The starting book this week for Six Degrees of Separation is Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. If you want to find out about how to join in here’s the link at Books are my Favourite and Best. It’s not a book I’d heard of before but I gather that in it a young girl talks to God about her problems.
The opposite of God is Satan so my next book is The Screwtape Lettersby C.S. Lewis in this book Screwtape is an elderly devil high up in the Infernal Civil Service who is giving advice to a younger one, his nephew Wormwood, as to how to lead human beings into sin.
Anthony Hopkins played C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands. The film was about Lewis’ love affair with the american Joy Davidman and her subsequent death. Hopkins also played the butler, Stevens, in the film The Remains of the Daywhich was based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Another famous fictional butler is of course Jeeves of the P.G. Wodehouse comic novels so my next choice is Thank you, Jeeves.
A bit of a blurry cover but at least you can see the banjo. In that book Jeeves quits because of Bertie’s terrible banjo playing. A famous banjo playing scene occurs in Deliverance a book by James Dickey turned into a film with Burt Reynolds. In that book four friends decide to go on a canoe trip in the north west Georgian wilderness and all kinds of terrible things happen to them.
Another book set in a boat is Life of Piby Yann Martel. In that book a young boy is shipwrecked in a boat with a Bengal tiger who he has to persuade not to eat him.
And finally another book with a tiger in it is R.K. Narayan’s A Tiger for Malgudi in which an ageing tiger encounters a guru and learns about non-violence. It’s written from the point of view of the tiger.
So there we have it from God to Tigers in six degrees or should I say tiggerish bounds? Have you read any of these and if so what did you think of them?
Next month (January 2nd, 2021) the start book is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Why don’t you join in?
During the first lock down, once I had stocked up on loo roll, my main fear was running out of coffee. Obviously a lot of people felt the same because to start with I couldn’t get any. I had some stores but I was fretting. Obviously displacement fretting but all the same fretting. And then I went shopping one day and lo and behold packs of coffee so hurrah and snatch snatch off the shelf. It was only when I got home that I realised they were packets of beans and I have no grinder. I did consider smashing them up with a hammer or a rolling pin; I certainly felt cross enough to do that but my partner dissuaded me and then ground coffee became available fairly soon afterwards and so the bags of beans were shoved to the back of the cupboard.
I live opposite a car showroom and this came out of lock down quite early. Lester was the man who used to work for them washing the cars and cleaning the forecourt etc… Lester knew everyone in the district because he used to hang out in the open and chat. The car show room is situated at the beginning of a cut through which follows along the base of an overground part of the London tube which is lined with garages. It is used by a lot of people and Lester was one of those people who talks to everyone. Lester kept the cars and forecourt immaculate and did so with very little fuss and other than friendly chat, and a bit of hail fellow well met, not much noise. Unfortunately he also occasionally took to the bottle so he was fired and everyone missed him.
A replacement was hired who, for the purposes of this post, I’ll call LBM (Leafblower Man). He wears a bright orange jump suit and has a leaf blower which he loves. I became aware of him and the leaf blower because it was a new and persistent noise. I am used to noise. If you live on a busy main road with the tube rumbling past, and the skip lorries taking the corner at pace and the jingle jangle of the chains that hold them in place you either get used to it or you go mad. I am also used to the very distinctive whine that bus engines make when trapped in traffic.
The leaf blower drove me nuts because it was on so long and he was using it in such a hopeless way. So I took to watching LBM from the window with a running commentary of why I found him so irritating and how there were still lots of leaves under the cars which he had not blown out and that he was simply blowing the leaves into the bicycle lane and the wind was blowing them back and what was the point of that and Lester would quietly have raked them up and put them in green bags while shooting the breeze with whoever etc etc and making everyone feel better about life. So I went on like this until my partner told me to stop.
Then one day I looked at the beans and I thought I have to buy a coffee grinder, so I did. This was about six months after buying the beans. I am what is called a late adopter. And on the first day I was happily grinding my beans and I realised how much I was enjoying making a new and not very persistent noise. And now, strangely enough, LBM no longer annoys me. All it has taken is 20 seconds a day in order to drink my own ruthless, strong depraved …. etc.
So, have you got anything sitting in your cupboard that you bought in a panic/by mistake in the beginning of lockdown? Or have you bought a new gadget? Tell me about it. Has anyone out there got a milk frother?
