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A Month of Favourites: ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ by Elizabeth Taylor

‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’

Mention Virago Modern Classics to many people, and they will wax lyrical about Elizabeth Taylor and her work.  It is with great pleasure that I am able to say that I can join this group, so impressed was I with her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.  I received the book for Christmas, along with two of her other books, and only waited two days before I eagerly dove into it.

I had heard only good things about this book, and know that many people regard Mrs Palfrey, the protagonist of the novel, as one of their favourite literary constructs.  I fully expected to love it, and I am so pleased to say that I adored every page.

Paul Bailey’s introduction to the newly pastel-jacketed Virago edition (a different cover to that pictured) is insightful and feels polished.  He sets the tone of Taylor’s writing well, and really built up my excitement to begin.

Mrs Laura Palfrey, an elderly woman, has moved into the Claremont Hotel in London to see out her retirement after her husband’s death. Mrs Palfrey is a marvellous protagonist, whose every action is both understandable and believable.  I was so very fond of her, and am longing to meet someone just like her in real life.

Taylor sets the scene marvellously from the very first page, and is sublime in establishing scenes and relationships between her characters.  It feels as though she is so understanding of the ageing process.  She treats each and every one of her characters, whether we as readers are supposed to like them or not, with such respect, forever reminding us how things – and, of course, people – can change so drastically as time goes by.  Each and every person who is considered in this novel is different, and even if they feature only marginally in the story, they are distinguishable as separate entities within the group.  The eccentricities which Taylor builds around them are so well done.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is such an engrossing novel.  From the very start I knew that I was reading something special, and I was loath for the book to end.  I read it as slowly as I possibly could, in order to savour every word, and would urge every other person lucky enough to be coming to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for the first time to do the same.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Greenery Street’ by Denis Mackail

First published in October 2016.

Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man.  I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of.  He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself.  Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’

9781903155257The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’.  Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing.  And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same.  It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’.  On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy.  He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return.  Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’

We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter.  The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’.  The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.

Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic.  One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull.  Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not.  The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg.  His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes.  He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world…  What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’

With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals.  These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.

As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance.  Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece.  Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair.  Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.

There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example.  The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item.  Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath.  Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’.  We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.

Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine.  Greenery Street is no exception.  It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.

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Reading the World: ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ***

Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller.  Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English. 9780241293850

Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade.  A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’.  Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’.  Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.  Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts.  As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready, nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile.  Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man’.  The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.

Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office.  He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life.  This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet.  The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent.  Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant.  They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’  The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.

The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective.   Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life.  And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’  The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.

One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War.  The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested.  Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig.  There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Iceberg’ by Marion Coutts

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts was my book of the year in 2015.  Never have I read an illness narrative which is so poignant, nor a reflection on life which sings with such beauty and sadness.  A recent presentation which I had to give on the book is below.

Winner_-_The_Icebe_3285478fMarion Coutts’ The Iceberg presents not just one story – that of her husband Tom Lubbock’s gradual decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in September 2008 – but three; her own, Tom’s, and their young son Ev’s.  She writes, ‘We will all be changed by this.  He [Ev] the most’.

Tom’s trip to the hospital, which led to his diagnosis, was brought on by a seizure suffered whilst at a friend’s; this was the trigger, the catalyst, for the next two and a bit years, dying, as he did, on the 9th of January 2011.  The way in which Tom relays the news of his cancer to Coutts is incredibly matter of fact: ‘Tom stops me.  He says he has had a phone call.  He has a brain tumour.  It is very likely malignant’.  This discovery comes on an already momentous day for the couple – that of Ev’s first day away from them at the childminder’s.  Initially, she is distraught, breaking down in tears, but she does show strength of character from the outset, acting in what she sees as her familial duty.  She realises that she has to adopt the position of proverbial rock for both her husband and son: ‘Right from the start see how I set myself up.  Let us see how this thing goes’.

The book was a pre-planned project of sorts.  As soon as Coutts realises that something is drastically wrong with her husband, and is faced with his mortality – and, indirectly, her own – she consciously thinks about documenting the process.  She opens The Iceberg with the following: ‘A book about the future must be written in advance.  Later I won’t have the energy to speak.  So I will do it now’.  There is no doubt that Tom’s decline will be draining for all involved, and she is already steeling herself for the rocky road ahead.  The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.

Throughout, the loss of speech and endless rounds of chemotherapy are not happening directly to Coutts; she is a bystander in proceedings – Tom’s crutch, as it were.  Throughout, she is remarkably understanding and empathetic, continually thinking of the ways in which certain daily processes will affect Tom, and how she can better his quality of life.  This applies both to the daily routine at home, and Tom’s medical care: ‘Normality is gifted in the form of steroids, 2mg daily, and immediately he tightens his grip on language and on the connection of meaning to word’.  She tries to maintain a manageable balance between their old, ordinary family life, and the situation which they have been forced into; they still see friends, and go on walks, for instance, which perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown.  She is essentially a mediator in a time of what could easily descend into panic.  ‘On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it’, she says.  There is rarely any deception here, and the need to be honest – both with one another, and with others who matter to the couple – is paramount.

coutts-tom-and-ev-011

Coutts’ is a diachronic account; there is historical reach, and a chronological structure.  The form which she has chosen to use is not so much a diary format, as an almost academic way of breaking up separate scenes.  She deals with one day at a time, but the ‘1.1’ and ‘1.2’ structure does take an element of reality away from the whole.  Whilst we do not know the exact dates in which the written accounts took place, the whole is still achingly personal.  There is hope here; very early on in the book, she writes: ‘… we carry on in many ways as before but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night’.

