Remembering: Lynn Barber’s An Education

Barber, Lynn. An Education. Penguin, 2009.

I thought I had posted about this book when I first read it a few years ago. I was mistaken. Some of you may have seen the film of the same name starring Carey Mulligan, scripted by Nick Hornby, and directed by Lone Scherfig. The source for that film was one section of the book which had its beginnings as a short piece for Granta in 2003. As an aside, I might comment again on how well short pieces as opposed to novels adapt well to full length movies. I still think John Huston’s 1987 movie of The Dead starring his daughter Angelica is one of the most satisfying adaptations I’ve seen. But to return to An Education.

 “An Education” is just one piece in the whole collection of nine essays that together comprise a memoir focussing on highlights of Barber’s life from her childhood to the death of her husband David in 2003. Barber reveals herself as a person able to look at herself in the mirror and be honest about herself, even admitting  at the very beginning that her “memory is not to be trusted” (6). Such candour is refreshing.

Perhaps for most people, the period of her relationship with Simon Goldman (not his real name) may well be the most fascinating because it certainly wasn’t usual for “a conventional Twickenham schoolgirl” to run “around London nightclubs with a conman” (2). I suspect it still isn’t a very common occurrence. Barber’s summation of the effect that relationship had on her is succinct. Simon Goldman taught her “that other people—even when you think you know them well are ultimately unknowable.” While admitting that such knowledge made her a good interviewer, it also made her “too wary, too cautious, too ungiving . . . . and damaged” (55-56).

Barber survived her experience with the married conman, went to Oxford, married David Maurice Cloudesley Cardiff, worked for Penthouse, had two daughters and went on to become an award-winning journalist. She is still working.

What I found most interesting about this book was Barber’s descriptions of her early life, of England in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. How her memories of the copy-typing room at the Prudential Insurance office, High Holborn” (70) resonated with my own memories of a similar place also in Holborn but a few years later. I suppose copy-typists have been replaced by data entry clerks, but I’m sure there are still young people who dread being “swallowed [by mind-numbingly boring jobs]. . . and never seen again” (70).

Barber’s mother taught elocution, and Barber includes many of the tongue twisting exercises she and her mother’s students had to master. Talking well was indeed something highly cherished in fifties Britain. My own school demanded two years of weekly elocution lessons with the result that I can still recite

To sit in solemn silence                                                                                                                                    In a dull dark dock                                                                                                                          Awaiting the sensation                                                                                                                        Of a short sharp shock                                                                                                                            Of a cheap and chippy chopper                                                                                                              On a big black block

with a certain verve; the ragged rascals can still run round the ragged rocks while Peter Piper picks his peck of pickled pepper, and she [who was she?] sells her sea shells on the sea shore. These lessons ended when the speech teacher emigrated to Australia and was replaced by a drama teacher. As Barber points out, for a certain segment of English society when she and I were growing up, the risk of being thought “Common” was one to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, one was expected to avoid drawing attention to oneself and to take every step possible to avoid one’s accent revealing/betraying one’s origins.

Barber’s roots are in that anxiously aspirational background, a milieu that placed “a strong emphasis on caution, isolationism, ‘not interfering,’ thrift, prudery, moral condemnation and deep fear of the unknown which included everything from foreigners to unfamiliar vegetables” (58). Some things have changed. A walk down the aisle of any English supermarket will reveal that the English are becoming familiar with a much larger range of vegetables than the cabbage and potatoes that provided the staple for months on end in the fifties. Some things don’t change, however. Love and loss are still felt as strongly as in the past, and Barber’s essay dealing with her husband’s leukaemia is heart-rending. What also doesn’t change, I suspect, is the effect of our youth on how we view the world. Barber’s background and her relationship with Simon Goldman could have deprived her of the opportunities she actually was able to enjoy. It didn’t,  but as she reiterates at the very end of An Education, it did leave her “a deep unbeliever in the unknowability of other people” (183).

