A Dance to the Music of Time 3: The Acceptance World

Dancing Powell

The Acceptance World

Dance 3 Acceptance World
We come to the third volume in Anthony Powell’s series – the last of the ‘Spring’ books. (If you’d like to catch up with volumes one and two, click accordingly.)

The Acceptance World begins with Nick Jenkins meeting his Uncle Giles at a hotel for tea. There he is introduced to Mrs Erdleigh who tells their fortunes, saying to Nick that she’ll meet him again in a year – strange company for his Uncle Giles!

At work, Jenkins is publishing a book on a noted painter of political portraits and businessmen and has approached St.John Clarke (apparently based upon John Galsworthy) to write the introduction. One of his old college contemporaries had been Clarke’s secretary, but Jenkins finds he has been replaced by on Quiggin – who has, it appears, steered Clarke in a different political direction.  Jenkins discusses Clarke’s situation being under the thumb of his new secretary with his friend Barnby:

‘I don’t think St.John Clark is interested in either sex,’ said Barnby. ‘He fell in love with himself at first sight and it is a passion to which he has always remained faithful.’

Some time later, Jenkins meets his old school-friend Peter Templer again and is invited to join them for a weekend.

That we had ceased to meet fairly regularly was due no doubt to some extent to Templer’s chronic inability – as our housemaster Le Bas would have said – to ‘keep up’ a friendship. He moved entirely within the orbit of events of the moment, looking neither forward nor backward. If we happened to run across each other, we arranged to do something together; not otherwise.

The particular excitement of this reuniting for Jenkins is that he finds out that Jean, Peter’s sister, appears to be separated from her husband DuPort. Jenkins had had a youthful passion for Jean, and this is reignited and they rekindle their affair.  In between all this there is a lot of complicated discussion about who’s seeing whom, who’s divorced whom and such shenanigans!

Jenkins is reunited with his old schoolfriends at his old housemaster’s dinner for old boys at the Ritz. Stringham is drunk and Widmerpool makes a very long and involved and very boring speech – during which Le Bas has a stroke! I shouldn’t cheer at other people’s misfortunes, but it was a great penultimate scene to bring Widmerpool back into play. He had been mentioned earlier, but hadn’t appeared until then.  It is Widmerpool who is moving from industry into the city and joining the ‘Acceptance World’.  I can hear you asking what that is – here is how Templer describes it to Nick:

‘If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch your money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you are tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust – and you find yourself stung. That is, if you guess wrong.’

Any clearer?  I assume they refer to the futures and/or bond markets…

There are other forms of acceptance at work in this novel too. Nick, who does have to work for a living, is becoming accepted in all the walks of society in which he moves. He seems more mature than most of his friends, and while not immune to love affairs, is not the type to swap partners that way most of the others seem to do with monotonous regularity.  For his capricious upper class  friends, marriage and divorce don’t seem to mean a lot.  Nick, as Widmerpool has too, has resisted marriage – how long can they last as bachelors?  What will happen to Peter and Jean?

Widmerpool’s appearance aside, volume three was a lot more serious than the first two, and I missed the comedy he brings with him. I know I have a Widmerpool-fest to come in the next novel – the first of the ‘Summer’ books.  I’m looking forward to April’s Powell episode. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Acceptance World: Vol 3 (Dance to the Music of Time 03) by Anthony Powell (1955), approx 224 pages.

Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

A Dance to the Music of Time 2: A Buyer’s Market

Dancing Powell

A Buyer’s Market

So we come to the second volume of Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve novels. If you’d like to catch up with my summary of the first part follow the link to A Question of Upbringing.

