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One From the Archive: ‘London War Notes: 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes *****

First published in 2015.

The 111th entry on the Persephone list, and one of this year’s spring reprints, is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945.  First published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972, the collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.

Between 1939 and 1945, Panter-Downes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’.  These letters began at a pivotal time for Great Britain, as: ‘The first was written on the very Sunday that Neville Chamberlain informed the nation that his untiring efforts to preserve peace had failed’.  In all, she contributed 153 such pieces, as well as two dozen short stories, which Persephone have already gathered together in the Good Evening, Mrs Craven collection.

Edited by William Shawn, this new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston.  He believes that Panter-Downes’ humour is ‘wryly observational’, and this volume rightly leaves ‘historians as well as readers forever in her debt’ for the slice of wartime life which it presents.

The original American spellings and turns of phrase have been retained within London War Notes, as they ‘give a better sense of the period and of Mollie Panter-Downes’s original audience’.  Another nice touch within the book is the way in which it has been split up into sections, each of which refer to different years within the Second World War.  Each thus begins with a helpful timeline of the main historical events which occurred in any given year, which are both of importance in general terms, or which had definite consequences within Britain, and thus had major effects upon the populous – the rationing of petrol in September 1939, for example.

Robert Harris called Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why.  She is incredibly observant and, Kynaston agrees, she ‘deftly and economically makes us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose’. Panter-Downes is a wonderful writer; she is coolly intelligent, and is never one to get flustered.  One immediately receives the impression that she was one of those incredibly collected and headstrong women, who always tried to make the best of any given situation.  Each of her observations within London War Notes is of value, and never does she under- or overstate anything.  Panter-Downes is particularly fabulous at reasserting her own position, and that of her country, against the war at large.  She is a thoughtful prose writer, too: ‘The London crowds are cool,’ she writes on the day that war is declared, ‘in spite of thundery weather which does its best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for aid raids at the end of breathlessly humid days’.

London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read.  It is a fabulous piece of non-fiction, and feels incredibly fitting for the varied Persephone Classics list.  As far as journalism – and particularly wartime journalism from the perspective of somebody who was surviving on the Home Front – goes, London War Notes is at the very pinnacle.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’ by Chinua Achebe *****

The twenty-eighth book on the Penguin Modern list is ‘the father of modern African literature’ Chinua Achebe’s Africa’s Tarnished Name.  Of Achebe’s work, the only book of his which I had read before picking this up is Things Fall Apart, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really looking forward, therefore, to reading some of his non-fiction, and this collection of ‘electrifying essays on the history, complexity and appropriation of a continent’ felt like the perfect way in which to begin his oeuvre.9780241338834

Africa’s Tarnished Name is comprised of four essays: ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, which is adapted from a speech given in Lagos in 2008; ‘Travelling White’, which was first published in The Guardian in 1989; the titular essay, published in Another Africa in 1998; and ‘Africa is People’, which has been adapted from a speech delivered in Paris in 1998.  All of these essays can be found in the 2011 collection entitled The Education of a British-Protected Child.

Achebe was born into the ‘Igbo nation’, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, and the largest in Nigeria.  In ‘What’s Nigeria to Me?’, Achebe discusses nationality, and the granting of independence to Nigeria in 1960.  He goes on to point out the governmental issues which came with this independence, and the subsequent coups and massacres of citizens, which led to a bloody Biafran civil war.  He discusses, quite openly, his difficult relationship with Nigeria.  He writes that his feeling toward the country ‘was one of profound disappointment’, before going on to say: ‘I found it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my countrymen and -women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance, clearly within our grasp, to become a medium-rank developed nation in the twentieth century.’

Achebe’s essays feel immediately warm and amusing, particularly with regard to their tongue-in-cheek humour.  The first essay begins: ‘Nigerian nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste – like cheese.  Or, better still, like ballroom dancing.  Not dancing per se, for that came naturally; but this titillating version of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow performed in close body contact with a female against a strange, elusive beat.  I found, however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness I could do it pretty well.’

He discusses, amongst other things, the portrayal of Africa in fiction, and Western perceptions of the continent.  Achebe makes some very interesting points throughout.  ‘Africa’s Tarnished Name’, for instance, begins: ‘It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose landmass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in the European psychological disposition the furthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe’s very antithesis.’  The second essay, ‘Travelling White’, details Achebe’s travels in other African countries during 1960, and the racism which he encountered along the way.

