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PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 3:59 pm    Post subject:  Reply with quote

There was only the bird-chatter outside and the strangely audible,
breath-held silence of the empty house, and the faint ripple of air over
their bodies, reminding them, though they eyed the ceiling, that they
were entirely naked. Two fish on a white plate, she thought. Two pink
salmon on a sideboard, waiting for guests, guests at a wedding even,
who would never arrive ...

This is from Graham Swift's novella Mothering Sunday, which I'm surprised no one's yet written about here. It was published last year and created quite a buzz, with some justification it turns out. It's one of those short, small-scale books that seems to contain the world.

It's set on 30 March 1924, Mothering Sunday. Motherless Jane Fairchild is a maid in her early twenties working for the Nivens, a married couple with two sons dead in the Great War. Paul Sheringham, too young to fight, has survived his two elder brothers, and is two weeks away from his impending marriage to Emma Hobday. Paul and Jane are having an affair, which must surely end soon. Near the start of the book, once the fuzziness of its opening scenes has cleared and the setting and personnel come into focus, Jane receives a phone call from Paul, arranging for them to meet one last time before his marriage. This meeting and its outcome are the focus of the book.

It's not right to say that the events of the book are contained within that day, because there are several flashes forward to Jane's reflections on them as an old woman, and meditations on their effect on her later life. The book's been compared to Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, with which it has some superficial similarities, but the device of the older woman looking back prompted memories of Atonement rather more often. Not that it has Atonement's twist (thankfully). There is a twist of sorts, or at least a change of focus, that is quite pleasing. It doesn't do quite what you expect it to. More than any book I thought of The Go-Between. This book, like that one, depicts a snapshot in time. The heat, the age, the situation, the social codes, the illicit love affair, the threat of discovery and cataclysm. Another association: Jean Renoir's small masterpiece Partie de Campagne.

After reading the book, I read a 'digested' version on the Guardian website by its parliamentary sketch writer John Crace, which rather cruelly skewers some of the book's foibles. The mannered repetition of the date, for instance. At the start or end of paragraphs, particularly at the start of the book, you find this sort of thing:

It was March 1924.

March 30th 1924.

It was March 30th. It was a Sunday. It was what used to be known as Mothering Sunday.

It was March 30th 1924. It was Mothering Sunday.

It was Mothering Sunday 1924.

Not quite sure why. Also the use of what we'd now call the 'c' word, which crops up a couple of times. Of course it existed then, but the use of it in Swift's book felt anachronistic to me, particularly as the book is set pre-Lady Chatterley. But my reaction to the book was warmer and kinder than Crace's. I thought it was approaching a kind of perfection. Lots to think about: Jane's taste in boys' adventure books, the books of Mr Niven's dead sons that she devours; the recurring theme of motherhood and motherlessness. Strongly recommended.


Jamie smiled. 'We assume so much, don't we?'

Case in point: I'd assumed I'd be irritated by the latest book in Alexander McCall Smith's series about Edinburgh's consulting busybody Isabel Dalhousie – what was it called, not that it matters, oh yes – A Distant View of Everything – and I certainly was irritated, by the profusion of self-satisfied rhetorical questions (see above), by the nauseating in-loveness of Isabel and Jamie, by Isabel's musings on 'Brother Fox' with his mock-folkloric moniker, by the characters' closed-mindedness (Cat doesn't like Tippett's The Knot Garden? well, colour me surprised). 'It's odd. I think of myself as having been alive in the sixties, but I wasn't,' observes Isabel at one point. I can't believe she wasn't around in the twenties, let alone the sixties. She's the least fortysomething fortysomething I've ever encountered. And so sanitised! How is it possible to have a lengthy philosophical conversation about salami with no discussion of the penile overtones, I wondered.

But as usual, McCall Smith snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Just when you think the salami's been sliced, he mentions Freud and the balance is redressed. The mystery plot of this one's quite a nice one, about a man suspected of being a gold-digger, and it's resolved neatly. And I may dislike Brother Fox, but I like foxes, and this time the fox gets a couple of nice scenes, one where he eats a chicken bone and another where he does a somersault to round off the novel. But can you really get excited about a book where the large bombshell at the end is that one of the characters doesn't have gout after all, just an inflamed big toe? Also, Isabel has another baby. I wondered if I'd missed something: the last novel ended with her and Jamie about to have it off (pardon my French). It must have been a successful endeavour: McCall Smith's characters don't have sex for pleasure, only for procreation. I have an idea that between that book and this there was a Dalhousie short story published. Perhaps that chronicled the pregnancy. I seem to be a Dalhousie completist, but I can probably survive without seeking it out. Still, this one, in spite of all I've written, I rather enjoyed. I've just not communicated it very well.

