Bernard MacLaverty, Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLavery, Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape, London, hardback. 2017

Another novel read in a day while I convalesced after recent medical treatment. It takes some getting into, with a rather bleak pair of central characters. The married couple, retired architect Gerald and teacher, Stella, are in the midwinter of their relationship. Will it survive their cathartic post-Christmas short break in Amsterdam, where the cracks in their marriage, and in their individual lives, widen, and the painful secrets in their past threaten to explode their outward calm?

MacLaverty W Break coverGerald is a drinker; Stella is searching for solace after an earlier terrible trauma. He’s either unaware of her pain, or has drunk himself into numbness to avoid confronting and dealing with it – and his own. She sees this in him, and is tired of watching him drink. She wonders if she still loves or needs him.

That’s about it as far as plot goes. It’s a slowly accreting, sympathetically and delicately observed portrait of two people clinging on to the wreckage of their relationship, damaged by the Troubles in N. Ireland from the 70s onward, where their Catholic faith marked them obtrusively in the conflict they deplored. Events in this violent past nearly destroyed them.

In deceptively plain prose, MacLaverty pieces together an impression of a marriage full of unspoken grief and deeply felt, barely suppressed emotion. It’s one of the most haunting accounts I’ve read of the ways people strive to communicate but often fail to connect – even when they’re desperate to do so.

He’s particularly adept at selecting and delineating the minutiae of their daily lives as they age and try to face their new, retired life without the stimuli of work or bringing up family – their only son has grown up and moved abroad with their much missed grandson (it’s fairly clear why).

The way the novel opens is typical of this narrative technique: Stella and Gerald are in their home in Scotland (they’d long since left Ireland), preparing for bed. He’s finished in the bathroom and leaves the shaving mirror at the magnifying face. Why are we given that detail? Was he being considerate, knowing she’d need the magnified side of the mirror to carry out her facial restoration regime? Or was he simply examining his own face, heedless of her own? MacLaverty leaves the options open.

This passage continues:

She licked the tip of her index finger and smoothed both of them [her eyebrows]. Then turned to her eyelids. She was sick of it all – the circles of cotton wool, the boiled and sterilised water in the saucer, the ointments, the waste bin full of cotton buds.

At first sight this is just a list of banal details – but MacLaverty is sharp-eyed enough to notice how Stella feels the need to try to hold back the ageing process, with particular emphasis on the eyes – the windows of the soul. More importantly, that final sentence reveals her simmering impatience. The symbolic waste-bin represents perhaps her life, and her life with Gerald. Yet the point isn’t laboured; on the contrary, it’s unobtrusive – just there, like Stella and her pain. And what exactly is the ‘all’ that she’s sick of: the attempts to hold back the effects on her face of ageing, or Gerald and her life with him – or life in general? MacLaverty delicately refrains from telling us, leaving us to figure out for ourselves what’s wrong here, what’s going on in these troubled lives.

Her bedtime routine is completed when she gets into her pyjamas quickly, because the room is cold: ‘She saw no point in paying good money to heat a room all day for a minute’s comfort last thing at night.’ This penny-pinching at the expense of her own comfort indicates her self-castigating, frugal nature, her inability to expand, indulge. The slow drip of such details through the narrative gradually, like an accumulating stalagmite, shows why she’s like that, so pinched, self-denying.

As she basks in bed, warmed by her only, limited indulgences – hot water bottle and electric blanket — we are privy to her thoughts: she loves this ritual hour of ‘separation at the end of every day’. Gerry (as she would call her husband; these are clearly her thoughts, relayed through free indirect discourse) ‘out of action, in another room…Having a nightcap, no doubt. Or two or three.’

Even in this rare moment of sensual abandonment in her solitary bed, she can’t help this frisson of judgemental scorn and bitterness. What’s so poignant is that the behaviour of each of them precipitates such reactions in the other; the ways they deal with their own personal demons drives the other one away, at the very points when they need each other most, like magnets of the same polarity.

It’s easy to dislike Stella and Gerald, but gradually he’s seen to be guided by his wife’s star; redemption flickers and fades before them. I found myself hoping they’d not let it extinguish.

