To have a heart

At the end of November, I got a new book on my list of books to read: "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford. I had never heard of him, which must certainly have been a big gap in my education, because I understand this is one of the great English classics. It´s at the local library, both in English and Swedish versions. Coincidentally, my friend M had also read this book during the Holidays, and we hadn´t even (as I recall) talked about it. Synchronicity, I thought, and decided to read it at once.

I think I understand better now, both why it´s considered a classic, and why I never heard of it. According to an article on Wikipedia, Ford was pioneering a technique of literary impressionism, telling the story in bits and pieces, unchronologically. This certainly makes the novel important and interesting. On the other hand, it´s a bit of a chore to read. It was published in 1915, and I don´t think creatures like the narrator exists anymore. If they do, surely there must be a fitting combination of letters to describe their condition. It´s hard for a modern day reader to identify with someone so utterly naive (or downright stupid).

Random picture from my album to adorn this post.
The plot is as follows: An American and an English couple get to know each other at a German health spa. The two that are supposedly ill (from "having a heart", heavy on the symbolism here), become lovers. The husband/narrator, a naive American Philadelphia Quaker and millionaire, never even remotely suspects it, until it´s too late. The cheated wife, a suffering Irish Catholic, understands what is going on even before it begins and even protects the lovers, to avoid a scandal and the greater sin of divorce. I will not tell you how the thing develops from there, but it´s actually rather fascinating.

Towards the end I just wanted the narrator to get on with it, tell me what happened and be done. He becomes very, very irritating, because not only does he tell the story incoherently, he is also constantly trying to explain how the others would have been thinking, what their motives have been, what their feelings have been. And frankly, he knows nothing about people. Which he confesses. And he is contradicting himself all the time. And hinting at "monstrous" and "sad" and "terrible" things to come. So very tiring. All the same, it´s not a book I was ever tempted to give up. The plot is intriguing and in a queer way, it´s a page-turner. And it´s not huge, only 159 pages.

This book has been filmed by the BBC in 1981, with the excellent Jeremy Brett (the ultimate Sherlock Holmes!) as the adulterous husband. I am hugely curious as to how they even managed to write a film script based on this novel, and I have ordered it from amazon.

All in all, I would recommend it to anyone interested in writing. It´s a good read, but I wouldn´t call it a favourite. Will I read it again? I doubt it. But perhaps the film is worth watching twice? I do like Mr Brett... You can get this book for free here.


Jane´s letters

I´ve been a bit off this last week, due to the winter fatigues, and perhaps an on-off nausea indicates some kind of virus. I don´t know. When I was younger, I would always retire to bed with a stack of old comic books. These days, however, I retire to bed with Jane Austen, whose books I am never too tired or indisposed to read (it seems).

You may get this cool stamp if you buy a book in Paris!

This time, I got my hands on "Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters" by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, who were relatives of Janes, though not contemporaries. The book was published in 1913, almost a hundred years after her death, and almost fifty years after her nephew´s memoir. I also had at my side Marghanita Lanski´s "Jane Austen" from 1969 (I bought it at the famous Shakespeare&Co bookstore in Paris) for quick reference to the family tree, and a few portraits of significant people. This is a limitation with the Reader, it´s not so quick just to flip a few pages back and forth to appendixes, footnotes, and such. No doubt that will improve in time.

Because I had the memoir fresh in my mind, the letters gave me the most pleasure. Jane writes a lot, as they seem to have done in those days, and most of the letters are adressed to her sister Cassandra. Unfortunately for us, they were seldom apart. And we never see Jane distressed or even particularly ernest, because all those, more private, letters were destroyed. In those days it was not regarded as very well bred to expose your friends and relations in all their flaws to the world, as it is today. Too bad for the scholars, perhaps, but as curious as I am about her, I acknowledge that I have no right to know everything about her, just because she has written a few of the best novels ever.

What is left of her is her irony and wit. And the thing with irony is, you´re not always, as a stranger, sure where the line is between wit and ernestness. Often, I have noticed, people inclined towards irony will confess their true opinions, half-guarded by the possibility of irony, just in case the recipient is of another view. Sometimes, they will even be mean, and if the other takes offence, they will just say "can´t you take a joke?". However, irony can be delightful, and what remain of Jane´s letters are also. Here is a sample:

"At Nackington we met Lady Sondes' picture over the mantelpiece in the dining-room, and the pictures of her three children in an ante-room, besides Mr. Scott, Miss Fletcher, Mr. Toke, Mr. J. Toke, and the Archdeacon Lynch. Miss Fletcher and I were very thick, but I am the thinnest of the two. She wore her purple muslin, which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion. There are two traits in her character which are pleasing—namely, she admires Camilla, and drinks no cream in her tea. If you should ever see Lucy, you may tell her that I scolded Miss Fletcher for her negligence in writing, as she desired me to do, but without being able to bring her to any proper sense of shame—that Miss Fletcher says in her defence, that as everybody whom Lucy knew when she was in Canterbury has now left it, she has nothing at all to write to her about. By everybody, I suppose Miss Fletcher means that a new set of officers have arrived there. But this is a note of my own."

