About Simon Lavery

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Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds. Oxford World’s Classics, 1983. First published as a serial, 1871; as a book, 1872

The Eustace Diamonds is the third in the Palliser series of novels. They deal largely with the urban worlds of politics and social ambition. The Barchester series, which preceded the Pallisers, focused more on the parochial worlds of the country gentry and clerics.

The central themes of this novel are familiar: the struggle between head and heart of promising but hard-up young men, who need to ‘marry money’ in order to finance their political and/or social ambitions, but who fall improvidently in love with penniless young women.

The flip side of these narratives is the career of Lizzie Eustace, a Becky Sharpe type of character: beautiful, scheming and a serial liar (she cheerfully admits that she prefers lies to truth – they’re more interesting and exciting). Aged just 19 she snares the dissipated, dying Sir Florian Eustace, a man of immense wealth and minimal morals. No sooner are they married than he discovers Lizzie’s true nature – she’d borrowed money on the basis of her impending marriage, and he’s saddled with her huge bills.

Trollope tries hard to condemn ‘this selfish, hard-fisted little woman’, but can’t prevent himself from presenting her as the most attractive character in the novel – even if she is called, at various times, a ‘vixen’; ‘”I do not think Satan himself can lies as she does,”’ says another character of her. Lovable rogues are always more endearing than prudish goody-two-shoes. Aren’t they?

Sir Florian promptly does the only decent thing and dies. Much of the rest of the novel deals with Lizzie’s efforts to hang on to the titular diamond necklace (worth a fabulous £10K – a huge amount at that time) as part of the estate he’d generously left her. His lawyers insist it’s an heirloom, and therefore not hers – it belongs to the Eustace family heirs. Lizzie insists, knowing she’s lying, that he’d given it to her. This legal tussle is the central thread of the narrative, but there are numerous others.

These mostly involve fairly similar on-off love/money matches. There’s Trollope’s customary hunting scene, too. This time for once it’s quite interesting, and serves to develop characters and plot.

Frank Greystock, another of Trollope’s unheroic, flawed heroes (like Phineas Finn in the previous novel in this series), struggled to engage my interest or sympathy. He wants to do the right thing, having rashly proposed to his Jane Eyre-ish governess sweetheart, Lucy – the penniless young woman I mentioned at the start – and marry her; but he’s also unable to resist Lizzie’s smouldering, scheming charms. Unlike the dowdy, prim, plain Lucy, Lizzie has beauty, brains and wit – and pots of money and a castle in Scotland. All his family and friends tell him to think of his rising career as a new Tory MP and lawyer; he needs Lizzie’s wealth to support his lavish, overspending lifestyle and vaulting ambition. Where do you think this will end?!

The novel is, as usual with Trollope, over-long, and at times there are diversions and new characters and plot developments that feel like padding. But there are also several set pieces and exchanges between the warring characters that make this a rewarding reading experience. Some of the best of these involve Lucinda, a fiery misandrist who gives her fiancé a torrid time. The only way she can escape his creepy clutches is to go mad. Trollope always finds it hard fully to endorse his feisty proto-feminists.

I particularly liked the political elements in the novel. Although The Eustace Diamonds is seen as one of the least political of the Palliser novels, the politics is still lurking just beneath the surface all the time. As in previous novels in the series, parliamentary politics is portrayed as a cynical game, a chess match played by chancers who don’t have any firm political or ethical convictions; they just do what’s expedient to benefit their own party, which in turn will advance their own careers.

Here’s how Trollope introduces us to Frank’s party at the start of his parliamentary career:

His father was a fine old Tory [ie Conservative] of the ancient school, who thought that things were going from bad to worse, but was able to live happily in spite of his anticipations. The dean [his father] was one of those old-school politicians…who enjoy the politics of the side to which they belong without any special belief in them. If pressed hard they will almost own that their so-called convictions are prejudices. But not for worlds would they be rid of them…They feel among themselves that everything that is being done is bad, — even though that everything is done by their own party…These people are ready to grumble at every boon conferred on them, and yet to enjoy every boon.

