Thursday, 30 January 2020

A Change for the Better

The last time I was in Parliament Square, I had a very unpleasant experience and so I was a little afraid to go back. But today I did and this is the sight that met my eyes:

It's an improvement.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Battered Penguin - Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent is, like much of Muriel Spark's work, very readable and amusing, despite being complex and not easy to understand.  Extracts from Cardinal Newman and Benvenuto Cellini's memoirs are interwoven through the narrative, which is a novel, although its narrator, a novelist, claims it is an autobiography.

The book opens with the phrase, "One day in the middle of the twentieth century." The narrator, Fleur Talbot, tells us this day "was the last day of a whole chunk of my life, but I didn't know that at the time" ,and explains that she was sitting in an old graveyard which she observes, puzzlingly, "had not yet been demolished", suggesting we are in a world that is not quite our own. She is approached by a policeman who "only wanted to know what I was doing", although "plainly he didn't like to ask", which is confusing - did he ask, or does the narrator simply know that that is what he wants? As the novel progresses, this question becomes less and less easy to answer; the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred; finally, looking back at that opening page, it is hard to know whether the policeman stepped out of fiction and into the reality of Fleur's day or stepped from that reality and into fiction.

In other words a major theme of the novel is an examination of what exactly fiction is. In that context, Spark's narrator tells us a lot about writing and being a writer. "I talk very little" she explains to her new employer, "although I listened a lot", she adds in a kind of aside to us, continuing  "I have always been on the listen-in for ... phrases."

"Contradictions in human character" she goes on " are one of its most consistent notes ... Since the story of my own life is just as much constituted of the secrets of my craft as it is of other events, I might as well remark here that to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory."

It becomes clear as Fleur and her friend discuss the novel she is writing during the period in which this novel (autobiography?) is set that Fleur sees a clear distinction between fictional characters and reality. When her friend declares that one of Fleur's characters is "a personification of evil", Fleur retorts, "Marjorie is only words", adding for our benefit, "I knew I wasn't helping the reader to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think...I wasn't writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder, as indeed they did to myself as I was composing them."  Paradoxically, when Fleur tells her friend that she cannot explain why she is concerned about the activities of certain people in their own real lives until she has written more of her novel - "It's the only way I can come to a conclusion about what's going on ... I have to work it out through my creativity" - she seems to be indicating that for her reality does not really exist until she has written about it.

Adding to the confusion, the characters and events in the novel Fleur is writing increasingly become the characters and events in her own life - in that order: that is, she invents and then the invention comes out of the fiction and into reality. "What is truth", Fleur asks at one point, and the reader - this one anyway - becomes less and less clear what the answer is as the book goes on.

Never mind, there is much rather heartless humour in the novel and many vivid and marvellous characters, above all Lady Edwina, "a tall, thin and extremely aged woman with a glittering appearance, largely conveyed by her many strings of pearls on a black dress and her bright silver hair ... her face cracked with make-up, with a scarlet gash of a smile ... her fingernails, overgrown, so that they curled over the tips like talons ... painted dark red", who uses "the blackmail of her very great age." She will be my role model from now on.

At the very end of the book, Fleur sees that friend with whom she discussed her earlier novel and has "a row with her on the subject of my wriggling out of real life", which I take as a statement about more than Fleur's decision to remain single and childless. There is something as intriguing but also as difficult to fathom as quantum physics here, which cleverer readers may be able to grasp instantly, but I cannot. I don't mind though. Spark has constructed something strange and intricate and often funny. The author - or at least the narrator - is someone who sees that all human activity is, from a divine perspective, mere foolishness. But, if she is godlike in her perspective, she is no Christian kind of god, for she sneers at her fellow humans rather than feeling any obvious affection for them.

The book closes with Fleur leaving her friend's flat and having a faintly transcendental experience:

"I came out into the courtyard exasperated as usual. Some small boys were playing football, and the ball came flying straight towards me. I kicked it with a chance grace, which, if I had studied the affair and tried hard, I never could have done. Away into the air it went, and landed in the small boy's waiting hands. The boy grinned. And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing."

