The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston

The Illusionist is the third book I’ve read recently on the theme of illusions. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett was the first followed by Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Of these three I found The Illusionist the most satisfying. Jennifer Johnston is a new writer to me, but from the biographical details in the book I see that she has won many awards – the Whitbread Prize in 1979, the Evening Standard Best first Novel Award in 1972 and was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1977. I’m sorry I haven’t come across her books before, but I’ll be looking out for them from now on.

Once I started this I stopped reading the other books I have on the go and read this through in about two sittings. I wanted to find out what happened and why. Set in Ireland and England, it starts with Stella, looking back on her life after the death of her estranged husband, Martyn. Thirty years earlier they had met on a train when he had taken the book she was reading out of her hands and asked if she would like to play cards. Now if a stranger had done that to me I wouldn’t have been too pleased but Stella is charmed by him, and after a very short time they are married, against her parents’ advice. Martyn has a full time job but practices magic tricks, although he corrects her description of him as a conjuror – he is an Illusionist. However, it’s not long before she begins to have misgivings, particularly when he won’t tell her anything about his background or his job or what is in the locked the room where he is devising an extraordinary new trick, with the help of two mysterious men.

The situation gets worse as Stella is manipulated and controlled by Martyn, so much that she gives up her own job and they move with their daughter, Robin to a large house in the countryside. Eventually, as things become so bad and Robin is alienated from her mother, Stella has to take action.

There are various themes running through the book; the nature of love and trust, how much you can trust or know another person, what is real or illusory, and above all about preserving one’s integrity in relationships between husband/wife and mother /daughter. It’s so easy to read this book as the words just flow across the pages, bringing to my mind vivid pictures of the countryside:

Out beyond Clifden the world seems to end: hills, islands, clouds drift together in the huge ocean of the sky. Sometimes the sun overwhelms both the sea and the sky with its glitter, sometimes pillars of rain move across the emptiness, then the colour, the texture of the land and sea change as the rain falls, from blue to grey, sometimes to black. Other times a shawl of mist hides mountains, sea and sky.

The characters also came alive in my mind and I began to dislike Martyn more and more as the book progressed and I found myself wanting to support and encourage Stella in her struggle to survive. There is so much in this book that I liked and here is one example indicating the themes explored within the story:

Some words lurk in the darkness of your mind, like young men lurk in the shadows, waiting to damage, maim, or merely frighten unsuspecting walkers once the light has gone.

Words can be like missiles or rose or travellers to another world. You can play delightful games with them, that will make you and others smile, feel light-hearted, or you can kill; you can hide the truth or manifest it.

Format – Booking Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday’s question this week is – All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

In a perfect world I’™d have both.

I like reading hardbacks (hardcovers) although their weight is often a problem if they are long books, both in carrying them home from the library and also when reading, particularly when reading in bed. These days some hardbacks are just as liable to fall apart as paperbacks, but on the whole I do think that last longer. Some paperbacks have those covers that curl open once you start reading and some are so tightly bound that you have to break the spine to keep the book open whilst you read it. But a paperback is much easier to carry around and I like to take a book with me just in case there’™s an opportunity to read.

Eating, Sleeping and Living with Books

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix 2006 paperback 260 pages).

I read about this book on Ann’™s Blog and was intrigued enough to read it for myself. It’™s a remarkable memoir of the author’™s refuge at the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. on the banks of the River Seine opposite Notre Dame. Jeremy Mercer, a Canadian crime reporter, packed his bags and headed for Paris after receiving a death threat. He arrived during the last days of 1999 and shortly afterwards found his way to Shakespeare & Co, where he was amazed to find not only is it a bookshop but also a place providing beds for a number of writers. The owner George Whitman, then 86 years old, had been inviting writers to stay in the shop since he opened it in 1951, provided they helped in the shop and read a book a day, hardly an onerous task.