It’s now the late 1920s and Jenkins is living and working in London for a publisher of art books. As the novel begins he reminisces in his narration about Mr Deacon, an ageing artist of middling reputation he had met in Paris:

Mr Deacon was grown-up still: I myself, on the other hand, had changed. There was still distance to travel, but I was on the way to drawing level with Mr Deacon, as a fellow grown-up, himself no longer a figment of memory from childhood, but visible proof that life had existed in much the same way before I had begun to any extent to take part; and would, without doubt, continue to prevail long after he and I had ceased to participate.

powell 2
The ensuing story is inspired by Jenkins’ memory of seeing a painting (just as Vol 1 began), this time an indifferent picture by Deacon, hung inconspicuously in the house of the Walpole-Wilsons, Jenkins’ hosts for a house-party. Jenkins is always a little in love with someone – this time, it’s Barbara Walpole-Wilson – but hidebound as he is by the rules of society, she is probably unattainable whereas her sister Eleanor would be. Powell, however, in a rare example of only using a few words instead of a hundred, has Barbara mordently describe her thus :

Barbara used to say: ‘Eleanor should never have been removed from the country. It is cruelty to animals.’

I’m sure that in time Nick will find the right girl for him. Having concentrated upon the old boys’ network in the first novel and making useful contacts to get one’s career kick-started, volume two is largely concerned with establishing oneself in society and finding a mate. Nick sounds out one of his dinner companions, Lady Anne Stepney, about her sister Peggy, whom his old school-friend Stringham had had a thing for:

‘As a matter of fact, Peggy hasn’t spoken of Charles Stringham for ages,’ she said.
She did not actually toss her head – as girls are sometimes said to do in books – but that would have been the gesture appropriate to the tone in which she made this comment.

Jenkins is so easily distracted by the fairer sex!

One seeming obstacle to his progress is his continued association with Widmerpool, who crops up all over the place like an eternal gooseberry, often getting in the way and making Jenkins wonder how he comes to be invited to these dos, and:

It suddenly struck me that after all these years of knowing him I still had no idea of Widmerpool’s Christian name.

Widmerpool will be subjected to several humiliations throughout the novel and laughed at by his companions; Nick to his credit, although ever the observer, doesn’t join in. Widmerpool seems (at this stage anyway) doomed to fail in the romance stakes but we will find out that he is not without desires. He is, however, obviously useful in the business and government circles in which he works and is acquiring a solid reputation therein. Again, Widmerpool is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Many of the others from A Question of Upbringing pop in and out of the narrative from time to time. Sillery turns up at a decadent party; Uncle Giles gets a mention or two – including his abhorence of ‘champagne, beards and tiaras’, and Nick’s first love Jean will make an eventful reappearance – sparking in Nick a ‘sudden burst of sexual jealousy’.

In their twenties, life is one long social whirl for these Bright Young Things moving in the higher echelons of society – it really is a buyer’s market. Just imagine if the Tinder app had been around for this lot!

Again written in four long chapters echoing the seasons, A Buyer’s Market ends back with Mr Deacon bringing the year full circle, and finally – Jenkins finds out Widmerpool’s forename.

This time, knowing Powell’s style with it’s long convoluted sentences full of sub-clauses, I was able to jump into the text and enjoy it fully finding much more humour in particular. Having introduced us to the main characters at length in volume one, the narrative takes off launching us fully into their lives. I really enjoyed it – although the title of volume three, The Acceptance World, infers a seriousness to come – or is it just an initial settling down?  Back next month!  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):

A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01)
A Buyer’s Market: Vol 2 (Dance to the Music of Time 02)

 

Saturday Selection

Another busy week! Thank goodness I have nothing booked in for the next fortnight – even for half term, except for promising my daughter a London trip to Camden market.

amber furyMonday night was my Book Group – this month we read The Amber Fury (aka The Furies) by Natalie Haynes.

I read this book last year and reviewed it here and saw her talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival – here. Everyone really enjoyed it. We thought the characters were well done, the setting felt real and all the Greek myths therein were used brilliantly.

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Thursday night was down to London, where I met up with Jackie and Kim at Faber’s fiction showcase.

P1020304The star attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro, or Ish as he is known. No sooner had we got installed with drinks than Rachel from Faber brought him over to meet us – lovely man. He was slightly perplexed over blogging and the intercommunication between us all, but we were onto safer ground talking about book groups – he talked about his wife’s one. I will be reviewing The Buried Giant for Shiny New Books in April.

