Monday, 25 October 2010

Finishing the pudding with the serving spoon

So of course I had to pick up The Pursuit of Love as soon as I'd finished Love in a Cold Climate. What joy! I have a Reprint Society copy: thick, rough paper on which the ink hasn't really taken well enough, so many of the letters, when you look carefully, have white patches, empty of ink. The cover is plain, that kind of brownish grey they called 'taupe' for a while (though I always thought moles were black). It was printed way-back-when, 1947, when even cheap reprints had properly sewn pages, and strongly bound covers. Books built to last. I have heaps of these Reprint Society books, they used to be sold for peanuts in the secondhand bookshops, charity shops and markets I used to buy from (that was back when I had bookshelves that needed filling). I do love a hardback. It's so satisfying the way the pages stay open on the table in front of you without you having to hold it, and the way you can place it open, face down without breaking the spine.

I don't know how many times I've read The Pursuit of Love. Since the first time I read it, maybe 30 years ago, it's been one of those books that I pick up in between other books, when I can't quite decide what I want to read next, or if I'm ill or tired or fed up. It's a book to be read in great wolfing chunks, like finishing the pudding with the serving spoon, because there really (no, really!) isn't enough left to share around at another meal. In fact, what's really extraordinary about The Pursuit of Love is how it manages to encompass so much in something so very short. So much happens in these 200-odd pages. Take the bit about Jassy running away to Hollywood. The whole episode takes just four and a half pages but seems perfectly complete. Even Linda's great love affair, which feels like the focus of the whole book, does not even begin until two thirds of the way through.

I'm intrigued also by the narrator. I'm struggling to think what her name is, and when I look it up I discover that it isn't even said until the fifth page. What a clever trick! Somehow, this narrator manages to be part of the proccedings and yet vanish into the background. Mostly, she is telling the story straight, just giving her own impressions, or other people's as they have been told to her, but then when we get to the episode of Linda's great love, the focus narrows to Linda's own impressions, which Fanny, the narrator, explains that she knows because Linda has told this to her in great detail when they were together at Alconleigh. Explained like this, it seems so artificial, but it doesn't at all when reading. Somehow though, using just the same technique in Love in a Cold Climate doesn't seem to work at all to me.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Book mountain

There are five books beside my bed again. And, no, none of them are just waiting for me to get started.  I'm reading all of them. Sort of. It happens from time to time, and generally ends with me sweeping four of the five off onto a shelf somewhere to come back to later. But I haven't yet got to that stage. No matter what experience had taught me, I still feel that I will get through each of them before I put them away.

At the bottom of the pile is No et moi by Delphine de Vigan. Actually this was on the floor under the stool that serves me as a bedside table, because I've been reading it on and off since I bought it in France at Easter. Though it's about teenagers, the French is pretty straightforward, but it requires just a bit more concentration than I can stretch to most nights, so I've lost the plot about a third of the way through. I keep coming back to it, thinking 'oh, this is good, I can read this' then not bothering for a week or so and losing it again. Serves me right for trying to read it in French! I'd have read it in a couple of hours in English.

Next from the bottom is A Tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It's an orange Penguin, dated 1951, and has that lovely, musty old paper smell. The pages are orange-brown at the edges, as if nicotine-stained, and paler, creamy orange in the centre. They feel brittle, as if they would just snap if you dared to bend down a corner (and you'd better not with one of my books!). I'm not sure why I'm reading this, to tell the truth. I only have about two shelves of adult fiction at the moment. The rest have gradually made their way into the attic as the shelf space has been taken over by other books, the kids' books, reference books, I don't really know what altogether, and we've lost shelves with all the building work we did last year and haven't yet replaced them. All the is left to me are two shelves, mostly full of things I've read recently, plus a few strays that somehow misses the big pack up. This isn't the first time I've read A Tree grows in Brooklyn, and it turns out to be just long enough ago that it has a comfortable familiarity, but the plot has become vague. This probably wouldn't have hung around in my next to the bed pile, but we were going away and I was a little afraid for it in my luggage, with its slightly torn cover and scuffed corners. So I left it and took instead Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky). Which I have to say I'm not getting on with very well. I've read all of two chapters in the ten days since I started it, and each time I was doing that thing of flicking forward to check how soon the chapter was going to end. I have to read it for my book group, and I can see that when I pull my finger out and get on with it, I'll start to enjoy it, but I don't need to read it till the end of November, and I can see that it will probably sit there until a week of so before the meeting, and then I'll be forced to consume it in great meaty chunks. The only reason I started reading it early was that I didn't have the next book on the list, Love in a Cold Climate (Mitford), and the reason I didn't have that was that when I ordered all the books on the list I was certain that I already had this in the attic. It is such a trouble to me, all my books being in the attic. I am so very fond of them and I long and long to be able to have them all about me, alphabetised, of course, so that I can immediately see what is there and what is not. Anyway, having sat perched on a rafter among the horrible sleepy flies which wake up when the light goes on, yet again taking scores of books out of boxes and putting them back in again, I found I had to buy a new copy. So at the moment, this is the book I'm picking up to read. And yet again, I think my bookclub has committed the folly of being led astray by the catchy title of a TV series (they did the same thing with An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P D James, which was beautifully written but sorely lacking in intrigue or thrills). Years ago, they serialised this and the book that came before it, The Pursuit of Love under the title Love in a Cold Climate, and I can see why, it's very much catchier and less ordinary. However, this of course leads everyone to think that all that great stuff about growing up in the freezing of country house with nutty father who liked to hunt children etc is in the book called Love in a Cold Climate. But it's not! It's all in The Pursuit of Love. And TPOL is a so much better book. I am enjoying LIACC for sure, Nancy Mitford is always good for a bit of insider fun-poking at the nobs, but I wish I was having to read The Pursuit of Love. Ooh! Perhaps I will treat myself to reading it again when I've finished this one.

I said there were five books, didn't I? The last is The Children's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2011. This ought to be on my desk really, but I've just bought it, and at the moment I'm reading through the articles rather than using it as a tool. It fills in those moments when I can't even be bothered with Nancy Mitford. Catalogues are good for that too. I usually have catalogues somewher near my bed, gardens, house, clothes, doesn't really matter. I suppose it's just as much fantasy as reading fiction.