A reason to read John Banville

I’m sorry to say I’ve never read anything by John Banville or his crime-fiction alter-ego Benjamin Black. After reading this interview, I’ll have to give him a try- for the following quote if nothing else:

” ‘That’s one of my notions. Cast your mind forward to 2050. In a biographical dictionary you read: ‘Banville, John: Irish author of numerous novels, all of which are entirely forgotten. Chiefly remembered for a scurrilous review of Lord McEwan of Islington’s masterpiece, Saturday. Some of his novels, which Banville had written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, are still in print.’ ”

It should be noted that I disliked Saturday intensely.

and a long-delayed review of A pair of blue eyes by Thomas Hardy, 1873.

Elfride Swancourt is the only daughter of a minister in the secluded seaside village of Endelstow. A church restoration project sees a handsome young architect named Stephen Smith visit from London and sure enough, Elfride and he fall in love.

There seems to be a mystery surrounding Stephen, who claims to know no one locally and yet is seen by Elfride with a woman and who has some unusual manners and unexpected gaps of knowledge for a gentleman. In time and by chance, it is revealed that Stephen is of quite humble antecedents, which causes snobbish Mr Swancourt to change his mind and oppose the match.

When Mr Swancourt goes on an unexplained but apparently important journey, Elfride and Stephen rashly elope. Their ignorance of the law results in unexpected obstacles and causes Elfride to change her mind. So much time has elapsed though, that their train journey back to Endelstow is through the night. Elfride then realises, but too late, that Appearances are woefully against me. If anybody finds me out, I am, I suppose disgraced.” By the standards of the time, “It was wrong to go with you at all; and though it would have been worse to go further, it would have been better policy, perhaps.”

In the morning, at the station, Elfride worries that Mrs Jethway, a poor widow with a grudge against her for spurning her son, has seen the lovers together. She tells Stephen You had better not be seen with me, even here where I am so little known. We have begun stealthily as thieves, and we must end stealthily as thieves, at all hazards. Until papa has been told by me myself, a discovery would be terrible.” The lovers part, but the surprising explanation for her father’s absence prevents Elfride from confiding in him.

Soon after, Stephen accepts a job in India, hoping to make his fortune and return home a wealthy man acceptable to Elfride’s father. Promising to be faithful to each other, the two part for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately for Stephen, Elfride is “a girl whose emotions lay very near the surface”, and her feelings for him are only a first girlish fancy which she erroneously calls love. Nine months after their parting, she meets and gradually falls in love with Henry Knight, an older friend of, and mentor to, Stephen who is unaware of the secret engagement. Elfride struggles with her desire to be faithful to her first love and with her newer, stronger passion. Once the decision is made “she began to take a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the sacrifice of herself to the man whom a maidenly sense of propriety compelled her to regard as her only possible husband. She would meet him, and do all that lay in her power to marry him.”

Until that is, in a tense and thrilling couple of chapters (which you can read online here), Hardy has fate intervene. An almost deadly experience on a neighborhood cliff sees Elfride and Knight declare their feelings for each other. From this point on, the questions that keep the reader on tenterhooks until they’re answered, are:

* How will Stephen react when Elfride breaks off the engagement?

* Will Knight find out about the relationship (including the failed elopement)?

* If so, how will he react?

* And above all, what will Elfride’s fate be?

Questions I won’t answer and you’ll have to read A pair of blue eyes to find out!

Hardy is one of my favourite novelists, and this novel is as good as any of his more famous works. It’s plainly but beautifully written and its plot convinces and surprises in equal measure. At it’s heart is the question which Elfride asks: “Am I such a- mere characterless toy- as to have no attrac- tion in me, apart from- freshness?”.

As a postscript, it’s interesting to note that A pair of blue eyes draws upon considerable autobiographical material, as discussed in my Penguin classics edition’s introduction by Pamela Dalziel. Like Stephen Smith, Thomas Hardy was a young man of humble origins keen to better himself, an aim which was aided by a male mentor (Horace Moule in Hardy’s case). Hardy met his first wife Emma Gifford ( a clergyman’s sister) on an architectural trip to the wilds of Cornwall in 1870, although they didn’t marry until 1874 owing to her family’s disapproval. I look forward to finding out more when I read the Hardy biography by Claire Tomalin.

Some high-calibre distractions…

I’ve been a bit negligent with my reading and consequently my blogging recently. In my defense, I’ve had some very high-calibre distractions.

First, there was this:

(The cricket test versus the Indians at the WACA) . The result was regrettable but it was an absorbing match spanning four days. The Adelaide test is now in full swing, so this distraction looks set to continue. (NB: the photo is from the gallery at the ABC).