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 4:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cross-posting this month's blog posts from my EU reading project:

Simon Vestdijk - The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (Netherlands)

Steen Steensen Blicher - The Diary of a Parish Clerk and Other Stories (Denmark)

Erich Kästner - The Flying Classroom (Germany)

Bohumil Hrabal - Closely Observed Trains (Czech Republic)

I loved the Kästner especially.

If the title of the Vestdijk looks familiar, it's because some of us did a group read of it in 2006 at the suggestion of Havisham (Eric Dickens), always a proponent of the view that Anglophones didn't read enough books from non-English-speaking countries. Very sad to report that Eric died a month ago, having had pancreatic cancer. There's a small obituary here: I know Caro will remember him, and maybe others too. I think I was not the only person on the board who lost my temper with him – his combative style invited it at times – but he was always worth listening to on the subject of translation. When I get to Estonia, I'll try and read one of his books.

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 7:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm sad to hear about the death of Havisham. I  remember him on this board many years ago although I don't think I was involved in any discussion with him.

Unfortunately, I think what he says is true.  My book group is doing a literary jaunt round Europe and I am getting depressed by how few of the books people are suggesting are by foreign authors. Many suggestions seem to be in the chick lit genre of plucky Brit goes abroad and has a series of madcap adventures with a group of whacky foreigners.

The only sector where people in my group seem to have a knowledge of foreign authors in is the crime genre.

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 8:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don't think the insularity of readers is necessarily the main problem, it's also that translations cost money that publishers aren't willing to spend. On the continent the picture is starkly different, with English books in translation, even trash, being widely read. (I just searched for Danielle Steel, snob that I am: tons of them.) Generally I don't give a thought to where a book's from, and if I weren't making a concerted effort to read foreign books this year then 90% of the books I'd choose, probably more, would be books not in translation. I have a similar problem with gender. I want to read books by female authors, but I naturally gravitate towards male ones. If I didn't make a conscious effort to remedy the imbalance, I reckon I'd only read one book by a woman for every (say) six or seven by a man.

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Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 9:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm sad about Havisham, too, if only because it is a reminder of how many people "in real life" and on these boards are dying or getting seriously ill.  I suppose it's just because of my age that I notice this.  I remember Havisham's first arrival on the baord - he made a comment about people not reading enough foreign language novels and Evie replied that she agreed, and gave a reason for this lack.  Instead of accepting her apology for this lack he blasted her!  It wasn't what I expect in a reply to an apology.

I am interested in your comments about reading male authors over a female one, Gareth.  I don't think I really differentiate, although I certainly accept male authority figures more easily, and notice I often expect a professor to be male, and accents of posh British men I accept as authoritative (so was a bit surprised when I realised you couldn't accept Christopher Hitchens' views as similar to mine).  I might count my books read in terms of gender.  Later.

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2017 10:31 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I remember Havisham as well, and the lively exchanges about translations and foreign authors. Sad to hear he died.

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Joe McWilliams

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2017 3:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

R.I.P. Havisham, whoever you were. Thanks for letting us know about it, Chib.
My chief recollection of him was from an exchange between him and Himadri. I thought Himadri's irritable response way out of proportion to whatever Havisham had asserted, and said so. Then Himadri turned on me!
Obviously I was missing a bit of the history between those two.

Browsing our shelves last night for something I hadn't already read, I found in a corner a dusty old thing called 'Inside Europe' by John Gunther - 'The War Edition.' It's quite good! It's an updated edition (1940) of a 1936 publication, his views on what was going on in Europe at that time. It begins with a profile of Hitler, which pulls no punches. I like the impression that it is fresh, happening as we speak sort of thing.
I've no idea where this book came from. Probably a garage sale.

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PostPosted: Mon May 01, 2017 4:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was sorry to hear about Havisham. He was the sort of contributor of whom it is easy to say, "He was his own worst enemy". Although I was sympathetic to his main point, that we in Britain are often not inclined to read literature written in languages other than English, and particularly translations (he was a translator), he was a difficult person to engage with. He could turn almost any discussion into mortal combat. Sad to hear that he is no longer around, nevertheless.

I am afraid that my reaction to Mothering Sunday was broadly similar to that of John Crace. I am usually an admirer of Graham Swift, but in this particular case, the best I could find to say was that it was very short, so at least I did not waste too much time reading it.

I was unconvinced by the central character, and found her rather rapid conversion into woman of letters to be somewhat facile. I could also have coped with fewer stains on the bed linen!

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