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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Hell Hath No Fury by Ingrid Noll

published in 1991 in German

English translation by Ian Mitchell published 1996

I had a bath, washed my hair and blow-dried it. Witold wouldn’t be coming in the morning, since he had to be in school. But as to whether he would arrive immediately after lunch or not until later, I could only guess. From two in the afternoon, I was waiting, in my silken pyjamas; I put away my tea-cup, fetched it out again, cleaned my teeth once more. By six I was extremely edgy....

At last, at eight, he arrived…

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘don’t hang around in the kitchen, lie down on the sofa. I’ll stay with you for a few minutes.’

In my silk nightwear, I tried to assume as decorative a pose as possible, a bit like Tischbein’s painting of Goethe in the Campagna.

‘I looked awful yesterday, you must have been disgusted by the sight of me,’ I murmured.

‘Don’t worry yourself, that’s how everybody looks when they’re in a bad way.’ Witold really did seem to pay precious little attention to my appearance.

observations: This is a strange and very funny book, as the excerpt above might suggest. The painting mentioned is famous in Germany and would be easily imagined by most of Noll’s readers, and it is indeed a splendid image for anyone to bring to mind.

The narrator (known as Rosie, or Rosemarie, or Thyra) is a single woman in a dull job who thinks of herself as very old (in her 50s: can’t agree that this is old…) and decides to make one last grab for happiness and adventure. She more or less decides to fall in love with Witold, her visitor above, and more or less decides to be obsessional and criminal about the relationship. People standing in her way are not going to be blocking her for very long.

She has a very odd tone: she’s not really an unreliable narrator, she is all too reliably reporting what she has done, but there is a clever distance between her flat descriptions of what she has done, and then her getting very upset by some slight from one of the people in her life. She sweeps through some events, and then changes to a very detailed description of others. She is mad as a box of frogs, and rather wonderful. She has something of the older protagonist in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and something of the artist Nora in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

As part of her personal makeover, she buys herself a wine-red velvet skirt and a crepe-de-chine blouse ‘with a heraldic pattern’. I couldn’t really work out what that pattern would be.

The picture is the one mentioned in the text, from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Dark Island by Vita Sackville-West

published 1934

He stared at her very intently. She is young, he thought; not more than 25 or 26; but beyond her obvious youthfulness of years there is a curious mix of ages: caught at certain angles she looks almost childish,… but caught at other angles she looks fashionable and sophisticated, able to cope with life that may have treated her well or harshly.

Scantily dressed in brown satin, from which her arms and shoulders emerged rounded and gleaming, without a single jewel beyond their own transparent lightness, she enjoyed some quality which made her appear even more naked than she actually was. She had, he noticed, a trick of sitting with her hands clasping either shoulder, as though by her crossed arms she defended her breast from assault, and leant her cheek against her own shoulder, as though no flesh but her own had the right to caress her flesh. 

observations: So isn’t Vita Sackville-West full of surprises. When I read The Devil at Westease I was surprised by how conventional it was. The Dark Island is quite different: it starts out like Enid Blyton (whom I did mention in relation to the other book, and who also writes about a Secret Island) and turns into Anais Nin, with a very strange sexual feeling to it: there is strongly implied Lesbianism and some sadism. According to James Lees-Milne the book is ‘an astonishing revelation of the sadistic practices of love-making’ and the theme ‘much disturbed’ her husband Harold Nicolson.

The heroine, Shirin, seems a lot more attractive to VS-W than to the reader. All men fall in love with her, but she has an untouched and manly soul, and is apparently close to illiterate. Eventually she marries a man who is hereditary ruler of a small island (something on the lines of Sark one assumes). The marriage is not very happy, though improved when a woman called Cristina comes to live with them in a form of ménage a trois (Cristina very definitely there for Shirin rather than the cruel husband). But then everything goes wrong again. It’s very overblown, and although in general sex in books doesn’t bother me at all, there was something horrible about this one (not, in case you are busy rushing off to order it, detailed descriptions of perversions – just a slimy atmosphere). I still can’t decide what this bit means: ‘He moved closer towards her, following the line of his physical desire. She, experienced as she was, recognised the movement and shrank from it.’

Everyone has deep and important feelings which they start to express then fade away, no-one is ever honest or tells each other anything properly. There is just one moment where VS-W seems to see this and almost makes a joke. In a moment of deep emotion Shirin says to her suitor “if you really want to marry me you must….”

“Yes, must what?”

“Throw away that tie.”

