Category Archives: England

The Weight of Ink, or where’s the writer?

Weight of InkIn the July 15th New York Times Book Review, in a review of Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, J.W. McCormack writes: “In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page…”  I’m always interested in the writer lurking just out of reach and the relationship of the book to the writer’s life. I don’t mean that I expect incidents to reflect personal experience or characters to be modeled on friends and family. There’s a much more subtle relationship that I’m interested in.

For the past 18 months I’ve been on the reading committee for the new Jewish Fiction Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries; the winner announced this past spring was Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink.  The book is set in London in the 1660s and today, an example of what I call a “split-screen” novel. In the historical plotline, Ester Velazquez is a young woman working as a scribe for an eminent blind rabbi. Women were never scribes; it’s an endeavor hedged about with strictures and tradition, closed to Jewish women who, in any case, usually didn’t receive much education. In the modern part of the story, the rabbi’s papers are discovered hidden in an old house and a Cambridge scholar is hired to examine this unusual treasure trove. The reader knows that Ester is the scribe; that knowledge dawns on the Cambridge scholar and her assistant only slowly. From hints and clues they piece together Ester’s remarkable life. The reader always knows more about Ester and the ending is bittersweet as we realize that her life will never be fully known by the researchers.

I’ve heard Kadish speak several times about the genesis of the novel. Her comments made the connection–for me–between the writer’s life and the story she tells. Before she knew what the story would be and where it would be set, Kadish thought about the women whose pens and voices were mostly silent through the centuries. What if a Jewish woman had had a chance to write and make her voice heard on paper and explore her philosophical interests in correspondence with the great philosophical minds of her day? How could it transpire that a woman have that opportunity? What would her life look like? So the title, with its nod to the transgressive nature of Ester’s life, is quite appropriate. Ester and the rabbi carry the weight of their arrangement, the secret that sets her apart from her contemporaries and from the London Jewish community. It’s a great story with compelling characters in both plotlines.

Kadish’s interest in telling such a story is the personal connection, the writer lurking beyond the pages. I believe that every novelist sets out to solve a problem and the novel is the result. Not a problem in the sense of something needing to be fixed, but an artistic challenge, an effort to represent ideas on paper in a way that rings true. The nature of that challenge comes from the writer’s life: the mixture of lived experiences and concerns lurking behind the creative process that drives the resulting story.

 

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

TranscriptionAt the end of May I spent 2 wonderful days at the Javits Center in New York for the publishing trade show, Book Expo. If you’re unfamiliar with this annual book extravaganza, hundreds of publishers set up booths to promote their Fall titles and meet with booksellers from around the country. Advance copies of the titles that the publishers want to promote are given away, authors sign their books, and there’s lots of swag to be had. After 20 years of attending, I have a large collection of publisher-themed canvas tote bags. It’s a standing joke among friends and family. 

Over the 2 days, I lugged home about 25 books–books that have already garnered good reviews and the latest books from my favorite authors. And of course, I’m certain, as I am every year, that I’ll read them all—even though I still have lots of unread books from years past!

No surprise that I first chose to read Transcription by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors. Atkinson combines literary writing with warmth and humor in compelling ways. This novel, to be published in September, centers around a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited to spy for MI5 just before WWII. Britain in the late 1930s was dealing with fifth columnists: homegrown fascists, communists, and Nazis. Juliet goes from transcribing taped conversations to much more dangerous work, by turns tedious and terrifying. An orphan, Juliet has a great deal to learn about the world, but she’s more than willing to try the undercover life she’s been offered. What she doesn’t understand is that the choices she makes in those war years will follow her into later life. Nothing is ever finished and there are surprises for the reader at the end.

Atkinson’s writing is always a treat to read; Juliet and the supporting cast of characters are lively and well-drawn. The London wartime setting is very evocative. If you enjoy Ian McEwan’s or A.S. Byatt’s novels you will probably enjoy Transcription, too. Her previous two novels–Life After Life and A God in Ruins–were among her best; Transcription is lighter, maybe more accessible to readers who were put off by the structural complexity of the earlier two. I’ve read every one of Atkinson’s novels and loved them all. If you haven’t read any of her books, start with the first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum and you’ll be hooked. 