The couple do, however, become less able to discuss what the future – or lack thereof – holds for them, and for Ev.  On page 163, Coutts explains that ‘… there is the Talking Issue, meaning talking about what is going on, articulating the disaster that coagulates around us.  Tom promised a while back to begin a conversation with Ev and he has not done this’.  How does one communicate to a toddler that soon his beloved father will no longer be in his life?  Words, however, still have the power to carry them through their ordeal.  Whilst undergoing chemotherapy, Coutts describes the way in which she tenderly whispers poetry ‘with my mouth close to Tom’s ear’ (p168).

The Iceberg is a beautiful, brave, and heartfelt account of a newly-discovered mortality, which shows how one can make every single second in life count for something.  Love is at the forefront of every entry, and every decision which the couple make.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern

Before I begin to speak about The Night Circus, I must say that the book itself (I am lucky enough to have the first edition hardback) is a thing of beauty.  Its pages are edged in black, the endpapers and illustrated pages are extremely pretty, and there is even a lovely red ribbon bookmark attached.  It pleases me when so much thought has been put into the aesthetic elements of the book, and this is one of my favourites in terms of design.

The blurb is incredibly enticing:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 

“But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I first read The Night Circus last year, and very much enjoyed it.  I love the way in which the novel begins, and Morgenstern sets the scene beautifully.  The way in which she describes the circus is enchanting, and this element strengthens as the novel goes on.  I adore the descriptions of the enchantments which can be found within each tent; they drip with beauty, and Morgenstern has a way of making everything she writes about incredibly vivid.  The Night Circus is an incredibly absorbing book.  It has been plotted in such a way that as soon as one begins to read, a spell of sorts is cast upon them, which makes them want to do nothing but read on.

‘The Night Circus’ sculpture by Rabarama at deviantART

The use of different narrative techniques throughout is done in a skilful manner.  The main thread of the story is written using the third person perspective, and small sections of it use the second person, addressing the reader directly and making them a part of the story.  So many tales have been wondrously woven together, and many characters who are intrinsically linked within the circus come to light as the novel weaves its magic.  The characterisation is sublime.

I found, on my second reading, that I enjoyed it even more than the first.  It has joined my list of treasures, and is a novel which I will come back to again and again.  The Night Circus is beautiful, enchanting and incredibly clever, and the images which it creates will never leave me.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The Happy Tree’ by Rosalind Murray

Rosalind Murray’s The Happy Tree, the 108th book on the Persephone list, was first published in 1926.  This beautiful novel has so many themes delicately threaded through its plot – family, politics, wartime, love, friendship, jealousy and, perhaps most importantly for its protagonist, the notion and hardships of growing up.

The storyline of The Happy Tree alone sounds like a perfect pick for the lovely Persephone list.  Our protagonist is Helen Woodruffe, a grown woman who is looking back on her life and the choices which she has made: ‘And this is all that has happened.  It does not seem very much.  It does not seem worth writing about.  I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and some one I loved dearly was killed in the war… that was all.  And all those things must be true of thousands of people’.  In her childhood, she tells us in the novel’s opening chapter, she divided her time between her grandmother’s London house and her cousins’ home, a country estate named Yearsly: ‘There, sometimes under a special “Happy Tree”, she passes an idyllic childhood with Guy and Hugo Laurier’, hopelessly falling for the latter.  Of her cousins, Helen tells us, ‘they were and are to me all I could wish for anyone to be, and I cannot wish anything at all different about them’.

The opening of The Happy Tree draws one in immediately, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel: ‘Once I would have minded it so much, to live here, looking out at that laburnum tree, and that house opposite, that bow window, and the yellowish stone facings of the windows, and the lilac bush that has grown all crooked, and the pink hawthorn, and the laurels with patterned leaves; but now I do not mind.  Now I do not see these things or think about them at all; only tonight I am seeing them, because somehow I have come awake tonight, for a bit’.  The sense of place within the novel comes together marvellously through Murray’s carefully tuned descriptions.

Helen is the most wonderful narrator, and Murray is very aware of her as a distinct being, and of her persona, thoughts and feelings: ‘And my life up to now comes before me very clearly; the people and the places, and the choices and mistakes, and I seem to see it all in better proportion than before; less clouded and blurred across by the violent emotion of youth’.  She is very candid throughout, and lets us in to her secrets, as it were.  Of her mother’s seeming lack of care – one may even go as far as to say neglect – which allowed her to go and live with Cousin Delia, the mother of Guy and Hugo, after her father’s death, she says: ‘If she had kept me with her I don’t know what would have happened.  I don’t know how I could have grown up at all’.

The well-considered introduction to The Happy Tree has been penned by Charlotte Mitchell.  She writes of the way in which the novel resembles ‘many of her [Murray’s] other writings, fiction and non-fiction, in examining the world she was brought up in and the choices it had offered a woman like herself’.  She goes on to say that: ‘with all the usual caveats about treating fiction as autobiography, it is evident that the novel depicts Rosalind’s own situation pretty closely’.  The Happy Tree is a marvellous novel, filled with fluid characters, beautiful writing, and such consideration for every scene.

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