October reading: Eaves, Stead, Comyns, Sudjic, Stanley, The Second Shelf

October began with finishing Will Eaves’s Murmur, his balletic novel-in-prose based on the tragic life and surreal afterlife of Alan Turing. Why novel in prose? Well, because half the time the wonder of it is that it is written in prose at all. It feels like it’s been downshifted into words on the page from some higher dimension. It starts and finishes with putative journal entries from a Turing avatar (Pryor) suffering the chemical castration that drove the scientist to suicide, with, in the middle, a longer run of letters mixed, improbably, with dream narratives. It is at once as weird as that sounds, and absolutely plain and straightforward.

I have long had a problem with novelisations of real people’s lives. It feels like the biographers have done all the hard work: primed the canvas, blocked in the background, worked up the figures, and all that remains for the lazy novelist to do is to dot in a few highlights, idiosyncratic and humane, to ‘bring it to life’. Rather as a mortuary assistant might make up the face of a corpse, you might think.

This book is nothing like that. For a start Eaves has clearly worked incredibly hard on it, thinking through the implications of artificial intelligence on consciousness as assiduously as any critical biographer, quite apart from the nasty effects of the drugs on Turing’s body and mind. And the ‘novelistic’ touches are anything but perfunctory. The journals entries are quite compelling enough, in their view of closeted gay life in 1940s England, and the way it shattered class boundaries, and how it was treated by the establishment. But it is the dreams and letters that take the book definitively out of the realm of the mundanely novelistic.

They move backwards and forwards through aspects of Pryor’s life, from gorgeous, creepy remembered childhood to an imagined future that even goes so far as to include parenthood as part of a heterosexual couple. If this is disorienting, then it is also tangentially illuminating. Is it too much to say that it reads like alternate quantum lives peeling off the central narrative and floating wispily away? Well, yes it is too much, if only because I’m now well outside the limits of my scientific understanding, unlike Eaves’s. If you’ve read his columns in the Brixton Review of Books, or his interviews (like this one, or this one, in which he navigates the TLS 20 questions with greater dexterity than anyone before or since, especially the last 10) then you’ll know he is as at once forbiddingly intelligent and engagingly – mercifully – sympathetic.

It’s a quite brilliant book. I need to read it again. More slowly.

(Aside: it’s odd, isn’t it [no it’s not] that ‘sympathetic’ has turned into such an ambiguous, two-way road of a word. Its original meaning is of someone who is characterised by sympathy, i.e. who is able to reach out and understand the feelings of others, usually in a benign, benevolent way. But it has also come to mean, more simply, nice, attracting the liking of others. It’s almost as if – gasp – we tend to like people who are kind and understanding, and then tend to attribute the fact of that liking to us, rather than them.)

Last month I also read Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, a first of hers for me. Her name is one of those that bounces around a little on Twitter, and turns up on the Backlisted podcast. The Vet’s Daughter is an odd, short novel, that trips between a down-at-heel Edwardian realism and glum Gothic fantasy. I didn’t really enjoy it. There is a horrid bullying father, a dying then dead mother, and a bright daughter who can’t escape the awfulness of her life except, occasionally, by spontaneously levitating into the air. Only, of course, even that offers no escape. It is all very depressing. It is also all rather desultory.

A book that did so much more for me was the long, big, wonderful For Love Alone by Christina Stead, another woman writer in the permanent state of being ‘rediscovered’.(Aside on ‘rediscovery’: It will be interesting to see what happens over the next 10/15 years to Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch. These are two writers who, though dead over 10 and nearly 20 years respectively, are still very much with us, both fully in print, both enjoying or about to enjoy their centenary. If the narrative of C20th female writers over the past couple of decades has been that of activism and un-forgetting, then these might be thought of as test cases for the current state of play. Will Murdoch and Spark need rescuing, and rediscovering, in our lifetimes, or has the hard work of Virago, #readwomen and others meant that they are safe in the canon? (Of course, no one’s safe in the long game, but I’m sure you know what I mean.))