Trelissick and Carrick Roads

View over Carrick Roads from Trelissick gardens

Mrs TD read this after me, and struggled with the first third or so of the novel, but told me she was glad she persevered to the end – it picked up considerably.

Just to finish, a picture taken yesterday during our first walk at this local National Trust property in six months. One of our favourite views. Had to book a slot and maintain hygiene/social distancing measures, but worth it. And the sun shone.

Barbara Pym’s letters, notebooks and diaries

A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. Panther paperback, 1985. First published 1984

I posted recently about friends who live nearby and have a lovely secret garden; one lent me some books on my last visit there with Mrs TD. Last month I posted about two of these: the twenty years spent at St Hilary church, Cornwall by the genial and charming Fr Bernard Walke (link HERE), and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (link HERE).

Barbara Pym A Very Private Eye coverIn the garden, presided over by the sphinx-like cats, we discussed the novels of Barbara Pym. My loan of Some Tame Gazelle (link to my post HERE) wasn’t entirely successful, but we all agreed we enjoyed her fiction. In return I was lent A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt (a friend and long-time colleague of hers at the International African (anthropological) Institute, and BP’s younger sister, Hilary Pym.

It’s a highly entertaining, often very funny insight into the mind and thoughts of this novelist. It starts with her early life then Oxford, where she began her undergraduate  studies in 1932. She seems to have spent much of this university period in a spin of dizzy romances and social engagements, alternating with assiduous academic work. I admit I skimmed much of this.

Much more interesting are the later sections: her war years (she served as a Wren – the women’s royal naval service – with duties including postal censorship) in London and Naples, then her long career at the International African Institute, where she edited anthropological papers.

I was surprised by the number of times her heart was broken when love affairs ended badly. Less surprising was the originality, passion and grit she showed in her literary work – she began to write at the age of twenty-two.

After six fairly successful novels and minor celebrity as an author, she famously fell out of favour at the start of the swinging sixties. Publishers lost their nerve, and rejected everything she sent them, saying it wouldn’t sell. She was devastated.

A long, increasingly friendly and encouraging correspondence with Philip Larkin, who admired her work, boosted her confidence. Eventually they met in person and enjoyed some very Pym-esque teas together. In January 1977 the TLS published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most under-rated writers of the century. BP was the only living writer to be chosen by two contributors: Larkin and David Cecil – another long-time admirer of her novels. Because of this publicity, and the changing mood of the times, her fiction came into demand again.

She was rediscovered. She was delighted to find herself more famous and successful than she’d ever been. Especially when she discovered that her fiction was being taught in American universities.

It’s gratifying to see revealed so intimately in her letters, diaries and notebooks, the deep pleasure and spirited pride she felt in her final years when she finally received proper recognition of her literary merit, after those dismal years of disappointment and humiliation.

She lived from 1946 in affectionate harmony with her younger sister, Hilary, and some very dubious cats, at first in London, then in the countryside. They ended up in a village which she described in a letter as straight out of Some Tame Gazelle, published many years earlier. She was thrilled to find that village life hadn’t changed that much, even though London had.

The title of this anthology of her non-fiction reflects what a private person she was. It’s thanks to the judicious editing and selection of the two editors who knew her so well that we can dip into this charming book and enjoy seeing the vivacity, wit and humanity of this excellent woman from a slightly different perspective from the one gained from reading her novels.

Helford river shore

View of the shore from where we swam: those are our bags

I’ll append here some pictures taken on Saturday’s seven-mile walk around parts of Helford River and the fields above it. Our new walk app describes the route and places of note on the way. We stopped for a swim at the bottom of the hill, in the salty tidal river, in the refreshingly cool water. I thought the house martins had all migrated south, but there were still a few about that day.

Helford river from above

The river and open sea from further on in our walk.

Helford River

This is the view from that beach where our bags were, out over the tidal creek

 

 

The restorative powers of the sea

Life in Britain, as in the rest of the world, has been depressing and weird this year. After our first holiday break with family since Christmas – in a rented cottage in Devon in the hottest week of the year to date (I posted about it HERE)  – we returned to Cornwall and grey skies most days, and continued social restrictions to mitigate the worst effects of the virus.

