March 2018 re-reading: Peter Taylor

The year I’ve just been back to is 1991 – my first year of living in the USA, and a year in which I seem to have read only 18 books. Two of them were pretty big, though: Charles Palliser’s pseudo-Victorian The Quincunx (at the beginning of the year) and Our Mutual Friend in the later part of the year. This was also the year my mother died, at the end of the summer in her 81st year; more or less at the same time I was feeling my way into a new role as editor of an American university’s weekly newspaper-cum-propaganda-sheet, leaving me little time (as I recall) for literary exploration.

Still, I managed to discover some US authors I hadn’t read before: Allan Gurganus, Andre Dubus, Peter Cameron … and Peter Taylor, whose In the Miro District I’ve chosen to re-read, mainly because it is still on my shelves. Who he? A well-thought-of US fiction writer (1917-1994), his fame doesn’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic. I don’t think I’d heard of him before I moved to live in the US; and maybe it was only after I had picked up this book, with its “Pulitzer Prize winner” label, in one of Boston’s (then) many second-hand-book stores that I perhaps knew anything about him at all. The cover of this paperback (see below) is rather odd, incidentally: it’s not credited to any artist, and I’m not sure what story it’s supposed to illustrate.

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I have to admit that my memory’s not much help here: at no point in my re-reading this collection of eight short stories did anything come back to me from 1991. In other words, it felt like I was reading In the Miro District for the first time. What did I think of it? At first I was put off a little by the “Southernness” of the stories: nearly all of them are set in Tennessee, and quite a few of them purport to recall a past well before they were written, in the 1970s. They are also nearly all about well-off white families, who often have (black) servants. Take the opening story, ‘The Captain’s Son’: it begins with a disquisition about the differences between Nashville and Memphis – not the Memphis of the 1970s (where, after all, Martin Luther King had been shot only a few years previously) or the Nashville of country music fame, but as it was during the 1930s, among socially important families who have histories of grievance and entitlement stretching back to the “Spanish War” or earlier. “[D]uring those Depression years our family was doing whatever it decently could to cut corners,” the narrator notes at one point, but it is clear that economic conditions have little to do with the story of his older sister and her unfortunate marriage.

Once I got past my own prejudices I have to admit Taylor was a skilful writer, capable of a few surprises. The least “Southern” and backward-looking of his stories, ‘Her Need’ and ‘The Instruction of a Mistress’ both have unexpected trajectories: these and two others are written – I’m still not sure why – in irregular-length lines of free verse:

She tries to imagine herself
In one of those other parts of town
That she never went into as a girl.
And she doesn’t feel like herself at all.
She feels like something
That somebody else has made up. [‘Her Need’]

Or

I remember your longing to know
How the man who wrote that poetry in his youth
Could waste the rest of his life
Writing those dull essays, those endless analyses … [‘The Instruction of a Mistress’]

We’re back in Tennessee for the final story in the book, ‘In the Miro District’, which is set in Nashville “in or around 1925”. It is a sort of meditation, from the vantage point of old age, on the narrator’s youth and his odd relationship as a teenager with his grandfather, a veteran of the Civil War (rather like, I suppose, from a very different point of view, Alice Munro’s narrators often look back on earlier periods of their life). It seems to have quite a personal basis: according to Wikipedia, Taylor’s grandfather had fought in the Confederate army and also (just like the grandfather in the title story) had a narrow escape from death at the hands of Tennessee’s notorious Night Riders. It’s the longest and, in some ways, the most technically accomplished of the stories in this volume.

So anyway, in the end I was quite grateful for this revisit to Taylor’s world. Next month – what? I haven’t decided yet …

 

Also read in March: in fiction, Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor (not a patch on Jane Eyre) and Last Friends by Jane Gardam (sequel to, but not as good as, her Old Filth). And in non-fiction, quite a few articles and chapters on the philosophy of sport.

February 2018 re-reading: Penelope Fitzgerald

I’m now revisiting 1990, a momentous year: Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mrs Thatcher resigned, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Germany was reunified. For my family and me big things happened too: at the end of the year I left Radio Times after 19 years and Clever Wife got a job in the US, which she started in September of that year – I wasn’t to join her there until the following January. Meanwhile Clever Daughter no. 1 started at Manchester University (Clever Son no. 1 was already at Leeds), and I was a temporary single father for nearly four months. All the same, that year (according to my records) I managed to get through 22 books.

Probably the best book I read that year was Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, but for re-reading I’ve chosen another top-class female author: Penelope Fitzgerald, whose The Beginning of Spring I remember reading and not-quite-enjoying in the autumn of 1990. (Curiously, it’s one of two novels I read that autumn that featured husbands temporarily deserted by their wives: the other was John Updike’s Rabbit Redux.) I think the reason I borrowed it from my local library, though, was that it had been on the Booker Prize shortlist two years previously, in 1988 – the year when Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (which I read in 1989) won. I’d already got through another of 1988’s shortlist, David Lodge’s Nice Work, but I’ve still not yet read another of that year’s shortlistees, The Satanic Verses. Did I use the Booker Prize as a guide to my reading those days more than I do now? The last BP winner I’ve actually read is, I find, Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007).

But I digress. What did I remember about The Beginning of Spring? First of all I was puzzled about the subject. Why choose as your central character – whose point of view we rarely stray from – an Englishman running a printing works in Moscow in 1913? Penelope Fitzgerald’s Wikipedia entry is some help: she had learned Russian in the 1960s, visited Moscow in a 1975 trip that also included a visit to Tolstoy’s house, and was friends with an art curator who had been brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia. So it wasn’t a setting plucked out of the air, as it were. I also remember feeling encouraged by the fact that PF was famously a late starter: she wrote her first novel at the age of 60 (although she had been active in literary circles from much earlier), and was 71 when TBOS came out.