Jeremy recounts how George made him welcome, how he found ways to exist on very little money, with meals from George, Sunday morning pancake breakfasts, morning ablutions at the Café Panis and baguettes (‘œwith the occasional speck of blue-green mold on the bread’) from the Sandwich Queen. Jeremy finds friends amongst the other residents and tells of their story-telling sessions on the banks of the Seine, and other escapades, including a trip to Ireland with Simon, an English poet and long time resident at Shakespeare & Co. As the future of the shop was called into question Jeremy helps George produce a booklet on the history of Shakespeare & Co and succeeds in tracking down George’™s daughter Sylvia, whom he hoped would carry on the shop in the future.

It’™s full of fascinating characters – the many writers who have been connected with it including Henry Miller, Anäis Nin, Lawrence Durrell and Alan Ginsberg; the individuals living in the shop; and not forgetting perhaps the most remarkable character of all, George himself. George’™s generosity is in line with the original occupants of the building, built on the foundations of a 16th century monastery. He ‘œcompares himself to the monks who used to live on the same spot, a frere lampier who keeps a light on to welcome strangers and cares for old books and lost folk with semisacred devotion.’ However, as the residents of the shop change Jeremy eventually finds that it felt ‘œstrange and dislocating’ when he saw new people ‘œamok among the books’ and he decided that it was time to move on.

From the website I learned that George has retired but Shakespeare & Co is still ‘œa wonderland of books’ and has a full programme of forthcoming events. The website also has a tour of the shop, showing interior and exterior views and giving details of the book readings and other events held at the shop. I would love to visit it one day.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

My Celebrate the Author Challenge book for February was going to be one by Amy Tan or Alice Walker, who have birthdays in February. However, I was reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster, whose birthday is also in February, so I changed my list. That’s a good thing about this challenge – I don’t have to stick with the books I originally thought I was going to read. Somehow there is an obstacle in my mind about challenges. I love the idea of them and deciding what to read but when it gets to the time I’m ‘supposed’ to read a book for some strange reason I don’t want to read it. After all I’m reading for pleasure and I like to read as and when the fancy takes me – not to a fixed programme.

From the title The Book of Illusions I expected to be deceived, that people and events would not be as they seemed and I was not disappointed. This book is full of illusions. It tells the stories of two men, David Zimmer, a professor whose wife and two sons were killed in a plane crash and Hector Mann, a silent movie star who disappeared mysteriously in 1929. David is plunged into depression and ‘lived in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity’ until he watched a clip from one of Hector’s films. It made him laugh. He became obsessed with Hector, the man in the white tropical suit, with a thin black mustache, which Hector used as an ‘instrument of communication’, speaking a ‘language without words, its wiggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code – the mustache monologues.’ In typical silent movie style Hector with his slicked-back hair, thin and greasy little mustache and white suit is the target and focal point of every mishap.

David takes leave of absence from the university and studies Hector’s films, eventually writing a book about him, intrigued by his disappearance. Then he receives a letter from Hector’s wife, in which she reveals that Hector is alive and wants to meet David before he dies. He asks for proof that Hector is indeed alive. The rest of the novel reveals what happened to Hector and why he disappeared, in a series of melodramatic incidents. It’s a tense tale as David accompanied by Alma, directed by Hector to persuade David to visit him, rushes to the Blue Stone ranch in New Mexico, where he finds Hector on his deathbed, guarded by Frieda his wife who seems to resent David’s presence.

There are stories within stories; subterfuge, crime, shootings, issues of identity, love, death, disguises and deception abound in this book. A few quotes give the flavour:

‘The world was an illusion that had to be re-invented every day.’

‘I was writing about things I couldn’t see any more, and I had to present them in purely visual terms. The whole experience was like a hallucination.’

‘The world was full of holes – once on the other side of one of those holes, you were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you.’

‘Life was a fever dream – reality was a groundless world of figments and hallucinations, a place where everything you imagined became true.’

‘If I never saw the moon, then the moon was never there.’

