Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of 2009 VMCs

Sue asked me at the TIS lunch which VMCs I’d recommend. She probably didn’t anticipate the screed below, but I have enjoyed putting my thoughts in order, even if you don’t feel the need to read it all. To cut to the chase, the book I’d probably recommend for any or all of you is Nina Bawden’s The birds on the trees. It deals with a middle class family’s anxt as Toby drops out of the life they’ve prepared for him. Although Toby can charm the birds off the trees, I think the title refers to those not charmed by him, those who have to deal with his behaviour, i.e. those who remain on the trees. The characters are all multi-dimensional – not least because the book is written in various voices, past and present, of the main characters. I really enjoyed it, and think it is the only one that would have universal TIS appeal.

But Emily and I have chosen The ballad and the source by Rosamond Lehmann as a future TIS book, so we can see what we all think. I tried Lehmann in my thirties to no noticeable effect: I think I needed to be of mature years to embark on this voyage of discovery with the deep pleasure I have had so far.

The story so far
I conceived the idea of trying to read my way through all the VMCs in 2008 when there was a lot of press publicity on their 30th anniversary. One article in particular, by Jonathan Coe, (My literary love affair, The Guardian 6.10.07) challenged the notion of classics on university English courses in the 1980s and listed some of his favourites. Then Carmen Callil wrote about why she had founded the Classics series (The stories of our lives, The Guardian 26.4.08), describing how friends recommended titles that should not be allowed to disappear into obscurity and also which paintings should be used on the covers (reason enough for collecting many of them). She also explains here the choice of ‘Virago’: ‘We spent hours trawling through books on goddesses ancient and modern, until Rosie [Boycott] spotted an entry for a female warrior, a Virago. We chose it for this heroic meaning: a strong, courageous, outspoken woman, a battler… [When asked] why did I give my women’s publishing company such an aggressive, man-hating name? Irony, I would reply.’

Most of the volumes carry the following, which I quote this at some length as it largely explains why I’ve decided to cram 500+ volumes in to my remaining reading years. At say 20 a year, I’m obviously not going to make it, but I shall enjoy the challenge.

The first VMC , Frost in May by Antonia White, was published in 1978. it launched a list dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works. Its aim was, and is, to demonstrate the existence of a female tradition in fiction which is both enriching and enjoyable. The Leavisite notion of the ‘Great Tradition’, and the narrow, academic definition of a ‘classic’, has meant the neglect of a large number of interesting secondary works of fiction. In calling the series ‘Modern Classics’ we do not necessarily mean ‘great’ – although this is often the case. Published with new critical and biographical introductions, books are chosen for many reasons: sometimes for their importance in literary history; sometimes because they illuminate particular aspects of womens’ [sic] lives, both personal and public. They may be classics of comedy or story telling; their interest can be historical, feminist, political or literary.

In The uncommon reader, Alan Bennett is clearly of the opinion that if the first books the Queen had read had been duffs, then the story would not have unfolded as it did. This is true of me and VMCs: the first I read under this new dispensation (I’d read various novels that had happened to be VMCs over the years) was Edith Wharton’s House of mirth, a more melancholy book it is difficult to imagine, but excellent nonetheless; this was followed by Molly Kean’s Good behaviour which made me laugh out loud and then Vita Sackville West’s All passion spent, about an 80 year old living it up in her last years to her own huge pleasure and everyone else’s displeasure, again, extremely funny. So I was hooked. Although, since, there have been three which for various reasons I haven’t finished, that’s not bad out of 30 – and with 500 to go, I can’t afford to waste time.

Review of 2009 VMCs
The full list of 19 VMCs I’ve read this year is appended below and within that list are examples of the ‘types’ recognised in the VMC introduction.
Classics of comedy: I’ve already mentioned Good behaviour and All passion spent which I read in 2008 and I’m now reading E M Delafield’s Diary of a provincial lady (four books in one) which has got me through a pretty trying Christmas. I’m pretty sure Valerie will like this kind of humour – you know in the first page if it’s for you or not.

Classics of story telling: Antonia White’s Frost in May quartet I found unputdownable and, like many other readers, wish she had gone on to write number 5. Frost in May tells the story of nine year old Nanda/Clara, a new convert to Catholicism, who spends her formative years in a convent school in the 1930s where her genuine devotion is at war with her spirited character. As Mother Radcliffe says, more than once, “…every will must be broken completely and reset before it can be at one with God’s will.” For a non-Catholic, this and all the other observances and requirements are fascinating and disquieting. Clara’s story continues in the following books, culminating in her mental breakdown. The depiction of madness and especially of life in the Bethlem Asylum (now the Imperial War Museum) is so harrowing as to seem unbelievable – yet apparently ‘White remembers every moment of the ten moths she spent [there]’. Between these two extremes she falls in and out of love and marriage and tries acting and writing – all of which is autobiographical: ‘My life is the raw material for the novels, but writing an autobiography and writing fiction are very different things’. I think both Sue and Valerie would enjoy these (if Valerie can face another quartet after Paul Scott).