The books we’ve read

I subscribe to LitHub, which offers–in the way we read now–daily snippets of literary news and links to full articles. I scan the snippets and usually click through to one or two articles of moderate interest, but sometimes there’s a real winner and I keep that issue in my inbox because it’s too good to relegate to the trash. One recent keeper is a piece by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite novelists, about the books in her personal library. People who interview writers, often ask about what books the writer has on her nightstand or what books or authors are favorites. I must confess, that for the most part I’ve lost interest in the answers. The books on my nightstand are often pretty strange–the results of reviews that caught my eye–and often get returned to the library skimmed or unread. A large group of books I’ve bought with enthusiasm live under the nightstand in a sort of low priority limbo. Recently someone asked for the title of my favorite book and I froze, thinking that the only way I could answer that was to compile a list of all the books to which I’ve given 5 stars on Goodreads. I figure I’m not unique and writers answering those questions are not providing insightful information.

Then there’s Penelope Lively. Her article appeared in Granta and she titled it “Books Do Furnish a Room,” a nod to the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s classic series A Dance to the Music of Time. Lively writes not about what’s on her nightstand, but about the books she’s bought and read over the years and that still live on her bookshelves. In her “mildly book-infested home…the shelves say something about the person who has stocked them.” What we read, of course, furnishes not just our rooms, but our minds. She writes about how the nonfiction shelves reflect her interest in Egypt, where she spent her childhood; English history and archaeology; and science among other subjects. Although her novels are set in contemporary times and plumb the depths of human relationships, they are literally and metaphorically informed by her wide-ranging reading in those areas.

My library doesn’t contain as many books as Lively’s. As a librarian I learned to weed vigorously. I do still have most of a shelf of Greek and Roman literature from college that I can’t part with as well as Pauline Kael’s complete reviews, but I tend to think of my local library as a convenient extension to my collection. And I do have a hand-written list of all the books I’ve read, going back to somewhere around ninth grade. That’s something I treasure as much as the books themselves. Here’s the link to Lively’s Granta article, worth reading for her lovely, graceful style. https://granta.com/books-do-furnish-a-room/

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (Crown)

A Spy AmPhilbyong Friends is a great book to listen to (the reader is John Lee); it’s the story of the famous “third man,” Cold War era spy Kim Philby, who, along with Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (and several others), were Soviet spies in the British intelligence system, working in MI5, MI6, or the foreign service. Philby, who became a Communist at Cambridge, never wavered in his faith in Communism from the 1930s to his death in Moscow in 1988 after his defection.

Philby served in high positions in MI6 and was for a while chief intelligence officer in the British Embassy in Washington, DC where he maintained a close friendship with James Angleton of the CIA. Although Maclean and Burgess defected in the 1951 and the British intelligence service knew there were additional double agents, Philby’s treachery wasn’t discovered until 1962. Philby had the right background, attended the right schools, had the right connections; everyone vouched for him automatically. For decades he passed details of British intelligence operations to his Soviet contacts. A huge black mark for the British intelligence community.

 

 

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)

God in RuinsI was fortunate to get permission to download a copy of Kate Atkinson’s terrific forthcoming novel, A God in Ruins. I  began reading it immediately, ready for a treat. This new novel focuses on Teddy, a minor character from her previous novel, Life After Life; Atkinson calls this one a “companion piece” rather than a sequel. I read it over the course of 3 days, and now I’m sorry I’m finished; I should have made it last longer.

Teddy Todd is the younger brother of Ursula, the main character from Life After Life. The central event in Teddy’s life is his World War II service as an RAF bomber pilot. During the War, he was never sure if he’d return, if there would be an “after;,” his survival makes him determined to be kind and enjoy the life he’s been given after he’s been responsible for so much death. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy; they have one child, Viola, and two grandchildren. Life isn’t always easy, but he takes it as it comes, reveling in the English countryside, doing his best to love the difficult people around him. This is the bare bones on which Atkinson hangs her absorbing story of how four generations deal with what life sent them.