Six degrees of separation is an idea of Kate’s at Books are my Favourite and Best, where the idea is that everyone begins with the same book and links to six other books to form a chain. To find out more take a look here.
The start book this month will be different for everyone because it is either the last book you read or the one you ended the last one with which in my case was Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, a Booker Prize winner set in India. You get heat and dust in a desert and so my next book is Desert Hearts (Film) /Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule.
The book was a landmark lesbian novel that came out in 1964 and was turned into a film in 1986. I went to see the UK premier. Every lesbian in London was in that cinema (slight exaggeration) and it was a very appreciative audience! It’s about a college professor who comes to Nevada to get a divorce. She has to be resident for six weeks and in that time she has an affair with a young casino worker. It’s a long time since I’ve read it and I imagine it’s fairly dated now but reading it in the 80s was a big fat relief mainly because it wasn’t The Well of Loneliness which is my next book.
What to say about The Well of Loneliness (1928)? It’s a lesbian classic and Hall was brave to write it but it’s extraordinarily overwrought, gay people are described as inverts and they are all miserable and doom laden, so don’t read it if you want to be cheered up. And don’t whatever you do give it to your parents. The writer Mary Renault (see below) read it in 1938 and remembered laughing at its “earnest humourlessness” and “impermissible allowance of self-pity.” So you’ve been warned! Moving swiftly on, let’s now jump down that well. And here we are in a Haruki Murakami’s book, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, in which a man ends up spending some time in the bottom of a well. Don’t ask me why but he definitely does. I don’t remember him being that lonely. I think he goes down there to think. Oh, and there’s a missing cat and a man gets skinned alive. Well, that’s Murakami for you. Be warned.
Another book Murakami wrote shares a title with an Ernest Hemingway book titled Men Without Women.
Hemingway’s was a collection of short stories. The Undefeated is about an injured bull fighter trying to work his way back into the ring. Bull fighting was one of Hemingway’s obsessions (see Fiesta) and so this brings us to the aforementioned Mary Renault and her book, The Bull from the Sea.
Prod most historical fiction writers and they may well cite Mary Renault as one of the reasons they write in that genre. The Bull from the Sea describes what happens when Theseus returns home from having vanquished the Minotaur and is the sequel to The King Must Die. I wonder what she would make of the many books coming out covering the Greek Myths: The Song of Achilles, Circe, The Silence of the Girls, A Thousand Ships, Orpheia etc, etc… I could have gone there but instead I’m going to wade into that sea. But only up to my ankles.
Sea is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it? Too many potential places to go. The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch. The Waves by Virginia Woolf. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I started with a Booker prize winner and so I could end with John Banville’s, The Sea. That would deliver a nice kind of symmetry but instead I’m going to jump to another book of his The Untouchable, a brilliant book that should have won the Booker, but didn’t. A much better book, incidentally than The Sea. It’s about the spy Anthony Blunt. If you have any interest in the Cambridge spies, Philby, Burgess and Maclean or the earlier John le Carre novels check this one out. You won’t be disappointed.
So, I’ve started in the Desert and ended with spies. Maybe I should have put The English Patient in there or Lawrence of Arabia or Ice Cold in Alex. But I have to stop because that’s my six. Doing this is proving strangely addictive! If you’d like to join in, check out Kate’s website and get going. Next month (5th December) begins with a book celebrating its 50th year, Are You there God. It’s me Margaret? by Judy Blume.
So, what to say about the new film of Rebecca directed by Ben Wheatley now available on Netflix? There are going to be SPOILERS in here. First off, Lily James is much too pretty but this is always the case with film versions of Rebecca, so was Joan Fontaine (in Hitchcock’s 1940 black and white version). No one is going to cast her as she is in the book which is someone plain and gauche. Secondly – oh my God, the yellow suit! Maxim that is sooooooo damn yellow, an absolute custard marvel but you’re supposed to be classy … sack your tailor, man!
Enough rambling. The film was perfectly pleasant. It’ll while away a couple of hours especially if you don’t know the book and haven’t seen the Hitchcock film. I feel mean to be picky but here goes.