A week or so ago Mrs TD said she was fed up with being cooped up, and said we should go for a swim again. In the ocean. I wasn’t too keen – the week before the sea was very cold – but went along with the scheme.

Portscatho bay looking west

Portscatho bay looking west

She was right, as she usually is. I should know that by now. We had a lovely walk on the coast of the Roseland peninsula, after a coffee at the Hidden Hut café on the clifftop overlooking the bay. The beach was much less busy than it had been during the high season. A couple had a large dog with a disturbingly deep bark – a Spanish mastiff/labrador cross, they told me when I asked. He looked disappointed as we set off to explore the next bay and beach.

Portscatho bay east view

Portscatho bay looking east

What a good decision. The early cloud lifted and was replaced by summery blue sky and bright sunshine. There was a beautiful beach round the next headland. There were too many rocks on the shoreline for comfortable swimming, so we walked on until we found a delightful little pool – a mini-cove – between two rocky outcrops. The water was wonderful: calm as a lake, and beautifully clear and cool – just enough to be bracing and rejuvenating.

Our swimming pool.

That’s our swimming pool, and those are our footsteps

The beach was deserted, apart from a couple who paused in their walk to perch on the rock overlooking our pool (like the reverse of the folk myth: cormorants turned into humans) and watch us with envy.

It’s probably the best swim we’d ever had. One of the best experiences, too. After the dismay and chaos of this distressing year, it reinvigorated us and restored our sense of harmony with nature, of human equilibrium. It was good, for example, to watch the amazing diving skill of those miniature cormorants, shags. Unfortunate name, but excellent fishers.

Crantock beach

Crantock beach, north Cornwall coast

Earlier this week we went to the north coast and one of our default beaches near Newquay. It’s a huge sandy bay with just one coffee truck on the beach during the summer – an old army truck, strangely. None of the frantic seaside kitsch of the more popular spots nearby. Our much-missed dog Bronte loved it there, too, and we scattered her ashes there after she died. We still still her white phantom, racing down the dunes and leaping ecstatically into the waves. She didn’t like swimming, though.

As always on the north coast the surf was pretty fierce – not really good for human or canine swimming. But it was perfect for diving over, into and under the crashing waves – exhilarating. The water was slightly warmer here, too. This day probably topped the previous swimming experience in our private cove.

Back this week to test results from the hospital – pretty good news, considering – and more depressing incompetence and bluster from our out-of-their depth, bragging but useless government.

Log tortoise

This driftwood log on the beach near our swimming cove looked like the head of a tortoise, I thought

I shan’t linger on that. I prefer to think of the clear sea water and the beauties and delights of this part of the southwest of England.

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)

 

Parties and peacocks

Elizabeth Day, The Party. Fourth Estate, London, 2018. First published 2017

Is it possible to enjoy a reasonably well put together novel about a group of singularly unpleasant characters? It should be, but there’s usually some decent soul to strike a balance, provide a moral counterpoint to reduce the nasty taste of the cads and villains.

Elizabeth Day, The Party: front coverElizabeth Day’s The Party has as its focal point a fortieth birthday celebration for one of the most egregiously selfish, cruelly patronising of the upper-class types who populate the narrative. Ben is well connected, handsome, privileged and arrogant, and our protagonist, Martin, from a much lower social class, admires him to the point of adulation. He’s clearly in love with him, and Ben knows and exploits it.

As in Nothing But Blue Sky, which I posted about recently HERE, Martin’s been emotionally distorted by his difficult childhood. As a consequence he’s become even more lacking in affect than MacMahon’s character, David. In fact he’s a borderline psychopath, given to crushing the skulls of small creatures.

If the reader feels inclined to feel some pity for him, this is thwarted by his equally heartless treatment of his doting wife, Lucy. She idolises Martin for all the wrong reasons, mistaking his diffidence for respectful gallantry, having lost her confidence in relationships after a trauma in her earlier life.