There’s much more in a similar ironic vein.

Things aren’t so very different today in Britain. Our beleaguered, amoral Prime Minister has just leaked to the media a series of initiatives intended to encourage the electorate to forgive his history of egregious mistakes, hypocrisy, narcissism and mendacity. Nothing to do with making things better – except for him. Trollope would have rolled his eyes and shrugged – just as he does when Frank speaks passionately against a Liberal political decision in a parliamentary debate, then adds slyly that Frank would have been just as vehemently opposed if their respective positions had been reversed.

Here to end – a picture of the first wild daffodils of the year, seen by a country lane on this morning’s walk (Monday) on a beautiful sunny day in Cornwall.

Daffodils

 

 

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. Penguin Classics, 1997. First published in serial form, then, slightly revised, as a three-volume book, 1880.

My attempt to end a run of disappointing reading experiences wasn’t entirely successful with Hardy’s sixth (I think) published novel, The Trumpet-Major. This Penguin edition’s introduction (by Linda M. Shires) discusses the incongruities in its three generic strands: comedy, romance and history – it’s set in 1805, when Britain feared imminent invasion by Napoleon’s army, massing on the north coast of France.

Thomas Hardy, Trumpet-Major cover

The striking photo on the cover is ‘A Newhaven pilot, 1844’ by D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Her argument in defence of Hardy’s artistic achievement in this novel is ingenious, but didn’t convince me. My response was to find the comedy too broad (stereotypical rural characters) and laboured – but there’s a very funny scene in which the hopelessly inept local rustics attempt a drilling exercise in which their inability to distinguish left from right is exacerbated by their impatience to leave in order to fulfil their duties in the church service about to start nearby. British readers will recognise the humour here as in a similar vein as that found in the old sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, about the Home Guard in southern England early in WWII, preparing to combat the expected Nazi invasion.

The romance will disappoint any reader, including me, who likes to see a satisfyingly happy ending (spoiler alert). The good, steady, decent guy is the one who should marry the beautiful protagonist, and his feckless, selfish rival should not. The beautiful young woman should not be inconstant in her affections – a central image of a weathervane sums her up here. Admittedly this is a pretty shallow expectation of novelistic artifice.

The historical aspect is the most interesting element. The Trumpet-Major is set near Weymouth in Dorset, on the south coast of England, and therefore likely to be a landing-point for the feared French invasion. The locals are understandably nervous and frightened, and fake news is rife. A system of hilltop beacons will be lit as an early warning. One section of the novel describes a false alarm, which sets all the inhabitants off on a terrified evacuation. Meanwhile large groups of soldiers set up tented camps just outside the village at the centre of the narrative. The uniforms set all the local female hearts aflutter.

I found these incongruous strands simply didn’t combine effectively, despite the editor’s claim that aesthetic disjunction was Hardy’s intention.

Just took a look at my posts in January last year. Snowdrops and daffodils began to appear by the second week (none yet in my garden, but they’re coming), and we’d just entered another lockdown. This year the Covid infection rates are soaring again, but there are few restrictions. Let’s hope the government policy (perhaps that’s too flattering a term for their reluctance to act decisively) works: so far the signs aren’t great.

 

 

 

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife

Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife, Phoenix paperback, 2014; first published 2013

I first came across this bizarre twist on the Frankenstein story when I was teaching a Romantics module on a degree course a few years ago (link to my series of posts on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel HERE).

Moore, Perfect Wife cover Wealthy, eccentric and uncouth Thomas Day had been upset several times when his fiancées had a change of heart about marriage and rejected him. The latest of these was Margaret, sister of his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish inventor and father of the novelist Maria). Day was hardly a compelling romantic prospect: his face was badly scarred from childhood smallpox; he was dirty, unkempt, morose, moody, misogynistic and opinionated, given to holding forth at tedious length on his pet subjects.