Stead’s best known novel is The Man Who Loved Children, but the book of hers that I picked up was For Love Alone – in its Virago Modern Classics edition, in Eastbourne’s wonderful second-hand bookshop Camilla’s. Again, it’s the first of hers that I’ve read. It’s a powerful, often beguiling novel, that is at all points entirely solid, and occasionally stolid. But its high points are wondrous indeed: the lightning flash of a young woman’s consciousness; the sudden subsidence of a social-realist milieu or scene into deep, subterranean psychological insight; Stead’s ability to hop off a narrative train she’s been riding for hundreds of pages to welcome a new character, who joins the hero centre stage with only a hundred pages more to go.

The story starts out in Australia, with a young girl, Theresa Hawkins, itching to get out of her male-dominated family and into some kind of intellectual life, while side-stepping  the obvious trap of teacher-spinster-dom. Education and sexual freedom are her twin goals, though her rambunctiousness doesn’t preclude chasteness. She is so committed to the idea of passionate love with a perfect, equal man, that she doesn’t want to risk getting it wrong.

She eventually falls – well, not quite in love, but rather under the spell of Jonathan Crow, a self-proclaimed local intellectual, who spins Theresa along before heading off to England on a scholarship. Theresa spends three years saving up to follow him, and by the time she arrives – and we are three-fifths of the way through this 500pp book – he has moved on from her, though not definitively; he’ll still keep her tagging along.

At times it’s almost an exhausting book. I was reminded of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, with its on-off relationship between Marianne and Connell. But Connell is, it turns out, a dozen times better a man that Jonathan. (Jonathan, in effect, starts out as Connell, and ends up as that appalling Scandinavian photographer.) And, for all the uncertainty she lives through, at least Marianne is getting laid fairly regularly. Stead’s book shows us the terrible confusion and aridity of many (most?) sexual lives before the pill and the 1960s.

Theresa is obsessed by sex, but also confused by it. When she does finally find a man who is ready to treat her properly, she simply doesn’t know how to react. There’s a wonderful scene when her new lover (I’ll leave him nameless) kisses her for the first time – and it’s the first time Theresa, now in her twenties, has been kissed at all:

“When did you find out you loved me?” he asked her pressingly.

“I don’t know, I suppose I always did, from the first day,” she said, puzzling to herself. “But I didn’t know it.”

“No, but as I talked, it gradually unfolded, as I created a world for you–eh?”

She laughed. “Oh, you think you spun the world out of yourself like a caterpillar?”

“A world for you and me,” he said, coming close and beginning to kiss her hands, and then tenderly and continually, her face, hair and neck, so that she thought of the modern pictures of heads, covered with eyes or else with mouths. She was covered with mouths.”

What a beautiful line: she was covered with mouths, at once honestly, genuinely surreal, and true to the distracted, wondering thoughts of a woman experiencing something utterly new. (But, see: even this ideal lover is a bit of a self-regarding dork, and see: she knows it. It’s that kind of book.) In fact, it’s a great novel. Written in 1945.

I also read Olivia Sudjic’s Exposure, a short book-length essay published by Peninsula Press. I’d been underwhelmed by their first publication, Mixed-Race Superman, but this is much better. It starts off with an account of Sudjic’s powerful sense of personal anxiety, only made worse by the publication of her first novel (Sympathy, which I’ve not read), but then brings in the writings of a cluster of (mostly) contemporary writers: Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, Sheila Heti, Olivia Laing, Chris Kraus and Clarice Lispector – her “talismans” as she calls them. She pulls them around herself as she flounders, adrift on a writing residency that risks plunging her into solitary despair.

Sudjic makes good use of those writers, holding them up like so many hand-mirrors to show us particular aspects of her experience. Or perhaps it’s a useful essay: it shows how we can use those writers to particular ends. Certainly, nothing in Sudjic’s own experience quite matches what those six have come up with… but then that list includes some of the most fearless, alchemical writers in our culture just at the moment.

The book certainly does enough – to engage, to contextualise – but then I suppose an essay can do more. It can do more in terms of presentation (eg Sophie Collins’s part-essay, part-poem sequence Who is Mary Sue?). It can do more in, well, exposure (eg Sophie Collins’s essay small white monkeys). On the one hand, it’s enough, surely, to simply write about these writers, engage with them. Or do we need writers (women writers?) to join them out there on the ice floes, exposing themselves to exposure? It feels like I wanted Sudjic to expose her more in her book than she did, and that feels wrong.

