Blagdon’s Reading – May 2016

Re-reading a much-loved book from our youth formed much of our discussion this month, Do we still find the same things funny? Is tragedy still as tragic? Do we understand a book better now, or see some aspects more clearly that were formerly obscured by the plot? One reader had been revisiting literature from the 1930s, in particular Rachel Ferguson’s amusing, playful The Brontës Went to Woolworths. Three sisters, one already working as a journalist, another on the threshold of a career as an actress and the youngest still being taught by a governess (eccentrically in 1931), have to negotiate the collision between their rich fantasy lives and their incipient adulthood. ‘How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters’, says the eldest, betraying an exactly parallel collision with the premise of the book.

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has been enjoyed and admired, and the second volume in this quartet about two Neapolitan friends, The Story of a New Name, is next on the list. These books have been called Tolstoyan in their scope and depth of feeling, and the intensity magnifies from book to book. Our reader had a warning, however, that the early, scene-setting part of My Brilliant Friend, when the two girls, Lila and Lenu, are small, though beautifully written is less engaging than what follows; so if you begin this book, do persevere until they begin to grow up.

Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is also highly recommended. The first and longest of three sections takes place over the course of one day, during which the reader is invited to observe the Ramsay family, an Oxford professor, his wife (the pivot of the novel, based on Virginia Woolf’s mother, Julia Duckworth, who died when Virginia was thirteen) and their eight children, on holiday in Scotland. There are also several house-guests. It is an absorbing examination of the role and worth of marriage, from the point of view of those within the marriage, those on the threshold of marriage and those on the outside. It is also about the counterpoise between past and present, at times poignantly held. The last section takes place ten years after the first.

Other books discussed included Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukrainian-Jewish origin who planned a sequence of five novels at the outbreak of the war. Suite Française comprises the first two, Storm in June and Dolce. Already a celebrated novelist when she was writing Storm in June, Némirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942 (her husband a few months later, in the process of trying to get her released). Her daughters survived, sheltered by teachers and friends. Denise, (who was twelve when orphaned) inherited her mother’s papers in 1996. She thought the leather-bound notebook contained a journal, too painful to read, but in 2004 a literary friend realized it was a novel and set out to publish it. Although an unrevised draft, its scope and compassion have been said (by Helen Dunmore) to show her Russian origins, and comparison with Tolstoy has again been made. It is a dispassionate portrait of provincial France under occupation, not judgmental but shockingly revealing of self-preservative behaviour. At the same time, she shows compassion for the young Germans who were fodder for Hitler’s megalomania. The entries in her journal about writing are fine examples of self-motivation and critical self-discipline.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild is an art-historical novel with a twist: the title is that of a painting by Watteau, and the painting is the narrator. It tells the story of its journey from the courts of kings and emperors to a London junk shop, and the down-at-heel apartment of the book’s heroine, Annie, a chef convalescing a broken heart. Hannah Rothschild will take up the Chair of Trustees of the National Gallery in August. Her book has been more than two decades in the writing, and its idea comes from visits to galleries as a child with her parents, wishing that the paintings could speak to her and tell her about their lives. Unusually, she has made this fantasy come true through her novel. Rachel Ferguson’s Carne sisters would be proud!

We meet again on Wednesday June 29th at 7.30pm at the Seymour Arms.

Lindsey Shaw-Miller
01761 463 659