A devotee of Rousseau’s radical theories about education and social equality, he nevertheless (like his hero) held paradoxically misogynistic and repressive views on women: their role, he believed, was to submit to and obey men. Libertarians at that time firmly held that women were an inferior species and were therefore exempt from androcentric strictures about equality, liberty and human rights. (Today’s so-called libertarians here in the UK at the moment think, equally irrationally, that it’s an infringement on their civil liberties to have to wear a mask to stop them infecting and potentially killing people around them.)

The marital rejections he’d been humiliated by, he believed, were the consequence of young women’s being exposed to and deformed by the corrupting influence of foppish Georgian society. They were susceptible to what he saw as the vacuous distractions of fashion, dancing, gossip, and so on, and lacked rational capacity (that is, they failed to discern his genius). His plan was for his wife to live with him in simple, idyllic rural seclusion, dressed peasant style and following a frugal regime. She would defer to him and his every whim, and yet entertain him intellectually – she’d therefore need a modicum of rational education.

His monstrous plan, formed at the age of just 21 in 1769, in imitation of Rousseau’s scheme in Emile, or on Education (1761-2), was to find a pre-pubescent girl, as yet unspoilt by social influences, her mind a blank slate on which he could inscribe his own program, and to train her to become his ideal wife. He hedged his bets by selecting two orphans from foundling hospitals in Shrewsbury and London, whose names he changed to Sabrina (Latin for Severn, the river in Shrewsbury where her hospital was located), and Lucretia. If one fell short of his exacting standards, the other would, he hoped, meet them.

His scheme, fortunately, failed. Both girls failed to fulfil his selfish, impossible ambitions. His despotic methods included interminable sessions of tedious instruction – the pedagogy of the oppressor. He would cruelly expose them to physical, emotional and psychological traumas, privations and constraints, and try to condition their behaviour through punishment, coercion and bullying. One example of this, which Moore doesn’t mention explicitly, was his practice of firing a gun behind them unexpectedly to startle them; if they screamed or made a fuss they’d be admonished. It was their task to show stoical indifference to all hardships or knocks, and to obey blindly any male orders, however ridiculous or demeaning to them.

Day’s arrogance is depicted with graphic clarity in this lively, depressing account, and the monstrous presumptuousness of his experiment is expounded in all its cruelty. Moore also points out that it was Day’s social rank, wealth and gender that enabled him to get away with his devious schemes; nowadays one would hope he’d be exposed and prosecuted as a paedophile and predator.

He was a strangely paradoxical character: he gave away much of his wealth to the poor, and was an abolitionist, and yet he made a virtual slave of Sabrina, and abandoned her to a life of penury when she failed to satisfy his requirements.

Moore goes on to show what happened in Sabrina’s life after she was callously cast aside by Day (just as Victor Frankenstein abandoned his Creature, who had also come to appal him). After many hardships she found a kind of peace and perhaps love. Day, for his part, continued to be as boorish and overbearing for the rest of his life. Astonishingly, he managed to find a young woman who went along with his tyrannical regime for a wife, and even seemed to dote on him. There really is no accounting for taste.

I’d have liked to see more of the author’s discussion of influences on Day’s thinking other than Rousseau’s; the scientists/’natural philosophers’ whose thinking radically influenced the nascent Romantic movement, such as those in what became, from 1775, the Lunar Society (which met on the nights of a full moon, hence the name). These late Enlightenment intellectuals – ‘men of observation’ – promulgated the ‘experimental optimism’ mentioned by Jenny Uglow in her book about them, The Lunar Men: The friends who made the future, 1730-1810 (2002; reviewed in the Guardian HERE).

I’d also have liked more on the influence of Day’s callous experiment with Sabrina on later writers, touched on only briefly in Moore’s account, from Henry James’s Watch and Ward to Shaw’s version of the Pygmalion story. Trollope has a tale about a young man who moulds an orphan to become his wife as a central thread in his 1862 novel Orley Farm (I haven’t read it, so can’t confirm this claim). Maria Edgeworth’s fictional treatments of Day’s story are covered by Moore rather more thoroughly, from an early short story to the ‘society’ novel Belinda (1801).

