Friday, 28 August 2015

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann – Part 2

published 1944

Ballad and the Source 2

One day my mother told me that Mrs Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her….

Next Thursday was fine. We wore our sailor blouses and skirts… and set off after lunch accompanied by Mademoiselle. She wore her best off-mustard flannel skirt, cream satin blouse with tucks, net yoke and whaleboned neck

As we crossed the lawn, a french window in the front of the long, low, creeper-covered house opened, and a woman’s figure appeared. She waved. She gave the impression of arms outstretched, so welcomingly did she surge forward to meet ups. 

She was dressed in a long gown… she had a white fleecy wrap round her shoulders and on her head, with its pile of fringed puffed, curled hair, a large Panama hat trimmed with a blue liberty scarf artistically knotted, the ends hanging down behind.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with the first entry on this book.

The edited extract above is from the opening pages of The Ballad and the Source, and to me is an enticing and very promising setup.

It is set around 1910-12: Mrs Jardine meets the narrator, 10-year-old Rebecca, daughter of a family Mrs J feels close to - though Rebecca’s father doesn’t feel close to Mrs J at all: there is obviously scandal rolling around in the background, and he discourages the relationship. Mrs Jardine makes Rebecca the recipient of a long involved recounting of her family history, full of troubles. Rebecca is clearly too young for most of this (and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions quite often), and spends hilarious amounts of time seizing the opportunity to eat as much as possible of whatever is on offer – this is a continuing theme. The book is, perhaps surprisingly, very funny, full of a deep sense of the absurd.

Sometimes Rebecca is trying to learn. When Mrs J makes sweeping comments on Frenchwomen and how they ‘put a natural value on themselves as women’ she thinks about the French governess above:
Perhaps, I thought, that accounted for her. Perhaps I ought to view her in a more reverent light.
Rebecca’s sister Jess dislikes Mademoiselle very much, forming the theme of another running joke, with an admirably heartless ending with the governess caught in Belgium at the start of WW1.

I recently re-read this book after a gap of many years, and here are some of the books & writers it made me think of:
Sybille Bedford (very much)
Ford Madox Ford
Henry James
Wuthering Heights
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
 Occasionally in Ballad there is a quite unexpected and intriguing throwaway remark, as this one about a woman whose life goes badly wrong:
She sounded rather proud of it all. I think it’s only in books that women are ashamed of being prostitutes. Her idea was to make herself interesting [to a man] - dramatic, important.
--- and it is this kind of almost-incidental upsetting of the moral norm that reminded me of the other authors.

The Ballad and the Source is delightfully full of clothes and clothes descriptions. Take the statuesque Mrs Jardine in her cloaks, for example, wearing:
A dove-grey cloak lined with lilac silk, long grey gloves and a shallow wide-brimmed silvery straw hat girdled with blue and mauve ostrich feathers.
While Tilly the trusted retainer and sewing woman has her dolman cape – Mrs J sees it as ‘singular’ where the reader sees that the two women are two of a kind, at opposite ends of the social scale.

Rebecca and her sister Jess have ‘our long-sleeved velvets…cut by local Miss Midgley with more optimism, fitted and finished with more complacency than the results warranted.’

There is a woman in an Indian-based outfit, perhaps made from a sari:
a queer dress: a dark yellow bodice and a long, bright-coloured skirt, sort of magenta, not an English colour, and edged with a gold band.
The colours of the picture above do not match up exactly with Lehmann’s descriptions (‘off-mustard’! how I wish I had been able to find something that fitted that description…), but the image still seemed to perfectly represent the occasion. It is from a lovely collection of illustrations from fashion mag Gazette du Bon Ton – this one from 1913, and called Le gouter au Jardin.

Rosamond Lehmann’s wonderful The Echoing Grove has also featured on the blog.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

published 2015

Little Life UK
Little Life US

I very rarely write about books I don’t like, unless they have high entertainment value and the author won't care. And I don’t usually do straight reviews, but I am making an exception in this case to make an unusual point. For this reason, I am not dealing with the clothes in the book, and there is no fashion illustration for the blogpost. The images above are the UK and US covers of the book. And the author for sure won't care, she's done very well with it. 

One of the features of A Little Life that I didn’t like is that it is way, way too long - more than 700 pages -  and that the claim by the author and editor that it couldn’t be made shorter is simply not true.

I’d have done it for them. 

(The lovely online magazine Slate - for whom I used to work - simply encouraged them both by giving them this space to discuss not editing it: they’d have been better employed spending the time getting on with the red pencilling.)