Her tone suggests that she rather regrets that. If so, I’m not sure that she should. Surely, it’s when one realises the unknowability of others that one has to begin the task of knowing oneself, and An Education certainly reveals a woman who knows herself,

 

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The Ambiguity of Grey: David R Gillham’s City of Women

Gillham, David, R. City of Women, Putnams, 2012

Berlin 1943 is a city of women. The majority of the men are involved in the war in some capacity. Sigrid’s Schröder’s bank employee husband is at the Eastern Front while Sigrid works in the Patent Office. There are food shortages and bombing raids. Berliners endure the privations and wonder what they can actually believe. The news from Stalingrad is disconcerting. Neighbour distrusts neighbour. Perhaps the only escape is a couple of hours or so in the cinema. Who knows what release is offered in the darkness?

Gillham’s City of Women is set against this background. From its opening chapter, the novel held me in the way a crime thriller holds the reader. I needed to know what happened next, how everything would turn out. However, this novel far transcends genre fiction. It has its roots in Gilmore’s fascination with a lost Berlin “Inaccessible and forgotten” (387-88) and his discovery that “through fiction . . . [he could] resurrect the entire city, and the people in it” (388).

In some ways, the novel did feel to me something akin to an elegy for the lost architecture of a city way older than the National Socialist Party but parts of which disappeared for good or are buried because of that party. While the characters and events Gillham creates could probably have been set in any German city in 1943, the Berlin he creates is an integral part of the story. His evocation of the city is superb: one feels the cold, smells the dust from the fallen bombed buildings, endures the crush on the tram, and out of the corner of one’s eye sees the Berliners moving nervously through their war damaged city, not meeting each other’s eyes, wondering at the wounded soldiers—could things really be going well—appearing unconcerned and co-operative if stopped by the police, hiding their secrets. In amongst them all are the “U-boats” (107) those without the right papers, dissidents, hidden Jews.

At times, the mood of the novel reminded me rather of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, and I was unsurprised to learn that Gillham’s initial training was in screenwriting. Further, it’s interesting to me at least that when I visualized the events of The City of Women I saw little colour. Berlin and its people as evoked by Gillham were a kaleidoscope of greys, like a black and white movie. The plot, of course, is more developed than that of Greene’s novella, which emerged as a result of his work with Carol Reed on the film. So, too, are the characters. What the two share is the sense of moral ambiguity and shifting loyalties; their endings, too, are thematically satisfying, but in terms of suggesting what might come next, they don’t. Gillham gives us no epilogue, no jump forward in time. The reader is left in the same position as Sigrid. She doesn’t know what will happen next; she knows only that she has made a commitment.

Sigrid is called upon to make decisions, to commit to something more than mere survival, and it is these ethical questions that hold the reader’s attention and lie at the heart of the novel: what will Sigrid do, and why does she do it? What would our answer be to these questions? How do we define love, trust, and betrayal? Gillham doesn’t preach. He doesn’t present us with a didactic conclusion. Rather, he shows us the options. Do we choose action or inertia? Honour or self-interest? How do we tell the difference?

According to an interview Gillham gave to Ashleigh Andrews Rich of The Washington Independent Review of Books in January 2013, http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/author-qa-with-david-r-gillham he was working on another novel. I can find no mention of it on Gillham’s own website http://davidrgillham.com, which I accessed today, but I hope it comes out soon.

 

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Pursuing Elsewhere: Ali Smith’s Public Library

Smith, Ali. Public Library and Other Stories. Hamish Hamilton, 2015.

If you are a reader, and I expect you are given that you’re reading this blog, then you are probably intimately acquainted with your local public library. That is to say if you still have one. For many reasons, the public library is under threat in many jurisdictions world-wide. The situation is far worse than I had imagined. In preparation for writing this post, I did a little internet overview of such search terms as “disappearing libraries,” “UK libraries closing,” and “disappearing libraries in Canada.” Try the exercise for yourself. The threads you will follow may well depress you. Here we are in what is commonly referred to as the information age, but in many ways access to that information and the ability to assess the value of that information is actually being curtailed.