Moore’s style is gratingly journalistic at times, and there’s a dusty air to the whole thing, perhaps a consequence of the obviously very thorough research she conducted – there are 35 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography. Sometimes I felt that the copious narrative detail obscured or diminished the shocking impact of the central theme.

 

 

 

 

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Corsair paperback, 2016. First published in the USA, 2015

This is the harrowing story of the fall of Vietnam to the communist forces, and what followed. The ignominious evacuation of Saigon – a corrupt regime propped up by equally dodgy American military and covert forces fled in scenes realised dramatically here – was mirrored this summer in Kabul. Only those influential or rich enough to bribe their way onto the last planes to leave the airport made it – and not all of them survived.

Nguyen Sympathizer cover The narrative is in the form of a confession to his captors by a self-confessed ‘mole’, a communist spy embedded at the highest level of the Vietnamese military as it struggled to delay the inevitable collapse of the former colonial government. At the onset he emphasises his dual or split nature – an image that looms very significantly at the novel’s end.

He can sympathize with both sides of the conflict: his mother was Vietnamese, his father a French priest. He’s therefore seen with suspicion by the natives of the country he was born and brought up in, but equally by the Americans (he was educated in an American university and speaks perfect English) and Europeans.

The narrator’s final epiphany is breathtaking. The Sympathizer was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer in 2016. It was perhaps a little too long for my taste, and some of the scenes of violence, torture and rape are unpleasant, and I’m not sure they needed to be quite so graphically detailed. The novel packs a serious punch – but I can’t really say that ultimately I enjoyed it. Admired, perhaps.

On reflection I think it was partly the narrative voice that put me off, as well as the content, and excessive length (just short of 500 pp). There’s a whiff of the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school. This is in keeping with the covert nature of the mole’s life, his task to pose as something he’s not, which has the effect of creating for him an existential dilemma. Like a tough, embittered Chandler hero, he inhabits a nasty world in which nobody can be trusted or taken at face value, and he’s haunted by the victims of his duplicity.

The satiric section of the novel depicting the narrator’s role in the making of Coppola’s epic Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’ was one of the best parts of the novel. He tries (and fails) to persuade the ‘auteur’ director to portray the Vietnamese characters as something more than ciphers – and pays a heavy price for his efforts.

I’ve started reading a Hardy novel – The Trumpet Major – in an attempt to break this run of unsuccessful reading experiences.

 

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love, Picador 1996; first published 1995. This is another novel I heard good things about recently, in this case on the BBC Radio 4 book podcast, A Good Read (link HERE: the item comes after about nine minutes). I was attracted by the main setting: a hall of residence for women at the LSE (part of the University of London) in the early 70s – the very time when friends of mine were there.

Hilary Mantel An Experiment in Love cover

This is the edition I borrowed from the library; it was published in America.

I found these university/London scenes compelling and realistic – I felt I was reliving my own youth. The class differences are particularly well brought out: the privileged ‘Sophies’ and their boyfriends, the ‘Rogers’, are well off, privately educated, with a veneer of sophistication and casual generosity blended with condescension. Then there are the poor, working-class (northern) girls like Carmel, whose unfulfilled and angry mother is a cleaner, and who struggles to make her meagre grant stretch to keep her alive. At least students got a grant in those days (I was one of these lucky ones); now they’re left with huge debts when they graduate.

The women at the heart of the narrative are also well done: Carmel is a self-confessed mouse, timid and nerdy, but also sensitive and perceptive. Oddly enough she has a (doomed) sex life with a dull man who fails to see her true self and dumps her when she reveals her inner truth.

In fact it’s the sexual element of these young women’s lives that’s a key feature in the novel. In 1970 the liberation of women was beginning to take shape – but within patriarchal limits. Abortion was available, after a fashion, but the women who went through the procedure were viewed with a mix of pity, scorn and awe by the likes of Carmel. She believes, perversely, that it’s the nice girls who are foolish enough to get pregnant. I remember well this weirdly perverse and ambiguous attitude at the time.