As a novel TBOS is “gloriously peculiar”, to borrow a phrase from Jan Morris’s review at the time of publication. Frank Reid, our “hero”, is head of a printing business he has inherited from his father, and the novel is mostly confined to the few weeks between March and April 1913, when Moscow thaws and spring arrives (hence the title). There is a chapter set in 1911and there are backwards glances to Frank’s apprenticeship in England, his meeting and marriage to Nellie, and the process by which he took over the printing works from his father; but mostly we are in 1913 Moscow. There seems to be a lot of geographical detail about the city (would an accompanying map have been any use?) and we meet a variety of its inhabitants, from printers and student revolutionaries to an Anglican chaplain and an English governess. Perhaps most memorable is the unlikely figure of Selwyn Crane, the print works’ accountant who is “not quite sane-looking [and] seemed to have let himself waste away, from other-worldliness, almost to transparency” (he is a follower of Tolstoy). For some reason – we are never sure why – Selwyn arranges for the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna to look after Frank’s children in their mother’s absence. That’s one of the appealingly odd things about TBOS: things often seem to happen for no explicit reason.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic style, which got the 1988 reviewers reaching for phrases such as “deceptively simple”, “superb eye for detail” and “pellucid”, certainly carries the story along. After a while I started noticing her frequent use of “as though” and “as if” constructions. For instance:

“I’m twenty-six,” she said, as though it might as well be said now as later (p29 in my library edition)

Selwyn took back the notebook, as though he did not like to see it in less expert hands (p98)

Voldya’s expression was strained, as though he had entered his remark for an important prize (p135)

… he made a wide gesture with both arms, as if he was scattering food for hens (p136)

… the room filled with that peculiar silence, as though it was stretching itself, which follows when a great number of people have left (p157)

The reviewers also praised TBOS’s “authenticity” and its author’s detailed knowledge of such things as printing techniques, Russian feast-day observances and what happened at Moscow’s Merchants’ Club. Sometimes this is all too much, as when she goes in for lists (Frank’s printing works produced “parcel labels, auctioneers’ catalogues, handbills of rewards leading to the arrest of thieves and murderers, tradesmen’s cards, club cards, bill heads, bottle wrappers …” Oh stop!). Yet I spotted at least one mistake: Frank’s younger daughter Annushka is born “towards autumn” of 1911 (chapter 6); but in March 1913 (chapter 1) she is “two and three quarters” – and elsewhere talks more like a three- or four-year-old. Do such errors undermine one’s trust in an author?

 

Also read this month: Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger (an early novel, not one of his best); Trollope’s Doctor Wortle’s School; and I’m abut half-way through Leif Wenar’s masterly Blood Oil, an interesting combination of reportage, political philosophy and indignation.

 

January 2018 re-reading: Joseph Roth

So my project is now one year old: for 12 months I’ve managed to re-read, at the rate of one a month, a book from each year in my list of “Books Read” that started in 1977. So far, though, I haven’t chosen anything in translation. And so, turning to 1989’s list, I looked at what might fit the bill: short stories by Chekhov and I.B. Singer? The Double Bass by Patrick Susskind? No, it had to be Joseph Roth (1894-1939), the somewhat obscure Austrian writer whose short novel Hotel Savoy I first read in 1989 and re-read this month.

Actually, to call Roth “Austrian” is a bit of a stretch: his birthplace, Brody, is now at western end of Ukraine and was in Poland between the two world wars. But before that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it is that empire whose existence and disappearance is at the heart of Roth’s output. His major novel, The Radetzky March (which I’ve also read), is about three generations of an Austro-Hungarian military family; other novels and stories look back on the lives of more humble empire functionaries.

After fighting on the Eastern Front in World War One, Roth made his living as a somewhat rootless journalist: one of his translators, Michael Hofmann, says he “lived out of two suitcases in six countries”. Hotel Savoy (1924) seems to have been Roth’s first full-length published novel, and began life as a serial in a German newspaper. It certainly has journalistic elements, including, on the first page, a sentence that sounds like the opening of a report from a rather self-important foreign correspondent: “After five years, I stand again at the gates of Europe.” This is Gabriel Dan, the narrator, writing about his arrival at the Hotel Savoy, where most of the novel’s subsequent action (such as it is) takes place.

Gabriel has been a prisoner of war in Siberia, and is one of thousands of ex-soldiers and refugees moving westwards in the aftermath of war and revolution. While others continue westwards, he stays in the hotel in this dreary nameless Polish town (“a town of rain, a comfortless town”); visits his well-off but unsympathetic Jewish relatives; and gets to meet the hotel’s various employees and inhabitants, from the knowing lift-boy to ageing circus performers, dancing girls and visiting businessmen. “One might arrive at the Hotel Savoy with a single shirt and leave it as the owner of twenty trunks” is a comment, with variations, that recurs several times in the novel. Indeed, many of the hotel’s inhabitants seem to be waiting for their luck to change, stuck where they are because they have no money.

In part 2 of the novel two quite different agents of change turn up: the first is Zwonimir Pansin, a wartime comrade, who arrives at the station at a time when the narrator is there hoping to get work as a porter. Zwonimir, a Croat and “a revolutionary from birth”, is perhaps the novel’s most vividly sketched character; he has a galvanising effect not only on the narrator but also the hotel: “Zwonimir makes independent excursions inside the hotel, goes into empty rooms, leaves notes with greetings and knows everyone within three days”. The other arrival is Henry Bloomfield, a rich American “whose arm was long and could reach across the Great Pond [and who] had a finger in every factory in the old town of his birth”. Bloomfield/Blumenfeld returns to revisit his father’s grave and (perhaps) spread his wealth around; he hires Gabriel as his secretary to help deal with all the petitioners besieging him, but in the end leaves the town much as he found it. Worse, in fact: there’s an outbreak of typhus and revolution is in the air. And on the final pages the Hotel Savoy itself is burned down.

Did I enjoy this re-reading? I remember very little of it from my first reading, and I was initially put off by the way Roth wavers between present-tense and past-tense narration. But it seemed to settle down into its own fragmentary rhythm, and, yes, it was good. There was a palpable feel of an insecure early-1920s middle Europe about the novel, and I liked Roth’s occasional unexpected images:

Once again it is time for the returning soldiers. They come in groups, many at a time. They come in shoals, like certain fish at certain times of the year.

Or

Things are going badly with these people, and their sorrow towers before them, a great wall. They sit enmeshed in the dusty grey web of their cares and flutter like trapped flies.