The writing and story are certainly compelling in a weird way, but the style is also very workmanlike, nothing special, and is done in that strange manner peculiar to modern US novels where everything is written as history: first this happened, then this happened, then they went uptown, then it was Thanksgiving. It is quite a distancing way of writing.

It’s also disconcertingly unreal: though given a very thorough geographical placing – largely Manhattan and Massachusetts – the timing is completely non-existent. The novel covers more than 50 years, but all of it seems to be happening right now (in terms of, say, technology) and never, in terms of events in the outside world. Or convincingness. It starts as though it is going to be the story of four college graduates, close friends, making their way in New York in different professions. Two of the friends get ditched by the author – we know almost nothing of them, the odd page or two over the course of this very long book. The novel is actually about Jude who –


--- spent his childhood subjected to the most terrible sexual and physical abuse. Having met not one person in his first 16 years who could either help or protect him or even just refrain from mistreating him, he now spends the next 40 years surrounded (equally unconvincingly) by people (with one exception) who love him, who adore him, who will do anything for him.

All this is quite ridiculous, along with the fact that everyone is terribly good-looking and quite bizarrely successful in their lives, and those who were not fabulously wealthy to begin with become so through those well-known moneymaking pursuits of acting and art.

You can say that this is a fable, a parable, a fairytale (there are strange echoes of the Little Mermaid) – but then the author seems to want to have it both ways, with this ludicrous world on the one hand, but Jude demanding our pity and sorrow on the other. We are asked to believe in his story. I didn’t. The book left me unmoved by its attempts to show the love and kindness of his friends.

But my major objection to this book is something different. What I hated about it was the complete lack of a true moral framework. The author’s attitude is that what happened to Jude is dreadful because he is a beautiful clever sensitive boy.

This underlying assumption – that he didn’t deserve this because of who he was - is appalling, because of the flipside, that it all wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Jude wasn’t so attractive. (To be clear: Yanagihara never overtly says this, but I think it is an inescapable conclusion from her line of writing.) That goes against everything I believe in. If we don’t at least try to believe that all humans are worthwhile, and work and live with that assumption, then we are lost.

In addition, Jude can only be helped by money, success, fame, networking, other beautiful people. Everything that helps him is the result of money: this is one of the most materialist books I have ever read. I think that is why I winced at quite a number of things in the book but (unlike other readers and reviewers) I did not find it affecting or moving or profound. I found the character of Jude’s great friend Willem completely unreal, and the endless kindness and affection handed out by him and others to Jude nearly as unconvincing as the bad times the author put him through in his earlier life.

I have rarely felt so strongly about the morals in a book, particularly one that appears to demand our sympathy for a bad situation.

I thought the ghoulish descriptions of the abuse were vile and unnecessary and pointless – it isn’t real, and it is quite unbelievable, so why is it so detailed and unrelenting? Yanagihara wanted, presumably, to invent and write about Jude, and to imagine what it would be like to be him – but she didn’t fulfil her contract with the reader by making this worth our attention.

There are other absurdities: The author seems to have decided to emulate Hilary Mantel by using the pronoun ‘he’ for Jude – but this is just confusing and messy (and inconsistent - in the para below, the first 'he' is Willem). When Mantel did it in Wolf Hall, where if in doubt, ‘he’ means Thomas Cromwell, it was clever and persuasive.

Then there are the stupid names, with characters called Citizen & Contractor. The whole adoption scenario. The fact that there are virtually no women in the book. The endless repetitions of very similar scenes. The complete lack of any humour or wit. The observations on modern life shoe-horned in for no reason. The completely unbelievable set of lawsuits at the end of the book, making no sense on any level - including, yet again, morality. The paragraphs like this:
JB has been on a fellowship in Italy for the past six months, and Malcolm and Sophie have been so busy with the construction of a new ceramics museum in Shanghai that the last time they saw them all was in April, in Paris - he was filming there, and Jude had come in from London, where he was working, and JB in from Rome, and Malcolm and Sophie  had laid over for a couple of days on their way back to New York.
The US cover of the book – above right – seems both horrible and eminently suitable for the contents: unsubtle, forcing the story, insisting on something to the reader, shouting at the reader.

If I want to read a story about a man having a hard life I will re-read the Book of Job from the Old Testament.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

published 1944

[Mrs Jardine is describing a meeting with her long-lost daughter, Ianthe]

“What did you wear?” I said.