Despite the early stirrings of feminism and the continuing quest for equality for women, girls from Carmel’s background could only hope to gain a good education as a way out of their otherwise inevitable fate: the drudgery of unequal marriage, motherhood and housework. Even this hope turns out not to be all it seems. She starts out well, winning a scholarship to a smart but repressive Catholic convent school, and then a place at London University. The price of being a swot is high: social life is limited by her poverty already, and she’s no competition for the glamour-pusses like the Sophies.

There was something amiss with this novel too, though. There was something a little too contrived about the plot, and the ending (which I didn’t see coming) was a dramatic shock. As the podcast participants point out, however, there are clues strung through the narrative, and it’s probably a good idea to re-read, to see how skilfully Mantel builds the tension and the inevitable outcome that shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me after all.

The depiction of anorexia – I suppose these were days when it wasn’t much understood or acknowledged – is interesting. The descriptions of the institutional meals are stomach-turning – but I realised eventually that of course they are seen from Carmel’s food-averse point of view. My own recollection of hall of residence food was that it wasn’t great, but not as disgusting as Carmel makes out.

Karina, who has a love-hate relationship with Carmel from their early childhood, is another complex character. Her family were east European immigrants, seemingly having escaped persecution decades earlier, although this is never made explicit. Carmel dislikes her mostly because her mother, taking pity on Karina’s family’s poverty (they’re even poorer than hers) and history, insists that Carmel walk to primary school with her every morning. This reaction quietly points to the kind of initially unperceived, insidious bigotry that caused Karina’s family to be persecuted in the first place. It also explains why Karina becomes so bitter and angry.

At the novel’s end, though I was less irritated than I was with the Nymph (see my previous post), I wasn’t enthused. I’m not sure about the novel’s uninspiring title, either. There was little I could see in the way of experimentation, in love or anything else.

 

A Constant Nymph

I’ve been busy with work again lately, so the next few posts, if I get time to post what I plan to, will be quick recaps of some recent reading.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph, VMC 2000; first published 1924

This is another of those novels that most reviewers have raved about; I struggled with it, and nearly gave up after thirty or so pages. I simply didn’t relish reading about ‘Sanger’s circus’, the chaotic-bohemian ménage in the Austrian Tyrol of English avant-garde composer Albert Sanger. This neglected, wayward genius and his tribe of shabby, barefooted feral children (by three different mothers; certain British prime ministers come to mind) are supposed I think to be charmingly alternative, spontaneous and precocious – a sort of antidote to the saccharine von Trapps. Instead I thought their spiteful anti-Semitism and careless selfishness repellent.

One of the male characters, a Jewish suitor of the oldest Sanger girl, is portrayed in unpleasantly negative stereotypical ways, and is treated by many of the others, including his lover, with undisguised contempt.

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph cover

It wasn’t me who made the image blurred: it’s that way on the cover. It’s by the Swedish photographer Irmelie Krekin.

A budding composer called Lewis, one of the central characters, is a friend and disciple of Sanger, and another less than charming figure. He’s anti-social to the point of misanthropy, another supposedly eccentric genius – in fact he’s just another selfish boor.

When his new wife tries to tame him, make him presentable in chic London society as a means of promoting his stalled career, he rewards her by becoming romantically attached to one of the younger Sanger girls, Tessa (the nymph of the title) – just 14 when the novel opens. She’s been hopelessly in love with him since she was a little girl. She’s an unlikely mixture of shrewd precocity and naiveté, and Kennedy just about succeeds in making her an attractive, increasingly confident and rounded character.

Tessa’s is easily the most successfully drawn character in the novel. She’s described as plain and skinny, but also vivacious, witty and charmingly ingenuous, the only one who can handle the irritable, moody Lewis. But this Lolita-like relationship is worryingly one-sided: she’s far too young for such a committed affair with an older man whose interest in her isn’t surely as pure or innocent as hers in him. Kennedy doesn’t shy away from the sexual element, either, and this too is troubling. All the older Sanger children show unabashed awareness of their sexuality. It’s probably this frankness that contributed to the novel’s being a huge best-seller in its day.