In each of these essays, Achebe has packed so much into such a compact space, without sparing his reader explanations.  He writes with brevity, and with confidence, and speaks with both authority and intelligence.  These essays are filled with wisdom and measured arguments, and are often quite profound.  There is so much which can be learnt from this important collection, and it is clear to see why the author is so revered.  Achebe is a gifted essayist, and I certainly do not want to leave it too long before I read more of his work.

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Penguin Moderns: Samuel Beckett and Kathy Acker

The End by Samuel Beckett ** (#26) 9780241338971
Samuel Beckett is an author whom I have not historically enjoyed; I read both Endgame and Waiting for Godot during my undergraduate studies, and cannot say that I found much merit in either.  I was therefore not much looking forward to reading The End, the 26th Penguin Modern book, but decided to go to it with an open mind regardless.  Both stories in this collection, ‘The End’ and ‘The Calmative’, follow ‘unnamed vagrants contending with decay and death [and] combine bleakness with the blackest of humour’.  The tales were both published in 1954, and were translated from their original French into English in 1967.

Both stories are told in a stream-of-consciousness style.  In ‘The End’, the voice of the narrator runs on, barely stopping, and running from one random observation to the next in the same paragraph; it is rare that such observations are at all connected to one another.  The voices of the protagonists have been captured well, as have their concerns with the world, but I found them both incredibly odd; indeed, they are almost nonsensical at times.  The second story is narrated by a dead man, and is thus even stranger than the first.  Both characters are very involved with divulging their bodily functions and excretions, which I personally found quite grim.  Despite being so short, both stories felt very long indeed due to the style in which they were written.

 

9780241338896New York City in 1979 by Kathy Acker (#27)
Aside from reading the first twenty or so pages of Blood and Guts in High School before deciding it wasn’t for me and putting it down, I was quite unfamiliar with Kathy Acker’s work.  ‘New York City in 1979’ is a short story described in its blurb as ‘a tale of art, sex, blood, junkies and whores in New York’s underground.’  Acker is referred to in the same blurb as a ‘cult literary icon’.

This is the first Penguin Modern to include photographs in my ordered reading of the series, and these, which are by Anne Turyn, I enjoyed.  I was not keen at all on the accompanying text, however.  Its blurb makes it sound rather gritty, which I am fine with.  I found the story vulgar, though.  ‘New York City in 1979’, which was first published in 1981, is fragmented in its prose style and format, and feels rather cobbled together.  There is little coherence here; rather, it feels as though Acker made a series of notes, connected only due to their New York setting, and published them without any editing.  The tone is impersonal and detached, and the characters are so shadowy that it is difficult to feel anything for them.  I felt as though Acker was shrieking her words at times, a fan as she is of random capitalisation.  I found ‘New York City in 1979’ a very awkward tale to read, and the photographs were the only thing here which I enjoyed.

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‘Denial: Holocaust History on Trial’ by Deborah E. Lipstadt ***

In 1993, Deborah E. Lipstadt published a book called Denying the Holocaust.  In this, she called British historian David Irving, a prolific author of books on World War Two, ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial’.  She went on to say that he was a ‘Hitler partisan wearing blinkers’, and that ‘on some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy’.  In the entire book, she devoted no more than two hundred words to Irving.  Despite this, and as he had done on previous occasions, Irving decided to file a court case against both Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, for the ‘accusations’ which she levelled upon him.  These cases, and the ‘provocative books’ which he himself wrote, gave Irving ‘a certain notoriety’.  Denial: Holocaust History on Trial follows the entire trial, in which Lipstadt was victorious, from beginning to end.

Denial is described as a ‘riveting, blow-by-blow account of this singular legal battle, which resulted in a formal denunciation of a Holocaust denier that crippled the movement for years to come.  Lipstadt’s victory was proclaimed on the front page of newspapers around the world, such as The Times (UK) which declared that “history has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”‘  Elie Wiesel declares that Lipstadt’s book is an ‘absorbing narrative of an event that has reverberated throughout the world [and which] will be read with interest and gratitude by future generations’.  The San Francisco Chronicle deems it ‘possibly the most important Holocaust-related trial since Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel in 1961.’9780062659651

As the trial was to take place at the Royal Courts of Justice in the United Kingdom, American lecturer and author Lipstadt faced very different judicial proceedings to those which she would have endured in the United States; a ‘mirror image’, no less.  In the United Kingdom, she was the person who had to prove that what she said about Irving was true; in the United States, it would have been up to Irving to prove Lipstadt wrong.  She had to assemble a legal team in the United Kingdom, as well as a research assistant under her care at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she worked as a lecturer in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, to work tirelessly on amassing an extensive body of evidence.  She essentially had to prove to the courts that the Holocaust happened.