I had in mind some vague conception of mother clothes as distinct from lady clothes…. Mrs Jardine might have chosen to set off the extravagant and therefore unmaternal quality of her beauty by wearing something on the eccentric side. Ianthe might have been put off by this…

“I wore a white frock. I remember it so well: long, simple, classical lines, narrow ruffles of lace round neck and wrists. At that time I had all my clothes especially designed for me, as all beautiful women should. And I nearly always wore white. Dear me, what a divinely pretty dress it was! I can still feel the texture of the material – like apple blossom petals. I asked myself: what will most charm this child? – and that is what I chose. I thought: if things go awkwardly we will speak together of clothes.”

“And did you?”


Pause. “I do wonder if she liked it.”

Mrs Jardine shrugged her shoulders.
observations: For a long time I would have said this was one of my favourite books, in the top 10, but you get cautious about saying that when many years have passed since the last reading. I loved Echoing Grove by the same author on a recent re-read, and then mentions of Ballad in a collection of criticism by the novelist Jonathan Coe made me think I should go for it again. Coe says this:
When I first read it, I bought copies for many of my friends, confident that they would thank me for introducing them to a masterpiece. Polite silence, however, seemed to be the more usual response.
--- and oh how I empathized. Many was the happy-fellow-reader I brought to water (“You must read this book, you’ll love it”), but I’m not sure I made any of them drink.

Elsewhere Coe says:
A lot of people who like [Lehmann’s] books are slightly embarrassed by it. They find it melodramatic and over the top and a little bit silly. 
I’m always surprised to find it was a huge bestseller in its day, particularly in the USA, despite that annoying and incomprehensible title.

Anyway, no hesitation, I loved it as much as ever on a re-read, I still think it’s a masterpiece, a deep piece of work hidden in a highly entertaining and enjoyable wrapper.

The passage above contains everything I love about it – the importance of clothes, the weirdness of the conversation, the beautifully-described uncomfortable relations between the mothers and daughters. The novel consists mostly of Mrs Jardine telling young narrator Rebecca highly unsuitable stories for her age (10) and the times (about 1910), and it catches how much children like the attention and interest of an unrelated adult – Mrs J charms and entrances her with her stories even though, as Rebecca says, she plainly keeps forgetting who she is talking to. Rebecca solidly eats her way through the teatable and listens and remembers. And occasionally there is a moment like this:
I writhed in my chair, pierced by a chilling thought. Could Mrs Jardine be – not quite right in the head? And I alone with her?
I loved the continual contrast between Mrs J’s rather practised way of telling her extraordinary stories – all tilted in her own favour – filled with strange spiritual notions, and then Rebecca, stolid and slightly wary. I found this very very funny, the absurdity never failed me.

The strange narration, where Mrs J reports on all kinds of things that she has heard from elsewhere, is reminiscent of Wuthering Heights (though you couldn’t think of a more distant contrast from that book’s storyteller, Nelly Dean).

There will be another entry on the book later.

The white dress above, totally unsuitable for a mother meeting her child, seemed ideal. It is a fashion illustration of the right era: "Mes invités n'arrivent pas" by Francesco Javier Gose, from The Red List. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Charity by Len Deighton

9th in the triple trilogy of Bernard Samson books

published 1996

Charity 1

The theme of the party, as stated on the printed invitations, was ‘The Golden Twenties’. Its ambivalence had left the German guests uncertain of whether to respond with a fancy dress suited to Berlin in the Weimar years, or simply to wear gold. Many had done both. There were plenty of gold lame gowns, and gold jewellery was in abundance, for this was Berlin and flamboyant ostentation was de rigueur. There was even a gold lame evening jacket – although that was worn by a tenor from the opera and so didn’t count as a surprise of any kind – and there was a glittering outfit of gold pyjamas worn by a skinny old lady who did cooking lessons on TV. Gold wire and gold foil and gold ornaments of many kinds were liberally arranged on the walls. Gold ceiling hangings echoed in shape the antique glass chandelier that Werner had bought in an auction, so that it could become the centre-piece of the room. The moving beams from clusters of spotlights were directed upwards to patch the false ceiling with their light, and create golden clouds that floated overhead.

observations: And so to book number 9 of the triple trilogy. It’s 1988 and Bernard Samson is trying to pick up the threads of his life, but is thwarted all the way by stuff like being dragged off a Polish train by Secret Police and beaten up. He is worried about his children, and wondering which of the women he knows is his real true love. More regular features: There is a hilarious and dreadful dinner party. Nothing but the best for Dicky Cruyer:
‘We haven’t used these caterers before. They sent six packets of frozen bite-sized pizzas without asking if we had a microwave. I was hoping they would thaw but they are rock-hard.’
Even in 1988 you would sack those caterers.