I enjoyed the scenes by the Thames at Chiswick; I’d been walking there with friends the week before reading them. It’s a lovely part of outer London.

The ending is predictable and disappointing, and shows perhaps a loss of nerve by the author in her daring plot and unconventional protagonists.

No, I’m afraid this novel left me feeling rather irritated with most of the characters, particularly the odious Lewis.

 

 

More November reading

Here are a couple more brief accounts of recent fiction reading.

Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon (first published in Italian, 1963; this translation by Jenny McPhee, Daunt Books 2018, previously in America by NYRB). Another book by an author I’d read so many good things about I thought it was time I gave her a try. This one wasn’t for me.

It’s autobiography that the author says should be read as a novel. I didn’t think it worked as either. Its fragmentary, repetitive structure and huge number of ephemeral, lightly-sketched characters prevented me from sustaining any interest.

The narrator’s scientist father is a monster: a bigot and a tyrannical bully who constantly shouts abuse and insults at his cowed family members, and anyone else unfortunate enough to cross his path. Ok, so lots of novels feature monstrous parents. But this despotic man doesn’t lead to much in the way of insight or redemption; he just is. I suppose that’s Ginzburg’s point: as a child she had to learn to survive his tantrums, and this made her perhaps a stronger person. But this didn’t come across in the stilted narrative.

Her mother is fickle, complaining (not surprisingly, given her husband’s nature) and frankly not very bright. Her four siblings bicker and fight, but the jerky structure means there’s little coherence or continuity. It’s like watching a magic lantern show – shapes just flit across the scene leaving little impression.

Even the main, important subject – the persecution of Jews in Italy from the 30s through to WWII – is curiously distanced and muted.

Plenty of readers had a much more positive response to this book; all I can do is to present my own, for what it’s worth. We can’t all admire the same stuff.

Clerson To See Out the Night coverDavid Clerson, To See Out the Night (QC Fiction, Canada, 2021; translated from the French by Katia Grubisic; ARC courtesy of the publisher). These twelve very short stories all contain surreal or fantastic elements. This is not a genre I usually like, but this collection is accessible and nimbly told and translated.

The central theme is to question what the ‘real world’ is, and how do we recognise it if and when we experience it, how do we perceive or distinguish reality from…the unreal, imagined or fantastic? So characters are transformed, or believe they are, into other entities – an ape, in the opening story, or an insect in another.

Dreams are another recurring feature. Most of the events narrated have a dream-like quality. Sometimes the characters appear to know they’re dreaming – or they think they do. Subterranean or forest worlds are as accessible and remarkable as the mundane. Being human is as potentially alien and solitary as the life and form of a mushroom.

Several stories involve characters who write or tell stories that often weave into the perceived reality of their own and other people’s lives. The boundaries between these worlds of fiction are as blurred as those in dreams.

The dustjacket blurb describes the stories as ‘visceral’ and ‘surprising’ – a reasonable claim.

There’s a fuller, perhaps more enthusiastic review of To See Out the Night at Tony’s Reading List (link HERE).

November reading catch-up

Because of my week in London on a social visit, and a work project this week, there’s been no time for book posts here lately. Here’s a (very) brief round-up of recent reading.

John Banville, The Blue Guitar (first published 2015). This was for me what Mrs TD used to call a damp squid. Although JB – as always – writes extremely well, the content of this novel failed to stir much interest in me. It’s a rather squalid (double) love triangle plot. The protagonist is a verbose kleptomaniac artist, a painter who calls himself a ‘painster’ (he likes this kind of rather annoying wordplay) because he portrays himself as an epicure of suffering. He’s short, fat and ugly, and frankly a bit of a pain himself. He’s self-regarding, duplicitous and judgemental. It’s a curiously lifeless, cerebral novel. Disappointing, because I’d enjoyed other JB novels in the past.