I am not alone, of course, in being concerned about the situation, and Ali Smith’s 2015 book Public Library is one response to the problem. It begins with a “true story” (1) in which Smith recounts how she and her editor entered “a building with the word LIBRARY above its doors . . . that looked like a fancy shop” (1). They discovered on enquiry that they were not in a library but a hotel attached to a private club. Follow this link https://www.booking.com/hotel/gb/library.en-gb.html?aid=356994;label=gog235jc-hotel-XX-gb-library-unspec-ca-com-L%3Aen-O%3AosSx-B%3Asafari-N%3AXX-S%3Abo-U%3AXX-H%3As;sid=bb31632db395ef152de64246c0f464b2;dist=0&sb_price_type=total&type=total&#availability and you will discover more.

Public Library is more than a collection of fiction; it is also a collection of reminiscences from other writers about public libraries. These are interspersed among the fiction and differentiated from them by the use of italics. But in many ways, these memories become self-contained stories in themselves: random, individual, and yet as thematically connected as the fiction with which they co-exist. Once again, Smith draws attention to her interest in the challenges offered by any narrative to our expectations of and definition of truth in fiction. Her work is allusive and at times elusive. To relate more closely with the story “The Poet” (59-73), for example, I had to look up Olive Fraser, a poet with whom I was unfamiliar.

The stories depend heavily on the first person, their narrators sometimes male and sometimes female. They deal with memory and change, life and death. As I have come to expect of Smith, she revels in transition, transgression, transcendence. One of the stories is even titled “The Art of Elsewhere” (127-132).

Smith’s Public Library is neither strident nor unsubtle in its wit and critique. Rather, it boldly defends that opportunity to be “elsewhere” offered free by the public library to anyone with a library card. The library offers a haven, an escape, a road to adventure and discovery. Perhaps this is why some of the people who fund them are so reluctant to keep doing so.

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Do Not Pass Go: John Mortimer’s Quite Honestly


Mortimer, John. Quite Honestly. Penguin, 2006.

This is another short book that you might be tempted to dismiss as somewhat lightweight. It is lighthearted, another thing entirely. If you like John Mortimer’s fiction, you will enjoy Quite Honestly. Bishop’s daughter Lucinda Purefoy wants to do good so becomes a preceptor with Social Carers, Reformers and Preceptors (SCRAP). Her first client is burglar Terry Keegan whom she meets outside Wormwood Scrubs on the day of his release from that venerable institution. Terry and Lucinda’s relationship is highly complicated, but the effects they have on each other are quite profound. To say any more would give away too much of the plot, which unfolds through alternating first person narratives told by Lucy and Terry.

While Quite Honestly is a highly entertaining book, it offers more than simple situation comedy. The differing perspectives of Lucy and Terry reveal something of the rifts that remain within British society. Lucy and Terry come from apparently different worlds that see each other but have little understanding of each other. Mortimer places contemporary British society under a Horatian microscope. His satire is not unkind, but it is satire, and the foibles and follies of his characters bring them at times close to stereotypical caricature, but exaggeration is what one expects of satire. Mortimer’s exaggeration is gentle; one senses he has no contempt for his characters’ weaknesses only a wry sympathy.

Mortimer’s writing depends on a subtle wit and a dramatic sensibility. He was, after all, both a dramatist and a novelist. If you think about it, his fiction is scenic, often dependent upon dialogue or interior monologue—the fictive parallel to drama’s soliloquy and aside. I’m tempted at times to assert that in some ways Mortimer’s sensibility is more eighteenth than twentieth and twenty-first century, his work at times recalling the mood of Goldsmith or Sheridan.

I also appreciate Mortimer’s gentle irony in his use of language. Consider Lucinda’s name, for example. Lucy or light, and Purefoy, pure faith. Lucy isn’t necessarily enlightened or completely honest. Then, too, her name recalls that other character who was the brightest and best of all the angels, but pride was his downfall. Maybe this is true for Lucy as well. Then there’s the ambiguity in the title: Quite can be used to suggest complete conviction as in saying that one is “quite sure” about something. But if one says one has had “quite a pleasant time,” the word suggests a certain hesitation, an inability to express wholehearted approval.