On reading this I felt as I usually do when arriving at the end of a piece of Muriel Spark fiction - no sense of dissatisfaction, as the spectacle has been entertaining, but faintly disturbed, having been made aware, that I am, compared to Spark, sadly, rather dim.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

January Reading - Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner

Having read this review, I came to this book with high hopes. Boy, what a disappointment it turned out to be. Lady Glenconner cannot write for toffee. She is a person who has had quite a life but her account of it has all the excitement and narrative drive of a telephone directory. Understatement and stiff upper lippery is so pronounced in her character that her verdict on her marriage to a serially unfaithful man who regularly erupted into unspeakable rage and occasionally bought elephants on impulse is merely this:

"Apart from his infidelity and his temper, we got on so well."

But perhaps she didn't know there were other kinds of marriage. After all, as she explains, her:

"sister Carey had trouble with her husband ... after a few years, [he] refused to talk directly to her and instead would talk through his Labrador, saying things like 'Tell her to bring the bloody paper over here'."

Furthermore, Lady Glenconner's father in later life believed his wife and the writer's youngest sister "were Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields. At his insistence, they sang songs like 'The Biggest Aspidistra in the World'." As if this were not enough, Lady Glenconner's "father got into a habit of chatting up women on the train to London and inviting them back to Holkham, where he would take them off on the fire engine, encouraging them to ring the bell.'

The book really brought home to me what an extraordinarily good writer the Duchess of Devonshire was. Describing a similar milieu but provided with far fewer eccentrics, the Duchess was able to produce hilarity from the flimsiest of material. Lady Glenconner has much more exciting substance, but her supreme gift is to render everything banal. Take her account of the demise of an acquaintance called Laura Brand, who was, she explains:

"the rather eccentric sister of Lord Hambleden ... [She] always wore sombreros and was always in the sea. ... Laura drowned [when] she and her husband Micky were in Grenada and she went for a swim. Micky was on the beach when all of a sudden her hat floated past, out to sea."

That is the full extent of that story. We move rapidly on to a party, while the hat and the memory drift away.

But then in Lady Glenconner's social circle it seems very little is required to make someone appear wonderfully entertaining. A ritual of the Queen Mother's involving drinking toasts to people is portrayed as the height of wit but isn't, while one of Princess Margaret's entourage, a man called John Harding was, we are told, always welcome, since "the children adored [him] on account of his ability to tear a telephone directory [not often those get mentioned more than once in a blog post] in half." It does seem to me that that particular party trick would pall quite quickly, but not so far as the Glenconner children were concerned, apparently.

Mind you, some of those children went on to rather grisly ends, so perhaps something in their way of life - possibly the forced gaiety expected when witnessing the wanton destruction of telephone directories - did have long term bad effects. Or perhaps their mother's steadfast refusal to do anything but look on the bright side provoked them. Her tone remains constant even when she tells us how one of her sons would go off to rehab clinics packed "with other members of high society", (who she then lists). When her husband suggests disinheriting the boy, she remarks, utterly inconsequentially, "I didn't know what to think, but could quite see where Colin was coming from."

Just as Lady Glenconner seems unable to differentiate between tragedy and daily life, she appears to have absolutely no idea what is funny and what is boring. Thus she mentions in passing, as if she hadn't even noticed it, that the undertakers she dealt with after her husband's death were called Lazarus Funerals, but devotes a whole paragraph to a story with no punchline at all:

"In the late afternoon we [Lady Glenconner and Princess Margaret] would often go and sit in Basil's Bar, watching the sunset, sceptically waiting for the 'green flash' that is supposed to appear on the horizon just after the sun vanishes. Neither of us believed it, yet we always seemed to be distracted by the thought, pausing our conversation to stare at the view, just in case we saw it. We never did but it became a fun habit."

A fun habit! Elsewhere in her narrative we have Princess Margaret trying to beat grey squirrels to death. Another fun habit? Possibly.

In the end, I even began almost to sympathise with Lady Glenconner's monstrous loony husband. A few hundred pages spent in her dull, dull company was bad enough; if one had to spend a lifetime with her, who knows how angry and irrational one might not become.