If you decide to adjust the characters to modern sensibilities watch out for what it does to the narrative as a whole. Something weird has happened to the character of Maxim in this version. For a start he’s too young. There’s supposed to be a substantial age gap between the two. Maxim is a ‘father figure’ to her. He should be moody, with a vicious temper, shut down and ‘wounded’. Armie Hammer’s version is way too amiable and lacks err wounds. Making him sleep walk adds nothing. He’s called de Winter for a reason. How can he be wintery in such a sunny suit?
There’s only one point where he shows any fire and that’s when his wife comes down the staircase dressed in the same costume that Rebecca had worn to the ball. Shove Maxim into the background and his wife comes to the fore. I understand why Wheatley wants to give her more agency. His fear, I imagine, was that she’s simply too passive, too insecure, too mousy and so too unsympathetic for modern sensibilities. But he obviously made a quick list. Let’s call it the Ben’s agency list:
have her drive. If she’s driving she has agency so there we are.
have her attempt to sack Mrs Danvers. I feel mean about this because in my previous blog I made rather a big thing of it but when the first attempt happened I burst out laughing. I also burst out laughing when she said later, ‘Pack your bags I want you gone by …’ I can’t remember when but it was probably the morning. It usually is isn’t it?
have her save Maxim all by herself. Oh yawn. By driving to London all by herself and finding the file that reveals Rebecca has cancer all by herself.
In this version the neutered Maxim is locked up in prison when everything goes pear-shaped at the coroner’s inquest. Now this won’t do at all. One of the main themes of Rebecca is class division. In the book and the Hitchcock film the local magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is a friend and there is no doubt that he is ON MAX’S SIDE. There is never any suggestion that he thinks Max killed his wife because he is an aristo/massive landowner and as such is morally beyond reproach. He certainly wouldn’t lock him up because then he’d never get an invite to the Manderley Ball again and his wife would divorce him. In the book Favell, a man from the wrong side of the tracks, is clear about how this works when he says to Colonel Julyan, once Max is off the hook: ‘You can dine at Manderley once a week on the strength of this and feel proud of yourself. No doubt Max will ask you to be godfather to his first child.’
What of Mrs Danvers? Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t go for the full schlocky-campy version which was rather disappointing. I didn’t find her frightening enough and the exchanges between her and the new Mrs de Winter were rather stilted.
At least in this version Maxim says he’s shot Rebecca. In the Hitchcock one it’s an accident. I suppose because the morality of the time (of any time actually) was such that someone should not be seen to have got away with murdering their wife.
There’s a very silly scene when Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin and lover) teaches her to ride. Frankly, if you want to suggest sexual loucheness you don’t need to straddle a horse just have George Saunders (in Hitchcock’s film) jump back and forth through a window and say toodle oo.
Manderley is also an important ‘character’ in the book, malign and unwelcoming to the second Mrs de Winter. I didn’t really get much of an impression of it, although at various points I expected a National Trust volunteer to spring forwards and tell us about the wall hangings.
So what did I like? I liked the murmuration, used to signify the evil presence of Rebecca about the place, and also some dark scenes in the ball. I liked Mrs Van Hopper played by Ann Dowd. And I suppose I quite liked the ending which is upbeat. In the book and Hitchcock’s film you know that they’ll never be free of Rebecca and Manderley even if one’s dead and the other is burnt to a crisp. But in these Covid days I could do with a bit of cheer and ending on an optimistic note albeit in Cairo (which, incidentally is where du Maurier wrote the book) was fine even if completely at odds with the sensibility of the Gothic genre.
Six degrees of separation is an idea of Kate’s at Books are my Favourite and Best, where the idea is that everyone begins with the same book and links to six other books to form a chain. To find out more take a look here.
The start book this month is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a gothic, ghost story.
In 2004 Colm Tóibín wrote a novel about Henry James called The Master. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize.
It’s great incidentally. If you can’t stand Henry James then I recommend reading this and you might feel differently about him! Six months after Tóibín’s book came out, David Lodge’s novel Author, Author also about Henry James, came out but was sort of lost in all the adulation that had been heaped on The Master. A much earlier book by David Lodge, published in 1962, was called Ginger, You’re Barmy and was about a young man doing National Service.
A wicked red-haired villain in fiction is the dreadful, unctuous Uriah Heap of Dicken’s David Copperfield.