James Lees-Milne, who was plainly very fond of Vita Sackville-West, is one of those friends who writes as her champion, and seems to have no idea how eminently dislikeable he makes her sound. Or perhaps that’s just me. I find her snobbery and ruthlessness very unattractive, and could do without the endless discussions of who is common, who hates democracy, and who is really worthwhile. But then, I have managed to read quite a few books by her.

The picture is from the Dovima is Devine photostream.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Birthday Murder by Lange Lewis

published 1945

The minute she saw Bernice Saxe standing there in the doorway, she knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. Bernice Saxe was her oldest friend. They had known each other since they had been children of 12, and although their lives had taken very different patterns, they had remained friends down the years. Bernice was a tall pretty woman with a little-girl voice that contrasted oddly with her size. She spent a great deal of time and money on her clothes, which were always of the best…

Today she was wearing a handsome gray pin-striped suit which displayed her fine bustline to advantage. Over it was tossed a silver fox scarf, a Christmas gift from her husband, Walter. … Bernice was clutching a green lizard bag, although her shoes and gloves were black suede, and there was no touch of green elsewhere about her costume. She stood in the doorway with her shining brown eyes opened very wide, and Victoria had the feeling that at any moment she might topple over and crash to the tiled floor of the porch.

observations: Sergio, over at the Tipping my Fedora blog, recommended this book, and I ordered a copy as soon as I had read his review. That turned out to be a very good decision: I enjoyed this hugely.

It’s a short, tight book: Hollywood-based writer Victoria sees a number of people as she waits for her husband to come home, the day before her birthday. Albert returns, they eat dinner together, and during that night he dies, apparently after ingesting ant poison – exactly the method used in Victoria’s recent book-about-to-be-a-movie. So how did he consume the poison, and who did the dirty deed?

In best Murder She Wrote fashion, any of the people in the book might have a hand in it, and all the visitors had the opportunity to fiddle with the kitchen containers. One of them was Victoria’s former husband, the peculiarly-named Sawn (a nice addition to my complaints about names theme): and my only complaint about the book is that his method of making Old Fashioneds seems to have a huge bearing on the murder, but is never mentioned. (It doesn’t spoil or contradict the plot, but does shortcut through one aspect of it.) Apart from that, sheer joy. Everyone’s clothes are described – pale green satin lounging pyjamas! A robe with huge daffodils on it! – and the point about the description above is that we know Bernice must be in a terrible state because her bag and shoes don’t match. Those were the days.

There is a character called Moira: they don’t often come up in books, see previous blog entries here and here, but when the name is used, not to boast or anything, but it tends to be by wonderful writers such as Donna Tartt and Nancy Mitford.

And, the fictional Victoria lives over the road from the Humphrey Bogarts, and is on coffee-borrowing terms with them: Humph would have just married Lauren Bacall, who died last week. 

Lange Lewis seems to undeservedly forgotten, and it's hard to find out anything about her, even in the standard crime fiction reference books - Sergio sums up what is known about her in the blog entry mentioned above.

The picture is from the Clover Vintage tumblr, and is a Vogue fashion shot from a few years later.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Golden Pavements by Pamela Brown

published 1947



[Drama student Lyn is appearing in a seaside rep performance of The Constant Nymph]

The second act went off without a hitch with an inspiring hush of attention from the audience. Even Mark seemed to be enjoying himself, and acutally deigned to offer Lyn a cigarette between the second and third acts. The third act contained some difficult scene changes, and for these it was “all hands on deck” to get it done quickly. Jean was playing the part of the lodging-house keeper in the last scene, and she did so well that Lyn wondered why she ever bothered to slave away as a stage manager when she was such a competent actress. By this time Lynette was exhausted by the mental strain and physical effort of the part, and was pale as death without the help of make-up. She wore a white petticoat during most of the scene, and this had a curiously shroud-like effect. At the end of the scene, as she died upon the ugly iron bedstead, there was a flutter of handkerchiefs among the audience a clearing of throats.

observations: Last week I did an entry on The Constant Nymph itself - this week a look at its place in popular culture.

What a favourite book Nymph is, and one that has lived down the ages, beloved by all, a form of shorthand – the Radlett family use it to tease Fanny in The Pursuit of Love, reading out the chapters staged above because her aunt is about to marry, late in life. Will Fanny fall in love with her new uncle…? An admirable young woman in Dorothy L Sayers The Nine Tailors wants to write books like The Constant Nymph. And in Antonia Forest’s seminal school story Attic Term, sceptical Nicola Marlow knows her older sister Ginty (15 or 16) is putting it on when she asks to borrow Dante from the neighbours’ handsome son: ‘What Ginty liked were thrillers and grown-up novels like The Constant Nymph. She must have been doing a massive show-off to have borrowed these.’ This should place the book exactly even if you haven’t read it.