Denial brings together Lipstadt’s extensive journal entries, as well as transcripts of the trial.  It has been split into three sections, which deal with ‘The Prelude’, ‘The Trial’, and ‘The Aftermath’.  Lipstadt begins by setting out her interest in, and personal reasoning for, studying Modern Jewish History and the Holocaust, and then the process of how she came to research deniers, something which posed a challenge for her from the very beginning.

At first, I found Lipstadt’s prose style rather accessible and easy to read, but it soon became bogged down with so much detail from the trial.  At times, when a lot of participants are present in conversations or briefings, it can tend to get a little confused.  This is not due to the way in which Lipstadt sets things out; rather, it has to do with the naming of characters, and the ways in which she refers to them.  There is little consistency in places here; for instance, she speaks to historian Chris Browning, referring to him as ‘Browning’ in one sentence and ‘Chris’ the next.  This is easy enough for the reader to work out, of course, but it does feel a little jarring at times.

The confusion which I felt in particular passages may have been expected; due to the nature of the book, a lot of intricate legal language is used, and is not always explained in context.  Lipstadt discusses of the personal impact which the trial has upon her, although not always in as much detail as seemed fitting.  The pacing felt a little off at times, too, and some sections tended to feel a little plodding in consequence.  At times, there is a curious sense of detachment in Denial, despite Lipstadt herself being such an important part of the case.  This may be because she is unable to speak during the trial upon the advice of her lawyers, who do so on her behalf.

I am still baffled as to how anyone can dispute the horrors of the Holocaust; there is so much firsthand evidence available to the modern historian, all of it heartbreaking.  I very much admire Lipstadt for bringing such despicable Holocaust deniers to the fore in her work.  As Lipstadt notes, ‘In a way, I found it harder to write about deniers than about the Holocaust itself.  The Nazis were defeated.  Deniers were alive and kicking and reveling in their efforts.’

Despite this, I did not get on that well with the way in which the trial was presented in Denial.  As I read, I was continually asking myself whether I was enjoying the book.  Of course, given its nature and content, Denial has a lot of merit.  I found that overall, however, my reading experience felt rather negative.  Whilst the material here is fascinating, I did not feel as though the reportage of the trial was as well executed as it could have been.

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‘The Lost Garden’ by Helen Humphreys *****

I had read and enjoyed two of Helen Humphreys’ books prior to picking up her quiet masterpiece, The Lost Garden.  This short novel, which is set in Devon in early 1941, is described variously as ‘a haunting story of love in a time of war’, and ‘both heartrending and heart-mending’.    In 1941, Humphreys writes, ‘the war seems endless and, perhaps, hopeless.’  The focus of her third novel is to explore the effects of war upon the population on the Home Front.

9780393324914The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Gwen Davies, is a horticulturalist.  She has moved from her London home, where she has been studying the effects of disease upon parsnips for the Royal Horticultural Society, in order to escape the Blitz.  She has volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, and finds herself travelling to a country estate named Mosel in a remote part of Devon, in order to lead a team of women gardeners.  Also billeted on the estate are a regiment of Canadian soldiers, who are awaiting orders to travel to the Front.  Of course, the paths of the women cross with various soldiers, but, says the blurb, ‘no one will be more changed by the stay than Gwen.  She falls in love with a soldier, finds her first deep friendship, and brings a hidden garden, created for a great love, back to life.’

From the first, Gwen is a fascinating character.  She is described as ‘shy and solitary’, and finds it difficult to move from her previous existence as a quiet, almost isolated scientist, to having to guide the ‘disparate group of young women’ whom she finds herself in charge of.  I immediately came to understand her thought process, and warmed to her instantly: ‘What can I say about love?  You might see me sitting in this taxi, bound for Paddington Station – a thirty-five-year-old woman with plain features – and you would think that I could not know anything of love.  But I am leaving London because of love.’  Gwen is immediately likeable; she details that she takes hardly any articles of clothing with her on her trip, knowing that a uniform will await her, but says: ‘my books are so many that it looks as though I am on my way to open a small lending library.’  There is such depth to Gwen; her worries and perceptions make her feel so realistic.

From the outset, Humphreys’ prose is both luminous and mesmerising.  The novel opens: ‘We step into lamplight and evening opening around us.  This felt moment.  Our brief selves.  Stars a white lace above the courtyard.’  The descriptions of Gwen’s adopted London home are poignant, particularly with regard to the devastation which war has already wreaked at this point in time.   As she passes once familiar sights in a taxi, Gwen muses: ‘The wild, lovely clutter of London.  Small streets that twisted like vines.  Austere stone cathedrals.  The fast, muddy muscle of the Thames, holding the city apart from itself…  I have stood beside the Thames and felt it there, twining beneath my feet like a root.’