I also chatted with the handsome Welshman Owen Sheers about the Mabinogion retellings from Seren books which he contributed to. He has a new book out in June called I Saw a Man which sounds utterly gripping from the extract he read. He signed a copy of the proof for me – the first to ask – I am privileged. You’ll have to wait several months for my thoughts on the book though.

Also there were Andrew O’Hagan, who read brilliantly from his new novel The Illuminations which is currently R4’s Book at Bedtime, and KateHamer – debut novelist of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as a contemporary thriller The Girl in the Red Coat. Sarah Hall would have been there too to read from her new novel The Wolf Border, but couldn’t make it sadly.

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Friday night was Mostly Bookbrains 6.  This year, the Wednesday evening Bookgroup from Mostly Books took over the mantle of compiling the questions, allowing me to be in a team with Simon and all his lovely friends. It was lovely to be on the other side for a change, and, dear reader – We won!!!

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I’d like to finish by highlighting my two reviews in the Non-Fiction section of Shiny New Books’ new issue…

armchair nation
Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

Moran is becoming one of our foremost cultural historians of the twentieth century. His history of the googlebox in Britain goes right from its inception and promotion by Mr Selfridge himself through to The X-Factor via the new upstart ITV and Mary Whitehouse.

Absolutely fascinating, full of impeccable research from TV and news archives, Mass Observation and more.

Read my full review here.

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where-im-reading-from-188x300Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

We all love books about books, and Tim Parks collection of essays (originally published in The New Yorker) is essentially one long opinion piece.

Divided into four sections covering the worlds of literature, reading, writing and translation, Parks, an English novelist, translator and university lecturer makes a lively companion.  I didn’t agree with all of his views (cf e-readers!) but found the essays entertaining and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to the world of translation, which gave me many new insights.

Read my full review here.

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So that’s my week – how has yours been?

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To explore some of the books mentioned above, click below (affiliate links – thank you):

A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

Dancing Powell

A Question of Upbringing 

Looking out of his window at some workmen around a brazier, Nicholas Jenkins is reminded of the four seasons on Poussin’s celebrated painting (detail above), and the passing of time in his life.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving had in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the stesp of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, or days at school, where so many forces, hiterto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Powell 1Immediately we are introduced to one of the key characters in the series – Kenneth Widmerpool, going for a run on a foggy winter’s day. Widmerpool is a bit of an enigma, he ‘himself had proved indigestible to the community.’ Outsider he may be, but even later in this first volume, we will come to see his strength of character, and sense that he will endure.

Our narrator Jenkins, now enters the school boarding house and we meet his slightly older roommates – Stringham and Templer. On first glance, Stringham seems a good sort and Templer more mischievous, but after Jenkins’s Uncle Giles comes to visit and nearly gets them expelled by lighting a cigarette, it is Stringham that plays a particularly evil practical joke on housemaster Le Bas after noticing his resemblance to a wanted criminal. Stringham gets away with it too.

It is the boys’ last year at school; Stringham leaves early to stay in Kenya for a while. Jenkins spends some time with Templer’s family in London, falling madly in love with his sister Jean and experiencing the Templer brand of practical joke on a poor chap residing with them called Sunny Farebrother. Then in the summer he goes off to an educational establishment in France where he falls in love with someone else – and encounters Widmerpool again before going up to university where he begins to see how the old boys network really works when he is adopted by one of the professors, (think Slughorn ‘collecting’ Harry Potter for an analogy).

These four sections of school, London, France and university form the four long chapters of the novel – its own seasons if you will.

We find out very little about Jenkins himself – he doesn’t give much away, just observes and absorbs rather than doing much himself. Is he just a hanger on? I guess we’ll see, but he certainly seemed like that in this first volume. In a way he reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, another accepted outsider narrator.

Stringham and Templer and their well-heeled families were straight out of the bright young things of the 1920s. Uncle Giles however, who crops up several times, is a sort of failed Army officer who’s slightly on his uppers and needing a new opportunity in life – I hope we’ll hear more of him. The one character I long for more of though is Widmerpool – he is so intriguing, and seems bound to make something of himself despite what others may think.