There is the grand party in Berlin, above, reminiscent of the one at the end of Spy Line. And there are the usual inter-departmental meetings to remind us that spy organizations are just like any other workplace, and to give us the witty Deighton details:
Bret waved away the biscuits, poured cream into his coffee and drank some. His offhand self-assurance in respect of digestive biscuits revealed his transatlantic origins.
Len Deighton’s introduction to this edition is as riveting as ever. He talks about the importance of the church in the fall of communism – that contribution has been devalued and played down, he says. He tells us that in his view:
surely the Bernard Samson stories are comedy thrillers – boardroom dramas perhaps – about a man in love with two women.
He talks about his love for Berlin, and says the city
is like an ever-present character in all my Bernard Samson books.
-- so room for one more of Audrey Stafford’s pictures of Berlin – this is  a historically-preserved checkpoint, part of the history and remembrance of the Wall in the city.

Berlin checkpoint

The books are an amazing achievement: I am sad to have finished them, and look forward to reading all of them again at some time in the future.

The top picture is from the German Federal Archives, and shows young women getting ready for a ball in Berlin in 1934 – it’s from the same series as the one illustrating Kerry Jamieson’s Forgotten Lies here.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Rising Tide by Molly Keane

published 1937, under pseudonym MJ Farrell


Rising Tide 2nd entry

[Simon and Susan are brother and sister: they are planning a fancy-dress event for his coming of age]

Simon’s idea (for it had come to be called Simon’s), had caught on.
—— A Period Party. ’95 to ’07. Come as yourselves, your Uncles or your Aunts. Dancing 10.30——
The countryside ransacked their cupboards, delved in domed boxes, fought out bitter contests for the first services of the Little Women Round the Corners. They were all coming to the party at Garonlea. Simon’s party.
“I would like to come to Simon’s party in some very high corsets, to make me some bosoms, and a really tricky pair of white nainsook knickers run with black ribbon and frilled at the knees. Pads for my hair, and black silk stockings. I know I’d have the success of my life.”

“I think it would be very unfunny, Sue,” Simon said.

“Well, I won’t, Simon. But I could have called myself a postcard from Paris. And do you remember the first bicyclists, Aunt Enid?”

“No, I don’t,” said Enid, sharply. Why should it appear grotesque to any one— that time of youth? These clothes that had looked so right in their own romantic period! All there seemed to say in their defence now was that they were not unlike the clothes of to-day. You could not say, “We looked lovely in those clothes. We had bosoms which attracted the gentlemen and beliefs to which we clung, we were not rude and unhappy and flat-breasted like our children.” Not unhappy? The denial too was true to type and period.

observations: More Irish influences, after my recent holiday: Molly Keane is the queen of the decaying Anglo-Irish ascendancy, living out their lives in their big houses, knowing life is going to change. See first entry for more details of the plot. The dates for the party costumes are, obviously, 1895-1907.

Sue does not wear what she describes above for the party, and nor does she wear this:
Sue [picked] up a gold tissue bodice veiled and ruched and frilled by an apricot and diaphanous cloud. “I’ll have this, I think. Or shall I? Oh, my nainsook drawers! I suppose Simon wouldn’t be very pleased if I wore them. But I could, underneath. A nice bit of atmosphere. I’ll have these anyhow.”
(Nainsook, apparently is a ‘soft light white cotton fabric’, much used for underwear.)

In the end she wears a hideous-sounding brown silk dress with a matching jacket, huge padded shoulders and a bustle. All the vintage clothing at the ball is deeply significant, as is Cynthia’s choice of dress – she looks like a ‘very clean black fish.’ (She is Sue and Simon’s mother.)

There is also the question of Cynthia’s sister-in-law’s clothes:
Diana came in then in a spruce little dinner-jacket. Her short hair brushed and pomaded and charmingly grey at the temples. Her finger-nails trimmed squarely. A blue lapis signet-ring. Simon helped her to dress like that. Although he was at Cambridge now, he scarcely realised the implications. In 1922 a great many people did not.
-- which I assume means she was lesbian.

The question of killing yourself by drinking hat paint comes up – this is something we looked at on the blog a while back, in relation to Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy.