 

More than one English translation of Hotel Savoy is available: I went back to the 1986 translation by John Hoare that I read first time round, which is not always elegant (but then maybe the original isn’t, either). There is also a translation of Hotel Savoy available by Jonathan Katz – I’ve no idea if that’s any better. The Hoare volume, a library borrowing, also includes a couple of interesting short stories by Roth: Fallmerayer the Stationmaster and The Bust of the Emperor. These are later Roth products, and are somewhat more polished, but the latter story in particular, about Count Mortsin, a Polish aristocrat who refuses to believe that there is no longer an Emperor to show his allegiance to after the Great War, is unexpectedly moving.

 

Meanwhile, I began 2018 by reading Mike McCormack’s fantastically good Solar Bones (I think it would easily win the title of Greatest Novel Ever Written That Is Set in County Mayo); went on from there to Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Simenon; and then took some time to get through Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (good but not as convincing as I thought it might be), while also dipping into Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey – about which I reserve judgement…

On to February!

 

 

December 2017 re-reading: Alice Munro

In 1988 I read War and Peace and 22 other books, but rather than go back over Tolstoy’s masterpiece (which I really must revisit some day) for December I opted for a re-read of one of several collections of Alice Munro stories I have on my shelves. Because, let’s face it, she’s a great writer.

The collection I read in 1988, and have just re-read, was The Progress of Love, published just the year before. How had I discovered Munro? I think I must have first read her in the New Yorker, copies of which seemed to appear fairly regularly in the old Radio Times office and which I would occasionally borrow to read on my commute. Anyway, I see that in 1987 I read a library copy of her earlier collection The Moons of Jupiter, and from then on saw her as a writer worth seeking out. I’ve always liked reading short stories, and Munro’s I liked more than most. The only problem with reading a collection like this one is that you (or rather I) can’t rush straight through, as it were: I have to leave space between each story to get the full impact and not let one blur into another. Reading most of The Progress of Love on a long flight– which is what I did – may not have been a good idea. I had to leave breaks (for meals or naps) between stories.

Now that Munro is super-famous and has won the Nobel Prize for literature (in 2013), perhaps there is not a lot of point in adding to the literary world’s praise. But I’ll still make a few remarks after my re-reading:

1 Was it a good idea to call the collection The Progress of Love? True, that’s the title of the first story in the collection (though I’m still not sure why) but it does suggest the whole book is full of romantic clichés, which it isn’t. The titles of some of her other collections, such as Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You or Too Much Happiness seem to have more of a Munro-esque flavour

2 That title story is a good illustration of her stories’ “tendency to move forward and backward in time” (to borrow a phrase quoted in her Wikipedia entry). “I got a call at work, and it was my father” is the opening sentence. The narrator’s mother Marietta has died, and within a couple of pages we go back to 1947 when she (the narrator) was twelve and about to meet her mother’s stepsister Beryl; then we go back further, to an incident in Marietta’s childhood about which it turns out Beryl has a different version; after that we go forward to 1965 when the narrator’s childhood farmhouse home is sold and eventually lived in by “hippies”. In the final pages or so we are (I think) in a later time frame than the opening, and the narrator is revisiting the house which is now up for sale and recalling – perhaps not accurately – how her mother burned the money she had inherited from her father, some time before 1947. This is more complicated time-wise than most of Munro’s stories.

3 Despite such complications, Munro’s prose is generally uncomplicated, and her sentences straightforward and not too long. Take the opening of ‘The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink’)

Sam got a surprise, walking into Callie’s variety and confectionery store. He expected a clutter of groceries, cheap bits and pieces, a stale smell, maybe faded tinsel ropes, old overlooked Christmas decorations. Instead he found a place mostly taken up with video games. Hand-lettered signs in red and blue crayon warned against alcohol, fighting, loitering and swearing.

One thing I noticed in this re-reading, though: the frequent occurrence of questions in the course of a story. It certainly makes sense in a first-person narrative that’s unsure of the truth (three out of the 11 stories here have first-person narrators), but everywhere it seems there are unresolved puzzles about people’s behaviour:

Why did Violet do this? Why did she send those ugly letters to Trevor, and put such a note with them? (‘A Queer Streak’)

Why does Trudy remember this moment? … What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life – what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all? (‘Circle of Prayer’)

Why is it that Rhea always knows the tricky question to ask, in spite of her predictable mockery, lectures, and propaganda? (‘Eskimo’)

4 Of course Munro is notable for being Canadian and making much of the Canadian setting of her stories – only ‘Miles City, Montana’ in this collection strays across the border, and its central characters are a Canadian husband and wife and daughters. More than one story highlights the difference between the inhabitants of small towns and the usually poorer farmers of their hinterland (Munro herself grew up on a farm outside Wingham, Ontario). But the attitudes that people express here – condescension, resentment, curiosity and the like – are easily recognisable in lots of other contexts. Similarly although Munro often writes from a woman’s point of view there are plenty of instances where we enter the minds of the men in these stories. One of my favourites, ‘Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux’, is told mostly from a man’s (Colin’s) point of view; yet one of the important points of the story is that a woman, Nancy, knows more about car engines than either Colin or his brother do.

Will what I’ve written here make anyone want to read Alice Munro who hasn’t already done so? I don’t know. But I’m certainly glad I re-read The Progress of Love and will continue to revisit, and think about, her stories as time – her continuing theme – goes by.

Also read in December: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World (more short stories); Even the dogs by Jon McGregor (memorably good); and The Watch House by Northern Irish writer Bernie McGill …

So, to look back: I read some 50 books in 2017, about 30 per cent of which were by women writers (four out of 12 of my re-readings were by women). Top six? In no particular order, The Underground Railroad, Even the dogs, Notes from Overground, Go Went Gone, The Immigration Handbook, The Noise of Time. Most on rather serious subjects, I’m afraid.