And while everyone, both in her time and later, seem to think that she were interested only in what was before her, read this flattering (for us Swedes) piece, adressed to her brother Frank, the Sea Captain:

Jane, by her sister Cassandra
(from Lanski´s book).
"It must be a real enjoyment to you, since you are obliged to leave England, to be where you are, seeing something of a new country and one which has been so distinguished as Sweden. You must have great pleasure in it. I hope you may have gone to Carlscroon. Your profession has its douceurs to recompense for some of its privations; to an enquiring and observing mind like yours such douceurs must be considerable. Gustavus Vasa, and Charles XII., and Cristina and Linneus. Do their ghosts rise up before you? I have a great respect for former Sweden, so zealous as it was for Protestantism. And I have always fancied it more like England than other countries; and, according to the map, many of the names have a strong resemblance to the English."

She was wrong of course. It´s the English names that have a strong resemblance to the Swedish. She would have written her letter pretty much exactly 800 years after Sweyn Forkbeard, with Swedes and Norse to help him, made life hell for king Ethelread (who was always unready, even though he should have known they were always going to be coming back for more). It would have been fun to talk to her about that. Have a bit of conversation with Miss Austen.

You can have this book for free, here.


Lost in space

I haven´t written anything about our greatest theatre-experience of 2010. We discovered that our wedding day this year was on a Friday, and we said, let´s make a holiday before the Holidays of it! And my husband read an article about the premier of this new musical setting of Harry Martinson´s great poem Aniara from 1956, at Stockholm Stadsteater (City Theatre).

I knew the poem from when I was a kid, I was into science fiction and came to it from that end. But parts of it we had to read in school, so anyone my age should have at least heard of it. I think it´s the most resilient of all Martinson´s work, the one that will really make him immortal. It´s been translated to English, not once but twice. I know, I always say I don´t understand poetry. But this is so very accessible. A real story. The language is also very creatively Martinson´s own, he was not tempted to use the vocabulary of the cold war, and therefore it´s easy to translate the threats to the ones we feel now, with the environment falling apart rather than the Bomb. My original copy was lost many years back, but I got a new one of very good quality at the local antiquarian and read most of it before December 17.

The performance was fantastic. Absolutely wonderful. We were lead to our seats through the stage itself, designed as a departure hall at an airport. When the show was about to begin, the stage turned and became a smaller version of the gallery. In this way, the entire theatre was transformed into the spaceship Aniara, we were all ill-fated passengers on our way to Mars. Incredibly effective.

I suppose it was a kind of musical theatre, some verses were sung, some recited, there were a lot of dancing and choreography. The cast was a mix of actors, singers and dancers. Quite a few Swedish high profile actors, like Sven Wollter, Helge Skoog, Ingvar Hirdwall, Dan Ekborg and the wonderful singer Helen Sjöholm, of course. The stage design also played a big part in the storytelling, and towards the end, the tragedy was so well performed that I had to cry.

After the show we went straight to the hotel (we both had a bit of a cough), ordered a late supper from room service and then we passed the book between each other, looking for our favourite parts. Even the next day, parts of the verse kept surfacing, even as we were doing other interesting things, like visiting the East Asia Museum and the Terracotta Army from China. Hm. On reflection, I suppost Emperor Chin´s army feels a bit lost in space and time, just like Aniara.

To return to the book by Martinson: a great, great read. And much enhanced by seeing this excellent performance. According to the theatre´s website, it will return in 2012. If you can go, do so!


Out of place

Found this when I was clearing out my shelves. It´s my old H C Andersen-collection of tales, and some of them have been read quite a few times. The story about the little match girl would always, always make me cry, and I wasn´t particularly teary-eyed even as a child.

However, sentimentality get´s you nowhere, and there are new kids in our extended family that this book, and a few others, will be passed to. Hopefully it will find a home with them. I have no idea if Andersen´s stories are even relevant to kids today, or if the old classics are buried in the flood of new books being turned out. Whatever. However much I´d like the new generation to love the same things I have loved, to have exactly the same references that I have, that´s not going to happen, is it?

But what is Gyro Gearloose doing on the cover of my old H C Andersen?


Being crafty

Yesterday, my husband took a look at my latest craft-project and said: "You have to show that on your blog." So here it is.

What it is is a cover for my Iriver Story, my e-book reader. You can buy them, but they are expensive and the ones I´ve seen are made of leather, which I try to avoid in things that I touch a lot (because of my colofonium-allergy).

