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One From the Archive: ‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

My revisited choice for our Fifty Women Challenge was Muriel Spark’s The Public Image.  One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark (Virago)

The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘Palladian’ by Elizabeth Taylor ***

Palladian, a copy of which I borrowed from the library, was my Elizabeth Taylor choice for our challenge.  I am an admirer of her other novels, and rank some of them amongst my absolute favourite books.  I was very excited to try out one of her novellas, as opposed to the longer works which I have encountered to date.  Palladian is ‘on one level, her rewriting of Jane Eyre‘; one of my favourite novels.

Originally published in 1946, Taylor’s second novel Palladian has found its way, along with much of her other work, onto the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list.  The premise of the piece is wonderful; it has so many of the elements which I adore in works of fiction.  To borrow from the original blurb, the novel follows “newly orphaned Cassandra Dashwood [who] arrives as governess to little Sophy, [and] the scene seems set for the archetypal romance between young girl and austere widowed employer. Strange secrets abound in the ramshackle house. But conventions are subverted in this atmospheric novel: one of its worlds is suffused with classical scholarship and literary romance, but the other is chaotic, quarrelsome and even farcical. Cassandra is to discover that in real life, tragedy, comedy and acute embarrassment are never far apart.”

Palladian has one of the most enticing opening sentences which I have read for such a long time: ‘Cassandra, with all her novel-reading, could be sure of experiencing the proper emotions, standing in her bedroom for the last time and looking from the bare windows to the unfaded oblong of wall-paper where “The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice” in sepia had hung for thirteen years above the mantelpiece’.  In his well written but perhaps over-thoughtful introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee writes that, ‘there is an answering literariness that runs as a dazzling seam through the book’.

Despite the premise and strong writing, I actually found Palladian to be rather a disappointing novel.  I loved the overriding idea, and the echoes of the Brontes (and, to a lesser extent, Jane Austen), but something about it just didn’t feel right.  There was a queer distancing effect to the whole, and I very much struggled to find any sympathetic feelings whatsoever for Cassandra throughout, despite the awful position in which she found herself.  I can only be glad that Palladian is not the first of Taylor’s books which I read, as had that been the case, I doubt I would have been so keen to read her entire oeuvre.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘The World and Other Places’ by Jeanette Winterson **

As I was already a fan of Jeanette Winterson’s novels, I decided to try something a little different of hers for our challenge: a volume of short stories.  The World and Other Places is Winterson’s first collection, and I was incredibly interested to see how the genre suited her writing style.

There are a lot of different styles at play here; we have fairytale-esque shorts, those told from the perspective of men, stories set within imagined vistas, and real world slices of life to name but a few.  That said, the tales within The World and Other Places are a little too varied; there is no sense of cohesion between them, and reading them feels like rather a jarring process in consequence.

Winterson is both an intelligent and perceptive author, but despite this, I was not entirely enamoured with the collection.  There was no particular story which really stood out for me, or which I enjoyed, even.  Nothing felt quite as strong as I had supposed it would; the characters are flat, and the backdrops are shadowy and not quite realistic.  The World and Other Places is neither as interesting nor as engaging as I find her longer fiction.  I love the way in which Winterson writes, but I cannot help but think that she is far better suited to longer literary forms in which she is able to fully exercise her prowess.  Whilst I still really want to read the rest of her novels, I  shall happily hang fire on any other short story collections which she has published to date.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ by Alice Munro ***

I had been so looking forward to Alice Munro’s only novel, Lives of Girls and Women, which has recently been republished by Vintage.  First published in 1971, Lives of Girls and Women was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  The whole is split into several named parts, each of which can essentially function as a short story in its own right, and follows the protagonist Del Jordan during her formative years.

Throughout, Del grows up within the small town of Jubilee in Ontario.  The choice which Munro has made to sculpt Del’s own voice, and her use of the first person perspective with which to do so, has been used to excellent effect.  Her past and present have been marvellously layered, and she certainly feels like a realistic character in consequence.  Munro’s other characters are, on the whole, multi-faceted, and their differences set them apart from one another, rendering them distinctive beings. The sense of place within the tale has been well evoked too, and Munro is just as perceptive here as in her short stories.  One can certainly tell that she is more used to writing stories than novels; there is almost a concertina-like effect here, in that one sub-story leads into another, and so on.

Munro is one of my absolute favourite short story authors, and I was expecting such marvellous things from Lives of Girls and Women.  Despite the strengths which I have outlined above, sadly, I found myself rather disappointed.  Whilst I loved the novel’s premise, the piece lost itself somewhere around the middle, and never really picked up the pace again.  Rather than the four or five star rating which I felt sure I was going to give it, I shall have to settle for a middle-of-the-road three.

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The Fifty Women Challenge:: ‘The Cat’ by Colette *****

There is some gorgeous imagery in The Cat, and some absolutely wonderful scenes.  Colette’s writing is stunning, and one gets the feeling that it has been perfectly translated too.  It (probably) goes without saying that my favourite character here was Saha, the cat of the book’s title.  I felt that she had been perfectly captured, and her actions and mannerisms were so realistic.  Colette’s descriptions of Paris, too, are leaving me longing to go back.