Historical: by definition they are all historical now, even if the subject was current when it was written. This adds a certain poignancy to some of the books – particularly The Lying days written in South Africa as apartheid was being introduced, without any foreknowledge of how it would develop or how long it would last. I’d particularly recommend My Antonia, a wonderful evocation of the life of early pioneers in Nebraska, and Anderby Wold, the story of how a small farming community in the East Riding in 1912 experience the beginnings of socialist change.

Feminist: well, they’re all feminist, from the strident Women’s room to the gentle but acute Diary of a provincial lady.

Political: it is for the context, often the socio-political context, that I really read these books, and none more so than Gellhorn’s A Stricken field and Gordimer’s The lying days. A stricken field is flawed as a novel, but draws on Gellhorn’s experience as a journalist in Czechoslovakia in 1938 when the Nazis began to annex the country and her involvement with the refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is certainly the most informative, powerful and disturbing book I have read this year. Even Bobbin up, hopeless as a novel, is unforgettable in its depiction of the lives of women workers in post-war Australian woollen mills - the horrendous working conditions, the impact this has on family life, the near illiteracy of the workers, the inability of the Communists to make any impression, and the inevitable consequences of the strike. The personal is indeed the political.

Literary: maybe someone would like to tell me quite what this means?

Many of these books have again gone out of print and the original ethos of VMCs seems to have been lost, though the imprint remains. New names have been added to the list (e.g. Daphne du Maurier) and the instantly recognisable green covers have been updated, retaining just a coy bitten apple to identify them. Part of the pleasure for me is scanning charity and second hand book shops for another volume, confident in the knowledge that I’m almost bound to enjoy whatever I find.

Nina Bawden The birds on the trees 369
Willa Cather My Antonia
Barbara Comyns Our spoons came from Woolworths
RM Dashwood Provincial daughter 482
Marilyn French The women’s room 437
Martha Gellhorn A stricken field
Martha Gelhorn Liana 248
Nadine Gordimer The lying days
Dorothy Hewett Bobbin up 172
Winifred Holtby Anderby Wold
Storm Jameson Company parade 90
Molly Keane Devoted ladies 138
Joyce Carol Oates A garden of earthly delights 472
GB Stern The matriarch 249
Elizabeth Taylor Angel 135
Antonia White Frost in May 1
Antonia White The lost traveller 13
Antonia White The sugar house
Antonia White Beyond the glass

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Next book to read

Ok, let's go for Esther Freud's "The Sea House" next and then, advance warning for purpose of obtaining tricky item, the Virago Modern Classic "The ballad and the source" by Rosamond Lehmann. I think it's out of print, but in libraries. Should be a good contrast!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Next book

Jill suggested Salley Vickers' "Mr Golightly's holiday" as a light but stimulating read. Alternatively we could read Esther Freud's "The sea house" (set near my parents' flat). Votes quickly please so we can settle on what's next. (Email me or post on here, whichever you like). After one of those two, Val suggests one of the best-regarded of her Virago Modern Classics series since we were interested in the edited highlights!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Diving down

What fascinating posts on Bauby! I especially liked Valerie's point about the film genre/treatment perfectly suiting the subject of the book. How rare is that? I think the lyrical cinematography emphasised the lyrical prose, making the whole thing more like a dream and less like the grim reality it was. So, no, it wasn't exactly uplifting, but definitely not as much of a downer as the book. Somehow life seemed to be emphasised by seeing live figures (especially those helping). I suppose I felt less locked in by the film since I could see things which the prose couldn't actually show me. But yes - utterly grim situation, and confirmed my lifelong gut reaction that people in comas probably know far more than we realise, so you have to be awfully careful what you decide on their behalf. And Pella was absolutely on the money about the fundamental disconnect between people (very EM Forster) and also within ourselves. How often do we express what we mean without accidentally upsetting someone, or carry through what we intended?

Saw Atonement recently and was astonished at such a faithful adaptation. Similarly felt that the director was committed to conveying what the author meant rather than what the director thought would have been more commercially viable. Is SUCH a relief in both cases not to come away regretting having seen the film version.

As for the Stevie Smith, I think it's an inspired link to Bauby. And astonishing for the worlds it creates - both of a swimmer and of a life lived bleakly - in so few lines. You absolutely can't beat poetry for economy when it puts its mind to it! I was struck by the poem's identification of how we tend to put a comforting gloss on symptoms (weeping, smiling desperation) because it's so much easier to deal with. And how often, when we succumb to visible misery, are people insistent upon finding the one thing which has upset us and which might be fixable, when so often it's a culmination of many complex things, hard to articulate and all, finally just too much.