The Party also refers to the Conservatives, the political party in which perfidious Ben is destined to play a parliamentary role – he’s a good friend of the unctuous PM, the guest of honour at his birthday bash. The novel has been likened to Highsmith and Donna Tartt, but I find it more like Alan Hollingsworth’s The Line of Beauty – but without its panache and rounded characters.

The prose is functional to the point of blandness. The shifting chronology, with alternating sections narrated by Martin and Lucy, creates a certain amount of tension and suspense, but the big secrets and reveals are set up so obviously that the suspense soon dissipates, and I very nearly gave up halfway through.

PeacockI was much more interested in some recent rural walks. Peacocks have featured in several posts this summer; recently Mrs TD and I were delighted to see this chap grazing right in front of us on the grass verge of the country lane we were walking along. To my surprise he let me get right up to him: he looked at me with a mixture of interest and disdain. Call that plumage? he seemed to be thinking as he surveyed me.

Creek view Yesterday to the creek that has also featured here before. For once the tide was in, covering the mud, and it looked splendid in the sunshine that had finally struggled through the cloud after a week of autumnal squalls.

The martins and swallows have left for warmer climates. Schools and colleges are about to re-open, followed by universities. Let’s hope all goes well.Creek and boat

Potato field and creek

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky, Sandycove/Penguin Books, 2020

This was another recommendation of Mrs TD’s. I was sceptical during the first thirty or so pages, as a novel written from the point of view of a recently widowed middle-aged man, grieving for his wife of nearly twenty years, didn’t seem a particularly alluring topic.

MacMahon Blue Sky coverOnce the narrative hit its stride, however, the Irish author’s ability to create well-rounded central characters (many of the minor ones are more shadowy) won me over. I found myself warming to this emotionally bruised narrator, David. His childhood in Dublin had been hard: his father was what would now be called a coercive controller, who bullied and humiliated his children and forced his wife into submissive complicity.

The cold atmosphere of his house contrasted completely with the love and happiness he found in his friend Deborah’s, and later in that of his late wife, Mary Rose. He’d never heard members of his own family tell each other they loved anyone.

David and Mary Rose spent two weeks every summer in the Catalan seaside resort of Aiguaclara. They loved frequenting the same few bars and restaurants, where they were treated like locals. They enjoyed making up stories about the people on the beach.

After Mary Rose’s untimely death in a plane crash, David resolves to continue their tradition of these summer holidays. That is how a kind of healing process begins to take place.

What I found well done in this novel was the author’s ability to make David a quite unlikeable character. He’s cynical and buttoned-up, has a bit of a cruel streak, and can be enormously selfish. Mary Rose is the opposite: spontaneous, optimistic, extravert. David is so self-absorbed he fails to see how deeply upset she is at their inability to have children.

As he reflects on their marriage, the layers of insulation with which he had shielded himself from abrasive contact with emotional reality with Mary Rose and others are stripped away, and he’s able to discover the depths of humanity and love that he’d largely suppressed or rationed out during the marriage.

What prevents him from being unsympathetic is our being made privy to the stultifying upbringing inflicted on him by his callous, narrow-minded father. David’s emotional development was etiolated; this novel is about the ways in which it begins to flourish under the influence first of his late wife, and then by others who come into his life.

There isn’t much else in the way of plot – instead there are set pieces full of telling details. Like his old friend Deborah’s household when they were teenagers. Deborah had several sisters, and they all treated him like another girl: wrapping their damp towels round their drying hair after a shower and wandering in and out of siblings’ rooms to paint their toenails (using what David thought peculiar devices to separate the toes), paying no heed to his presence. In this way he learnt how to be around women. Also how to live as a social human being.

It’s an accomplished, slow-burning novel, told in an unadorned style (and with necessary touches of humour) that suits the subject. Mrs TD finished it, appropriately enough, as we sat on a beach in south Devon, watching our grandchildren romp in the sea, and surrounded by family. This novel is about the importance those kinds of experience represent, even when times like these are so hard, and what’s happened in our past has perhaps bent us a little out of shape.