Quite Honestly is a novel of shifting perspectives, reversals, and gentle but piercing insight. The ending suggests the possibility of a traditional comic resolution but remains —dare I say it?—quite satisfactorily inconclusive.

 

 

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Not So Tame? Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl

Tyler, Anne. Vinegar Girl: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shew Retold.  Hogarth Shakespeare-Vintage. 2016.

What has always interested me most about The Taming of the Shrew is that it is a play within a play, a fact that I can’t help but think has a major effect on how we are meant to respond to the story of Katherine and Petruchio. However, that discussion must await another day.

Tyler’s novel begins with Kate, almost thirty, avid gardener, university drop-out, surrogate mother to her much younger sister, Bunny, housekeeper to her widowed father, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and although supposedly hating small children is employed in a pre-school. Professor Battista is somewhat eccentric in his ideas about family life and family management insisting that his family subsist on a diet of meat mash that is reheated every day.

Afraid he will lose his research assistant, Pyotr, because Pyotr’s visa is about expire, Professor Battista wants Kate to ensure Pyotr’s immigration status through marriage. While Kate is trying to navigate her way through this tangle, she is also faced with trying to ensure Bunny is keeping up with her schoolwork and not getting too involved with the next-door neighbour’s son Eddie Vince, who smokes “suspiciously tiny cigarettes” (48) and has already persuaded Bunny to espouse vegetarianism.

Given that we are told by the subtitle what Vinegar Girl is about, the major events of the novel are not excessively surprising. Tyler deviates from her model somewhat by including an epilogue that I found not unsatisfactory.

Is this a worthwhile book? One of my colleagues described it as “light.” It is a light book, but I would argue it is light in the way a beautifully made soufflé is light. It has substance; it leaves the reader feeling satisfied. Yes, the action of the novel verges on the farcical at times, but Tyler is control. She creates characters who even as they are somewhat eccentric are very sympathetic. We like them; well, perhaps Eddie Vince is a bit of a challenge but we forgive him. We recognize the world of a family, a family still suffering from the death of a wife and mother many years ago. We recognize loneliness, longing, and unfulfilled desires as much as we recognize the embarrassing quirks of family members.

I would argue that Tyler’s novel optimistically suggests that self-fulfillment, happiness and love are within our grasp even where we might not expect to find them.

 

 

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Not the Whole Story: More thoughts on Frances Hodgson Burnett

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. A Little Princess; Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time.

Not long ago, I reviewed Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and one of my readers responded with a comment comparing The Secret Garden with A Little Princess, which I promised I would read. Rather than possibly losing the thread of things by simply adding a response to that earlier comment, I’m going briefly to address A Little Princess in its own post. The version I found for my e-reader was published in 2010 but the publishing information other than a reference to the e-reader company and an ISBN number was absolutely minimal, so I apologise in advance for possibly insufficiently documenting my source.

A Little Princess is only the second work by Frances Hodgson Burnett I’ve read, so I’m hesitant to make any generalizations about her work. I did note certain similarities between the two works, the strongest being Burnett’s what seems to me a rather conflicted attitude towards social status. On the one hand, she creates characters such as the Sowerbys in The Secret Garden and Becky and the woman who runs the bakery in A Little Princess who are kind and good, but the people such as Mrs. Medlock the housekeeper (Garden) and Miss Minchin the headmistress (Princess) are coarse and unsympathetic. This difference would seem to suggest the possibility of a point of view critical of the middle class. However, by the end of A Little Princess the “rightful” order is restored through the actions of upper middle class characters. Burnett offers little suggestion of a possibility for social mobility. The characters in these two novels know their places.