And yet I also feel I don't know half of what the poem's on about. The meanings and significances seem to shift, rather like the waves, so I'm not sure quite where I am. Which is, I suppose, pretty apt for the subject matter(s). In that, very different to the Bauby, which I experienced as a very straightforward text. Quite rightly, his priorities were clarity and brevity, and he was denied the opportunity to play with the genre in the way Smith can. Which I suppose gives weight to (I think it was) Val's concern that we value the book largely because of its circumstances, and would do so less if it was fiction because we would have had less sympathy and because we would have expected more reflection and craft. But I'm not sure I could see the point of a fictional one of these - the insight into locked-in reality is only bearable to me if I feel it's genuinely opening up. A fictional version, lacking this, would be bleaker.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Diving Bell and the Butterfly

I don't have anything very original to add to the other comments and my reading was probably spoilt a bit by seeing the film first. Certainly well written, but I found the interest for me was in considering how people adapt/cope with such a terrifying condition. We are indeed all locked in to different degrees but to be forced to live constnatly just inside your own head, to find the resources, memories - 'the rich inner life' we all hope we have in order to put up with the sheer boredom. And to be able to take pleasure in things when you must be overwhelmed by anger, frustration, irritation - a lesson to us all when we sit next to the person on the mobile phone or with their music turned up too loud! I heard a programme recently where they had found they could detect brain activity in people in comas. If they told them to imagine playing tennis (which produces the best brain activity to measure apparently), and then they did, a certain bit of the brain lit up. You could see this being made into a way of communicating - imagine playing tennis for 'yes' and imagine eating pizza for 'no'! Sue

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Diving and sort of sinking...

I approached this book with a degree of trepidation knowing the subject matter, and I'm afraid that dread didn't abate on reading it. Despite finding the prose beautifully crafted and lyrical, I still couldn't get round the horror of Jean-Do's situation. I got so much more of the diving bell than the butterfly. But maybe that simply reflects my glass half empty nature, my propensity to more readily engage with the negative. And my fear that I'd be unable to "fly" in such a situation, I'm not sure I'd be able to "forge the glorious substitute destinies"!

Emily assures me the film is uplifting, but I'm not sure I've the stomach for it yet - may get round to it some day.

For me "locked in syndrome", is a metaphor that resonates with us all, I'd imagine either consciously or unconsciously. Aren't we all locked in to the finiteness of our decaying bodies and our inability to connect with/relate to one another the way we were designed to and long to? "Nothing was missing except me. I was elsewhere" (Pg 87).

Like Val, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Alphabet. Communication is such a fine art. I can relate to being and being on the receiving end of, the nervous type (take charge of the conversation), the reticent (who answer in monosyllables) or the meticulous (where natural exchange/banter is stilted for precision)...

The book left me pensive, and longing all the more for the new creation, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4)

"I'll be off now..."

Jean-Dominique Bauby

I found this book most affecting on several fronts. The writing painted very clear pictures of the author's personal situation, his feelings frustrations, discomforts and the complete loss of control of any part of his day and his dependance on the varying levels of skill and understanding of his carers and the committment of his therapists. Such a lot depended on the carer's thoughtfulness. Just turning off the television neither too soon nor too late made a difference to the quality of the day. It's an old joke ,waking up the patient to give him some sleeping pills, but for various reasons, does happen.

He was obviously a talented and successful journalist so I suppose used to getting to the heart of a story with clarity, but I found the use of language and rhythm of the writng quite poetic in its meaning and flow. Each word had to earn its keep. One is not aware that it is a translation.

Val and Pella mentioned the chapter on the alphabet, which turned these functionaries from everyday tools to friends with characters, which to Jean-Do they were. It stood out for me too. I could imagine also the patients in the rehabilitaion room, like a row of onions waving their various limbs who had such a great interest in the possibility of a fire. Jean-Dominique was made painfully aware of his plight by the reaction and glances of others but when he saw himself in a mirror he saw that he looked horrible but also had fear in his eyes which said such a lot.

It is remarkable that the author managed to retain such determination to start the Locked in Syndrome Assn to still have some purpose in life and with great effort carry on his correspondance. How true it is, however, 'improved resuscitation techniques have refined and prolonged the agony' instead of simply dying

The DVD was fairly faithful to the book. I could not see why he was given a third child and Florence, the current girlfriend, was given greater prominence. I wonder if she really failed to visit. It was thoughtfully done and told the story just as sensitively. It was very much the type of French film I enjoy, and a genre that suited the subject matter totally.