Powell’s language is rich and dense and took some getting used to. I’m glad he started us off with Jenkins’s schooldays, as the scenario is familiar enough to give one time to get into the habit of reading his typically long sentences, which meant I was able to cope with this 70 word one by page 149!

The curious thing was that, although quite aware that a sentiment of attraction towards Suzette was merely part of an instinct that had occasioned Peter’s ‘unfortunate incident’ – towards which I was conscious of no sense of disapproval – my absorption in the emotional disturbance caused by Jean and Suzette seemed hardly at all connected with the taking of what had been, even in Templer’s case, a fairly violent decision.

So to summarise, volume one is really a scene-setting introduction – enjoyable in its way, but promising many more riches to come. I shall definitely proceed onto number two - A Buyer’s Market. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01) by Anthony Powell, Arrow paperback 240 pages. Other editions available.

Embarking on a year of Powell…

Dancing Powell

I’m totally useless at challenges usually, but I have been meaning to read Anthony Powell’s twelve novel sequence known as The Dance to the Music of Time for so long that I couldn’t put it off any longer. Karen and Ali both did it last year and it’s only around 250 pages per month… so it’s my turn this year.

As you’ll see above I made a button for the sidebar as encouragement to myself if I should flag. It fits in perfectly with the TBR dare at the moment too, and I have actually read the first book already and will be posting about it very soon. I hope to be having a great conversation about it with you.

A post Cold-War spy drama

A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter

porter spy Many moons ago I read Henry Porter’s first novel Rememberance Day (2000) which was a fast-moving spy thriller and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Finally, years later, I’ve read his second – another standalone spy-thriller about an ex-spy who finds out that you can never truly leave your former life behind.

British ex-spook Robert Harland now works at the United Nations in New York. Returning from a trip to DC in a plane full of colleagues including Alan Griswald whom he’d known for years – when the plane inexplicably crashes into the Hudson as it was coming in to land. Harland is the only survivor. Later, he talks to the crash investigators, then has another call from his old boss …

Vigo! What the hell did he want? He hadn’t seen Vigo for at least a decade. On the day he left MI6 for good in 1990, Vigo had come to him and offered a limp hand of regret together with the assurance that their masters would take Harland back if he found he could not make a go of it on the outside. They both knew this was impossible.

Convinced by Vigo’s interest it wasn’t an accident, Harland pledges to Griswald’s widow that he’ll find out what happened, and it soon appears that Griswald was onto something and that there could be a connection to some coded messages which are being broadcast on hijacked radio frequencies – but you need both parts of the code. When Harland is contacted by Tomas Rath, a young man, who claims to be his son and turns out to be involved too – Harland is completely drawn in – raking up his past as a spy in Europe, his doomed affair with Eastern European agent Eva, his capture and torture –  and it seems that everyone now wants to get him again – dead or alive…

This is a solid, all-action spy thriller – full of twists and turns, and you’re never sure who’s on whose side for a large part of it. Harland leaps back into his former life with abandon, playing all those who want him off against each other until it becomes clear what they want and all the time – the body count increases…

Harland, although obviously a superman physically, is likeable underneath his slightly gruff exterior which tries not to let anyone get close to him again.  His confusion when faced with the possibility of being a father shows a vulnerable side which, let’s face it, we need in our heroes for them to be believable. Walter Vigo, the British top spook is suitably oleaginous, but the character I liked best was Robert’s sister Harriet – who is immensely practical, capable and clever too – she would have made a great agent herself. When Tomas comes to see them in London, she takes Bobby to task after Tomas goes…

“Well, I think you had better get used to him calling you something else. Bobby, he couldn’t be anyone else’s child. He’s a dead ringer for you when you were that age – all gangly and intense. There’s no question about it. He’s yours.”

There was one scene which reminded me very much of George Smiley’s encounter with Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, although reversed. Harland is younger, fitter and more action-oriented than Le Carré’s leads though, so any similarities are fleeting.