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance. Vintage books paperback, 2011. First published 2010

I posted recently on the secret Cornish garden of some neighbour friends and their handsome Siamese cats. One of these friends lent me a copy of this book. I finished it with some powerful mixed feelings.

Edmund de Waal expresses some conflicting feelings about the book himself just a few pages from the end; he tells an acquaintance that he’s writing a book about…and stumbles to a halt:

I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

De Waal Hare Amber Eyes coverIt’s all of those things – uncategorizable. Ostensibly it is about the provenance of his collection of over 200 netsuke – the small ivory or wooden objects crafted by Japanese artists well over a century ago. Originally intended as ornamental but useful toggles to hang from cords attached to traditional dress, they became sought after objets d’art in late 19C Europe, during the Japonisme craze, when they first entered the collection of one of de Waal’s Ephrussi ancestors in Paris.

From there they migrated as a wedding present to another family member in Vienna. They subsequently travelled via Japan to England and were inherited by de Waal.

But this is not just a cute social history of Europe in 200 objects. It’s a profile of a wealthy, important Proustian family told not from the viewpoint of an academic historian, but by a person deeply connected emotionally and genetically to the subject – his own family.

His Jewish ancestors made their fortune originally in Odessa, importers and exporters of Russian grain. From there they expanded into banking, with branches in several major European capitals. But as a Jewish family based largely in Vienna, they were dangerously vulnerable to the vicious ‘final solution’ of the Nazis, culminating in the holocaust.

Another involuntary diaspora of the Ephrussi family ensued.

Hare netsuke

Hare netsuke from the collection, in the public domain via Wikimedia Images, attribution: Lostrobots / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

De Waal gives a highly personal, deeply moving account of this only too well-known tragic and shameful period of history. These are people he’s enabled us to get to know, with their love affairs and foibles, their poignant attempts to fit in to an Austrian society which only superficially accepts them, but ultimately despises them. They are outsiders, resented, and the Anschluss gives their bigoted, hypocritical Christian neighbours the opportunity to release all the pent-up animosity and envy that they’d harboured for decades.

I found the book a deeply moving and sometimes upsetting experience, but I admit to some misgivings in my response. It’s probably a kind of inverted snobbery to find the long descriptions of the sumptuous opulence of the Ephrussi palaces, packed with mismatched and priceless artworks, furniture and other stuff, and the fraternising with royalty, aristocracy and famous artists and writers, just a little too Downton Abbey at times.

This is not a noble response, I know, and this doesn’t diminish the horror I felt at the inevitable brutality of the persecutions, humiliations and terror the family underwent at the hands of the most despicable people Europe has known.

It’s gratifying to read about the last major Ephrussi that de Waal tells us about in detail: his much-loved great-uncle Iggy, living with increasing happiness with his Japanese companion, and finally restoring the netsuke to a home that appreciates them. As Edmund de Waal did himself when he inherited them.

He spends much of the last third of the book profiling his brilliant grandmother, Elisabeth. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, gained a doctorate and became a lawyer. In the twenties she married a Dutchman named Hendrik de Waal, and settled into domesticity in England in the thirties. She was a poet, corresponded with Rilke, and wrote five novels; one of these, a semi-autobiographical family history set in Vienna in the 1950s, and referred to frequently in The Hare, was published in 2013 as The Exiles Return, and is now available as a Persephone Books paperback.

 

Moths and Devon

I’ve been on holiday in south Devon with family, so there’s been a hiatus in my posting and commenting activity. We were having so much fun learning to paddle-board on the lake-flat sea, and kayaking, walking, and enjoying the Mediterranean weather, I didn’t manage much reading, either.

Just before we left for Devon I contacted ERCCIS – the Wildlife Trust & Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – to ask for help identifying two winged insects that I’d seen around my house.

Spotted magpie mothThe first was by the window of a bedroom. I wasn’t sure if it was a moth or a butterfly, but it was a handsome creature. After I took its picture I gently ushered it out of the window to freedom. Here’s what the helpful Wildlife Information Officer said about it in her prompt reply:

Your first sighting was of a Magpie moth Abraxas grossulariata. The magpie is a medium-sized moth which is quite butterfly-like with its striking appearance. These bold colours of the magpie warn predators that it is distasteful.

