1 August 2015

Altered States by Anita Brookner

'The woman on the station platform had her back to me.  If she had turned round I would have been able to satisfy myself that she was not someone I had once known.'

Train station platforms are right up there with gas-rings, the sound of a brass bell announcing a visitor, slices of seed cake, and the word 'teapot' to draw me to a story.  While those items certainly have definite 'cosy' appeal, Altered States is anything but.

'I am not even sure that my memory of her is exact, for I frequently winced at her cruelty until I learned to laugh at it.'

So begins the telling of Alan's past obsession with Sarah Miller, a distant relation through a marriage.  In her early twenties, Sarah is described as vain, feckless, and a stubborn brat.  Arguably, she is a young woman who marches to her own tune and refuses to be pinned down by a man.  Once Alan has set his sites on this young woman with her fabulous Pre-Raphaelite red hair and a wake filled with Guerlain all sense of rationale disappears.  He rings her phone but there's never an answer, he even resorts to walking past her flat and looking through the letterbox late in the evening.  

Fruitless attempts to have anything more than a lone sexual encounter with Sarah result in Alan offering marriage to another woman.  Angela is every bit as needy as Sarah is elusive.  Alan has now jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  While Brookner is incredibly detail-oriented in her examination of the human psyche there are two incidents that take place with such a swift set change it made me gasp.

Alan's mother, Alice, lives in a well-appointed flat and enjoys the company of Aubrey Fairweather, a gentleman from the same building.  Alan describes him as delicate 'but probably made of teak'.  Alice Sherwood, a genteel Englishwoman, presented Alan with his current home, a flat on Wigmore Street, as a twenty-first birthday present.  He suspects the gift is something of a bribe; payment for his company as his mother becomes more dependent in her advancing years.  Being attentive is a character trait that seems inherent in Alan but it also ventures into something less admirable...

'Even at my young age I liked women to be cherished.  I liked to think of them as needing a modicum of protection, encouragement.  I liked them to be modest, grateful for flattery, expert at soliciting kindness.'

There are other subplots equally as fascinating and in true Brookner form, equally depressing.  For example, Jenny, a Polish woman saved from penury by an elderly miser, Humphrey.  Loneliness, or the threat of it, is a common theme and very prevalent here.  But if .you're a fan of Brookner's writing it's exactly what you're looking for when you reach for one of her books.  You won't be disappointed by Altered States.  I thoroughly enjoyed this class-conscious novel and am looking forward to reading my way through Anita Brookner's oeuvre.

Title Unknown
Michael Garmash

31 July 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1782 - 1854

'The family group had already assembled round the breakfast table, with the exception of Lady Juliana, who chose to take that meal in bed; but, contrary to her usual custom, no Lady Maclaughlan had yet made her appearance.  All was busy speculation and surmise as to the could-be cause of this lapse of time on the part of that hitherto most perfect of morning chronometers.  Scouts had been sent ever and anon to spy, to peep, to listen; but nothing was brought back but idle guesses and shallow conjectures.  It had, however, been clearly ascertained that Sir Sampson had been heard to cough and find fault with Murdoch in the dressing-room, and Lady Maclaughlan to humph! in her sternial tone, as she walked to and fro in her chamber twenty minutes after the breakfast-bell had run - 'twas strange - 'twas passing strange!
  'The scones will be like leather,' said Miss Grizzy, in her most doleful accent, as she wrapped another napkin round them.
  'The eggs will be like snow-balls,' cried Miss Jacky, warmly, popping them into the slop-basin.
  'The tea will be like brandy,' observed Miss Nicky, sharply, as she poured more water to the three tea spoonfuls she had infused.'


The Breakfast Table by Harold Gilman 

24 July 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1897 - 1991

Liar?  Lunatic?  Saint?  The case of Opal Whiteley remains fascinating.  Opal claimed to have written a diary at the age of five.  When it was published in 1920 by Atlantic Monthly, it was hailed vicariously as a hoax, the work of a poetical genius and the story of a magical and heartbreaking childhood.  Opal, 'the flower child of Oregon literature', was born in the United States, but spent much of her adult life in an English mental hospital.  She is buried in London's Highgate Cemetery.

Sometimes I share my bread and jam with yellow jackets.
They have a home on a bush
distant from the garden twenty trees and one.
Today I climbed the fence close to their home
with a piece and a half of bread and jam.
The half piece for them
and the piece for myself.
They all wanted to be served at once.

I broke it all into little pieces
and they had a royal feast there on the fence.
Yellow jackets are such interesting fairies
being the world's first paper-makers.

Opal Whiteley

18 July 2015

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

While in London last May, Rachel and I were browsing the shelves at Foyles on Charing Cross Road.  They Came Like Swallows was highlighted as a staff favourite and placed face out on the shelf.  I pointed to it and said something to Rachel about her blog post in which she wrote about how moved she was by this book.  The look on her face, the one you make when something melts your heart, made me decide to just go for it.  American authors on my bookshelves can be counted on one hand so I was taking a leap of faith.  I finished the book yesterday with tears streaming down my face and could kick myself for the many times I've left William Maxwell's books behind on shelves down to blind prejudice.

Told in three parts, it didn't take more than a few paragraphs to fall in love with Bunny, the youngest child of James and Elizabeth Morison and so beautifully drawn by Maxwell.  Bunny clings to his doll, Araminta Culpepper, at night despite being past the age when most boys do so.  He sees animals in the shapes left behind by water-damage on the ceiling and rolls marbles along patterns in the carpet at his mother's feet.  His big brother Robert is thirteen and full of boisterous energy tinged with angst, not at all unexpected considering his age, but sadly it's Bunny who is frequently the target.

'There was no time (no time that Bunny could remember) when Robert had not made him cry at least once between morning and night.  Robert hid Bunny's thrift stamps and his ball of lead foil.  Or he danced through the house swinging Araminta Culpepper by the braids.'

We've all been there, on both sides.  One of the many skillful aspects of Maxwell's powers of observation is his ability to take you back to those moments.  And it wouldn't be fair to judge Robert too harshly as he proves to be every bit as sensitive as his younger brother but through circumstance has gained the ability to withhold signs of vulnerability.

Set in 1918 at the end of The Great War in small-town Illinois the reader is aware that the boys' formative years have been shadowed by loss.  When a flu epidemic breaks out conversation is hushed whenever Bunny and Robert are within earshot but they understand much more than the adults realize.  Inevitably, the illness does affect the family and at a particularly dangerous time as Elizabeth is expecting another baby.

At one hundred and forty pages, this beautiful novella could easily be read in one sitting,  Sometimes that can put off a reader when you're paying with hard-earned money but be assured this stunning piece is excellent value.  The economy of pages also means I dare not say much more as the story is best left to discover for yourself.  There are wonderful books and then there are books you hug to your chest when you're done and They Came Like Swallows is definitely that.

A Little Boy Writing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir


They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman's powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seem to whirl upon a compass-point.
Found certainly upon the dreaming air...
W. B. Yeats