I could argue that Burnett is simply reflecting the values of her time, and that if there is any moral critique in the works it lies in the values they encourage. Selfish children such as Mary Lennox and Colin Craven (Garden) and many of the girls in Miss Minchin’s school (Princess) learn to be kind. Snobbish, superficial adults such as Miss Minchin and Mrs. Medlock learn to see beyond surfaces. Mr. Craven learns to overcome depression and to face up to his duties as a father. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe both learn self-sufficiency and an understanding that human worth is based on deeds not looks and riches.

Moreover, it is not only in their social settings that the novels reflect their time. There are moments in the works, for example, Burnett’s use of the term “lascar” to describe Ram Dass the Indian servant (Garden), where a contemporary reader may be a little disconcerted. I have memories from childhood of the term being used if not derogatively but as somewhat dismissively of Indian door to door salesmen. I remember my mother buying a very beautiful heavy silk tablecloth from such a man. That table cloth lasted for years even though I would fiddle with its tassels. It was the sort of table cloth that went over the table merely for decorative and I suppose protective purposes: the bare wood look not entering my parents’ milieu until the early sixties. It was covered with a linen cloth when we “dined” or, more often, had formal tea parties. We usually ate in the kitchen; it was warmer. This digression, which I trust you’ll excuse, reminds me again of how societal mores change. That tablecloth was perhaps one of the last vestiges in my family of an Edwardian, even Victorian, aesthetic.

I don’t know whether my grandmother who was already in her teens when these books originally appeared ever read them, but they remain in print even though the world they portray is far more the world in which my grandmother grew up than that experienced by children today. Obviously, there is something in the ethos of the books that still touches young readers.

What I found perhaps most interesting in my response to the two books was the train of thought they elicited. I found myself thinking not only about Burnett’s books but about all those books written for children from the late nineteenth century onwards that reflect the existence of empire. The plots of the two books that I’ve read by Burnett both depend upon the existence of a colonial class. But Burnett is not alone in her use of India as a faraway place that can initiate action in England. Consider for a moment all those boarding school stories where the children’s parents are abroad, or those stories where children are thrust into a kind of independence because parents are building bridges, for example, somewhere abroad. Not only does “abroad” function as a kind of “other” an unknown but rather dangerous place, too dangerous for children anyway, it also sets the children from abroad somewhat apart, unshackled by ties of family life. I only wish I could remember more specific titles from my childhood reading. I just remember being unsurprised as a child to read about children whose parents were abroad. Of course, the reality for those children whose parents really were abroad and who were sent “home” at sometimes amazingly young ages was anything but exciting, and several of Jane Gardam’s works reflect insightfully on this situation.

The other issue I found myself wondering after considering the two Burnett novels together was to what extent did Burnett who though born in Britain lived in the States and wrote initially for an American market reflect American ambivalence towards the English class system as perceived from the other side of the Atlantic. What would I discover if I turned my attention to a detailed comparative analysis of the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Henry James? I was unsurprised to find that I’m not alone in thinking this way. Even an initial, superficial internet search linking Burnett and James sets one off down a rather interesting path, and here’s a link to the site I visited first: http://novel.dukejournals.org/content/44/2/229.abstract. You may wish to go further than I. Burnett is also often compared with the English writer E. Nesbit. It may be a matter simply of personal taste, but I prefer E. Nesbit. On the whole, I find her world view somewhat less saccharine than Burnett’s, and her magic is actually magic in the sense of fantasy such as magic carpets, a phoenix, a psammead, and so forth. Burnett’s magic is, if I dare say it, a rather puritan magic, the magic of belief in oneself. For me, while I appreciate that belief in oneself and the discipline to set oneself moral goals is of great value, I, nevertheless, do really enjoy the odd magic carpet ride.

On that note, I will stop. I had intended this post to be a short one, but it has grown; however, the sub-title of my blog is The Ramblings of a Reader. This ramble has come to an end.

 

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Ethics of Memory: Tom Segev’s Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

Segev, Tom. Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends. Trans. Ronnie Hope. Doubleday, 2010.