 

Ruby tiger mothThe second was sitting on the path outside the back door, looking rather dishevelled and sluggish:

The second sighting was a Ruby Tiger moth Phragmatobia fuliginosa although I think you are right, it looks as if its upper wing has been damaged. It is both a day and night flying moth, particularly in warm sunshine. Fairly widespread throughout Britain. It shows a gradual variation in colour, with the brightest individuals in the south, and much duller specimens in Scotland.

I’m very grateful to ERCCIS, and their officer’s suggestion to post these details and pictures on their online recording platform: ‘Information on even what may be perceived as relatively common species is vital in order to determine their distribution patterns and population densities.  By submitting records, you assist your local records centre keep biological records up to date.’

Back to Devon.

It was the first time Mrs TD and I had spent a night (let alone a week) away from our own home for over six months. It was so good to be in a different environment after this prolonged, enforced confinement. Also great to see family again, and get to re-establish contact with the grandchildren, who’ve changed so much in this short time. Lovely to see the fourteen-year-old enjoying playing uninhibitedly on the SUP, forgetting for once to look cool and detached. The family were all very impressed with the first semi-successful efforts of me and Mrs TD to stand up on the SUP (not at the same time, of course).

Cows keeping coolThe weather was beautifully sunny and very hot for most of the week. We went for a walk by the local river and saw these cows, sensibly keeping cool by standing in the water, in the shade.

On the edge of the village where we stayed was a wetlands nature reserve. We visited it a couple of times, looking at the waders, gulls and other water birds from the carefully positioned hides and viewing points around the site.

A colony of mallards was snoozing in the reeds by the path beside a pond. They were clearly accustomed to the proximity of passing visitors, for they made little attempt to move away, allowing us to view them at close quarters.

Duck family on pondOne female had a brood of very new fluffy ducklings – they only looked a few days old. She was more wary, and bustled them off into the water. Some local passers-by told us that badgers had eaten several of these families of ducklings in the recent past, so this mother was prudent to be elusive.

Later we saw her leading them up a grassy path to another safe spot. My picture shows them near one of the many wood carvings of wildlife that are placed around the reserve – this one a serene dragonfly.

Ducks dragonfly

The weather changed on our final day, so we walked around the nearest beach resort. The bathing beach end is a bit tacky, and visitors weren’t being good at social distancing, despite the signs everywhere, so we headed for the more picturesque river estuary and harbour under the Jurassic cliffs. We sat in an alcove designed to look like the prow of a boat, and admired the view. Even on an overcast, humid day, it was good to look out over the boats, the placid river and bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary. Truran, Mount Hawke, Cornwall, paperback, 2002. First published 1935

The friends with the beautiful Siamese cats, who’ve featured in a couple of recent posts, are active participants in the life of the city’s cathedral, and the charity that runs Epiphany House, which featured in one of my ‘local walks during lockdown’ posts (link HERE). In discussing some related topics, the life of Fr Bernard Walke came up. I hadn’t heard of him, so a copy of his book about his time as vicar of St Hilary, near Penzance, was duly reserved at the local library, now open for a click and collect service.

I’m not a religious person (my friends clearly are), but Fr Walke’s genial and charming humanity shine through every page of his memoir. His Anglo-Catholic faith is apparent, and he has that rare ability to make it seem natural and attractive.

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary coverHe’d been a curate at two other Cornish churches before St Hilary: first at St Ives, where he initiated his popular practice of taking mass outdoors onto the harbourside, and endeared himself to the ordinary townsfolk by joining the fishermen when they put to sea; then at Polruan, opposite Fowey, where he enjoyed occasionally accompanying the freighters carrying china clay to Europe and beyond.

