in the center of a round table.
-- and for me that alone is worth the price of the book.

I loved this also: Mademoiselle compares herself to a certain poor relative who is almost as fat as she: “Je suis une sylphide a cote d’elle” she says with a shrug of contempt.

Speak Memory is not meant to be straightforward history – Nabokov explains how he has changed names and tidied up events, and used his story to make points and make reference to his novels and to many other items which were on his mind. So the book keeps you on your toes – I was glad to notice that the male tutor is called Lensky, the name of the young man who dies in the duel in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In the first chapter, the first words are ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss’ and the closing words of the chapter are ‘in the open coffin’.

Mademoiselle having such long hair reminded me of the (off-stage) Empress of Austria in the marvellous Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer – one of the characters is reading a biography of her and comes out with helpful gems: ‘Elizabeth… could sit on her hair. Fancy!’ The Sylphides she compares herself with feature in this blog entry.

I found a small but effective collection of Jezebel images on Wikimedia: the top one is a 19th century oil painting by John Liston Byam Shaw. I love Paulette Goddard, but she never looks like anything except herself, and it doesn’t seem like great casting for this 1953 film. The other one is an illo for a children’s book of Bible stories.

Given Nabokov’s great interest in butterflies, it was interesting to find that there are many types of butterfly called Jezebel.

There is an excellent discussion of the exact marital status of Jezebel in LP Hartley’s Simonetta Perkins.