Dickens was one of the great London writers. Bleak House opens with one of the best descriptions of fog in fiction. Another book set in London during a pea souper is Margery Allingham’s 1952 novel Tiger in the Smoke. The fourteenth of her Albert Campion mysteries and one of the best.
Smoke and Ashes is the third in Abir Mukherjee’s crime series set in 1920s India, featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It’s a series I love and highly recommend.
Finally, Smoke and Ashes makes me think of another novel set in India, Heat and Dust, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of Merchent Ivory fame. This book won the Booker in 1975. I read it a very long time ago and my main recollection is of it being a bit thin and decidedly unsatisfying in its ending but I do remember enjoying the film!
This was great fun. I think I might do it again. The next one (November 7 2020) starts with the last book used in this one, so Heat and Dustfor me or the last book you read if it’s the first time you’ve done it. Now, let me think … Dust …Dusty… no, don’t answer!
I wrote a while ago about Steinbeck’s pencil obsession as described in his Journal of a Novel, the novel in question being East of Eden. At the end of it he writes a final letter to his editor Pascal Covici, which is described as the first draft of the dedication of the novel and in it he quotes from the prologue of Don Quixote, describing Cervantes as the inventor of the modern novel. This is what Cervantes has to say:
“Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest and the cleverest that could be imagined, but I have not been able to contravene the law of nature which would have it that like begets like …”
Steinbeck goes on to say something similar, that he has never ‘lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability…’ in the process of writing the book. And then continues:
“A book is like a man – clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”
Writers are constantly negotiating this space between what they imagine they can create and what they end up creating and self-loathing and disappointment are a fairly common response to this gulf. It’s worth remembering that assessing one’s own work is a notoriously difficult thing to do. There’s also the irritating fact that finishing one book does not make writing the next one any easier. However accepting the likely presence of the wet and mangy mongrel may help you to keep going.
I have never kept a diary of the writing of a book and I’ve been thinking recently that I might try. Even if it’s just a sentence a day. Even if I’m already 40,000 words in. But at what point of the day to write it? At the beginning? Or at the end? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call it: Letters to the Wet and Mangy Mongrel. Truth is I’m more of a Heinz 57 type anyway. So maybe I’m half way there. Have you ever kept a diary of a creative project? What was the experience like? Was it helpful afterwards? Did you learn anything from it?
I don’t often write poetry but if I’m ever going to September seems to be the month for it. This one’s brought on by the autumn equinox which is today. It hasn’t quite landed and I’ll probably tinker around with it some more but for now here it is.
Oh, there it is.
The new moon rises early, curvaceous among the chimney pots.
Along that road, basements are being dug, extensions extended
One of the poems I have had up on my desk since Covid struck has been this one by Philip Larkin. I don’t know exactly why it’s a comfort because in some ways it isn’t very comforting at all but then that’s the mystery of poetry for you. I think it may be the perfect mixture of misery, humour and cynicism.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
No running priests or doctors here but at least some fields. Have you found any specific poems or poets helpful during this unsettling time?
So have you heard? Netflix are doing a new version of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. There are going to be spoilers in this post, so be warned. Live long enough and you’ll have clocked up quite a few film and TV adaptations of this book and I have. There’s the Hitchcock directed Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine film in 1940 (nice overcoat, Larry) with Judith Anderson playing Mrs Danvers. The 1979 TV series with the splendid Jeremy Brett and Joanna David with Anna Massey as Mrs Danvers and finally the 1997 mini-series with Charles Dance and Emily Fox. The recently late but very great Diana Rigg played Mrs Danvers in that one.
Here’s the trailer for the new one.
There might be some I’ve missed but now in 2020 here comes Armie Hammer and Lily James and KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS AS MRS DANVERS. Yes, the capitals WERE INTENTIONAL! I can’t wait. Before I even knew what enjoying schlocky, campy, gothic anythings might mean in terms of my … err… general personality, I loved Rebecca.
