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One From the Archive: ‘Letters from Iceland’ by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice ****

I was fortunate enough to travel to Iceland in February 2016.  It’s one of those places I’ve wanted to visit since I was tiny, and I was so grateful that I was able able to travel there with my boyfriend.  I have – perhaps unsurprisingly – always been interested in books set in Iceland, fictional or not, and have been attempting to get hold of a copy of Letters from Iceland for an awfully long time.  I love travel books, and the fact that this is described as ‘highly amusing and unorthodox’ piqued my interest further.  With the help of lovely Faber reissuing the book, and a Christmas voucher, I have finally been able to add it to my collection. 41pxwwejz8l-_sx316_bo1204203200_

Letters from Iceland is so rich that I felt it warranted a full-length review.  Whilst I was already familiar with, and enjoy, Auden’s poetry, the MacNeice which I had read was sparse to say the least, and I had barely touched upon the prose output of either man.  Letters from Iceland is comprised of Auden and MacNeice’s letters home from their 1936 trip to the country, which were rendered into both verse and prose.

The new Faber edition includes Auden’s 1965 foreword, which I found fascinating in terms of how much Iceland had changed in just three decades.  Clearly, Auden has a real passion for the place: ‘But the three months in Iceland upon which it [the book] is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content’.

Their trip to Iceland was taken at a fascinating time in history; the men set off during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War occurred whilst they were there.  The reasons for both being there, and what they wished to discover, varied, but the way in which MacNeice describes it is rather humorous: ‘You and I / Know very well the immediate reason why / I am in Iceland.  Three months ago or so / Wystan said that he was planning to go / To Iceland to write a book and would I come too; / And I said yes, having nothing better to do’.

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Louis MacNeice

The imagery which both men present is gorgeous and rich.  I loved the sense of rural history which was captured: ‘The town [Reykjavik] peters out into flat rusty-brown lava-fields, scattered shacks surrounded by wire-fencing, stockfish drying on washing-lines and a few white hens’.  They are very aware of their sense of space, and their current position within the world.  In MacNeice’s letter to Graham and Anne Shepard, for instance, is the following: ‘… but please remember us / So high up here in this vertiginous / Crow’s nest of the earth.  Perhaps you’ll let us know / If anything happens in the world below?’

Much emphasis, unsurprisingly, has been placed upon the output of Iceland’s citizens in the fields of art and literature.  The information which has been given about Icelandic authors, and the country’s reading population, is absolutely fascinating, as is that of creative life in the country: ‘The best-known authors and painters receive support from the state, without any obligations to output’.

Handy travel tips have been included for their late-1930s audience, ranging from appropriate clothing – ‘a cape is useless’ – and alternative boat routes to take for ‘those who like the sea’, to the believed necessity for a guide: ‘There are very few places in Iceland where it is pleasant to walk, and for long expeditions guides are absolutely necessary if you don’t want to lose your horses or get drowned in a river’.  Reflections upon the Icelandic diet amuse too: dried fish, for instance, ‘varies in toughness.  The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one feet’, and the beer ‘is weak and nasty, and the lemonade unspeakable’.  ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, which is comprised of many different quotes from authors and visitors to Iceland, and regards different aspects of life in the country, is also rather funny in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

The poetic contributions are often most amusing. In Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, for instance, is written: ‘… though it’s true / That I have, at the age of twenty-nine / Just read Don Juan and found it fine. / I read it on the boat to Reykjavik / Except when eating or asleep or sick.’  I have discovered, through Letters from Iceland, that I am very much a fan of MacNeice’s poetry, from such perfectly-formed stanzas as follows: ‘The songs of jazz have told us of a moon country / And we like to dream of a heat which is never sultry, / Melons to eat, champagne to drink, and a lazy / Music hour by hour depetalling the daisy’.

WH Auden in London in 1938

W. H. Auden

Auden can be rather sarcastic, and some of his comments occasionally border upon the scathing.  In response to a question addressed to him by author friend Christopher Isherwood, he writes: ‘If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant…  I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me.  The truth is, we are both only really happy living amongst lunatics’.