 

November 2017 re-reading: Wells’s Tono-Bungay

I’m now looking back 30 years, at 1987, when (my records allege) I read 26 books – although that total did include three novels marked as “unfinished” (one of them, The Man Without Qualities, I note I had another go at in 2001 and still failed to finish).  And I’ve marked that 30th anniversary by going back to a novel that has certainly been worth re-reading: Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells. My 1987 reading of it took place, I recall, while on a week’s holiday on Skye …

Like his contemporary and friend Arnold Bennett – they were born less than a year apart – Wells seems not to have been treated very well by English literature’s canon creators: the pair don’t have the status of (for instance) Conrad, Woolf or Forster. Perhaps it’s because quite a lot of what they both wrote was written in a hurry and for money … But actually, to judge by the edition I used for my re-reading (a Penguin Classic, published in 2005 with an introduction by Edward Mendelson) quite a bit of scholarly work has been done on Tono-Bungay, perhaps Wells’s best-regarded novel.

Although it’s set more than 100 years ago, Tono-Bungay certainly has resonances beyond its period. A “story of activity and urgency and sterility”, as its narrator George Ponderevo puts it, it is mainly concerned with the rise and fall of his uncle Edward Ponderevo, “whose comet-like transit of the financial heavens happened – it is now ten years ago!” (The novel was published in 1909, so we are to imagine nearly all the novel’s action taking place before the end of the nineteenth century.) Edward is the creator of Tono-Bungay, an ineffective patent medicine marketed as “The Secret of Vigour”.  Thanks to imaginative advertising this supposed cure-all is a success, and lays the foundation for Ponderevo’s further commercial adventures – which finally crash, like other real-life capitalist over-reachers, into bankruptcy. I was reminded of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now in the narrator’s observation of establishment figures

calculating consciously or unconsciously how they might use [my uncle] and assimilate him to their system, the most unpremeditated, subtle, successful and aimless plutocracy that ever encumbered the destinies of mankind. Not one of them, so far as I could see, until disaster overtook him, resented his lies, his almost naked dishonesty of method …

Although nephew George assists in the development of Tono-Bungay, for most of the novel he is a sceptical observer. This apparent detachment doesn’t, however, stop him using the money gained from his uncle’s schemes to finance his other ventures, building flying machines and designing warships – his attempts at heavier-than-air flight take up a good few pages of the novel. And its memorable final pages follow the progress of his newly-built destroyer down the Thames from Craven Reach to the North Sea – “out to the unknown across a great grey space. … Out to the open we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways.”

As a first-person narrator George says has “seen life at very different levels” and wants to draw lessons from his experience with his uncle and from his early life as the son of a domestic servant in a country house:

I want to … say things I have come to feel intensely of the laws, traditions, usages and ideas we call society, and how we poor individuals get driven and lured and stranded among these windy, perplexing shoals and channels

Later, in his last chapter:

I think of all the energy I have given to vain things. I think of my industrious scheming with my uncle … It is all one spectacle of forces turning to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever of trade and money-making and pleasure-seeking

There’s a good deal more to be said about Tono-Bungay as social critique, much of which has been said by others, but here I just want to remark that like some of the best nineteenth-century novels (Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and – yes! – Treasure Island) it’s written in the first person. Some modern first-person narratives can be bland and apparently reliable; others very deliberately “unreliable”. Wells’s first-person is idiosyncratic in its own way, and is awkwardly frank about his relations with women such as his lower-middle-class wife Marion and aristocratic lover Beatrice. Rather oddly, although this is a “true” narrative in the book’s terms, he calls it a “novel”:

I want to trace my social trajectory (and my uncle’s) as the main line of my story; but as this is my first novel and almost certainly my last, I want to get in too all sorts of things that struck me, things that amused me and impressions I got … My ideas of a novel all through are comprehensive rather than austere

Here I’d like to make use of a piece by Adam O’Fallon Price I found recently on the website The Millions (https://themillions.com/2017/10/in-defense-of-third-person.html). Disagreeing with W.G. Sebald’s remark that “fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture”, Price argues that third-person narrators “are the artifice that enables the art, and they are truthful as to their own untruthfulness, or perhaps better, their truthlessness”. He champions “the explicit machinery of third-person narration” against the view “that first person [narrative] is somehow more transparent or ‘honest’ than third”, and I think I can agree with him. But of course there is a place for first-person narration, as he says: “It isn’t accidental that the greatest examples of the first-person novel … make ample use of unreliability and/or intricate frame narration.”

I think Tono-Bungay is a good example. The narrator may lack style and be somewhat repetitive with his opinions about British society and his relations with women – but that’s no doubt the point. We’re reading the words of a person who supposedly is unused to writing at length but is keen to tell us as honestly as he can about his experiences and what he has learned from them. If some of them coincide with the views of H.G. Wells, is that so surprising?

Also read this month (November): Southern Adventure, the fifth volume of Konstantin Paustovsky’s memoirs which I am gradually working through; Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 (not one of his best – perhaps a bit over-thought) and Venusberg by Anthony Powell (early, Waugh-ish but not as good as Waugh). Those last two, it may be noted, are third-person novels.

October 2017 re-reading: Notes from Overground

For my October re-reading it was the turn of 1986, and out of what I read that year I selected a book I’ve dipped into a few times in the intervening years. That’s because Notes from Overground by the pseudonymous “Tiresias” is a dippable kind of book: fragmentary, reflective, sometimes quite funny. The subtitle “A Commuter’s Notebook” makes it clear what the subject matter is – and it’s spelled out on page 12: “These notes, to be explicit, concern daily commuting on what is at present known as Western Region, between Oxford and Paddington.”

I was myself commuting daily in 1986, albeit for a shorter distance, from Chingford to W1, via (usually) the Victoria Line, so Notes, published only two years earlier, was a book that I must have felt had something to say about my own life. (The copy that I first read isn’t the copy I have now, which was acquired later when it was, as the official stamp puts it, WITHDRAWN FOR SALE by Waltham Forest Libraries.)

What makes it worth reading? First, it’s an idiosyncratic view of the everyday experience of travelling by train. It’s also, I notice particularly on re-reading, full of despair, anger and sadness – but somehow expressed cheerfully. Here, for instance, is one of 38 “anti-kontakions” scattered through the book’s 200 pages:

A curse on the train. Defecating freak. Micturating mastodon. Incontinent container. Untrained train. Fouler of its own fairway. Polluter. Contaminator. Commuter-exterminator. Anathema sit.