I probably read it first in my teens and its excellent teen fare because it’s so overheated and dramatic which is exactly what you are (ahem) I was, as a teenager. However, reading it again recently, I was struck by what an emotionally constipated monster Max is. He has to be because of the plot but even so he really is thoroughly dislikable. He also utters probably the least romantic proposal in all romantic literature:
‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’
To which I would reply, channeling my inner drag queen:
“Say, no darling! Send him packing! Forget Manderley you’ll be far happier in Upton Snodsbury growing begonias and while you’re about it for god’s sake throw that broken ornament at Mrs Danver’s head. Just chuck it at her and then sack her. Sack her, sack her, sack her!“
I also found the second Mrs de Winter (the unnamed heroine and ‘I’ of the book) began to pall because she’s so insecure and self-conscious and her thought processes are both neurotic and repetitive.
The more modern versions have brought in certain changes. Some actually cast the character of Rebecca and shoot scenes with her in flashback. She never appears in the book. There is also, not surprisingly, the introduction of sex scenes. Or there were in the Charles Dance one anyway. In the Hitchcock film it is made clear that Mrs Danvers has set fire to Manderley and dies in the ruins. This is fitting because Mrs Danvers is presented to us as ‘a witch’ so Hitchcock decided there was a neatness to ‘the witch burning’. In the book however she’s left the house before that happens. It will be interesting to see how the new version ends.
So here are the questions? Do you mind these kinds of changes? And who is your perfect idea of casting for Maxim de Winter, the heroine, and Mrs Danvers. One thing is certain the best Jack Favell, Rebecca’s seedy ‘favourite cousin’, is hands down George Sanders.
Here he is to cheer you up. You need to shift this along to about 3 minutes in and then you’ll get the bounder bounding through the window. You’ll also get Mrs Danvers materializing Star Trek style. Most unnerving! He’d make a good Max actually, although on the other hand I can’t see him playing someone so utterly lacking in self awareness and so humourless.
Incidentally Daphne du Maurier came from an interesting family but I’m going to blog about that some other time.
In 1951 while writing the first draft of East of Eden John Steinbeck wrote a letter a day to his editor Pascal Covici. It gives an insight into his thought processes, as he is actually writing the book. In one entry he said this:
It occurs to me that everyone likes or wants to be an eccentric and this is my eccentricity, my pencil trifling.
On March 23rd Good Friday Steinbeck was clearly obsessed not with plot or character but his pencils.
You know I am really stupid. For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good one’s but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is alright one day is no good another day. For example yesterday I used a special pencil, soft and fine, and it floated over the paper most wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper.
He goes on to say he has three types of pencils for hard writing days and soft writing days. Then he says:
I have also some super soft pencils which I do not use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.
As delicate as a rose petal – how lovely! One day stabbing and breaking and one day soft and delicate.
When in my normal writing position the metal of the pencil eraser touches my hand I retire that pencil. Then Tom and Catbird (his children) get them.
Oh, and how he loves his electric pencil sharpener:
I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. To sharpen the number of pencils I use every day … by a hand sharpener would not only take too long but would tire my hand out.
As a writer, it is all too easy to fetishize the tools of your trade and indulge in magical thinking along the lines of:
“If only I had that beautiful note book/pen/pencil/cabin in the wood/tree house/house by the sea/lake/Lake Como actually, No, make that a palazzo in Venice/ oh no wait what about mountains? Actually just give me a garden, any garden.” Then I would write a masterpiece.
Looking out onto the street, outside my window I’m currently looking at a smashed TV screen and some plastic bottles rolling in the gutter. Usually I’m also looking at the backs of BT engineers fiddling with wires in those green street cabinets. I worry about their knees. The overground part of the District Line is about 15 meters away. I live on a main road. Someone is usually drilling somewhere very loudly along the road. This is where I’ve written all my books.
There’s the odd occasion when I long for a house with a sea view. When it was 35 degrees for a few days in a row this summer and they were tarmacking the road directly outside, the noise and the heat were such that I got to thinking about where I would live if I won the lottery – Iceland came to mind – but that’s rare. I write where I live like most writers, for better or worse.
And I’m sure you realise that I’d never do anything as crass as buy certain types of pencils thinking they might turn me into a Nobel Prize winner. Oh, no…
Whoops, I’m definitely feeling the metal here! One for the kiddies I think…
Steinbeck used Blackwing pencils and if you’d like to take a look at their very desirable website here it is. They even produced some lovely purple ones last month in honour of the passing of the 19th Amendment and women getting the vote in America on August 18th 1920.
What are the tools of your trade? Do you have a favourite?