With regard to further travels, Auden informs us that he ‘didn’t go to Finland after all.  I felt another country would only be muddling.  Finland has not the slightest connection with Iceland, and a travel book about unconnected places becomes simply a record of a journey, which is boring.  I dare say it’s all right if you’re a neo-Elizabethan young man who has a hairbreadth escape or meets a very eccentric clergyman every five minutes, but I’m not’.

Letters from Iceland is a very entertaining book, which is wonderfully varied, both in terms of its seriousness and frivolity, and its differing prose styles.  The techniques used – poems, stories, proverbs, folk tales, and anecdotes to name a few – makes the book a perfect choice to read in one go.  Letters from Iceland is highly recommended, and is a wonderful book to start any trip to the country with.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George ***

At the beginning of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, fifty-year-old bookseller Jean Perdu is told that he is ‘cashmere compared with the normal yarn from which men are spun’.  The owner of a book-filled barge, moored upon the Seine and called the Literary Apothecary, he ‘could not imagine what might be more practical than a book’.

Jean decided to open his bookshop in order to aid Paris’ citizens, believing that ‘it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books.  They looked after people’.  He says: ‘I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognised as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors.  All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in…  The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end….  Or those birthday motning blues.  Nostalgia for the air of your childhood.  Things like that’.

Jean, a lonely bachelor who is mourning a lost love, intrigues from the very beginning: ‘Over the course of twenty-one summers, Monsieur Perdu had become as adept at avoiding thinking of __ as he was at stepping around open manholes.  He mainly thought of her… as a pause amid the hum of his thoughts, as a blank in the pictures of the past, as a dark spot amid his feelings’.  George goes on to write that he had ‘become extremely good at ignoring anything that might in any way arouse feelings of yearning.  Aromas.  Melodies.  The beauty of things’.  We get a feel for Jean and his sadness immediately: ‘The two rooms he still occupied [in his apartment complex] were so empty that they echoed when he coughed’.

Characters who remain upon the periphery throughout are used as a clever tool to allow us to learn about the novel’s protagonists.  The gossips in Jean’s apartment building at 27 Rue Montagnard are perhaps the best example of this technique.

One of George’s strengths lies in the way in which she builds geographical locations: ‘Over it all drifted the perfume of Paris in June, the fragrance of lime blossom and expectation’.  The Little Paris Bookshop is filled with some lovely and rather thoughtful ideas, particularly with regard to those which shape themselves around literature: ‘We all grow old, even books.  But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?’

The Little Paris Bookshop is a largely charming work, which has been intelligently written.  George has taken a relatively simple plot and given it depth.  The only thing which let the book down as far as I am concerned is the sheer predictability which a lot of the plot sadly succumbs to.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Orstavik ***

Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room is the fourteenth book to be published by the wonderful Peirene Press, a publishing house which we are incredibly fortunate to have.  Their intention is to bring the best of European fiction to the forefront of our consciousness, providing us with powerful and memorable stories which will linger on in our minds for months to come.  The Times Literary Supplement deems Peirene’s publications as ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, and as each is designed to take no more than two hours to read, they are the perfect treats to settle down with.

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Orstavik’s novella, which has been translated from its original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, and is the first of her works to appear in English, is billed as ‘a gripping portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship that will send a chill down your spine’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, believes that ‘The Blue Room holds up a mirror to a part of the female psyche that yearns for submission…  It then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers – a struggle that is rarely addressed in either literature or society’.

The first person protagonist of the piece is Johanne, a woman in her young twenties, who is living with her mother in Oslo and studying psychology at the local University.  At the very beginning of the novella, Johanne finds herself locked into her room, following her announcement that she is to be travelling to the United States the very next day with Ivar, a man whom she has met in her University canteen and fallen in love with.  When she discovers that she cannot leave, she says: ‘I cannot get out.  Something must have happened to the lock.  I’ll have to wait until Mum comes home from work to help me’.  She goes on to describe her surroundings: ‘This is my room.  Here I am.  Inside a small cube.  Floor area: six square metres.  Height: three and a half metres.  Twenty one cubic metres’.  Rather than trying to attract help from her window, Johanne, a rather devout character, goes on to tell us that ‘I’ve decided to leave it to God, to put my fate in his hands’.