At other times Notes is simply a delightful compendium of observations:

Paddington Station. Along the route stations are anxious to declare their identity. Strings of signs on lamp-posts tell us: Reading Reading Reading … But here you can with difficulty find any indication you have arrived at Paddington, and no indication whatsoever that you reached London. …

Sometimes a goods train passes, wheels dripping sparks, like a horse splashing through sunlit water. …

On a red mini-tractor at Didcot and on certain wagons: For Use On Brute Circuit Only. Revelation dawned one morning at Oxford where a chalked notice: Danger, Keep Away, Do Not Move These Brutes, was propped … beside three or four trolleys which were supporting a broken fence. So Brute, disappointingly, equals something like British Rail Utility Trolley. …

Chalk cuttings like scenery from a spaghetti Western. On brink, against blue sky, black and white cat seems an outlaw watching our stagecoach pass. …

Observant he certainly is – in fact he objects to reading or writing much on the train because “one misses things. One does not buy a ticket for the theatre and read a book or write letters throughout the show.” What he calls “the entertainment provided” – fellow passengers and passing views – “frequently surpasses that to be seen on the stage, let alone in-flight movies”. Yet I re-read much of Notes from Overground on a train, from Cardiff to London, which after Didcot followed the same tracks as Tiresias’s and confess I was making notes for this blog rather than looking for what was different from the 1980s – how many, for instance, survived of the 15 “trackside industries” he noted.

Yes, the sadly out-of-print Notes has an extra appeal now, as a report from the distant pre-rail-privatisation, and pre-mobile-phone, era of over 30 years ago. Carriages with compartments! Buffet cars! Newspapers! Overheard conversations where both parties are visible! (Although there’s a presage of what was to come when the author records travelling “in a full compartment where a man sat in a corner unconcernedly using a Dictaphone as he went through his correspondence”.) Then there’s a reference to “the great new road to the west” near Paddington (i.e. the now ageing Westway); and Didcot is just Didcot – not Didcot Parkway. When did that unnecessary suffix start being appended to station names?

Interestingly it’s also a book that wonders, reflexively, what it is. “Have begun this notebook as occupational therapy” we read on the first page; later, Tiresias calls his book “a disjointed medium for a disjointed existence. Deliberate but not planned.” The genre, he decides, is that of Premeditated Notebook, and the best example he can think of is The Unquiet Grave by “Palinurus” (pseudonym of Cyril Connolly). It contains “whatever turns up in the sidings of my mind” and is “locomotion recollected in immobility”. And on the last-but-one page: “It has developed like a tumour, this long disease my book. Now must pluck up courage to ask the medical wallahs whether malignant or benign.” Benign, I’d say.

One small unanswered question: if this is a book about the whole commuting experience, what happened after the author reached Paddington? Unless he had an office near the terminus or took a bus, he would have trudged through that narrow corridor to the Circle Line or down the escalator to the Bakerloo to finish his journey. Concerning that part of his commute he is silent.

As for the pseudonymous author, “Tiresias” is not much of a disguise, as we know his real name from the line “©Roger Green 1984” after the title page. If you look him up on the web via a search engine – I recommend DuckDuckGo if you want to avoid Google – you’ll find that after giving up commuting Green moved to Greece, and lived (still lives?) on the island of Hydra, where he wrote Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen and is the author of several volumes of poetry.

Coincidentally in October my other reading included John Berger’s and our faces, my heart, brief as photos (also fragmentary, and also published in 1984), where this passage occurs:

Before the railways were built, what took the place of stations in people’s dreams? … Of all nineteenth-century buildings, the mainline railway station was the one in which the ancient sense of destiny was most fully re-inserted. … The railway station – whatever the extravagances of its “decorative” architecture – remained stark. And it remained so because it was a site of arrival and departure, where there was nothing to muffle the significance of those two events. Coming and going. Meeting and parting.

OK, Berger is a great writer, but he is rather prone to the portentous over-generalisation, I feel, as in his evocation of an “ancient sense of destiny”. If we’re going to have generalisations, I think I prefer this, by Patrick McGuinness in a recent London Review of Books:

To be sure, trains and stations represent escape, travel and bohemia; to others, drudgery, offices, the rut of life and a particular sort of existential stasis that we only notice, paradoxically, because we’re moving – though only a little. That movement helps us sense our stasis better, in the same way that we’ll admit a bit of sadness into a happy moment because it helps us to tune the happiness we feel and feel it even more.

Also read in October: Outline by Rachel Cusk (disappointing, after all the praise I’ve read); Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (really good); and Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, another important book from Germany.

September 2017 re-reading: David Lodge’s Small World

My September re-reading had to be from 1985, when the records state that I read 26 books, most of them novels. Although one of them was Middlemarch (well done, younger me), this looks like a year when I went for fairly recently published stuff, including two from the previous year’s Booker Prize shortlist: Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Small World by David Lodge. (Neither of them won; they were beaten by Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.) I decided on Small World because I’ve been a Lodge enthusiast for some time – and this particular book I remember as one of his most entertaining.

Small World is a kind of sequel to DL’s Changing Places (1975), which I read soon after it came out, and the characters of Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp, the first book’s memorable protagonists, are fairly central again, joined here by a much larger group of dramatis personae. But what I remember is that unlike Changing Places (and most of Lodge’s other fiction) Small World is – how shall I put this? – far-fetched. Despite its “realistic” surface, its plot is based on various Holy Grail quest legends and Spenser’s Fairie Queene (T.S.Eliot’s Waste Land also plays a part); like its models it is full of coincidences, long journeys, an innocent hero and an elusive heroine. It nevertheless fits into the “campus novel” genre, and is structured around a series of international academic conferences about literature. This makes it sound rather forbidding: but it has proved enjoyable even on a second reading.