Second, there were two new DVD purchases to watch:

Of course whilst my reading slowed down this week, I still had time to visit a bookshop where I bought:

From the top:

1. Is Heathcliff a murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century fiction by John Sutherland- a look at 34 seeming anomalies, enigmas and mysteries from19th century novels by authors including Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Trollope and Thackeray. In the blurb, The Spectator is quoted as describing it as “the most engagingly boffiny book imaginable” and it has the added bonus of encouraging me to read the novels discussed.

2. The reasons I won’t be coming by Elliot Perlman- a book of short stories by an Australian author I’ve been meaning to try for ages.

3. In the stacks: short stories about libraries and librarians edited by Michael Cart- published in 2003, I found this collection on the remainder table. Considering the theme and the authors included (Italo Cavino, M.R James, Alice Munro and Jorge Luis Borges to name a few), it sounds promising.

4. Regeneration by Pat Barker- the first volume of an acclaimed trilogy set during WW1. This is thematically linked with some books on my mental reading list for March- All Quiet on the Western Front and Mrs. Dalloway from the fiction shelves and two non-fiction works, The living unknown soldier and Singled out: how two million women survived without men after the first world war.

5. Lastly, Oliver Twist is my next Dickens read after Pickwick, and #3 and #4 in the Isabel Dalhousie series are some light reading for February.

Bookshop visit #1 for 2008


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favourite bookshops, Abbey’s. From the top, here’s what I bought:

1. Two literary biographies- the first is a short, witty view of Dickens’s life and work by G.K Chesterton, apparently crucial in resurrecting Dickens critically. It will complement my plan of reading a Dickens novel a month in 2008. The second is Claire Tomalin’s most recent effort. Hardy is one of my favourite authors, and once I’ve read and/or re-read some more of his novels, I look forward to diving into this.

2. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe- a fictional account written just sixty years after the Great Plague struck London. I’m planning to read this in conjunction with A Year of Extraordinary Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and possibly the diaries of Samuel Pepys.

3. The rings of Saturn by W. G Sebald- Last year I read an erudite and entertaining literary travelogue, By hook or by crook: A linguistic journey in search of English by David Crystal, which was inspired by Sebald’s effort. It sounds intriguing and dovegreyreader fulsomely praising Sebald on her blog recently has clinched my interest.

4. Other colours by Orhan Pamuk- a lengthy collection of essays on life, politics and literature from this recent Nobel laureate which looks really interesting and may inspire me to try his fiction.

Aside from that, I’ve just recovered from Lost in a good book by Jasper Fforde- a clever, audacious and laugh-out-loud read. I’m not going to review it as I don’t know where to start, but I am looking forward to reading the couple of books remaining in the Thursday Next series. I also highly recommend you take a look at Jasper Fforde’s website- it’s a lot of fun.

Booking through Thursday: May I introduce…

  1. How did you come across your favorite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
  2. Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

Ask a devoted reader any question about his or in my case, her, favourite authors, and the questioner should be prepared for an answer more passionate than pithy. Given that we all have plenty of reading to do, I’ll try and restrain myself and make my reply short.

Until fairly recently, I was still at school and not working, so new books were beyond my budget. Accordingly, my reading was haphazard and depended on what books I could get at the library, was given as gifts by my largely non-reader family or stumbled upon in second hand bookstores and at fairs, fetes and garage sales.

As a nine-year old, I remember delighting in Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein after finding it in the St. Andrews Public School library. Like me, main character Erica Yurken’s parents were divorced. Like me, Erica’s single mum was doing her best but did occasionally wrap her lunch in empty cereal bags as she’d forgotten to buy glad wrap (oh the humiliation). More importantly, this book was (and still is) laugh-out-loud funny. Incidentally, and to add grist to the Freudian mill, I also loved A Little Princess when I borrowed it from the library.

My second vivid recollection of a favourite serendipitously found amongst the stacks is of first reading 1984 by George Orwell. A bored twelve-year-old on a custody visit at my dad’s, I picked up 1984 and didn’t leave the library until I’d finished it and discovered Winston and Julia’s bleak fate. It’s a shame I had to study it to death a couple of years later.

Given that most of my family members are not huge readers for pleasure, my bookish gifts were very varied and often missed the mark. However, three novels by E.M Forster (A room with a view, Howards End and A Passage to India,) I got on my fourteenth birthday quickly became old friends. They have the added value of being inscribed with love from my mum.