Each chapter is packed with incident and experience. In the opening chapter he relates a typically endearing anecdote of the stray cat that adopted him and would trot after him to church when he celebrated mass. One day she was taken with the sparkling sequins decorating the mantle of a grande dame of the village in the front pew. She sprang from her usual spot on the pulpit lectern into the old lady’s lap. Next day Walke received an irate letter from his Vicar, enumerating his many ‘extravagances’ (code for ‘high church practices’) concluding with the cat’s ‘monstrous behaviour’ the previous night. One phrase stood out for him:

‘Your performing cat has made religion stink in the nostrils of the best people in Polruan.’

In his defensive reply Fr Walke adduced the example of St Philip Neri, whose cat always accompanied him ‘at his devotions’, but to no avail; the poor little cat was barred from the church.

Fr Walke arrived at St Hilary in 1913. His first impression of the village, just outside Penzance in rural west Cornwall, was not favourable. The church had been unsympathetically rebuilt in Victorian times, the landscape was rather bleak, and the village was blighted by what he thought rather ugly villas.

In his twenty years as vicar there, however, he became much loved by his parishioners and locals. There was hostility throughout that time from some to his catholic rites and adornments to the church, culminating in a violent incursion by Protestant activists near the end of his time there – an attack that almost broke his spirit and his already faltering health.

He began the memoir while being treated for TB in a sanatorium at Tehidy, then later in Gran Canaria when his health again deteriorated.

The memoir is dominated by his deep reverence for and love of nature: birds, trees, plants and animals are frequently befriended or described. He was particularly fond of donkeys, and would ride around the county in a ‘shay’, tolerating the wayward animals’ tendency to wander off the road. One had a habit when off duty of taking to the fields and causing mayhem, such as leading local horses into bad habits.

Fr Walke’s wife Annie was a noted member of the Newlyn community of artists. Many of this famous group populate the pages, and several of them contributed artworks to decorate the church: Harold and Laura Knight, Dod and Ernest Procter. Roger Fry did a reredos. Other well-known figures appear briefly, from AJ Munnings to GB Shaw.

This amiable country vicar’s warm heartedness wasn’t confined to love of nature: he was a great campaigner on behalf of the ordinary working people of his community. In St Hilary this was largely the pre-mechanised agricultural workers. Like all the greatest Christians, he practised what he preached, and strove to bring light and purpose into the lives of St Hilary’s people.

He is perhaps best known for the Christmas plays that he wrote and had performed in the church by the parishioners. A BBC friend persuaded him to have some of these broadcast on radio – the first ever outside broadcasts in the mid-1920s, continuing into the thirties.

He set up a local children’s home, and opened his own house up to a small group of Austrian refugees after WWI. The chapters set during that terrible war are particularly poignant. Fr Walke was a committed pacifist, and the already simmering hostility to his catholic tendencies was heated even further by his anti-war stance. There’s no mention of DH and Frieda Lawrence’s similar activity in nearby Zennor at this time (see my posts on DHL in Cornwall HERE).

His campaigning was also extended to an attempt to establish a new mining enterprise in the area; most of the mines had by this time closed, and many former miners who hadn’t joined the Cornish diaspora were unemployed.

I approached this memoir with some trepidation, since I don’t share the author’s faith. But I enjoyed it immensely; the author has a delightfully self-deprecating style, and his love of humanity is uplifting.

 

 

The intoxication of transformation: Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), The Post Office Girl. Translated from the German by William Deresiewicz. Sort Of Books paperback, 2009. First published in German, 1982

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1938) – my post about it is HERE – relates how a principled but naïve young officer learns painful truths about himself and others as ‘an emotional abyss’ opens in front of him after a humbling social gaffe. Christine Hoflehner, the eponymous protagonist of The Post Office Girl, undergoes a similarly life-changing transformation as the result of a momentous experience. (Btw, what is it with referring to grown women – Christine is 28 when the novel opens – as ‘girls’ in novel titles?)

Zweig PO Girl coverThis novel was found among Austrian author Zweig’s literary remains after his suicide, but wasn’t published until 1982, with a title that translates as ‘The Intoxication of Transformation’. The MS was in considerable disarray, and had been tinkered with by Zweig over a number of years, raising the question whether he intended it to be published at all. The ending is abrupt, and leaves Christine facing a momentous decision that could transform her life even more dramatically than the first time. I quite like that the story is left open-ended – a firm resolution would have been too mechanical and neat.