As in her novel Coventry, Humphreys sparingly captures the atrocities of war, and the changing face of the city: ‘Houses became holes.  Solids became spaces.  Anything can disappear overnight.’  Humphreys’ writing is very human, particularly when she articulates the displacement which Gwen feels, with all of the sudden changes, and with such volatility around her: ‘I do not know how to reconcile myself to useless random death.  I do not know how to assimilate this much brutal change, or how to relearn this landscape that was once so familiar to me and is now different every day.  I cannot find my way back to my life when all my known landmarks are being removed.’

Juxtapositions quickly come into play when Gwen explores the peaceful Devon garden, which has been left uncared for for many years.  On her first foray into the garden, she observes: ‘There is the cheerful song of a bird in a tree by the garden well.  When was the last time I heard a bird in London?  Here, the war seems not to exist at all…  Was there a wold like this before the war?  A quiet world.  A slow garden.’  The descriptions continue in this sensual manner; for instance, Gwen touches, smells, and tastes the earth of the garden, whilst observing its red colour.

The Lost Garden has been well built, both culturally and socially.  On the day on which Gwen leaves London, for example, she spots a fellow train passenger’s newspaper, which has an article presuming that the missing author Virginia Woolf has been drowned in the River Ouse in Sussex.  We feel Gwen’s grief when her death is later announced – in fact, part of the novel reads like a love letter to Woolf – as well as her grief at the ways in which London has been lost to her.  The descriptions of war and loss here are often moving, as are those passages in which Gwen begins to come to terms with the war: ‘The thing with war is this – we cannot change ourselves enough to fit the shape of it.  We still want to dance and read.  We hang on to a domestic order.  Perhaps we hang on to it even more vigorously than before.’  Later, she says: ‘And I realize that we haven’t left our lives.  They have left us.  The known things in them.  The structure of our days.  All the bones of who we are have been removed from us.  We have been abandoned by the very facts of ourselves, by the soft weight of the old world.’

The Lost Garden is essentially a coming-of-age novel, with a protagonist a little older than one might expect to find in such a story.  There is a wisdom to Humphreys’ prose, and everything about it has been so well measured.  The story here feels simplistic on the face of it, but the writing is absolutely stunning, and I was immediately pulled in.  Gwen is an utterly realistic construct; she is flawed and unpredictable, and filled with a wealth of doubts and insecurities.  Other characters, too, are sharply defined, and have believable pasts which reflect upon their present lives.  The novel is gorgeously layered, and has been so well constructed.  The Lost Garden is a transporting novel, and one which I would urge everyone to read.

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‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth ****

The Human Stain (2000), which is the third novel in Philip Roth’s American Trilogy, is the first of his books which I have read.  It may sound odd to begin with the final book in a series, but the novel is a standalone one; together, the three books, which also include American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), are said to make marked comments upon post-war American society and politics.

9780099282198The majority of reviews of The Human Stain, as indeed of Roth’s other novels, have been highly favourable.  The Mail on Sunday deems it a ‘novel with an almost Victorian range of scope and characters, all powered by one vast secret and a frenetic and exciting plot.’  The Sunday Telegraph calls it ‘an extraordinary book – bursting with rage, humming with ideas, full of dazzling sleights of hand.’

The novel is set in 1998, against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.  It ‘shows us an America where conflicting moralities and ideological divisions result in public denunciations and houndings, and where innocence is not always a good enough excuse.’  This was the summer in which, writes Roth, ‘… for the billionth time – the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality.  It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.’

The protagonist of the piece is a retired college professor named Coleman Silk, and the novel is narrated by his neighbour, Nathan Zuckerman, who lives around the mountain in the Berkshires.  Coleman, a widower, is closely guarding a secret, which has always been hidden from his four grown children, and from his late wife.  ‘But,’ writes Roth, ‘it’s not the secret of his affair, at seventy-one, with a woman half his age.  And it’s not the secret of his alleged racism, which provoked the college witchhunt that cost him his job.  Coleman’s secret is deeper, and lies at the very core of who he is…’.  This claim of racism is an unfounded one, with a comment which he made taken out of context, and causing a college-wide furore.