In the book above - drama college followup to the excellent Swish of the Curtain - Lyn is an acting student working as an ASM in a repertory company in her summer break: she is supposed to get small walk-on parts, but because she is so talented, she gets the chance to play Tessa Sanger. Tessa is a very virtuous young woman (according to the author of the original novel, Margaret Kennedy) but otherwise the sacrificial dying could be from La Traviata or La Dame aux Camelias – though not the splendid blog favourite Romance, where the difficult woman is allowed to live a chaste and charitable life.

Another Margaret Kennedy book, Lucy Carmichael, recently gave me a couple of splendid blog entries, where I also pontificated on Constant Nymph.

One of my favourite books-about-books is Claud Cockburn’s long out-of-print Bestseller – a look at the most popular books in the first half of the 20th century – and his chapter on The Constant Nymph and The Green Hat is wonderful.

The picture is from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Violet Hammersley by Diana Mosley

--- from Loved Ones, a Book of Pen Portraits 

published 1985

She was rather small and very dark, with black hair and huge dark eyes, and she had an expression of deep gloom. She had a rather low, hollow voice, and although she often laughed it was as if unwillingly…

When I first knew her she was already a widow, and widow’s weeds became her. To the end of her life she was swathed in black scarves and shawls and veils; in later years not exactly in mourning, because many of her clothes were dark brown, but the whole effect had something more Spanish than French about it. Once when she was slightly annoying my sister Nancy, who used the powder and lipstick universal among our generation, by saying: ‘Painters don’t admire makeup at all,’ Nancy retorted: ‘Oh well Mrs Ham you know it’s all very well for you, but we can’t all look like El Greco’s mistress.’ Mrs Hammersley gave her hollow, unwilling laugh.

observations: Mrs Ham is a great feature of the chronicles of the Mitford family – she would surely be all-but-forgotten otherwise, but lives on in their letters, and in the many books about the sisters. She is a splendid character, and whenever she turns up in the canon you can relax, knowing entertainment will follow.

Diana Mosley is of course even more fascinating, as we keep finding on the blog. Her politics were detestable: she was a friend of Hitler, and she was married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and supported his political views totally. But once you get out of the way, there is still something left. She was a woman of principle and great loyalty, she found it easy to make and keep good friends despite everything (‘everything’ including imprisonment during the WW2 and the whiff – strongly denied - of potential treason). For someone claiming such strange views she had friends of all kinds – including many whom her husband’s desired political system would have condemned as degenerate, or Jewish, or both. There is a way in which she doesn’t add up…

Oswald Mosley was always the most outrageous philanderer, and doesn’t seem to have changed or adapted that at any point during his entire life: this was apparently a sorrow for his wives, but they both lived with it. Rather embarrassingly, Diana compared herself with her sister Nancy Mitford – who also had a great love who was incorrigibly unfaithful – and decided smugly that her Oswald (also known as Kit and Tom, to the confusion of keen readers of the letters) was not as awful as Nancy’s Colonel. Both men sound vile, but Gaston Palewski – the original of Nancy Mitford’s Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love – seems marginally more attractive, if you had to have one of them, and at least was not a fascist friend of Hitler.

Diana Mosley was stepmother to Nicholas Mosley, author of one of the blog’s best books of 2013: they had a very good relationship for many years, but ultimately she accused him of betraying the memory of his father (Nicholas wrote a 2-vol biog of Oswald), and so she refused to speak to him in the years leading up to her death in 2003.

She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.

The photograph shows Mrs H with Jessica Mitford.

The portrait of her is by Duncan Grant and is in Southampton art gallery.

This week in the excellent #bookadayuk meme on Twitter I picked Diana Mitford as a controversial writer.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Blood Makes Noise by Gregory Widen

published 2013

At twenty past midnight he was dozing when there was an insistent rap at the rear glass doors. Otto got up and opened them on a broad-shouldered man in livery costume. “Herr Spoerri?”

“Of course.” Who the hell else would be stuck here at this hour? The livery costume nodded, walked back to the idling limousine, and opened the rear door.

From it emerged a beautiful woman in her late twenties. She wore mink, her blonde hair up in a fierce chignon. Otto Spoerri recognized the face immediately, and his surprise was sufficient enough to leave him momentarily without manners.