Truly a book of illusions – about films that are in themselves illusions, the illusion that we can know another person, that there is a future, illusions about love, and identity – it moves in and out of reality. There are many layers to this novel; it’s a detective story with gothic overtones, a love story and a novel about the passing of the 20th century, ending as the last weeks of the century approach, that century which ‘no one in his right mind will be sorry to see end.’ It’s a circular story as well, ending with the hope that it ‘will start all over again.’

Booking Through Thursday – After the Honeymoon

Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.
Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?
This question has made me think, once more, about just who are my favourite authors and why they are favourites. They are favourites because most importantly I enjoy their books, then because I like the way they write and I like what they write about; they are authors whose books live in my memory (for a while at least) and make me think. To qualify as a favourite author I have to have read more than one of their books.
I can’t say that I have “fallen out of love” with a favourite author. I may think one book is better than another or I may enjoy one more than the next but I can’t think of a book that was so bad it would stop me from reading their work. This week I’ve read various comments about the lack of “authority” of book bloggers to express their opinions and not post negative reviews if they don’t like a book. But reading is a very subjective matter. Other people may, and do, think differently and come to a book with different expectations. What one person likes is not necessarily the same for everyone and it’s useless to think otherwise. I like to know what other people have read and what they thought about it.

Coming to a new (to me) author I have found that the first book may appeal to me, but the next won’t and then I may not pick up a third. I’m thinking here of Maeve Binchy. I’ve only read one – Nights of Rain and Stars. I enjoyed it, easy to read (I was in the mood for a fast read), interesting story, believable characters, etc etc. This is not a well-thought out review of this book just memories of a book I read at the beginning of 2007. It was good enough for me to want to read more of her books, so I bought Whitethorn Woods. I started it – put it down – started it again – put it down and haven’t picked it up again. The reason being that it seems disjointed, trite and well – boring. Maybe I’ll read it sometime but life is just too short to carry on reading a book that I’m not enjoying.

Courtly Love in Florence

Last week on my course on Dante’™s Florence we looked at the development of the city, and the concept of ‘˜courtly love’™ in relation to Dante’™s La Vita Nuova (New Life).

Today we know Florence as a Renaissance city and there is little left of the medieval city that Dante knew. Originally a Roman city, by the end of the 13th century it was an expanding wealthy city bounded by its 12th century walls.

The earliest view of Florence is in the fresco of the Madonna of Mercy 1342, now in the Museo del Bigallo. It shows the city walls, towers, and the Cathedral, which was much smaller then and its dome had not been added. The Campanile was not yet built and the most prominent building was the Baptistery. The churches and religious establishments now within the city were outside the medieval walls, for example Santa Trinita, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce (containing the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo and a monument to Dante who died in exile in Ravenna in 1321),

The River Arno runs through Florence, crossed by four bridges, including the Ponte Vecchio, built in 1345 after Dante’™s death. It replaced a 12th century bridge that had been destroyed by floods in 1333. Floods have been a perennial problem, the worst one being that in 1966, when many buildings and works of art were damaged. The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in the city that survived the bombing during the Second World War.

Although Dante referred to the river in The Divine Comedy as the ‘œcursed and unlucky ditch’ as it was used as a rubbish tip, it has always been important to the city as the means of transporting goods and also for the textile industry. Wool was washed in the river and as it was used by tanners and purse makers in Dante’™s day it must have been a very smelly place. Well known now for its shops there have always been shops on the bridge ‘“ butchers in the 15th century, then goldsmiths from the 16th century onwards.

Other prominent features of the city were the towers, as in other Italian towns (most notably San Gimignano). These were built from the 11th century onwards, with an average height of 225 feet. There were two types, defence and tower houses. I can’™t imagine living in one, the only means of getting up to the rooms was by trap doors and ladders ‘“ I find it hard just getting into our loft! Representations of the towers can be seen in Cimabue’™s Santa Trinita Madonna, now in the Uffizi Gallery, showing the Madonna and Child seated on a hugh throne surrounded by saints and angels and towers.