Atkinson plays with time, deconstructing the narrative in many ways: by mixing up time periods in each chapter, by casually dropping information about the future, by repeating events from a different character’s point of view, and by foreshadowing. One event calls up another, filling in details, adding roundness and resonance to characters and events. Teddy’s grandson, exploring in the attic finds Teddy’s war medals and keepsakes. These objects return in later chapters when we learn more about Teddy’s war experiences; because we’ve already thought about the objects when Sunny found them, their meaning is more emotional and faceted.

Ursula makes tantalizing cameo appearances in this novel; she’s Teddy’s beloved sister, offering advice and support. For those of us who read Life After Life, when we hear about her death, we’re startled–didn’t she keep on living? Other characters, like Teddy’s cranky daughter Viola and her children Sunny and Bertie, step off the page, full of life and longing, shaped by the times they live in but very much their own people.

The novel is filled with wonderful humor. Teddy’s daughter, Viola, pushes him from his house to “independent living” then to a “care home.” In his nineties, Teddy reflects that “living in captivity” has “clearly prolonged his life.” The chapter describing Viola’s visit to Teddy in the care home is hilarious and sad, a perceptive set piece on how we treat the elderly.

The sections set during the war, especially Teddy’s experiences as a pilot and wing commander are painfully vivid, capturing Teddy’s inchoate fears, his relationship with his crew, and the emotions he feels as he sees the destruction they’ve brought down on German cities.  These sections fill out Teddy’s character in a most rewarding way.

Atkinson has complete control over her narrative and characters;  it’s such a pleasure to surrender to her stories. I’ve read all of Atkinson’s novels, starting with Behind the Scenes at the Museum; sorry I can’t read them again for the first time.

 

 

Heir Apparent

Heir ApparentI’m hoping to read more European history this  year and have just finished The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley, the new bio of  Queen Victoria’s philandering son, who gave his name to the Edwardian era, the first decade of the 1900s.

It’s a huge book, and my thought was that I’d start reading and maybe not finish it, but I was riveted. Ridley has the wonderful facility of making masses of detail fascinating. She’s also managed to let you know that she’s there with you as you’re reading without really interposing herself.

There’s a cast of hundreds, since Bertie had a wildly active social life, and the reader can only turn the pages in disbelief as “Wales” (as he’s often known) gets into one scrape after another, rescued and shielded by his loyal staff. Even the Prime Ministers protected Bertie from disgrace. I was unaware how much anti-royal sentiment there was in Britain of the late 1800s; Queen Victoria wasn’t sure that the monarchy would survive her and it’s not clear that she cared. She didn’t believe that Bertie would make a suitable king and he never received the appropriate education and training. She was unwilling to relinquish an iota of power or monarchical privilege to him and was jealous of any success he had with the British public or overseas.

But when Victoria died in 1901  he rose to the occasion, although he regretted that the great opportunity came so late in life. Part of the fun of the book is re-visiting the convoluted relationships among the royals in Europe and Russia–so many were Victoria’s descendants and it affected late 19th and early 20th century politics in very interesting ways. For more about those relationships, I recommend reading King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay.

Another great memoir quote…

I was reading The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer, and found this quote from John Updike: “Memory has a spottiness as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.” A great image, although how long will it be before  the darkroom reference becomes obscure?

There’s a great exhibit of Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits currently at the Metropolitan Museum in NY. Her daughter and son-in-law gave her a camera for her birthday in 1863, when she was 48 years old, and she became entranced with the medium, then, of course, in its infancy and a labor-intensive process for photographer and sitter. Her photographs capture her sitters’ small shifts in movement as they tried to hold still for the long exposures. The resulting out-of-focus portraits have a wonderful feeling of intimacy and and life as a result. Tennyson was a neighbor and there were several portraits of him in the exhibit; it was hard for me to connect the author of the poem Ulysses with the portrait of that rather staid Victorian gentleman. In traditional Victorian fashion, she staged and photographed scenes from literature, using her family and friends. Many of the full face portraits are riveting; I saw the exhibit twice the day I was there and will be back to see it again before it closes on January 5, 2014.