The picture really is a naughty French postcard of the correct era. It’s one of a series - I used a similar one in the entry on this book.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

WB Yeats and his grave

yeats' grave

Under Ben Bulben by WB Yeats
Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

published 1933. Part VI
observations: WB Yeats wrote his own burial instructions, and put them into verse – this is part of a much longer poem.

Ben Bulben is a remarkable mountain lowering over this part of Sligo. Like the moon, it seems to follow you round as you drive through the beautiful countryside. (And you can make stupid jokes: ‘Old Ben Bulben is an atmospheric mountain overlooking the grave, not an aged Irish yokel.’)

On a recent trip to Ireland I wanted to do some Yeats touring – as one friend said ‘Nothing says fun holiday day out like a trip to a dead poet’s grave.’Yeat's grave 2

The house at Lissadell – this entry – is very close to the graveyard at Drumcliff where Yeats is buried.

Or is he?

Shockingly, it has recently been suggested that the bones are not necessarily his. He died and was buried in the south of France in 1939: the transfer of his remains to Ireland didn’t happen till 1948. And now it seems there was trouble identifying the right bits – see this article here.

I still enjoyed my journey to his grave – and although there is a café and giftshop onsite (!!!) they are not nearly as tacky as that sounds.

Here’s another poem by Yeats, published in 1904:

Never Give All the Heart by WB Yeats
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

More Yeats here and here, and another beautiful Irish poem here.

With thanks to the photographers and fellow-visitors.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott–part 2

published 2015

Close to Hugh 1

[Small town Canada: some High Schoolers are having a party, in a house where there is a clothes collection on display to be photographed]

The new girls gasps. Jason flicks her arm and says she’s done.
But he takes L’s hand at the doorway and pulls her back – what for? Oh, to fix her dress. The tunic has fallen to one side. He straightens it, adjusting the folds, fingers cool on her skin. His breath on her shoulder….

The living room has furniture in it. Chairs, a glass table. And along the wall, a parade of dummies dressed in psychedelic clothes…

Jason says “But some of this stuff is valuable, I don’t want it wrecked or stolen…”

Jason and L take the dummies upstairs, one at a Close to Hugh 2 Mondriantime: the backless, black-skirted, paisley-sequined cocktail dress; the Mondrian colour-block; the hot-pink mini that goes with the pink gloves. L puts the gloves in her pocket, rolled together the way Mimi always did. It’s kind of a nightmare because the clock is ticking – they’re still on the stairs with a long black satin Audrey Hepburn-type gown when the first bunch of people comes banging at the door.
observations: I explained in an earlier entry how much I loved this book, and how it was full of amazing clothes descriptions.

I could list what I liked about the book all day, but here are some of my favourite things:

The language is distinctive and matched to the character – I loved the word order of ‘who even is that?’, when the teenager L sees something unexpected at a party.

There is a look at a young woman cutting herself – it’s a minor, glancing moment in the book, but it was honest and totally convincing. 

There’s a beautifully reported mother/daughter argument which the reader can see equally from both sides:
‘nobody in the world makes me as mad as you do!’
Shit, shit, shit, there goes the Buddhist vow. Give her a loving, gag-me, big-toothed smile, maybe she won’t start sobbing.
I loved that at one point in the book Hugh thinks about all his friends and ends up making a table.
In his head he makes a list of what everybody needs:
           What’s Wrong?       What Would Help?
MIMI     dying                       0-nothing-nada-zip
RUTH   old, poor                 affection, $$
--- and so on through all the characters. It was the perfect summing up two-thirds of the way through the book.

There are great coats in the book (‘Ivy loves a suitable coat for the person’) – an asymmetric tweed coat, a jacket with a $100 bill in the pocket, a black coat with a brilliant lining.

There are Hugh/you jokes and misunderstandings throughout the book, and also an unexplained series of anagrams: Argylle, Gallery, Largely and allergy all keep popping up.

As well as looking at people, relationships, love and money, Endicott also takes in art and art galleries, and acting and plays. The Masterclasses for the High Schoolers are particularly fascinating, as well as hilarious as they keep changing which play they are meant to be studying.

Honestly, this is a great book, and will surely be one of my Best Books of the Year: I highly recommend it for anyone who can get hold of it.

The top picture is an Oscar de la Renta dress (thanks to Leah for modelling) – zigzag hot pink colour blocking, whoo - the lower pic is an Yves St Laurent Mondrian.