What I did was, I took an old plastic folder from my schooldays, cut it to the right size using regular scissors, then I punched holes along the edge of one side, using punch pliers.
After that, I crocheted a square the same size as the reader (crocheted squares are less elastic than knitted ones, usually), and crocheted it, using a very small hook, to the plastic folder, with dental floss. I could have sewed it on as well, but I prefer crochet if it´s at all feasible, since I don´t need to cut the thread until I´ve used exactly as much as I need. Floss is superstrong and excellent to use for repairs to backpacks, trainers and such.

Finally I punched one more hole to the edge of the other side of the folder, where I tied a covered rubber band, to thread over the whole thing and hold the cover together.

I´m darned pleased with it, didn´t have to buy a single thing for it, and it took me less than three hours to make. The only thing that was a little hard was punching all those holes, my hand still hurts a bit...


The ultimate booklover

I have had another few jolly nights with Helene Hanff. This is "Q´s Legacy", a follow-up memoir to "The Duchess of Bloomsbury" (about her first trip to London) and "Underfoot in Showbusiness" (about her failed career as a playwright, I haven´t read that one yet). She is as funny as ever, as she tells the story of how "84, Charing Cross Road" found its way to television and theatres and finally, she got to stand on a stage and "the audience rose to her".

It´s also a story of a girl who loves books, not any books, but diaries, memoars and books by people telling it the way they lived it. The kind of books she ended up writing herself. No wonder, really, that she never made it as a playwright. I don´t think she ever tried a novel, because she writes: "I didn´t like novels. (I subscribe to Randall Jarrell´s definition of a novel as 'a prose narrative that has something wrong with it'.)" She does, however, love Jane Austen, a testiment to Austen´s greatness if I ever heard one!

The Q of the title is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor of English literature at Oxford whose published lectures she stumbled on in the local library as a young girl in search of a teacher who can teach her to write. It is her ambition to read what Q´s recommended to her that draws her to the business and correspondence with Marks & Co in London, and that is the making of her as a writer, really. And after years of visiting the Literary London, reading plaques commemorating the famous authors at their famous places, she finally gets a plaque of her own, at 84, Charing Cross Road. And now I have a new thing to go look for next time I get to London!

 In the final chapter, more of a post script, really, she reflects on her late life´s successes and she writes: "If I live to be very old, all my memories of the glory days will grow vague and confused, till I won´t be certain any of it really happened. But the books will be there, on my shelves and in my head - the one enduring reality I can be certain of till the day I die. "

So, in the end, it´s all about the books and the love of books and how it can totally shape one life. Highly recommended.


"A holiday from the holidays", with Mary Russel, "following the enforced merriment"

Finally, after New Years Eve, I reached the book that I had designated to be my Christmas Read. I had high expectations and I was not disappointed. Laurie R King´s "A Monstruous Regiment of Women" is well written, thrilling and entertaining.

This time, Mary Russel comes of age and into a bit of a fortune. She is actually described as "the richest woman in Sussex". Which must be nice to be. She is also preparing for her final exam at Oxford, where she has studied theology and chemistry. And, the emotional tension between her and Sherlock is growing into something definately more sexual.

Plot-wise, she gets entangled in a kind of sect, a religious/feminist movement, a "temple" of women doing good deeds, with a charismatic leader who puts her spell on Mary. It soon becomes apparent that this woman has her secrets and then women start to die suspiciously...

I was not just a little bit apprehensive about the emotional elements (that I knew would come) in this story. How would King manage to retain the dignity of the characters, their rationality and cold-headedness, and at the same time illustrate their passion? She does it very imaginatively and impressively and I would love to quote it to you, but it would be such a massive spoiler and I do prefer that you just read the book, why don´t you?

Yes, if you´re looking for a good sleuth-story, make an effort and seek out Laurie R King.


Clearing out, part II

Today, I have given away the last of at least a couple hundred books. I tried to take a photograph of all the books I´ve gotten rid of, but it´s happened over the course of a few weeks and I just didn´t manage to get that feeling of abundance into the frame. Relatives have released me of some of the burden, it´s always nice to know the books get a good home.

The empty space in my shelves have immediately been filled by stuff from the living room that we never use, like CDs (we have discovered Spotify) and photo albums. I found four boxes of slides that I took during my exchange year in Iowa, more than half my lifetime ago. Perhaps I should get one of those tv-like slide-showing thingies so I can look at them.

I get this feeling of exhilaration when I get to throw stuff into the containers up at the recycling station. Yes, even some books. Old videocassettes. Furniture. Swoosh, gone. I´d throw out more, but my other half is a hamster.

Since the books are gone, and my proposed New Year´s Resolution aborted, I decided instead to devote this year to learning a new skill: to make salty snacks, instead of baking cakes and cookies. I have been googling croustades and finger sandwiches. I have bought buffalo mozzarella. I´m ready for 2011.