In fact I may have got more out of Small World – subtitle “An Academic Romance” – this time, as since my first reading my life has got closer to academia. Admittedly, in 1985 Clever Wife was nearing the end of a PhD, but I didn’t know much about the academic world. Now, having worked as a journalist-cum-publicist at a US university in the 1990s, later freelancing for a higher education weekly and doing quite a lot of academic copyediting, I feel more clued up (though I am still an amateur when it comes to English literature: I don’t even have an A-level in the subject).

Although Small World is fun to read, I feel that, more than any other of Lodge’s novels, it’s designed to be the subject of learned academic exegesis. Sure enough, you can find essays such as “Quest and Conquest in the Fiction of David Lodge” and “The Reader as Discoverer in David Lodge’s Small World” online, and the novel has also been quoted in some philosophical literature. Here’s Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen’s Truth, Fiction and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective, which I happen to have borrowed recently: in a chapter on “The Theory of Novelistic Truth” they quote Small World‘s “Author’s note”. In this, before pointing to some unlikely things in the book that “really” exist – “an underground chapel at Heathrow and a James Joyce pub in Zurich” for instance – Lodge states that his novel “resembles what is sometimes called the real world, without corresponding exactly to it, and it is peopled by figments of the imagination”. This is rather like the note at the start of Lodge’s Changing Places: “Rummidge and Euphoria [where much of the novel’s action takes place] are places on the map of a comic world which resembles the one we are standing on without corresponding to it”.  Such disclaimers, Lamarque and Olsen write, “implicitly make the claim that [the author’s] work is of a type that naturally can be construed as presenting truths about particular historical events or personages. For the very act of issuing a denial presupposes that there is something that needs to be denied.”

I could digress at some length about novelistic truth, but I’ll save such philosophical ramblings for another time. Meanwhile, some further random observations about Small World:

1. I don’t think I’d noticed this before, but Lodge’s narrative switches between present and past tenses frequently. While some readers (and writers) dislike the use of the narrative present, I feel it can add some urgency – which seems to be why DL uses it. For example he jumps rapidly from one character to another at the beginning of Part II to describe more or less simultaneous events in England, Australia, New Hampshire, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, Turkey and elsewhere (is this an echo of the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses?). Sample: “In Paris, as in Berlin, it is 7.30. … In the high-ceilinged bedroom of an elegant apartment on the Boulevard Huysmans, the telephone rings beside the double bed. Without opening his eyes, hooded like a lizard’s in the brown leathery face, Michel Tardieu, Professor of Narratology in the Sorbonne, extends a bare arm from beneath his duvet …” (p.97 in my edition).

2. Perhaps inevitably, some of the novel has dated. Here’s Morris Zapp talking about the “global campus” in Chapter 1: “There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine” (p. 43). In 1984, the Internet was still a few years away.

3. Yes, there’s a lot of air travel in Small World. And we are reminded that in the 1980s, long before Al-Qaeda was a threat, airport security was already a hassle: “He joins a long line of people shuffling through the security checkpoint. His handbaggage is opened and searched. Practised fingers turn over the jumble of toiletries, medicines, cigars, spare socks … Few privacies are vouchsafed to the modern traveller” (p.102).

4. Maybe it’s a bit too long, though – 339 pages in my paperback, compared to Changing Places’s 251. The kidnapping that occurs in Part IV doesn’t seem necessary to the plot, for instance. Does it correspond to an incident in The Faerie Queene or some other romance?

5. I rather like the cover to my 1985 paperback (below), which is by Ian Beck, and has the merit of suggesting that the artist has actually read the book. (You can see more of Beck’s work at https://ianbeck.wordpress.com/, where I’m reminded he used to do illustrations for Radio Times, and at least one cover – for the 1987 Proms issue.)

small world cover

Also read in September, two Brits and one American: Down and Out in Paris and London (something I should have read years ago); P.G. Wodehouse’s Doctor Sally (lightweight even by Wodehouse’s standards); and You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits (who’d have thought a novel about urban redevelopment in Detroit would be such a page-turner?). Plus some chapters of Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From – stimulating thoughts relevant to this blog …

August 2017 re-reading: Thomas Love Peacock

I vacillated a lot before deciding on my re-reading for this month. My list of “books read” for 1984, the year I had to choose from, gave me 27 possibilities: the short list included Ford Madox Ford (the middle two of his Tietjens tetralogy: maybe too much hard work?); John Cheever (not another American after last month’s Anne Tyler? Could be read later); R.K. Narayan (relevant book not in local library); Ross Macdonald (another interesting American, could also be kept for another year); PG Wodehouse … and so on.

In the end I opted for the rather obscure: Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock, in a paperback that had been on our shelves since the 1980s. I must have bought it second-hand, as it is a 1967 edition, T31 of Pan Books’ Bestsellers of Literature, which was, according to the back cover, “A new series of ever-popular and compellingly readable novels by the world’s great authors … [with] an authoritative and analytical introduction, in many cases by a famous author of today”. The volume in question, original price 7s 6d, contained four of Peacock’s short novels: Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle. And the famous author of the day introducing the collection was none other than J.B. Priestley, who presents a straightforward ten-page account of Peacock’s life (1785-1866) and appreciation of his “odd but delicious novels”. “[W]hat must not be missed,” Priestley concludes, “is the constant undercurrent of irony in him, the faint mockery in the very neatness and crispness of his dialogue, the grave mischief in the style itself”.

Once again, I have to say I have no memory of reading anything by Peacock, and so this re-reading was in effect a first reading. Did I enjoy it? Yes, once I’d got used to the style. Priestley is right to call Peacock’s novels “odd”, by the standards not only of the present day but also his of contemporaries. You won’t find much plot or character development: Nightmare Abbey can offer you a little bit of will-he-won’t-he with regard to the love life of Scythrop Glowry, the young heir to Nightmare Abbey, but that’s hardly the point. Scythrop – derived from the Greek skuthropos, “of a sad countenance” – is apparently based on the poet Shelley, a friend of Peacock’s, and there are other disguised portraits: Mr Flosky, “a very lachrymose and morbid gentleman, of some note in the literary world” is based on Coleridge, and Byron appears in the guise of Mr Cypress. What chapter after (short) chapter consists of mainly is dialogue, with a variety of characters – not only the above mentioned but also Mr Toobad (“the Manichean Millenarian”), the Reverend Mr Larynx, the “fashionable” Mr Listless, Mr Asterias the ichthyologist in search of a mermaid, and others – arguing about a variety of matters.