The Blue Room is quite profound at times, particularly as Johanne asks a lot of pertinent questions throughout her narrative.  The prose which Orstavik has crafted seems rather innocent and naive at first, and the darker aspects of it come as short, sharp shocks, which the reader is never quite prepared for.  Whilst other elements are entwined within the plot – the love story, for example, and musings about different aspects of psychology – the relationship between Johanne and her mother is the novella’s focal point.  ‘We belong together like two clasped hands’, Johanne writes.  Her mother is psychologically cruel, and she instils such fear within her daughter, making her expect the worst in every situation.  She essentially cripples Johanne with doubts and fear.  As one might expect from such behaviour, The Blue Room is rather dark on the whole.  Johanne often has brutal visions which seem to come out of nowhere, and her self doubt creeps in as the narrative gains speed.

In The Blue Room, past and present converge to give the novella an interesting structure.  No episodes of Johanne’s life are quite separated from others, and the plot feels almost circular in consequence.  Orstavik’s idea is clever, particularly in terms of the plot spilling outside of the small room which Johanne is trapped within.  The story is unpredictable, and it has the power both to surprise and overwhelm.  Throughout, one gets the impression that Orstavik’s writing suits her narrator completely; Johanne feels real, and her vulnerability continually seeps through the cracks in her outer facade.  The Blue Room is a thought-provoking novella, which certainly deserves its place upon Peirene’s diverse list.

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One From the Archive: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates ****

I very much admire Richard Yates’ work.  Young Hearts Crying, published in 1984, is his penultimate novel, published eight years before his death.  The New Statesman describes his work as follows: ‘Bad couples, sad, sour marriages, young hopes corroded by suburban life’.

Here, Yates presents not just a married couple or a family to us, but a whole community; we are given a feel for how intrinsically individuals fit into a particular place or setting.  The protagonists of the piece, regardless, are a young married couple named Michael and Lucy Davenport.  The pair are very much in love at the beginning of the novel, yet cracks soon begin to appear within their marriage.  When Young Hearts Crying begins, Michael is a new Harvard graduate, who wants desperately to become a poet.  Rather than live upon Lucy’s sizeable trust fund, he is determined to make a living by himself; when he gets a job which he is not entirely satisfied with in New York, his friends and acquaintances begin to syphon off, doing bigger and better things.

As protagonists, Michael and Lucy are both well built.  Whilst Michael is not at all likeable (I would go as far to say that he is actually moderately awful in most of his thoughts and behaviour), Lucy is; the balance struck between the pair, augmented by their small daughter Laura, is pitch perfect.  One of Yates’ definite strengths here is the way in which he encompasses secondary characters from all walks of life, from the privileged to the poverty-stricken.  Young Hearts Crying is not overly heavy in its plot, and whilst one is able to guess what is going to happen as the story moves forward without any great effort, these elements do not make it any less compelling.

I always say this of Yates, but he is an incredibly aware and perceptive author.  Young Hearts Crying is so well written, and whilst it is not his strongest novel, it is a great, striking and relatively easy read nonetheless.

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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro *****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

9780804168915In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.

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One From the Archive: ‘Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities’ by Paul Anthony Jones ***

Word Drops: A Sprinkling of Linguistic Curiosities is inspired by author Paul Anthony Jones’ popular Twitter feed, HaggardHawks.  Its blurb proclaims that Word Drops is ‘a language book unlike any other’.  In reality, one cannot help but notice it bears an almost striking resemblance to Mark Forsyth’s excellent The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (review here).

Word Drops provides one thousand ‘linguistic and etymological titbits that all fall together into one long interconnected chain…  with each fact neatly “dropping” into place beside the next’.   Its ‘smattering of unexpected connections and weird juxtapositions’ is ‘here to inspire your curiosity and delight into discovery’.  It also takes into account cultures and historical facts from all over the globe.