Excluding the acknowledgements and detailed notes, this book takes 409 pages. At times, as is often the case with biographies, the book felt like a mere listing of events. Also, at times, I found the prose a little unvaried, the sentence structure somewhat repetitive and overly journalistic. Segev is a journalist. Translation, too, can sometimes reduce the vigour of prose. That all said, however, Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends is a very worthwhile book. Simon Wiesenthal has probably become synonymous with our idea of the dedicated Nazi hunter, and by the end of Segev’s work, I found myself impressed by Wiesenthal’s dedication and determination but ambivalent about whether I would have enjoyed him as a social acquaintance.

The title of the book says much about Segev’s approach to his subject. He focuses not just on the events of Wiesenthal’s life but also upon what is believed about him, some of which, such as the encounter with the dying SS man (Chapter 13 “What Would You Have Done?”) may in fact not be true. Segev points out that Wiesenthal himself may have contributed to his own legend, for friends who survived him told Segev that Wiesenthal “wove tales out of things that happened to him or others, or that he saw in his imagination” (239).

The Wiesenthal Segev presents in this book is indeed a complex man: dedicated, but also somewhat vain, ambitious, perhaps overly sensitive, overly imaginative, utterly focused on justice. Wiesenthal’s life was punctuated by rivalries with such figures as novelist Elie Wiesel and Bruno Kreisky, the first Jewish Chancellor of Austria, who was fined for defaming Wiesenthal. Relationships with the state of Israel were not always completely harmonious, nor was his relationship with the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. Wiesenthal emerges from this book as a man haunted by the past, who was focussed on his search for justice rather than for vengeance.

Although the book focuses on Wiesenthal’s life, I think what remained with me most after I’d finished it was not so much particular events or even the idiosyncrasies of its main subject but discovering I share with Segev the sense of how with the passing of time within both the Jewish diaspora and the gentile world our memories and attitudes towards the Shoa have shifted. There was for a time post the Nuremberg trials what I might call a not quite silence on the subject of the Holocaust. Survivors tended towards silence not even telling their children much about the past. Segev reminds us of the tensions that underlay the relationship between those who survived the Nazis and those who living as they had been under the British Mandate in Palestine or in North America were not immediately affected by the Nazi program. He tells us, “Many felt that they had survived at the expense of their relatives and blamed themselves for not having done enough to rescue them,” and that “many people tended to think that those who survived the camps had done so at the expense of their less-fortunate fellow prisoners, and labeled them as rogues and scoundrels” (400). No wonder survivors remained silent. However, the capture, trial, and execution of Eichmann followed not many years later by the Six-Day war fired the post-war just-coming-to-young-adulthood generation with a desire to know more, and a desire to ensure that such inhumanity never occurred again.

However, we are still struggling with questions of collective responsibility for past actions and how to right the wrongs perpetrated by our forebears. To what extent should we be ashamed of or bear the guilt for the actions of our parents or grandparents? Is it possible to forgive? These are extremely challenging questions with which we continue to struggle not only in relationship with the Holocaust. 

I agree with Segev that the Holocaust has now become “a universal synonym for evil” (10), and I’m somewhat concerned that seeing the Holocaust as a metaphor for all inhumane acts rather than  a remembered, specific, shared experience may well reduce our sense of its actual concrete effects. If we lose our sense of  specific evils, then having lost lost sight of the individual, personal experiences of those who suffered, we risk allowing similar atrocities to occur. Why is it, for example, that we seem to have had little ability or will to take any preventive collective action in such places as Rwanda or Srebrenica? Now, over eighty years since the promulgation of the Nuremberg race laws in Germany, the numbers of survivors are shrinking, and few of those who facilitated and perpetrated the atrocities of the Final Solution remain, so we will soon have only the record and the memory. Do we have a responsibility to that memory? Wiesenthal believed we do.

Segev makes Wiesenthal’s commitment to that responsibility clear: “More than anything else, Wiesenthal deserves to be remembered for his contribution to the culture of memory and the belief that remembering the dead is sanctifying life” (10). 

 

 

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