Then there are books I read because they were cheap (and helped me to stretch my pocket money) and sounded intriguing- ‘classics’ like The Age of Innocence, The Plague and Catch 22 and timeworn paperback copies of golden age mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and company.

These days, I buy most of my books. I still love second-hand bookshops because of the unexpected element. You never know what unthought of books you’ll come across, read and enjoy.

I frequently indulge in new purchases. What I buy depends on what I’ve read about in the papers and on blogs, my long-term reading projects and favourites (three words say it all- nineteenth century novels) and even a pretty cover. This isn’t quite as shameful as it sounds, and sometimes yields wonderful results. Two books I picked up because of their attractive look were The war on cliche by Martin Amis and If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino, both of which I love and press upon anyone who’ll listen.

All of my favourites struck me as such on my first reading, and are confirmed in my affections when I have the pleasure of re-reading them.

Now I’m off to find out about other people’s favourites.

Elementals: stories of fire and ice by A. S. Byatt, 1998

I’ve just finished this sublime collection of short stories from A.S Byatt. My overwhelming impression is one of colour: each story is vividly descriptive and saturated in colour both literal and metaphorical. Happily, each story contains the often unexpected combination of the everyday and the mythical which is so characteristic of Byatt.

Crocodile Tears tells of the journey of 50-something Englishwoman Patricia Nimmo to the French city of Nimes in the wake of her husband Tony’s sudden death. Here she meets and becomes friend with a Norwegian named Nils Isaksen,who has also fled his ordinary life. Together, they explore the ancient city supposedly peopled by Augustus’s legionnaires who were gifted it in reward for their defeat of Antony and Cleopatra on the Nile.

A Lamia in the Cevennes starts with artist Bernard Lycett-Kean deciding Thatcher’s Britain is uninhabitable, and moving to a small stone house in France. He has a pool installed and becomes obsessed with capturing its colours in paint. After a minor mishap, his pool water is emptied and replaced with river water. It is then that Bernard first suspects, and then confirms, that something is in the pool with him. I won’t give away which mythical creature makes an appearance, although anyone familiar with the Keats poem will already know.

Cold is a fairytale about Princess Fiammarosa who never seems to fit in to her home, “a temperate kingdom, in the midst of a landmass, with great meandering rivers but no seashores, with deciduous forests, and grassy plains.” The longest and most engrossing story in the book, it relates the Princess Fiammarosa’s birth, youth and marriage(and the peculiar difficulties she faces in making this work).

The three other stories in this volume are shorter and lesser efforts, more sketches then stories but still compelling. Baglady tells of an Oriental shopping trip gone wrong. Jael sees an elderly woman recollect her school scripture classes and her real or imagined act of treachery. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha imagines the circumstances behind Diego Velazquez’s 1618 painting of the same name.

I’ve rationed out these stories to one a day over the past week to help me savour them, and feel rather bereft now that I have finished. The only consolation, of course, will be diving into another book as wonderful soon.

Booking through Thursday: Anticipation

Last week we talked about the books you liked best from 2007. So this week, what with it being a new year, and all, we’re looking forward….

What new books are you looking forward to most in 2008? Something new being published this year? Something you got as a gift for the holidays? Anything in particular that you’re planning to read in 2008 that you’re looking forward to? A classic, or maybe a best-seller from 2007 that you’re waiting to appear in paperback?

The books to be published in ’08 that I’m eagerly anticipating include volume two of the collected Paris Review interviews, Margaret Atwood’s promised new novel and hopefully another installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 44 Scotland Street series.

But until I see what else is published this year (which will of course require plenty of blissful bookstore browsing), the reads I’m most looking forward to are of a decidedly older vintage.

Firstly, this year I’ll be journeying through miles of Dickensian England, as I’m planning to read or re-read a Dickens novel a month. It should sate my cravings for Boz after abstaining for 2007.

Braving my increasingly alarming TBR pile,the titles that leap out at me are Wives and Daughters, A Sentimental Education, Anna Karenina, The Turn of the Screw, The Forsyte Saga, Mrs. Dalloway and In Cold Blood.

I’d also like to get to some well reviewed recent publications- Suite Francaise, The Welsh Girl, Out Stealing Horses and The Namesake.

Perhaps over-ambitiously, I also cherish the thought of immersing myself in a few loose baggy monsters. The forerunners are Cecilia by Frances Burney, War and Peace, Trollope’s Palliser novels and Anthony Powell’s dance to the music of time series.

On a decidedly less high-brow note, I’m longing for Stephanie Meyer’s latest.

In summary- I can’t wait!