Dave Eggers, The Monk of Mokha (first published 2018). I didn’t know that coffee was first grown in Yemen, discovered and developed into the caffeine-rich drink by the titular medieval monk. He was based in the city of Mokha, anglicised as mocha. Coffee subsequently spread in popularity across the world, as the Yemeni market almost disappeared, supplanted by its imitators. This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American man who tries to restore his country’s pre-eminence as a producer of high-quality coffee. Unfortunately his project takes place as a vicious war breaks out in Yemen. Young Mokhtar learns the coffee trade and travels the country, sourcing the best beans and finding places to process and roast them. His quest to get his prestige product to international markets is a page-turning thriller as he blags his way through hostile militia checkpoints and dodges air-raids. This narrative eventually palled for me as it became a little repetitive. But it’s an entertaining and unusual story.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (first published 2020). RT is at her best when writing historical fiction like this. It’s set in Bath and London in 1865. A young woman called Jane is known as the Angel of the Baths because of her remarkably restorative powers of ministration to those taking the spa waters under the supervision of her doctor father. She’s forced to choose between bland marriage with the earnest young assistant doctor who isn’t perhaps as decent as he seems, and a passionate affair with a beautiful married woman. The most interesting character is Jane’s bohemian aunt, a London artist who sees Jane’s true spirit and advises her accordingly. There’s a strange, Gothic-inflected Heart of Darkness section in the middle in which this doctor’s botanist brother endures a torrid time in a tropical jungle. The narrative wobbles into melodrama at times, but it’s a spirited and highly enjoyable novel.

William Boyd Trio coverWilliam Boyd, Trio (first published 2020). Another disappointment from an author whose work I’ve found either very good or mediocre. This falls into the latter category. It’s a frenetic, farcical account of three lives (hence the title) involved in making a film that would surely never have been made, let alone in Brighton in 1968. The plot is too contrived to summarise, and the characters are mostly caricatures or types. Only Elfrida, the blocked, once-successful novelist, fuddled by booze, raised much interest. She decides, unwisely, to write a novel about the final day in the life of Virginia Woolf. I read today that Richmond council has been castigated for planning to place a statue of VW by the Thames at Richmond: it’s been suggested that it’s in poor taste to position the statue of her gazing over the river, given the manner of her suicide. But she drowned in a different river in a different county – doesn’t seem too problematic to me.

That’s enough for now.

Gaudí nights (and days): 2

Casa Vicens rear facade

Casa Vicens rear 

A visit to friends in London and then a work project after my first Gaudí/Barcelona post at the start of this month prevented me from writing, so here’s the delayed second one.

Towards the end of our final few days in Barcelona last month having ‘grown-up’ time, me and Mrs TD alone, no little grandsons to amuse, we visited another of the houses designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. My previous post was about his final civic commission, Casa Milà; this one, Casa Vicens, was his first one.

It was built 1883-85  in the then suburban district of Gràcia as the summer house of the Vicens family. As the house’s official website Casa Vicens roof towersays, it embodies ‘all of his sources, influences and experiences on other projects, and his own idea of a single-family home…where construction and ornamentation are integrated in such a way that one cannot be understood without the other.’

Casa Vicens blue palm ceiling

Casa Vicens blue palm ceiling

The most striking feature of the exterior and facades is his use of colourful ceramic tiles, featuring vivid yellow-orange marigolds (though some say these are Indian or Moorish yellow carnations that were found growing in the garden where the house was to be built), alternating with plain green and cream/white tiles. Here and in the interior decoration the influence is apparent of oriental style – Indian, Persian and Japanese, as well as Moorish-Hispanic details (all found together in the side of the house with its plashing fountain, slatted shitomi blinds and more colourful ornamental tiles).

Casa Vicens side fountain screenUnlike most of his later undulating work with a defining reliance on curved lines, this house is built on geometric, straight-line principles. But Gaudí used all his skill to ensure that every window and balcony made maximum opportunity for the occupants to enjoy the semi-rural light, shade and fresh air. And there are a few of what were to become his trademark sinuous wrought-iron balcony railings.

