I wrote this for the TLS blog as a response to the Bad Sex Awards. (Includes a brief definition of Gibbs’s Law of Reversible Similes.)
It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry. I think there are three main reasons for this. Read on…
Much as I love the question, Where do you get your ideas? I much prefer the more specific, Where do you get your books?
The ecology of bookbuying is of course a hotly contested one, and while I will fight with my wallet for the survival of bricks-and-mortar, ideally independent bookstores in the face of Amazon’s behemoth, I have been less actively staunch in my defence of secondhand bookshops, and more guilty, if guilt applies, of supporting their particular nemeses: charity shops.
I buy a lot of books from charity shops.
They’re cheap, they’re local (wherever you live, they’re local: there must be statistics on their relentless influx into high streets everywhere), they serve a – generally – good cause, and above all they are hazed about with an almost magical charm of serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find among the Fifty Shades and Karl Pilkingtons. What’s not to like? Unless you’re a secondhand bookseller. And I do feel bad about that. If I see a secondhand bookshop, I always go in, and I always buy something, but I don’t go out of my way to support them, the way I do mainstream/retail bookshops in their own particular battle.
All this to introduce a book that I could only have found in a charity or secondhand shop, because it’s not in print. Not only is it not in print in its English translation, it’s also not in print in its native French. And this a succes de scandale from the 1950s, easily rankable alongside Francoise Sagan, full of heady teenage passion and rebellion, a debut novel from a young translator and writer who killed herself before it was published. If it seems sad that it’s not available in this country other than to the chance encounter of the charity shop, it seems hugely depressing that it’s not being pored over and passed around by French teenagers. It should be their Spring Awakening.
The hero of I Will Not Serve is 17-year-old Sylvie, who at the start of the novel has been kicked out of the convent where she is being schooled, for writing impassioned love letters to one of the nun/teachers, Julienne. I haven’t read any Colette, I’m afraid, so I’m not sure how this sits alongside the Claudine books in terms of lesbian school fantasies (see also Brigid Brophy’s hilarious The Finishing Touch), but really there is very little that is titillating here, and nothing at all that is salacious. Continue reading
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”
I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.
What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.
The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading
Last month the estimable Hesperus Press ran a competition to find an undiscovered classic, asking entrants to write a short introduction to a book unwarrantedly out-of-print. The winner was Michael Wynne, who suggested The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Congratulations to him, and to her. My entry was a pitch for Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, first published by Secker & Warburg, 1962, and since seen in editions from Corgi, 1965, and Cardinal, 1990. I wrote about my initial discovery of Brophy’s books in a previous post here, but here, for posterity, is my pitch for Flesh. I heartily recommend it to all, especially publishers of neglected classics, who are more than welcome to approach me for use of the following…
Both my editions of Brigid Brophy’s short novel Flesh have a woman on their cover, both naked, seemingly, but sultry and melancholy, undeniably. On 1990’s Cardinal edition – its last published appearance – she is Bill Brandt’s 1955 photograph Nude, which has also graced the covers of novels by Alexander Theroux and Don DeLillo. (The other woman, on the 1965 Corgi paperback, popped up again, bizarrely enough, on Creation Records’ seminal 1988 sampler LP Doing it for the Kids.)
Both images do the book a disservice. The flesh of the title, after all, isn’t simply a euphemism for sex, though sex features strongly in it; it is also a reference to that other appetite that religion treats as a sin, though Brophy doesn’t: gluttony. By the end of the book’s narrative, gauche, nervy Marcus has become, in the words of his wife Nancy, and thanks (to her surprise as much as his) to her excellent cooking, “disgustingly fat,” to which he chucklingly, approvingly replies, referring back to their art gallery visits, “I’ve become a Reubens woman.”
Flesh was first published in 1962, which makes it an early and definitive refutation of Larkin’s claim that sexual intercourse began the following year. Continue reading
My May reading was in part dominated by averagely interesting books, not chosen by me and read at speed, that other people seemed to have rated higher than I. David Park’s novel The Light of Amsterdam, is certainly well-written and full of fine features but, in retrospect, disappointingly homogenised in its view of life, and unlikely to be remembered fondly; and Alex Wheatle’s Brenton Brown, again fine on paper, in its various attributes, but in the head – where books truly exist – lacking the spark to turn honest decent credible characters into living, breathing getting-under-the-skin ones. What most sticks with me, these weeks after reading it, is the bewildering range of speech tags Wheatle uses (“argued”, “sighed”, “insisted” and the like) when, as I’ve blogged before, the consensus, among Creative Writing teachers at least, is that one should simply use “said”. Is it snobbish, or reactionary, of me to want to put a wiggly line next to most of these? Both books read for Fiction Uncovered.
No one asked me to read anything for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but I did anyway: Judith Hermann’s Alice, which basks in page after page of beautiful, expertly translated prose, is in the end rather defeated by its structure: five chapters, in each of which the titular Alice visits someone who is dying, and who then dies. Hermann is perceptive and connective about loss, and about the bloom of life that surrounds it, but the sheer doggedness of death’s reappearance (“Hello! It’s me!”) becomes self-defeating. It’s a bit like that thing about Agatha Christie mysteries: lovely as she, you really don’t want to invite Miss Marple to stay at your country house. She is a bad penny. The ability ofAlice (the book, or the character) to sublimate grief into art is, in the end, almost psychotic.
Dream of DingVillage by Yan Lianke I didn’t get into enough to let it get into me. It certainly opened my eyes to the harsh realities of life in China as imposed blood-harvesting spread Aids among the rural poor, but there was nothing in the novel, I felt, that I couldn’t have got from a well-written piece of reportage.
When I heard that the admirable Hesperus Press were holding a competition inviting people to write introductions to out-of-print classics, one book popped immediately into my mind: Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy. I didn’t end up writing it on that; I wrote it on another of her novels, Flesh, but we’ll come to that in another post. The reasons why Hackenfeller’s Ape suggested itself are twofold.
Firstly, and most properly, because it’s a book not many people have read, in my experience. She’s one of those writers I don’t expect to find when casing someone else’s bookshelves, no matter how well stocked, and would instinctively offer as a suggestion to someone who knows and likes, for instance, the somewhat similarly poised prose style of Muriel Spark.
The second reason is harder to couch in the objective critical terms you might – might – think people expect in an introduction to an out-of-print classic, and it’s to do with the manner of the book’s coming into my life. Continue reading