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Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.

Howtobe bothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.  The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.

The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road

This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.

This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.

A similar encounter takes place in  The Railway Man  by Eric Lomax.

The Railway Man

This is an autobiography in which  Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway.  The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.

A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

Wild Swans

This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the  lives of three female generations of Chang’s family.   Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.

As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering.  Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.

My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.

thegoodearth

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city  where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.

The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces. 

That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin. 

Pepys

Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.

Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)

Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.

Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.

Howards End

The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books.  For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.

Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.


Six Degrees of Separation  #6Degrees is 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.  I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.

Classics Club – the biographical question

It’s been months since I tackled one of the monthly questions posed by the Classics Club. I look at the question at the start of each month, decide it will take some thought – and then spend the rest of the month cogitating but never coming to any conclusions. Procrastination is definitely not helpful in this case.

I’ve only just seen this month’s question so let’s see if I can do better if I just answer it right away.

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

PepysI don’t read many biographies but one that stands out for me is The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys.  I already knew something of Pepys’s life by reading some extracts from his diaries as part of my history studies at school, mainly the sections in which he wrote about the Great Fire of London and the plague. Being adolescents of course we went searching for some the more bawdy entries.

What I hadn’t realised until reading Tomalin’s book was  just how powerful a figure he was in the seventeenth century, becoming Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and subsequently his brother King James II. It was Pepys apparently who laid the foundations of professional standards in the Royal Navy.  Not bad for a tailor’s son who at various times was accused of bribery and of secretly following the Catholic faith.

As you would expect, Tomalin includes many extracts from the diaries to illustrate some of her themes. Some of them deal with his time at the Navy, others with the many women with him he has liaisons.  But what Tomalin shows, and what interested me most, was the side of Pepys as a cultivated man, an avid theatre- goer who could compose music and play several instruments and wo enjoyed a few glasses of wine (well rather more than a few it seems). Oh, and this was the clincher for me; he was an avid collector of books.  He’s someone I want to get to know better. We may have a few things in common…

See my review of The Unequalled Self

Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin

pepysPlague, fire, civil war,  treason, the fall of kings: Samuel Pepys experienced them all.  His was a life that coincided with one of the most momentous periods of English history and he recorded his experiences in meticulous detail in leather-bound diaries writing every day for nine years.

While these journals tell us much about Pepys the man, they still cover only part of his 70-year life.  His first entry is dated January 1, 1660 when he was 26 but he ends his endeavours on May 31 1669 when he was forced to stop writing because of an eye problem.  We learn much about his daily domestic routine, (what he ate and drank, the books he amassed in his library, his suspicions of his wife’s relationship with a dance master) and about landmark events such as the Great Fire of London as well as his many encounters with Royalty and politicians.

Such a rich source of original material would be a gift for any biographer but for Claire Tomalin they didn’t go far enough because they tell us nothing of Pepys’ childhood and education or, after the Restoration, his public disgrace and humiliation. Through extensive research and examination of contemporary letters and diaries, Admiralty papers, judicial reports, memoirs and biographies, she seeks to fill in these considerable gaps in Pepys’ story.

In The Unequaled Self, the tale she tells is an extraordinary one: a story of a man who rose from humble origins as a tailor’s son of one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in the seventeenth century. Tomalin shows how much of this was due to some wealthy and influential family connections to the Earl of Montague (later Lord Sandwich) who nurtured the education of the young boy and then helped him gain his first government position as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board.  He put his quick mind and aptitude for detail to work, supplementing his natural talents with private tuition in mathematics and using models of ships to make up for lack of real experience at sea.

His endeavours may have had lasting impact on the British Navy (he is credited with introducing a requirement that all new officers first pass an exam) but they did not endear him to many figures in the Establishment. They resented his close relationship with the Duke of York  who later became King James II; his growing wealth and his elevation to a yet more senior role as Secretary for the Admiralty. Pepys  was accused of bribery and threatened with incarceration in the Tower of London and then faced further humiliation when he was accused of harbouring Catholic sympathies. He survived both, continuing in his positions until his patron and friend, King James was forced to leave the country.

Tomalin tells the story with panache and energy. Although she has to resort to guess-work and surmise  on some occasions, she never stretches credulity too far. Nor, although much of what she writes is necessarily full of facts, she never allows that detail to get in the way of telling a good story. One of the most memorable episodes she tells is of the operation Pepys underwent to remove the bladder stone which had given him excruciating pain for decades. In Tomalin’s imaginative re-creation we experience the same tension Pepys must have felt as he was trussed and bound to the bed and sense every moment of the operation he suffered without the benefit of anaesthetic or numbing alcohol.

Tomalin treats her subject with warmth, enjoying his pleasure in ordinary human activities and admiring his curiousity, his love and support for learning and his intelligence. She acknowledges his egotism, his often bad treatment of the women in his life  and his lecherous behaviour but concludes that  these never dim his brightness so we ‘rarely lose all sympathy for him. His energy burns off blame.”   It’s a credit to Tomalin’s skill that we come to share her enthusiasm for this ‘most ordinary and the most extraordinary’ of men.

 

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