Going from New York to London and Eastern Europe and incorporating the war-crimes and their remnants from the Bosnian War, Porter has found a great post-Cold War setting for his story. It may be 470 pages long, but they raced by and I enjoyed this novel very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter – W&N paperback, 480 pages.

Christmas Shiny Linkiness …

Today, I’d like to direct you over to my reviews in the Shiny New Books Christmas Inbetweeny.  By the way, have you tried our Shiny Advent Quiz yet? Ideal as a post-prandial competition… But back to my reviews as these books are all too good to leave off mentioning here too:

The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

islanders Translated for Gallic Books by Emily Boyce, with whom I’ve been having some lovely email conversations.

I’m a recent convert to Garnier (see here), and if his novel The A26 was ‘the Road to Hell’, the latest to be published – The Islanders is certainly about the Christmas from Hell!

A man returns home to Versailles just before Christmas when his mother dies in the coldest December for years and re-encounters an old flame… cue memories and murderously dark noir events tinged with humour.  Absolutely brilliant!

Read my review here, and Emily wrote a piece about translating it for Shiny here.

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The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

head of the saintYA books in translation are a rarity – so I lapped up the chance to read this one by Brazilian author Acioli, developed at a writers’ workshop hosted by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s a lovely quest story about a young boy who sets out to find his grandmother when his own mother dies and he ends up sleeping inside the giant saint’s head that never got raised onto the statue. A magical and lovely tale.

Read my review here.

 

 

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Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmI always find accounts of lives worked in medicine absolutely fascinating, especially those of surgeons, who live on the cutting edge (sorry!) of medical science.

Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s foremost brain surgeons and his account of a life in neurosurgery is candid, honest, reassuring and totally engrossing and fascinating. Successes and failures are all discussed with compassion and wit where required.

Now out in paperback and a must-read for all those fascinated by doctors and medicine.

Read my review here.

 

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Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry book cover Perry’s book, which is essentially a transcript of his Reith Lectures for the BBC last year, seeks to demystify the modern art world in his trademark flippant yet serious at the same time style.

It’s fully illustrated with his cartoons too, which accompanied the talk, but which we couldn’t previously see on the radio where the lectures were broadcast.

Full of anecdotes, advice and jokes, it’s great fun.

Read my review here.

 

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Shiny New Books will be back in late January with a new batch of reviews and features for you, but there is still much to explore in Issue 3 of Shiny, which includes the Christmas update. Also why not explore the archives from Issue 1 and Issue 2 you can explore for inspiration, especially as some of those books are now available in more affordable paperbacks.

 

 

Now it’s Sylvia’s turn

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Bell jarYesterday I reviewed a new YA novel by Meg Wolitzer called Belzhar (here), in which a depressed young woman was helped back to good health by a special English class that studied Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and then kept rather special personal journals. Reading this book made me pull my copy of The Bell Jar off the shelf and to finally read it straight after.

The Bell Jar has one of the most memorable novel openings ever:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sicl, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

* * *The discussion below contains plot spoilers – you have been warned* * *

The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman, an honours student in English who gets a summer internship at a glossy magazine in New York where she ‘was supposed to being having the time of my life.’ She begins to find the expectations of the kinds of life on offer to her at home or in the city as being underwhelming, constricting and stifling and she turns in on her self in her bell jar. We get flashbacks to her schooldays and her near engagement to Buddy Willard, we hear her mother’s hopes that she’ll learn shorthand so she has a fallback position as a secretary. Esther gets worse and badly treated by one doctor, attempts suicide, but was found in time and thanks to a benefactor given help in a good private psychiatric hospital. The book ends with her just about to re-enter life and return to college.

I knew the novel was very autobiographical, closely paralleling Plath’s own life – I didn’t know that she had used a psuedonym – Victoria Lucas. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967, several years later and not in the USA until 1971.

Of course, I was aware of Plath’s suicide, but didn’t realise this happened just one month after the novel was published in 1963. Knowing this makes reading the novel with its hopeful ending even more sad. The same happened when I read the late Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story back in January of this year – it too has an upbeat finish showing that the black dog of depression can be beaten. It’s just so sad that these two authors, Plath just 30 and Vizzini 32, had so much life still to come. This book has left me wanting to read more about Plath and I will start with Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson (which Shiny co-ed Victoria reviewed here).

