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Author Archives: BookerTalk
Since today is Valentine’s Day what better opportunity can there be to talk about how fiction represents romance and love? St Valentine is traditionally associated with courtly and romantic love but authors through the ages have shown different facets of the emotion. So today I’ve picked ten fictional couples whose relationships represent different dimensions of love.
Since the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly, let’s start with a few examples of troubled relationships.
Pip and Estella
We begin with an example of unrequited love via Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the humble blacksmith who gains wealth from a mysterious benefactor, falls in love with the glamorous Estella though she is aloof and hostile towards him. Dickens’s ending makes it ambiguous whether the two ever marry.
The Butler and the Housekeeper
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, gives us an example of love that is never declared. Stevens the butler at Darlington Hall has practiced restraint for so long that he cannot ever allow himself to relax enough to show his true feelings. His relationship with the young housekeeper Miss Kenton at times comes close to blossoming into romance but even when Miss Kenton tries to draw closer to him, his stunted emotional life holds him back.
Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder
Love of a different nature is shown in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, where two young men meet as students at Oxford. Charles Ryder, who comes from a sterile, loveless home, is mesmerised by the glamorous and wealthy Flyte family and their stately home at Brideshead. He spends idyllic summers with Sebastian but is powerless when his friend descends into depression and alcoholism. Bruised by the experience, Charles falls into a loveless marriage and then finds temporary solace with Sebastian’s sister Julia. The question readers have to decide for themselves is whether Sebastian was simply the appetiser for the real deal of Charles’ love for Julia or is she second best to Sebastian?
Elizabeth Bennett and Lord Darcy
Sometimes love happens between the most unlikely of individuals. The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is one that has delighted readers since Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Jane Austen gets them off to a rocky start however. In their first encounter Darcy thinks Jane”…tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
Frank Doel and Helene Hanff
You could argue that isn’t strictly a romantic relationship since the author Helene Hanff and the antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel never meet. But I’d challenge anyone to read the letters that fly from New York to London in Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, and not come to the conclusion that there is something more going on than just a mutual affection for books.
Gabriel Oak and Bathseba Everdene
In Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy shows love can endure despite many challenges. Gabriel Oak (his name is a big clue as to his nature) doesn’t give up when the uppity Miss Everdene rejects his marriage proposal. He becomes a servant on her farm while she embarks on a disastrous relationship with a solider. But when she needs him most, he is ready to forgive…. Hardy is careful to show that the love that Gabriel and Bathsheba share is not the passion of a first love but a sadder and wiser connection born out of trials and tribulations.
Sapper Kip and Hana the nurse
I can’t talk about love without mentioning my favourite Booker prize winner, The English Patient by Michael Ondatjee. It shows that sometimes love flourishes in the most unlikely of situations. In this case, in a bomb-damaged Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II, where four people are thrown together unexpectedly. Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, is caring for a man severely burned in a flying accident. The death of her lover causes her to believe that she is cursed and that all those around her are doomed to die. The arrival at the villa of a Sikh British Army sapper, reawakens her emotions. But their affair is shortlived. Kip is horrified when he learns about the Hiroshima bombing, leaving the villa to return to his native India. He never sees Hana again though he never stops recalling the effect she had on his life.
Dexter and Emma
How long can you be in love with someone and yet never realise it? For the couple in David Nicholls novel One Day, it takes almost 20 years for them to get together after they spend the night together on their graduation from Edinburgh university. The novel visits their lives and their relationship on that date – 15 July – in successive years in each chapter, for 20 years. Does it all end happily? Not quite. But you’ll have to read the book to discover why not.
Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson
I can’t end without an example of what many people would consider to be the ultimate romantic gesture. In The Graduate, Benjamin, a new college graduate with no idea what to do with the rest of his life, is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson. But then realises it’s her daughter Elaine that he loves. Slight problem: she is about to marry another boy. Queue a desperate race to get to the church before Elaine says I do. If you’ve watched the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, you’ll know there is a dramatic ending involving a bride and a bus. I’m not cheating here by the way – the film is in fact based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Webb and published in 1963.