Set against the backdrop of this medieval city Dante theologised the concept of ‘˜courtly love’™. This concept had originated with the troubadours in France and had developed as poets paid homage to and idolised married women from afar. In Dante’™s case he fell in love at first sight with Beatrice Portinari when he was nine. Later they were both married (to other people) but he continued to put Beatrice on a pedestal, regarding her as a miraculous being. His love was unrequited and she died when she was 24, leaving Dante in despair. He wrote La Vita Nuova (1294) after her death in which he expressed, in a series of sonnets, his love and passion for her and his despair and grief at her death.

Mr Blossom’s Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd

When I read about the Heart of a Child Challenge I immediately thought of several books that I still had, Mr Blossom’™s Shop being one of them. I remembered reading it as a child and hadn’™t given it away because it was a prize from Sunday School for attendance. When I was a child every Christmas we were encouraged by the Sunday School to give books and toys for the ‘˜poor children’™ whose parents couldn’™t afford to buy them Christmas presents. I always found it difficult to give away books, and would look for excuses to hold on to them! I’ve included photos of the illustations in the book, which I particularly like now. I’d coloured them in my book as I had a book that used to belong to my mother when she was a child in which she had coloured the pictures, so I knew she couldn’t tell me off. I don’t think I coloured in any other books after that.

I was eight when I was given this book and I remember thinking it was a bit young for me (how ungrateful) but it has stuck in my mind so it can’™t have been too bad. Mr Blossom’™s shop was of course not your everyday, ordinary village shop but was stocked full of the most surprising and magical things. There was the Sally Lunn bun that turned into Miss Sally Lunn, a plump little old lady with ‘œblack curranty eyes set deeply in to her shiny brown face, and she wore a stiff little bonnet, as prim and neatly goffered as though it were made out of pie-crust.’ I can’™t believe I knew what ‘œgoffered’ means when I was eight or if I did I’™ve forgotten because I had to look it up. ‘œ To goffer’ is to make wavy or to crimp, so it’™s a good image for a frilled bonnet or a crimped piecrust.

There were snapdragon seeds that produced real live little dragons that eat plants and candytuft seeds that come up as tiny cherry pies with sugary crusts and ‘œtufts and tufts of the most delicious mauve and white sugar-candy’.

One of my favourite stories is ‘œSand-Shoes’, which I used to call pumps when I was a child. They are canvas shoes with rubber soles (also known as plimsolls). The sand-shoes Jennifer’™s god mother bought her were very special shoes, ‘œas light as leaves’ that carried her out of her garden and then she ‘œfound that she was running on air. Her shoes never touched the ground.’ They carried her to the seaside. Unlike the shoes in Hans Christian Andersen’™s fairy tale The Red Shoes, the sand-shoes returned Jennifer home unharmed, the only signs being her sandy feet and tiny shells that fell out of the shoes. I did like The Red Shoes as a child, even though Karen is forced to dance without stopping when she puts on shoes and the ending is just horrible.

Helping Mr Blossom in his shop was Mrs Macgillicuddy who was a nice witch, complete with cauldron and broomstick. She is the source of the magic pills and potions, ‘œthe magic headache powders, and the everlasting ball of string, and the pencil that added up sums by itself, and many other strange things that only witches know the ways of.’

I enjoyed my journey into the past reading this book. I’™d read on Tara’™s blog of an adult book by Barbara Euphan Todd and when I found this was in the library I was lucky enough to find it on the shelves recently. So now I’™ll see if I enjoy Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Until I started to write this post I knew nothing about Barbara Euphan Todd. She was born in 1890, worked as a VAD (volunteers who ran military hospitals) during the First World War and began writing at first for magazines such as Punch and the Spectator. Her first book, Worzel Gummidge was published in 1936, followed by nine others. She died in 1976 as plans were being made to televise her Worzel Gummidge books. So, what a pity she never saw Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who) as Worzel.