Inside it’s also possible to see what was to become his main design inspiration: the natural world. So there are painted or papier-mâché flowers, fruit leaves, tendrils, palm-hearts and fronds, and plenty of birds (including a gorgeous flamingo – though I think these birds were done by other artists).Casa Vicens ceiling birds

It doesn’t have the extravagant boldness and panache of his more famous later buildings, but the signs of his idiosyncratic genius are clearly apparent in this early work.

Casa Vicens porch from inside

Interior image: By Canaan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105999185

 

Casa Vicens roof turrets

Casa Vicens roof turrets

 

 

 

Gaudí nights (and days): 1

While staying in Sant Cugat with our son and his young family last month (see previous post) we took the train into Barcelona a couple of times, and spent the last four days of our visit having adult time in the city. This enabled us to visit a few more of the houses designed by Gaudí.

La Pedrera façade

La Pedrera façade

In previous visits we’ve been to Park Guell and Casa Batlló, as well as the iconic basilica Sagrada Familia. Our first visit this time was to Casa Milá, aka La Pedrera (meaning ‘stone quarry’, because of its remarkable undulating, rough-hewn façade). Architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) is the most famous of Catalan ‘modernistas’. All of his work reflects his love of nature: there are very few straight lines, all is fluid, sinuous curves, imitating the spirals of snail and sea shells, plants and other organic entities. It’s a style known as biomorphic.

The house, completed in 1910 and occupied the following year, was commissioned by Pere Milà, a wealthy developer, and his wife Roser Segimón. This was Gaudí’s last civic architectural commission. It is perhaps his most daringly innovative design, with its unique framework structure and undulating façade and roofline. It even had an underground carpark.

By the 1980s the house had fallen into disrepair; it’s been sympathetically restored to a state as close as possible to Gaudí’s original vision.

La Pedrera roof terrace: helmets The self-guided tour of La Pedrera begins with its spectacular roof terrace on the sixth floor. The flamboyant staircase exits and ventilation shafts (I think that’s what they are) are given the designer’s trademark attention to detail. Instead of purely functional adjuncts to the building, they are works of sculptural art. What look like chimneys (but their purpose is a mystery) are designed to look like the torsos and heads of fierce guardian warriors or sentinels in medieval armour and helmets reminiscent of the famous Saxon one from Sutton Hoo. They’re known as the ‘witch scarers’, so I suppose their function and aesthetic is similar to that of gargoyles under church roofs.La Pedrera roof: warriors

From this rooftop there are marvellous views across the city. In one direction the sea can be seen shimmering about two kilometres away. In the other direction is the mountain range that looms over the city, with the slightly cheesy fake castle Tibidabo amusement attraction on its summit.

The top attic floor has an amazing ribbed vaulted ceiling. The curved beams are in fact all made of stone. The effect is meant to evoke the inside of a whale. There are scale models of the house on show here; Gaudí preferred to work from models like this rather than from drawings.

La Pedrera inside a whale attic

Inside a whale: the attic

One can visit several of the rooms on lower floors. Here there are countless examples of Gaudí’s idiosyncratic eye for detail. Even the doorknobs are little works of art, ergonomically designed to invite the hand to caress them before fulfilling their mundane purpose. On the main floor intended for the Milà family to live in he included his designs for every aspect of the décor, including the floors, ceilings, custom-made doors and even the furniture – all with his distinctive ‘organic’ as well as ergonomic flair.

The city has incorporated a tribute to this extraordinary architect’s legacy to Barcelona by paving the Passeig de Gracia, on which the Casa Milà is located, with small stone tiles etched with a flowing, plant-like design that he often used to decorate his structures.

The whole experience of this visit was exhilarating. It’s easy to dismiss Gaudí’s highly idiosyncratic style as over-fussy and quirky, and when this house was first built it was widely criticised: its nickname ‘La Pedrera’ was intended in a pejorative sense. But when you relax into it and let it wash over you it really takes your breath away. And of course La Sagrada Familia is his masterpiece.