So there you have 10 couples who each, in one way or another, reflect love in many forms. Are there any couples you think of instantly when the subject of love crops up?
Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.
It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job. They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book.
Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.
The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.” Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.
Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth.
In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.
But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”.
We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.
Although much in this novel is murky, one thing is clear: the qualities I loved in Ondaatje’s earlier novel The English Patient are in abundance in Warlight. In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms. They are scenes that will longer long in my memory.
There is a poignancy too in this novel. Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man. Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable.
Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:
In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.
Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.
It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.
This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.
But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.
The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia.
Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.
Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton.
Middleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.
Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage. Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.
Mention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.
Miss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.
In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances. But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.
The Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences.
For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy. In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.
Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.
Let’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions, – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.
Now I’ve managed to close the lid on 2018 (see my wrap up post here), its time to turn my attention to 2019.
I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether to join some of the many challenges that are available. But on balance I decided that last year’s experiment with “Reading Naked” (by which I mean picking my next book randomly) was liberating so I plan to continue using that approach this year.
That doesn’t mean my year will be entirely without structure. But I’ll focus on projects rather than challenges. Challenges usually involve meeting a specific goal – reading a targeted number of books for example, or specified categories of books by a set date. I prefer the more open-ended nature of a project that I create for myself, where I get to decide on the scope and parameters. I want the flexibility to go wherever my mood takes me.
Here’s how the year ahead could pan out.
I’m going for simplicity; largely avoiding specific goals in favour of general directions. Most of these are continuations of existing projects and activities but – just to ring the changes – I’m going to start two new activities.
- Finish the Booker Prize project. This is the only specific goal I’m adopting this year. It should be a piece of cake since I have just two books and then I’m done. Although I have copies of the 2016 and 2018 books I’m not going to count them. If I manage to read them this year, they’ll be considered as bonus.
- Re-connect with the Classics Club project. I’m now 12 books away from the target of 50. But I keep finding new titles to add so this could be a movable feast.
- Travel the world: I stalled last year in my plan to read authors from a broader range of countries. In a year when the UK is supposed to say goodbye to the EU, it feels appropriate to make sure my reading tastes have an international dimension.
- Move through years of my life: I have a feeling that by reading more from my Classics Club list, I will be able to make progress on the Years of My Life project without having to make a special effort.
Booker Talk Team Expands
Booker Talk is approaching its 7th anniversary. I’m marking this milestone by expanding the team. Two new faces will be making an appearance on this site shortly, contributing reviews and articles on reading, authors and books.
Cerian Fishlock is currently studying for an MA in Publishing. She’s an Agatha Christie fan who’s desperate to find a modern author that can match the Queen of Crime . She loves novels with a psychological edge and “if that can be combined with defeating the patriarchy, even better.”
Edward Colley is a retired newspaper editor and graphic designer with an eclectic taste in books. He counts Thomas Hardy among his favourite authors. In between reading fiction he enjoys biographies and travel writing .
Connecting with Welsh authors/publishers
For the past year I’ve been trying to support and promote literature from my home country of Wales, through reviews and the odd feature article on this site. Now I’m going a step further by creating a new series where we get to know some of the authors based in Wales.
I’m calling this new series Cwtch Corner. The idea is to get into a conversation with an author about their favourite authors and books, how and where they get their inspiration and what readers can expect from their own novel/s. This is a spot where authors could pitch their work to potential readers.
Never seen that word Cwtch before? It’s a word used in the Welsh language to describe a physical place – a small cubbyhole for example or a small room in a pub. But it also denotes a form of affection, love and caring. Think of it like a cuddle or a hug. So authors taking part in Cwtch Corner are hopefully going to find the experience a bit like being wrapped in a warm embrace.
I’m reaching out to authors to participate at the moment but if you know someone you think might be interested just ask them to contact me via Twitter using @bookertalk. Please note however that I am not intending to feature self-published authors.
All you super organised people can now look smug at the fact that we’re two weeks into 2019 and only now am I doing a wrap up of last year. While you of course had this all nailed well in advance of midnight on December 31. You’re probably the same people who have booked their summer holiday twelve months in advance. And are never late with their tax returns.