The way in which Colette presented male opinions and apprehensions about marriage was incredibly interesting, and so believable, I think.  This element stopped the story being merely a collection of commonplace musings upon matters of the heart, and brought in some thought-provoking scenes.  The psychological aspects which she weaves in are so well executed, and Colette illustrates wonderfully the power which our animals have over us.  All in all, The Cat is a glorious little novella – stunning and rather short, but perfectly written and portrayed.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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One From the Archive: ‘Brat Farrar’ by Josephine Tey ****

This post was first published in January 2014, but fits in nicely with mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge and my swathes of University reading!

I had only read a couple of Josephine Tey’s novels before I started Brat Farrar, but she is an author whom I very much enjoy.  This particular novel was first published in 1949, and is more of a mystery than a murder mystery.  The plot is most interesting:

“A stranger enters the inner sanctum of the Ashby family posing as Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family’s sizeable fortune.  The stranger, Brat Farrar, has been carefully coached on Patrick’s mannerisms, appearance and every significant detail of Patrick’s early life, up to his thirteenth year when he disappeared and was thought to have drowned himself.  It seems as if Brat is going to pull off this most incredible deception until old secrets emerge that threaten to jeopardise his plan and his very life…”

I was intrigued all of the way through the book, but sadly the plot twist which was used was quite obvious, and I guessed what would happen just a little way in.  The entirety of the story was so well written and plotted however, that it didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  All of the characters were believable beings, and they had qualities which set them apart from one another, which is quite tricky to do sometimes when there are a few protagonists in a novel.  Brat Farrar is not my favourite Tey to date, but it is still a great novel.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘Paul’s Case’ by Willa Cather ***

One of Yamini’s choices for our 50 Women Challenge was Willa Cather.  I shall begin by saying that I do not tend to get on well with Cather’s work, and I always feel as though I should enjoy it far more than I do.  Rather than a novel which I may well have been disappointed with, I chose to read one of her short stories, Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament

Initially published in McClure’s Magazine in 1905, the subject of Paul’s Case is a suspended schoolboy – named, unsurprisingly, Paul – who was ‘to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanours’.  He becomes frustrated with his relatively privileged lifestyle, and decides to flee Pennsylvania for New York City.

Cather’s descriptions were my favourite part of the story, particularly those of Paul himself: ‘His eyes were remarkable for a certain hysterical brilliancy and he continually used them in a conscious, theatrical sort of way, peculiarly offensive in a boy’.

The tale is rather a depressing one, but it does hold the interest throughout.    The whole is engaging and intelligent, but there is a curious distancing to the whole – perhaps due to the third person perspective which Cather has used.  Whilst I enjoyed reading Paul’s Case, it has not quite made me want to rush to read any more of Cather’s work.

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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘A Spy in the House of Love’ by Anais Nin **

During June, an accidental library haul occurred.  A Spy in the House of Love, first published in 1954, was one of the books which I could not resist taking home with me, loving Nin’s work as I do.  Sadly, upon reflection, I should have left it behind.

I chose A Spy in the House of Love for mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge, it being the only book of Nin’s upon the library shelves which I hadn’t yet read.  The novella – for the whole is comprised of under 130 pages – tells of Sabina, a woman who ‘leads a double life inspired by her relentless desire for brief encounters with near-strangers.  Fired into faithlessness by a desperate longing for sexual fulfilment, she weaves a sensual web of deceit across New York.  But when the secrecy of her affairs becomes too much to bear, Sabina makes a late night phone-call to a stranger from a bar, and begins a confession that captivates the unknown man and soon inspires him to seek her out…’.  I was rather intrigued by the premise, and have been impressed in the past by the way in which Nin handles more adult themes within her fiction.

The opening line of A Spy in the House of Love certainly sets an interesting tone for what follows: ‘The lie detector was asleep when he heard the telephone ringing’.  My favourite element of the novella, without a doubt, is the striking descriptive power which Nin wields, ranging from ‘a lax, spangled, spiralling laughter’, to her depiction of Sabina: ‘dressed in red and silver, she endured the sounds and imagery of fire engines as they tore through the streets of New York, alarming the heart with the violent gong of catastrophe’.

Sadly, I cannot say that I at all enjoyed A Spy in the House of Love.  It is the most sexually explicit of Nin’s work which I have encountered to date, and whilst I do not mind that per se, I did question the point of it here at times.  It seemed to be eroticism for eroticism’s sake (if there is such a thing!), and did not add a great deal to the story.

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One From the Archive: ‘Clock Without Hands’ by Carson McCullers ***

Time constraints mean that another post has to be rescheduled, but this one fits in nicely with mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge.  My thoughts about the wonderful Carson McCullers’ Clock Without Hands were first published in 2013.

I had been meaning to read Clock Without Hands for quite some time before I finally began to.  I kept picking it up and then not getting around to it.  It travelled with me to Menorca in September, where I got distracted by my Kindle and the use of a swimming pool, and it has been in my bag on several occasions since.

I love McCullers’ writing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favourite novels, dripping with beauty and emotion.  Clock Without Hands tells the story of J.T. Malone, a pharmacist living in a small town in Georgia, who is diagnosed with leukaemia.  He is given between a year and fifteen months to live.  From the start, the story which McCullers presents is quite engrossing, and she builds up sympathy for her protagonist immediately.  The racial disparities throughout are exemplified well, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Sadly, it did not feel as thoughtful or as thought-provoking as the other novels of hers which I’ve read to date.  I enjoyed it on the whole, and I felt that the ending was marvellous, but I doubt that it is a book which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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