The woman with whom Coleman is having an affair is a thirty-four-year-old janitor named Faunia Farley.  She works at Athena College, where he spent much of his career, first as a Classics lecturer, and then as Dean.  Faunia has had her fair share of tragedy, and exists as a complex character, hard to pinpoint.  Roth observes: ‘… whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness.’  Coleman, too, has the air of a composite and authentic being, particularly as the novel goes on.  Roth describes him variously as ‘an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator…’.  Some elements of his past feel a little problematic and unlikely, but taken as a whole, his backstory is largely a believable one, which gives weight and understanding to the decisions which he has made.

Nathan has had nothing whatsoever to do with Coleman, until the period directly after Coleman’s wife, Iris, passes away.  He knocks impatiently at Nathan’s door, demanding his help in penning his biography.  ‘I had to write something for him – he all but ordered me to,’ Nathan reflects.  ‘If he wrote the story in all of its absurdity, altering nothing, nobody would believe it, nobody would take it seriously, people would say it was a ludicrous lie, a self-serving exaggeration…  But if I wrote it, if a professional writer wrote it…’.  This decision has lasting consequences for Nathan; he says: ‘I did no more than find a friend, and all the world’s malice came rushing in.’

I found The Human Stain immediately compelling.  Roth’s writing style often feels a little complicated, or even overdone, but I very much admired the way in which he writes such extended sentences with a great deal of clarity.  This is not the kind of book to choose if you are looking for something easy to read, or a novel which you can pick up and put down after reading just a few pages.

By its very nature, The Human Stain deals with complex themes, threads of which run throughout the whole novel, connecting Coleman’s personal story with the wider context of academia, as well as with sexual, familial, and governmental politics.  Roth explores and captures facets of the human condition, taking into account a variety of varied characters and differing situations, with such insight.  His writing is shrewd and acerbic, and always interesting.  A real strength is the unpredictable and assertive dialogue which he crafts between characters, and the monologues which feature from time to time.  There is such a strength to his narrative throughout The Human Stain, and I definitely feel as though it was a good novel with which to begin reading his oeuvre.

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One From the Archive: ‘Mossy Trotter’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

First published in 2015.

The 633rd book on Virago’s wonderful Modern Classics list is Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children, Mossy Trotter.  First published in 1967, the new edition comes with lively Tony Ross illustrations, and an introduction written by Taylor’s son, Renny, who says: ‘… some of it is based on my childhood…  She must have made notes of  things that I got up to because you’ll read about some of my adventures in Mossy Trotter‘.

The blurb of Mossy Trotter – which has been praised by prolific children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Saunders – says that within its pages, Taylor ‘perfectly captures the temptations and terrors of a mischievous boy – and just how illogical, frustrating and inconsistent adults are’.  It then goes on to compare the book to such classics as Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and Clive King’s Stig of the Dump

The premise of the book is almost Roald Dahl-esque, and it is sure to appeal to both adults and children: ‘When Mossy moves to the country, life is full of delights…  But every now and then his happiness is disturbed – chiefly by his mother’s meddling friend, Miss Silkin.  And a dreaded event casts a shadow over even the sunniest of days – being a page-boy at her wedding’.

Mossy is a curious, likeable and amusing child, whose inquisitiveness often gets the better of him, and leads him into sticky – sometimes quite literally – situations.  He is particularly fond of tar, and finds himself playing in it when the workmen have been, despite knowing that his mother will be cross with him: ‘… to begin with, he would stand in the tar-splashed grass at the side of the road; then he would drop a few stones on to the tar to see if they stuck; then he would put out his toe and prod an oozy patch, and in no time at all he was stamping in it, picking bits up and rolling them into rubbery balls, and his legs would be smeared, and so would his jeans and his shirt’.

An understanding Taylor bestows the role of confidante upon her young audience almost immediately: ‘Where things had been was what grown-ups worried about all the time.’  She outlines, in the tale’s very beginning, the vast differences which exist between children and adults.  The character of Miss Silkin opens proceedings by talking about her concept of paradise: ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken.  This had been his private paradise from the moment he discovered it.  It was a shallow pit filled with broken treasures from which, sometimes, other treasures could be made…  If he could only find two old wheels, he could build himself a whole bicycle, he thought’.

I was reminded throughout of Astrid Lindgren’s charming Pippi LongstockingMossy Trotter feels almost as though it was written by the same author, just with a more masculine young audience in mind.  Mossy’s adventures, much like Pippi’s – a birthday party, a visit from his grandfather, and being a page boy, for example – are lovingly relayed by Taylor, and are certain to leave children wanting more.  The whole has been so well crafted, and interlinking tales wind through from one chapter to the next.  Mossy Trotter is rather a charming read, which is sure to drum up childhood nostalgia in the adults who come across it due to Virago’s reprint.

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