But just remember……
I can’t procrastinate for much longer however so here’s the low down on my 2018….
If you’ve followed my blog since January you’ll know that I declared 2018 to be a “Year of Reading Naked” – a “rudderless, free wheeling” year .
I said back in January 2018:
I will keep the ongoing projects I’ve been working on for a few years now like the Booker Prize Project (there is no way I am abandoning that right at the last moment) or my World Literature project.
I’m also going to start a new one – the Year of my Life reading project initiated by Cafe Society.
But I won’t use those projects to drive my reading. When I am ready for the next book I’ll just look around the book shelves and pick out what takes my fancy. With some 220 plus books I own but haven’t read, I will have plenty of choice. I’m going to try to restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books but won’t be setting any targets or imposing numeric constraints.
Did the plan work????
To some extent yes…
I enjoy the camaraderie that you get from participating in challenges and reading events. But I also know from past experience that if they require me to read from a list or to fit my reading into pre-defined categories, then I lose interest quickly.
Hence my decision not to join any challenges last year.
I stuck to that resolution almost the whole year but did succumb to Non Fiction November. In my defence this didn’t require any list making or reading; just writing a few posts.
I also cut way down on the number of Net Galley requests and rejected most of the direct offers of review copies.
All of which meant that, apart from the commitment to read for a book club every month, I had complete freedom over what I read. It was so refreshing to be able to browse around the local library and choose whatever took my fancy. Equally refreshing to go to my own bookshelves and select whatever caught my eye.
Somehow I managed to read 12 books that qualify for my Years of my Life reading project . (the link takes you to the list of books I’ve read). When I started that I thought I would read two books for each year (one fiction, one non fiction) but on reflection I think that’s too ambitious so I’m going for just one from each year. I also anticipated reading each year in order but then reconsidered on the basis it felt too much like ‘reading from a list’ which is something I’ve learned I don’t enjoy. So I’m free wheeling.
On the other hand …
I didn’t make much progress at all with the backlog of books I already owned (far too many temptations at the library).
Despite stating that: “I’m going to try and restrain myself so I don’t purchase zillions of new books….” , what happened was that after a period of restraint at the beginning of the year, things went completely awry at the end of the year.
Hence the list of books I own but have not read, has risen still further. I acquired 71 new books in 2018, most of them in the last five months of the year. Some pruning of the shelves between Christmas and the New Year helped bring the total down but as we start 2019 I still have 289 books awaiting my attention.
Nor did I do very well with my intention to read more books in translation and from authors in different parts of the world even though I took a subscription to the Asymptote book club for that very reason. Of the 12 books I received I managed to read only one – The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge. I did tick off one new country (Cuba) from my world of literature project by reading The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa. By the end of the year I got my total to 37 countries against my target of 50.
Favourite reads of 2018…
I saved the best until the end. My final book of the year was simply outstanding. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is enigmatic, intense, hypnotic. How this never even made it to the longlist for the 2018 Booker Prize is beyond my comprehension.
Other highly commended books:
Do No Harm by Henry Marsh: the memoir of a neurosurgeon gives a graphic account of the mysterious world of the brain. In between he vents his frustrations of working within the NHS.
Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley. My first experience of this author. A strange but seductive story. I enjoyed her writing so much I went on to read another by Jolley – Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (review to follow soonish) which was equally superb.
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon. For once a much hyped book that deserved the accolades.
Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller . Not as powerful as his earlier novel Pure, but still a very polished work of historical fiction
The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola. Less dark than some of his other novels but still shows Zola’s ability to capture the essence of parts of French society. In this case his attention is on the rise of the department store as a new form of commercial activity.
The Duds of 2018
There have to be some don’t there?
The worst books were obviously the four I couldn’t finish: G by John Berger; Ritual 1969 by Jo Mazelis, When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen and The Librarian by Salley Vickers.
But that was then…
We’re in a new year so it’s time to set new goals. Watch this space …..