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, March 30, 2010

Rosamund Lehmann

Having taken quite a while to get into the flow of this book, I was surprised to find that I was keen to follow the story to the end. Parts of it were quite trying; those of Sybil's conversations with Rebecca. She was the main character and so had to be described in detail, but I found that making so much of it by way of her own conversations with a ten year old, it became rather tiresome and unrealististic. It certainly made her very self-obsessed and, (Rebecca notes), boastful. As the story unfolds, she is shown to be autocratic and manipulative.Tilly says that in her first marriage, whatever she said was right and in all her conversations, there is no room for discussion.

The was a strong nature versus nurture theme and it is difficult to say other than that both played a part. The lack of maturity shown by Sybil in the treatment of Ianthe as a baby, the strong will and self obsession is not that uncommon but can only have a lasting effect on the child's behaviour and emotional development. If the descriptions of Ianthe's treatment at the hands of her father is true, (and Sybil by her own statements only ever tells the truth), it is not surprising that Ianthe was a mess. I found the comments by the doctor about Cherry's future mental state rather unconvincing, even though she was abandoned as a baby also, which bodes ill. Sybil manages not to make a mess of Maisie and Malcolm, so may have been good for her too.

Harry has the last laugh. Though suffering from the D.T.'s, he manages at the end to outwit Sybil. He has survived by resorting to alcohol and remaining an observer and finally escaped by dying. Rebecca, though. Are we to feel that this strong personality will haunt and manipulate her now?

Monday, March 29, 2010


I am very happy to read your poems and comments on them, however, I have never had confidence in commenting myself, being all too conscious that I am probably missing the point or missing out the intended level of meaning...often rather obscure. Very willing to learn here, though.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The world's wife

Hat-tip to Sue, who recommended the following poem:

Little Red-Cap

At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
into playing fields, the factory, allotments
kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men,
the silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan,
till you came at last to the edge of the woods.
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf.

He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw,
red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
he had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me,
sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink,

my first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry.
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods,
away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake,
my stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes

but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night,
breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem.
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
and went in search of a living bird – white dove –

which flew, straight, from my hands to his hope mouth.
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said,
licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books.
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head,
warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood.

But then I was young – and it took ten years
in the woods to tell that a mushroom
stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out,
season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe

to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
to see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
the glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones.
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up.
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.

Carol Ann Duffy 1999

I know Val and I have the collection from which this comes, "The World's Wife", but do any of the rest of you know it? Delighted to lend you the (slim) volume if not - is enormous fun, and very stimulating (and very slim). Helen had asked for poems, and I wondered if you'd fancy discussing this, or indeed other poems from the book. Thoughts on this suggestion, please! I think this volume was also one of Mari Strachan's favourite three ever, or something - am I right there, Val?

Personally, I really enjoy the above poem and the book generally. I find Duffy constantly going in unexpected directions and catching me out. Which is good. I hardly know where to start with the poem - it's so rich - but I did read some very interesting stuff about fairy tales a while back. The author said that fairy tales are naturally subversive (and disturbing to parents) because they articulate many children's fears and give them a space to explore those taboo fears (death, bad parenting etc), reassured by their parents' tacit acceptance of their right to explore (because the parents are reading the story to them). Bowdlerized fairy tales where the stepmother isn't evil, people/animals aren't eaten etc, might feel safer to parents, but doesn't have the same therepeutic value for children. Another psychotherapist I read explained that, much as we don't like it, children DO have to process things like the Oedipal complex, and trying to pretend that they don't have taboo feelings to come to terms with is ultimately counter-productive. Which I suppose is validated by the poem: the girl goes and does the dangerous things and comes out the other side wiser and more independent! But what do you think of it?

We could look at "The World's wife" after the Morrison and then the Munro. I know that's a way ahead, so no pressure at all, just so we know where we are and can pick and choose which ones suit us best if we can't each manage them all.