Another short book, and a totally different one: Sleevenotes by Bob Stanley (Pomona), the first, I think, of a series of books by musicians writing about the “creation, meaning or mood” of some of their own songs. But, if you’re a Saint Etienne fan (as I am), be warned!

Though Stanley is an excellent writer (see his history of Modern Pop: Yeah Yeah Yeah) he actually gives very little detail about the making of the Saint Etienne tracks he uses as chapter titles. Instead, though he claims in the introduction that it’s “unlikely” he’ll ever write a memoir, this is exactly what this is.

But it’s a music fan’s memoir, rather than a musician’s… not this will surprise anyone who knows anything of Stanley. His knowledge of music is compendious (see Yeah Yeah Yeah again), but he is self-effacing to the point of near-inconsequence. I bought the book at a recent Saint Etienne gig to celebrate 20 years since the release of Good Humor, my absolute favourite of their albums, and it was the first time I’d ever seen them live. I’d been worried they wouldn’t live up to the pleasure they give me on speakers or headphones. In part they didn’t. The sound wasn’t great. Sarah Cracknell is still a fun frontwoman – are we really doing this? well, I suppose I’d better wear a feather boathen– rather than a natural one. And in fact it was the session musicians – especially the brilliant rhythm section, rather than Stanley and Wiggs, who brought the album to life on stage. Half the time, I couldn’t work out what Wiggs and, especially, Stanley were doing.

But back to the book. It’s short, and charming, and apart from a chapter on the recording on Good Humor in the Tambourine studios of Tore Johansson, is mostly about Stanley’s own life in music-listening and journalism. Lots of lovely stuff about south London suburbs and the like. Not just Croydon’s Beano’s record shop, but Terry and June, and chapters that start with lines like “My first job was as a quantity surveyor in Beckenham.” A warts-and-all diary of the ‘tienne’s antics on tour would only have disappointed me. This is what every true Saint Etienne fan wants.

The last thing I want to mention from last month isn’t a book, but a journal: issue one of The Second Shelf, which describes itself on the outside as a Quarterly of Rare Books and Words by Women, and on the inside as “part literary quarterly, part rare books catalogue”. It’s published and edited by A.N. Devers as part of her Second Shelf rare books business, specialising in women’s writing, and it’s a beautiful thing, with the kinds of high-quality images of gorgeous books that you’d mostly expect in expensive magazines or, occasionally, on Twitter.

The pictures of the books (and other things) have prices next to them. Some of the prices are very high.

A first edition of Barbara Comyn’s The Vet’s Daughter is there, with Alice levitating, for £200. Christina Stead is there, with a first edition of The Salzburg Tales, for £500. Mary Butts is there (hurrah). Patricia Highsmith is there. Sylvia Plath’s plaid skirt is there. It’s a beautifully produced item (the quarterly: I make no comment on the skirt) and you have to wish Devers well, but reading it did make me feel like a schoolchild pressing their nose up against the toyshop window. I’m happy enough with my scruffy Virago editions for the moment.

(Though I did buy a first edition inscribed copy of Brigid Brophy’s mad Freudian masterpiece Black Ship to Hell. That cost me £50, I think. I hope Devers does Brophy one of these days…)

All books bought by me this month, first or secondhand, except Murmur, which was sent as a review copy by CB Editions. 

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3 comments

  1. JacquiWine

    Interesting to hear about your experience with The Vet’s Daughter as it’s a book I’ve tried to read but failed to get anywhere with on a couple of occasions. I just found it too left-field/odd for my tastes (desultory is a very good way of describing it). Much more successful for me was Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, a lightly fictionalised riff on Comyns’ first marriage. I really warmed to the narrator’s unassuming, conversational tone of voice.

  2. Paul Schloss

    Poor Barbara! I endorse Jacqui’s recommendation: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a surprising read: poverty, we find, can be fun. Sisters by a River is also interesting. To quote myself: it shows how a “family’s decay freed up the children, who enjoyed happy times in a large house with extensive gardens.” That said there is something about the style of her books – maybe a bit twee, a tad arch, somewhat casual – that one just has to accept…

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