The possibly unfinished nature of the novel is also reflected in its uneven quality and structure. Nevertheless, in Part One Zweig brilliantly portrays the stultifying, soul-destroying tedium of Christine’s job in a squalid, rural backwater village post office – and the translator does a pretty good job of rendering it all into English (although I found some of the Americanisms a little intrusive). This tone is achieved from the opening paragraph, which describes these village post offices:

… their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere…they stubbornly retain that unmistakeable odor of old Austrian officialdom, a smell of stale tobacco and dusty files.

That post-WWI bureaucracy (the novel is set in 1926), the narrative indicates, is what cripples Austria and prevents it from progressing into modernity and vitality: ‘Orderly and by the book – that’s the official way of doing things.’ In Christine’s microcosm of this bureaucratic fossil world ‘the eternal law of growth and decline is suspended at the barrier of officialdom’. Nothing ever changes, and her dreary, soul-destroying routine is governed inexorably by the unforgiving clock on the wall, and the clamour of her morning alarm-clock.

Her status as ‘civil servant’ consigns Christine to ‘a lower census class’, exacerbated by her being a woman. She’s a nobody, with no future, trapped in a world where there’s no hope of escape; everything will remain, for years to come, ‘the same, the same, the same.’ Her life is a kind of ‘waking paralysis’ in ‘a sleeping world.’ The similarities to fairy tales like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty become increasingly apparent when the transforming event changes her life: an invitation from her wealthy aunt Claire to come and have a holiday with her in a posh Swiss hotel.

This aunt has a guilty secret that indirectly causes Christine’s brief glimpse of glamour and opulence to come to a shattering end. When she arrived at the hotel, Christine was dowdy and nervous, ashamed of her poverty and shabby appearance. Claire facilitates the transformation by lending her expensive, fashionable clothes, sending her to a smart hairdresser and beautician, so that the ugly duckling becomes a glittering, beautiful social swan.

This first part of the novel mercilessly exposes the shallowness and hypocrisy at the heart of this bourgeois, privileged world Christine has entered. She charms the smart young set with her ingenuous excitement and spontaneity, but this also brings about her downfall, when a jealous girlfriend takes revenge on Christine for turning the boyfriend’s head. The response of the hotel guests, previously so friendly to this innocent, unaffected young woman, is a reflection of its cruelty and moral corruption. Only a kind English general, a much older widower whose grieving heart is kindled into life by Christine’s naturalness, recognises her as what Henry James would call ‘the real thing’, and he gallantly stands up for her.

But the damage is done, and Christine is sent unceremoniously packing back to her former life of squalor and drudgery. The problem is now that she’s not just spiritually paralysed: she’s angry. She now knows what an alternative life looks like. Everything around her now fills her with ‘helpless hatred’:

Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.

I was unsure where Zweig would take her from there. That quotation comes at the end of Part One of the novel, when there are another hundred pages of Part Two to come.

I found this second part overlong, but horribly powerful. Christine’s hatred seems to find a restorative outlet, and a glimmer of hope, recognition and romance appears – but that open ending leaves the outcome unsure.

The Post Office Girl has much of the bleak, existential angst of Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its setting of a war-blasted Europe in which some have prospered but many have become destitute and without hope, lost souls, hollow men. Inequality was fixed in the social system, and the indulgence and idleness of the privileged few was flaunted in the faces of the mass who had nothing, yet toiled hopelessly to enable the status quo to be maintained.

The anger that Zweig must have felt as a member of a Jewish family that was a victim of the persecution that followed in the wake of the post-war grief and social unrest is concentrated and unleashed in the form of Christine – a kind of working-class Emma Bovary with a much more justifiable motive to feel angry and unfulfilled.

That’s maybe where the weakness of the novel lies, too. It tends to preach. It’s a lesson that needs to be propagated, but it’s not done with much subtlety. But then, why should it be? Anger is rarely subtle. Injustice and inequality won’t be transformed as a result of polite debate; the forces that reject Christine from their elite world guard their exclusivity fiercely.