I do hope that Plath envisaged that Esther Greenwood would be able to re-engage with life and live it to the full – there is a hint in the novel, which I was grateful for, and I’m glad to have finally read this book. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963. Faber & Faber paperback, 240 pages.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson.

 

 

 

A Comic Caper of Camelot and Cross-purposes…

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

the-table-of-less-valued-knights-187x300I read Marie Phillips first novel, Gods Behaving Badly, an hilarious story of the Greek gods and goddesses living out their lives in modern day North London, pre-blog, and I loved it – I can remember that without having to go back to my records.

These bickering deities, living in domestic squalor and trying to make ends meet while struggling to find a meaning to their lives in a world where few know about them were a delight. Aphrodite did phone sex, another god was a dog-walker; they were wonderfully raunchy and non-PC.

We’ve had to wait seven years for Phillips’ second novel – this time she gives us a comic take on Arthurian legend – was it worth the wait?

Imagine King Arthur’s court with the Round Table where Arthur sat with Lancelot, Gawain and the other famous knights. To his right is an empty chair, the Siege Perilous, ‘said to bring instant death to anyone who sat in it, though this was rumoured to be a lie invented by Sir Kay so that he’d have somewhere to put his coat.’ Further down the Great Hall of Camelot are two more tables: The Table of Errant Companions – which mostly seats those on their way up the Camelot hierarchy, and further away still is the lop-sided Table of Less Valued Knights, where those knights who are on their way down through being elderly, infirm, cowardly and not forgetting the disgraced sit.

Sir Humphrey du Val is a less-valued knight; relegated when a quest went wrong which we’ll find out about later. Being the only one left in the hall after the Pentecost feast, he surreptitiously accepts a quest when a late petitioner arrives needing help. The fiancé of Lady Elaine du Mont, from Tuft, was kidnapped from the tournée he should have won for Elaine’s hand in marriage, she wants him found asap. Sir Humphrey is not allowed to go on a quest, but doing this successfully could get him back up the greasy pole at Camelot. They set off, together with squire Conrad. Conrad, a teenaged half-giant by the way, rides an elephant, being too big for a horse.

Running parallel to Sir Humphrey’s quest, is the story of Martha, the new young Queen of Puddock, another neighbouring kingdom. She has been forced to marry Edwin, younger brother of King Leo of Tuft – and decides to run away on her wedding night, disguised as a young man. She meets the locum Lady of the Lake (Nimue is off with Merlin), who gives her an enchanted sword which will help her find her elder brother Jasper, who was presumed dead, but is still alive.

So we have a good set-up for a comedy of mistaken identity, feisty ladies and plenty of ‘Bob‘ moments (cf Blackadder) especially once the two stories collide, and then it charges on to the ending which sorts everyone out but was not quite as one might expect!

This book was great fun to read; it had some great moments and some really good gags, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Although there was a sprinkling of earthy language, it wasn’t as raunchy as GBB in particular. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Arthurian and other dark-ages or medieval comedies, like Fool by Christopher Moore and The Food Taster by Peter Elbling. Monty Python & the Holy Grail and other films like A Knight’s Tale have a lot to answer for too, plus the aforementioned Blackadder. The result is that so much of it is familiar. However, Phillips, by giving her two ladies the lead for a large part of the novel does give the this Arthurian comedy an original and modern touch without introducing anachronisms.

It may not have been quite as funny as GBB, but it was so light-hearted I couldn’t help but enjoy it, and I hope we won’t have to wait so long for a third novel from Phillips. (7.5/10)

P.S. The Tables of Errant Companions and Less Valued Knights did ‘exist’ – they are mentioned in the post-Vulgate Merlin continuation of the 13thC French romances that are the source of much Arthurian legend.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Table Of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips. Pub Aug 2014 by Jonathan Cape, hardback, 320 pages.
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (2007) paperback.