Sample:

MARIONETTA. I must apologize for intruding on you, Mr Flosky; but the interest which I – you – take in my cousin Scythrop –
MR FLOSKY. Pardon me, Miss O’Carroll; I do not take any interest in any person or thing on the face of the earth; which sentiment, if you analyse it, you will find to be the quintessence of the most refined philanthropy.
MARIONETTA. I will take it for granted that it is so, Mr Flosky; I am not conversant with metaphysical subtleties, but —
MR FLOSKY. Subtleties! my dear Miss O’Carroll. I am sorry to find you participating in the vulgar error of the reading public, to whom an unusual collocation of words, involving a juxtaposition of antiperistatical ideas, immediately suggests the notion of hyperoxysophistical paradoxology.

I went on from Nightmare Abbey (1818) to Crotchet Hall (1831), which Priestley preferred but which to my mind lacked the compactness of the earlier novel. Its characters – some of whom appear without introduction – wander all over the place, from the Thames Valley, where Crotchet Hall is said to be located, to North Wales (Peacock’s wife Jane was Welsh). It may, though, be the first novel whose characters travel by canal: they ascend from the Thames “by many locks” and then descend “through the valley of Stroud into the Severn”, finally, via the Ellesmere canal, “moor[ing] their pinnaces in the Vale of Llangollen by the aqueduct of Pontycysyllty” [Pontycysyllte aqueduct was built in 1805].

As it happens, while coming to the end of my Peacock readathon I was in a house that contained a book of Gore Vidal’s essays. This included his 1980 review of Marilyn Butler’s biography of Peacock. Using this, and Mary McCarthy’s Ideas and the Novel, he argued that the satirical narrative as exemplified by Aristophanes, Lucian, Swift, Voltaire and Peacock lost out in the nineteenth century to a different kind of novel: “In the half century between Peacock’s first work and his last [Gryll Grange], the novel was transformed by Dickens and the comedy of character replaced the comedy of ideas.” This, in Vidal’s view, is a loss: his typically opinionated essay, which also has things to say about the “dead end of the Serious Novel”, is worth seeking out.

(Incidentally, I note that Peacock’s novels aren’t available in either Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics these days. A pity. On the other hand, you could get a recently published scholarly edition of Nightmare Abbey from Cambridge University Press for £84.99 if you really – really – wanted. This version has 430 pages, I gather, as opposed to the 70-odd pages plus three pages of notes it occupies in my little Pan edition.)

I read most of the Peacock in Ireland, and mostly while travelling on trains in the Republic and the North. Earlier in the month I read The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray (too long, but an amusing take on the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’), Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy (late but not great Greene, still worth reading),  some of Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer (not easy to read except in short bursts) and also some of Edging the Estuary, Peter Finch’s account of walking the shores of the Severn Estuary (recommended).

July 2017 re-reading: Anne Tyler

Now for 1983, when my Books Read list has 33 entries, 25 of them fiction of one kind of another. With the non-fiction titles, I see that I was honest enough to add “(not finished)” after three of them. I did get through Edgar Johnson’s memorable biography of Dickens, though, and Condition of England by Lincoln Allison, of which I remember nothing. But I’m sticking with fiction this month and re-reading Anne Tyler.

As noted in my previous entry, I “discovered” the US novelist Anne Tyler in 1982. I’d learned of her existence via a Radio 3 interview with her in September that year under the title ‘Convincing Lies’ (this detail via the BBC’s genome project, which gives you access to all old Radio Times listings: see http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/). What kind of a writer was she? I wondered – after all, the man interviewing her was David Wheeler, a former editor of Panorama, and obviously no ordinary litterateur. I began to find the answer in Westminster Libraries’ Little Portland Street branch (have I remembered that right? – it no longer exists), from where I borrowed Searching for Caleb, still to my mind one of her best.

I read two more of Anne Tyler’s novels in 1983 – her first, If Morning Ever Comes, and the more recently published Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My plan in July was to re-read If Morning … which AT published at the age of 22, and which I was sure was on our shelves. But it wasn’t, and neither was Dinner … Among the Tylers on our shelves, though, was her second novel, The Tin Can Tree, which – to my surprise – I don’t seem to have read before. So, breaking my own rule, that’s what I read (not re-read).

What did I think of this trip back to early Tyler? Well, it was clearly early – published over 50 years ago, when she was 24 – and maybe for that reason didn’t feel like a fully formed novel. True, it has similarities with later Tylers – odd, not-quite-functioning families, marginal characters turning out to be central, a sense of place, domestic day-to-day detail – but there seemed to be loose ends, explanations missing, odd changes in tone that I don’t recall in her later books. The later novels are almost all set in Baltimore and its suburbs (where AT has lived most of her life); but this one doesn’t stray from North Carolina, where she grew up, and is almost completely set in the fictional small town of Larksville and its surrounding tobacco fields. Just outside the town is a long “three-family house” where the central characters live: James, a local newspaper photographer, and his brother Ansel, who is an invalid (what’s wrong with him isn’t clear); the Pike family, who as the novel opens have just lost their six-year-old daughter Janie in a tractor accident; and two elderly sisters, Miss Faye and Miss Lucy. The only characters whose thoughts we are told about are James and the Pikes’ niece Joan, who is 26 and living with her aunt and uncle (are James and Joan in some sort of relationship? It seems so, but again we have to surmise …) The main thrust of the plot, such as it is, is about assorted people’s efforts to help Janie’s mother out of her grief, which has left her immobilised in her bedroom. The Pikes’ son Simon – a remarkably self-sufficient 10-year-old, of the kind that can be found elsewhere in AT novels – has a crucial role in all this.

