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.

Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’™ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’™ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.

10 Signs a Book Has Been Written by Me ‘“ a Meme

Gautami has tagged me for this meme. As I haven’™t written a book this is difficult. If I were to write one, thinking optimistically, it would:

1.be historical fiction
2.be romantic
3.have a mystery to be solved
4.be philosophical
5.mythical
6.and mystical
7.focusing on the power of memories
8.and the intricacies of the mind
9.be well researched
10.and be a bestseller.

The only publication to my name (well my maiden name) is a bibliography on the ‘˜Massacre’™ of ‘˜Peterloo in 1819’™ that I compiled and was published by the library where I used to work. So more realistically my book would be:

1.non-fiction
2.well researched
3.structured and methodical
4.based on facts, not on assumptions
5.detailed, but clear and concise
6.analytical
7.referenced with footnotes, not endnotes.
8.It would have an extensive bibliography
9.and an index.
10.It would be a bestseller ‘“ I wish!

Gautami, you have no idea how long this has taken me, or how much thought has gone into this post. It has been a pipe-dream of mine to write a book. I have bought and borrowed many books on writing and nothing has come from my pen, or more recently my computer, that in any way, shape or form resembles a book! I’™m an expert at reading how to write fiction, but faced with doing any of those exercises they say will help to write a novel I dry up completely. It’™s like putting me in a group of people and being asked to name five interesting things about yourself that nobody could guess from looking at you. Or dividing up into little groups to discuss something and then reporting back to the big group – my mind goes blank immediately.

So at the end of all this I know that the book I would like to write is buried deep within me but will probably stay there, well hidden, too shy to come out. But on the other hand if it starts out on this computer, it may just begin to relax and make itself known ‘¦

I’™m supposed to tag another five people now. Stuckinabook, A Work In Progress, So Many Books, Of Books and Bicycles and In Spring It is the Dawn, I’™d love to see what you would write, so I’™m tagging you. Please let me know how you get on.

W. Somerset Maugham

After I’™d finished writing the previous post I went to the library and found a Book Club Associates’™ volume containing six stories by W. Somerset Maugham, which includes The Moon and Sixpence. This has an interesting Preface written by Maugham in 1933.

Maugham wrote that he had been living in London, working hard but not earning much money. He had written four or five novels, two of which had not been very successful and he was unknown to the general public. In 1904 he set out for Paris, where he was born, and it was there that he became aware of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. He met men who had known and worked with him and he read the only life of him that existed at that time. It occurred to him that here was the subject of a novel and he kept that in mind for over ten years.

When he went to Tahiti it was with the idea of finding out what he could about Gauguin’™s life and again he came across people who had been more or less connected with him. The Moon and Sixpence was written in 1918 in Surrey whilst he was recovering from the tuberculosis he had contracted earlier in the war.

For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles he had used a travel book, A Vagabond Journey round the World by Harry Franck and as he had not acknowledged the source in the novel he was condemned by an angry gentleman in an article in a magazine. This did not bother Maugham, who gladly acknowledged his debt to Franck, but pointed out that he thought it is an absurd notion that a writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. He considered

‘œThe novelist cannot know everything. A great deal of the information necessary to him must be got from other people or from books. ‘¦ The writers of the past took from one another want they wanted. Many went further and without a sense of shame copied whole passages. This would be reprehensible now that to write books is a commercial proposition, but to make a fuss because one author uses an incident that he has found in another’™s is nonsense. By turning it to good account he makes it his own. Books of facts are legitimate quarry for the imaginative writer.’

He then referred to an article a young man had written in which he had copied almost word for word from a chapter in The Moon and Sixpence. He continued:

‘œIt contained not only all the passages I myself had used from Mr Harry Franck’™s book, but others that I had written from my own observation in the less reputable quarters (now alas, owing to the economic situation deprived of their garish vivacity) of the ancient city of Marseilles. I calmed the editor’™s fears (he saw me bringing an action for infringement of copyright) and begged him to congratulate the writer of the article on his ingenuity.’

Thinking of copyright law (which I confess I don’™t really understand) I wonder if there are there many authors who would have the same attitude today?

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

I’d read one short story, Honolulu by W. Somerset Maugham before, which I had enjoyed, but I knew very little about him or his work and when I started to read The Moon and Sixpence I thought I could understand why Maugham is considered an ‘outmoded’ author. I don’t think it has a good beginning; at first it didn’t grab my interest and make me want to read on. The first chapter introduces the main character, Charles Strickland, an artist, giving details of other articles and biographies that had been written about him, philosophising on the nature of art criticism. I nearly abandoned it to look for something else to read. But I’m glad I persevered because by the time I got to the second chapter I had got into the rhythm of Maugham’s style – long and sometimes convoluted sentences in long paragraphs – and found he had a sense of humour. This passage amused me:

‘I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate that awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.’

Whilst this doesn’t progress the story at all, I began to warm to Somerset Maugham. Eventually he gets onto his subject – Charles Strickland, who was a stockbroker, a boring, commonplace man who was large and clumsy looking, ‘just a good, dull, honest, plain man’. This boring man then left his wife and family after seventeen years of marriage and fled to Paris, because he wanted to paint. His wife and friends would have found it more acceptable if he had left her for another woman.

I couldn’t think from the story why it was called The Moon and Sixpence but apparently the reason is that he took the title for it from an excerpt of a review of the earlier novel in the TLS in which the earlier novel’s main character is described as “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.” Strickland yearns and lives to paint so much that I don’t think he sees anything around him at all. He’s a character who lives purely for himself and, obsessed with the desire to paint, just couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else.

After some years of living in Paris painting, living on bread and milk, in poverty and nearly dying he eventually moves to Marseille and then on to Tahiti. In Tahiti his painting flourishes. In contrast to his life in Europe Strickland is accepted for what he is, ‘a queer fish’. In Tahiti they took him for granted: ‘In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.’

After the First World War Maugham had travelled to the South Seas. His description of Tahiti paints a beautiful picture of the island:

‘Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel in those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.’ 

This book is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, which led me to look at Gauguin By Himself, a massive book that contains copies of his paintings, drawings, ceramic, sculpture and prints together with his written words. This is a beautiful book which I had almost forgotten was sitting on the bottom of the bookshelves, largely unread.

The photograph is of his painting The Thatched Hut Under Palm Trees (1896-7) and as Maugham had visited the place where Gauguin lived I suppose that his description of Strickland’s hut was based on this hut. In the novel Strickland paints the inside walls of his hut with beautiful and mysterious paintings, giving the impression of being in a ‘great primeval forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees.’ Looking at Gauguin’s paintings one has the same impression.

I wondered how the book had been reviewed in 1919 and found this article in The Guardian 2 May 1919, which concludes:

‘Technically the whole thing has great interest. But as an illumination of the nature of bizarre and uncompromising genius, ready to sacrifice every person and every association that stands in the way of its fulfilment, “The Moon and Sixpence” fails through its literary accomplishment and its lack of true creative inspiration.’

I disagree. After its unpromising start I think the book succeeds. Maugham has conveyed to me the passion to create beauty behind Strickland’s (Gauguin’s) life. It has revived my interest in Gauguin’ work and makes me want to read more of Maugham’s novels and short stories. In my opinion he is not an outmoded author.