Throughout, Jones has included what he terms ‘footnotes’, but they cannot really be described as such; instead, they are paragraphs written in tiny font beneath some of the entries, which further explain or give background to a particular fact).  These are often useful, but do detract somewhat from the chain of facts when one has to keep stopping to read them.

Word Drops is easy enough to dip in and out of, and is not too taxing to read in a single sitting either.  Some of the facts which Jones has used – more of them than one would expect, really – already sit within the commonplace consciousness of fact finders.  Others are thankfully far more quirky and interesting.  Of the latter, such intriguing factual titbits as the following are included: ‘Gossamer means “goose-summer”, probably in reference to the similarity of gossamer to goose down’; ‘Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part 1 contains the earliest recorded use of the words upstairs and downstairs‘; ‘The Russian equivalent of “easier said than done” – blizok lokotok, da ne ukusish – means “your elbow is close, but you can’t bite it”‘; ‘In Middle English, muggle was another name for a fish tail’; and ‘The Scots word tartle refers to the awkward hesitation of having to introduce someone whose name you can’t remember’.

The facts do link into one another quite cleverly in places, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into their ordering and the general structure of the book.  We are therefore transported from such facts as ‘To perendinate is to put something off until the day after tomorrow’ to the definition of ‘checkmate’ five entries later, and from ‘In Finland, a poronkusema is the distance a reindeer can travel without stopping to urinate – roughly four and a half miles’, to ‘A quarantine was once the length of time a widow was permitted to remain in her deceased husband’s home’.  I found it rather a nice touch that it goes full circle, wherein the final fact links in with the first one, providing quite a fitting end to such a work.

Whilst Word Drops is relatively entertaining, it is not quite as wonderful or as well put together as Forsyth’s aforementioned work.  It is a real shame that the book contained a couple of grammatical errors too; rather ironic, given that the whole is a celebration of language.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood’ by Allan Ahlberg ****

From ‘The Bucket’

I couldn’t wait to read The Bucket: Memories of an Inattentive Childhood after I spotted three copies in Waterstone’s Piccadilly.  I was fully set to purchase one until I noticed that they were so grubby and bent that I didn’t in the end.  Instead, I checked a copy out of the Cambridge Central Library on a trip there in April.

As I am sure they did with many children, Allan and Janet Ahlberg formed a large part of my early bookishness.  When I saw that Allan had written an autobiography of sorts therefore, I was so very excited.  He is the author of such treasures as Each Peach Pear Plum, Peepo! and Burglar Bill, as well as Please Mrs Butler! and the stunningly adorable The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman, all of which I adore.  The work also begins with a quote from William Maxwell, another author whom I love. 

The Bucket is Ahlberg’s recollection of his childhood, a memoir told in both prose and verse.  It details his ‘early enchanted childhod [which was] lived out in a Black Country town in the 1940s’.  His little introduction to the volume is darling.

Each memory which he presents is vivid; he writes of such things as sheltering beneath the kitchen table during bomb raids, of the butcher who dealt ‘in meat and menace’, searching for worms to sell on to fisherman in compost heaps, playing games beneath the clothes horse, his Christmas presents being presented to him in a pillowcase, reminiscences of going to the barber’s, and childhood pageants which he attended.  Each memory is presented as a random fragment, and each little essay is interspersed with a poem.  Ahlberg writes so earnestly.  His prose is lovely, and it continually feels as though he is personally telling each of his readers each story.  The retrospective wisdom which he has made use of works wonderfully.

The book, as one might expect, is filled with the most wonderful illustrations by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and their daughter Jessica, and it also features photographs, photocopies of school reports and documents.  The Bucket is absolutely lovely, and it has made me want to go and revisit all of the Ahlbergs’ work once more.  (Incidentally, I met up with one of my University friends in early April and we read Each Peach Pear Plum together in Waterstone’s, which was great fun!).  Any fan of Allan Ahlberg’s should rush out and purchase (or borrow!) this book, curl up in a comfortable place and enjoy its charm.

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