Leap before you look

In response to Helen's gratifying request for poetry, how about this?

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep.,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

WH Auden.

What do you think this is about? John thought of it when we'd eventually decided to try for a third child, finding it relevant in parts. But there's clearly a lot (more) in here, and I'd be fascinated to hear what strikes others about it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Next books

Hi... just to confirm that the next book will be "And when did you last see your father?" by Blake Morrison. There's also a film, which I'm going to watch and compare!

After that, my sister has recommended Alice Munro and I thought that might be worth trying. She writes mostly short stories, so it'd be a genre shift for us. The Queen, via Alan Bennett, described reading a Munro, "which she greatly enjoyed. Even better, it turned out there were many more where that came from and which Ms Munro readily supplied... And all, though she did not say this, in paperback and so handbag sized." Let's try "Open Secrets", shall we? Looked like the short stories are somewhat linked, so that may help those of us who prefer novels to short stories.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Ballad and source

Sue - so sorry about Mr Golightly. Thank you for saving us from reading it, though! Your labour was not entirely in vain...

As to Lehmann... Yes, I agree with most of what Sue said. And it's a long time since I've read such an opaque book. I liked that - its depth and ambiguity - but it does mean I have lots of questions for you all!

1. Title. So "the source" is the life force. OK. But what does the title mean? Sibyl seems a bit obsessed with people's source being choked and is always trying to unblock it (even sending dodgy men to corrupt her innocent daughter because she's a bit cold for her taste? Hello?) Sibyl seems over-endowed with life force and under-provided with channels for it, as Sue said. Is the novel in one sense a battle between 2 different approaches (restrained v. expressive?)

2. Harry. Loved the line: "She is the executive partner, I am aware of that." Sue's nailed the question: when did the drinking start? Was it his appeal to her, or caused by marriage to her?! I found him rather moving, and especially his closely-guarded privacy from Sibyl - his friendship with Tanya, and the glorious: "Harry had left various legacies and bequests which had come to her as a surprise." And we aren't told either - his privacy remains intact. Fits with the assessment of Harry's appeal to Sibyl: "There's one person, one alone, it doesn't work with, and that's Harry", ie he doesn't reflect Sibyl back to herself. Why? And why on earth did he marry her?

3. Did anyone like Sibyl? I found myself unable to rejoice in even her supposed good points. She reminded me of a spider (the image is used, I think), twitching everyone of her acquaintance into madness, deceit and estrangement. For instance, even in its mildest form - "My mother was prudent and incorruptible, but she too was drawn, irresistibly drawn" (into forbidden involvement and various deceptions). And Sibyl utterly unaware of her on toxicity. And when the narrator says: "I did not realise then what poisons from what far back brews went on corroding her, but not a drop fell on these children. That was her grandeur." - are we really supposed to agree that this is possible? That she was able to keep those 3 - only those 3! - from harm but had a good go at ruining everyone else? And are we really supposed to think that her earlier experiences were responsible for her later behaviour? And what poisons, anyway? Is this a reference to all these dour, controlling men who marry Sibyl/Ianthe/Rebecca's mother and forbid contact with Sibyl and who - apparently - inflict such damage on their wives that the only solution is to start the most drastic counter-measures?

4. What did Flora Mackenzie advise Robert Thomson to do about Ianthe? Have her certified?

5. Do you think this would work as a film? I only ask because I didn't feel Sibyl's supposed hypnotic charm, and I wonder if that might be easier to convey on film.

6. What's happening with the dream at the end?

Sorry if these questions sound nit-picking. Am just trying to process it. I found the book very absorbing and loved the observations and language. The interview style didn't bother me as such, but the child's limited perspective did sometimes. I found it enormously therepeutic when they regroup with Gil and Tanya and we FINALLY hear Sibyl and Harry discussed in detail by adults who have a coherent and experienced and surprisingly balanced view of them. And I am delighted to have enjoyed yet another book which I'd actively have avoided!