I don’t really want to go on any more about The Tin Can Tree; summarising plots can be a boring task, and these blog entries are long enough already. But I’d just like to make a point about the way AT has been ‘marketed’ in the UK. When I first started looking for her novels in the 1980s, it seems to have been assumed that she was some kind of

Untitled‘woman’s writer’. Hence these shiny covers, which despite the quote from John Updike (lifted from his review of Searching for Caleb) have a ‘female romance’ aura. (Also, some of her early novels were read as serials on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.) Later her treatment by publishers seems to have got a little more upmarket. My UK hardback edition of A Patchwork Planet (1998), for instance, has quotes from Nick Hornby (“my favourite writer”) and Lynne Truss (“a brilliant writer of emotionally sophisticated novels”). It wasn’t that Tyler had changed; somehow the literary world had reconsidered. Virtually all her novels are now published in paperback by Vintage, so much “classier” than those old Hamlyns from the 1980s …

What else did I read in July? Well, I finished Trollope’s The Duke’s Children: not the best of his Palliser novels, but good enough. And in complete contrast, the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days: atmospheric, and well translated by Susan Bernofsky.

 

June 2017 re-reading: Christina Stead

In 1982 the number of books I read was a much more healthy 36, according to my records, 26 of which were novels. Quite a few of 1982’s books are worth re-reading – for instance Esther Waters (George Moore), poems by Tony Harrison, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But it also seems to have been a year when I went for some out-of-the-mainstream authors: James Hanley, Alexander Herzen and Christina Stead, for example (it was also the year I discovered Anne Tyler – I hope to return to her in a later blog entry). And it is to Stead that I’ve turned for this month’s re-reading.

In fact, I read three Christina Stead books in 1982: The Puzzleheaded Girl, The Man Who Loved Children and Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife). I’ve no idea why, to start with, I picked up The Puzzleheaded Girl from my local library; but soon after, I bought what is generally agreed to be her best novel, The Man Who Loved Children, and remember being stunned by it, reading it on holiday in West Cork.

Anyway, it’s The Puzzleheaded Girl I re-read this month. While the library copy I first read was a hardback – possibly the original 1967 edition – this time I had the later Virago edition, with an introduction by Angela Carter. The Puzzleheaded Girl is actually four novellas, all either set in the US or featuring Americans in Europe: it wasn’t until later that I realised that Stead wasn’t American herself but Australian, though she and her husband William Blake (described in one biographical summary as a “Marxist banker”, whatever that can mean) travelled widely in Europe and America. The first novella, which gives the collection its title, is perhaps the most memorable: the puzzleheaded girl in question, Honor Lawrence, appears on the first page “a young seventeen, perhaps, dressed like a poor schoolgirl” looking for work at the newly established Farmers Utilities Corporation in New York. She is indeed a puzzle for the men running this firm, and their wives, and that is emphasised by the way the story is told: we never really enter into any character’s thoughts, least of all Honor’s, and have to judge them by what (we are told) they say and do. This can be disconcerting: it’s as if Stead is not so much a novelist telling us readers what she has invented, but rather is working her way through the story with us, finding out about her characters just as we are. Towards the end of the novella’s 60-odd pages Honor apparently disappears for several years: sudden jumps in time seem typical of Stead.

I have to say I wasn’t so impressed by the second story, ‘The Dianas’, which is about Lydia, a young American girl in Paris apparently looking for a husband but unable to decide between various men. Eventually she returns to the US and gets married for no clear reason to “a stately young man of athletic build”. It’s not that I found Lydia unsympathetic (I’m not the kind of reader who needs to find at least one “likeable” character in a story); she was simply not interesting enough, and her conversation – there are pages of it – goes nowhere.

Lydia is linked in Angela Carter’s introduction with Linda, one of the women in the last story, ‘The Girl from the Beach’. Linda, “the child of that lost cause, the American left” (Carter’s words), is also adrift in Paris, but it is the journalist-cum-crimewriter George Paul who is the real centre of that novella. He’s there at the start, talking about himself, his ex-wives and current obsessions, and he’s still at it 100 pages (and several years) later. Stead doesn’t express any judgements – that’s not what she does – but it’s clear he’s irredeemably self-centred and won’t ever change.

Both ‘The Girl from the Beach’ and its predecessor, ‘The Rightangled Creek’ have a curious two-part structure. It’s signalled with two separate headings – “New York: Late Forties” and “Paris: Early Fifties” – in the case of ‘The Girl from the Beach’. With ‘The Rightangled Creek’, set in New Jersey “hill country”, we have only a year between its two halves, but the house that is the centre of the story seems to change. It is a retreat from New York and alcoholism for writer Laban Davies, his wife and precocious son in the first 30 or so pages; then it becomes a summer cottage for Sam Parsons and his wife. They learn from locals about the house’s owners, the Dilleys, and their mad daughter Hilda, which leads to suggestions of a haunting (or is it just mice in the walls? We can’t be sure). And then it rains so much that the house is inundated and the Parsonses have to leave. They come back, talk about turning the place into a writer’s refuge, but nothing seems to come of it. Typical, perhaps, of Stead’s waywardness is the way two brothers, Frederick and Walter Imber, turn up towards the end of the story, ostensibly to help dam the eponymous creek. They first appear on page 177; by page 179 one of them is dead, apparently through ignoring warnings about poison ivy. Yet of all four novellas, this is the story, with all its loose ends, that I remember most from my earlier reading and stays with me again.

Stead died in 1983, the year after I discovered her, and there is a copy of her Times obituary inside my paperback of The Man Who Loved Children. There the (anonymous) obituarist describes her as “one of the century’s outstanding novelists” but also reveals that she and her husband “settled down in a flat in Surbiton” in the 1950s, an unlikely location perhaps. (She returned to Australia in 1969 after Blake’s death.) Incidentally, don’t take my word for the excellence of The Man Who Loved Children: here’s Jonathan Franzen lavishing praise on the novel: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html)

Was this the best book I read in June? I think so. There was Sartre’s The Age of Reason, which took a while to get through, maybe because it suffered from a less than fluent English translation. By contrast to that very male-centred novel, Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes, short stories about girls growing up in Northern Ireland, were fluently written; and I was really impressed with The Immigration Handbook, a recent collection of poems by Caroline Smith. I’ve now gone back to the nineteenth century and have started reading another Trollope … while contemplating what to re-read in July.