“Are you the banker?” she asked in Spanish. Finally coming to attention, he took her hand and bent with a snap. “Senora. I am surprised. Please, welcome to Kredit Spoerri.”…

What a woman, with her harlot lips and shopgirl swagger, the heat of an absolute confidence that dried his eyes. A woman who’d come to a country that despised her, waded through seething crowds and splashing fruit, all to sit in the city’s oldest bank at midnight and calmly wait for what she wanted, turning the cigarette between moist lips.

observations: My good friend Col, over at Col’s Criminal Library, introduced me to this book, and you can read his review of it here.

I am fascinated by Eva Peron – that’s the Evita of the musical – and her extraordinary story: how she made it from poverty to be First Lady of Argentina in a very short space of time, how she was worshipped by many of the populace, how her memory lived on. And her body lived on too: she was embalmed at her early death – and what happened to her corpse is the subject of this bizarre thriller. 

It is not the best book ever written, but I must say I loved it: and I couldn’t guess where the story was going half the time. A young CIA agent, Michael, gets involved in a plot to smuggle her body out of the country. He succeeds in this, but completely messes up the rest of his life in the process. Fifteen years later, he is a broken, drug-addicted drunk – but gets caught up in a plan to bring her body back to Argentina. All kinds of extraordinary people pass through this book, and the twists and turns of the plot are labrynthine: but the writer says that many of the people are real, and a lot of what he describes actually happened. There’s a hallucinatory, supernatural feel to some sections: and the bits about the corpse and the embalming are truly creepy. I was less interested in the gunfights and the manic chase through Europe, but I still enjoyed the book and found it memorable and satisfying – and the various things that happened to the corpse are, well, indescribable and astonishing.

Pampas and gauchos feature – there is an interesting claim that Argentina is unusual in never developing ‘a myth of the homeland… this topsy-turvy culture invested all value in urban Porteno values. The countryside was a hostile, brutal place; its people, their gaucho cowboy tradition, despised.’ (Portenos are those who live in ports, and usually the phrase is applied to those from Buenos Aires.) One of our favourite pictures, from a Charles Darwin entry, shows this gaucho, and it always bears showing again:

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

published 1930

Adam and Miss Runcible and Miles and Archie Schwert went up to the motor races in Archie Schwert’s car. It was a long and cold drive. Miss Runcible wore trousers and Miles touched up his eyelashes in the drinign-room of the hotel where they stopped for luncheon. So they were asked to leave. At the next hotel they made Miss Runcible stay outside, and brought her cold lamb and pickles in the car. .. They spent a long time over luncheon because it was warm there, and they drank Kummel over the fire until Miss Runcible came in very angrily to fetch them out.

Then Archie said he was too sleepy to drive any more, so Adam changed places with him and lost the way, and they travelled miles in the wrong direction down a limitless by-pass road.

And then it began to be dark and the rain got worse. They stopped for dinner at antoher hotel, where everyone giggled at Miss Runcible’s trousers in a dining-room hung with copper warming pans.

observations: Recently I have been thinking about the books and scenes I particularly wanted to illustrate when I started Clothes in Books – Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, entry here, was one of them, and I listed a few others. This was on the list too: those trousers made a big impression on me when I first read this book years ago, and this chapter was one of the jumping-off points for the piece I did for the Guardian last year tracing the history of women wearing trousers in fiction….

So it might be surprising that I’m only just doing it now, but there is a reason for that, which is that this may be my least favourite Evelyn Waugh book. I like some of his books very much (Brideshead Revisited), and the letters he exchanged with Nancy Mitford are one of the great joys of life – their collected correspondence would be one of my Desert Island books.

But Vile Bodies I have read several times, always wondering
if this time I will like it, and I don’t. I don’t like the foolish adventures the young people have, I don’t like the very flat style of narration, and I don’t like the way everyone in it is horrible. (Poor Agatha Runcible comes off well compared with some of the others.) It’s a great pity because the book contains plenty of great clothes mentions, including Agatha in a Hawaiian costume, 

and Miss Mouse in a ‘very enterprising frock by Cheruit’ – let’s give her this one: already assigned to Harried D Vane in this entry.  

Then there are the angels – the book always improves when Mrs Ape’s Angels turn up: I think I’d rather have read a whole novel about Chastity, Prudence and Divine Discontent.

Top picture is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego aviation museum. Angels from Flickr. The Hawaiian picture shows filmstar Eleanor Powell, whose finest dancing moments included the film Honolulu, and Broadway Melody of 1940, as shown in this blog entry.