Hemlock and After

IMG_1754I haven’t posted anything on this site for months and months – I need to start adding a blog post more regularly!  And I also need to talk more about books on the website.  Spurred on by these two failings, I decided to write about the book I finished this morning, Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson.

I read the book because of a brilliant podcast, which you must check out if you haven’t listened before.  I have only been listening for about six months, and still have lots of back episodes to catch up on, but it’s the best thing – the kind of thing we need on national radio, or national television – even better – why are there no book programmes on television?  Today’s programme makers no doubt think a few people sitting around talking about books does not make good television, without some sort of vote each week to eliminate someone; but it would.  Just like this podcast, with bookish people talking about books – no celebrities, no ‘journalists’ asking questions (the quotation marks are there because I’m really not sure about the current crop so described on television today; I am always sensitive at using quotation marks, I hear the voice of my old university tutor Dr Parkin – Professor John Parkin these days and for many years – who actively discouraged their use).  The podcast I’m referring to is called Backlisted, and is hosted by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller.  I think John M. and I must have been colleagues at Waterstone’s (as it then was) in London in the late 80s.  My first job after leaving university (two years after leaving university…but that’s another story!) was at Waterstone’s in Charing Cross Road; John Mitchinson worked at another London branch, but sometimes mentions people I knew back then.  It was a lovely time to work for them.

Anyway…listen to the podcast, it’s amazing.  Lively, intelligent discussion about a particular book each time (it’s fortnightly) plus what the two hosts are reading, with two guests joining them each time.  Always really good and inspiring.

They discussed this book by Angus Wilson, so I ordered it from the library – and got a lovely hardback copy with a wonderful Ronald Searle illustration on the cover.  I had read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes some years ago, having first watched Andrew Davies’ excellent TV adaptation, and had enjoyed that very much, but didn’t know this novel at all.

Published in 1952, it is the story of illustrious writer Bernard Sands, who has acquired a nearby dilapidated country house in order to set up a sort of colony for young writers.  He has local opponents led by the ghastly Mrs Curry, who wanted it for a hotel – though as the novel goes on, we realise the sort of hotel she had in mind.  Bernard has an ailing wife, two rather distant grown-up children, and a desire to use his wealth and renown to help younger writers.  We also discover that despite his conventional family life, he has had a relationship with one male friend, and is currently involved in another, with a much younger man.  Mrs Curry and her friend Hubert Rose, it transpires, run a coven of pimps, pornographers and paedophiles.

So beneath the veneer of mid-century respectability, there are undercurrents of forbidden love and outright crime.  I won’t say more about how this pans out, but pan out it does, and by the end of the novel everyone’s life has changed.

I love Angus Wilson’s writing.  I love mid-20th-century writing generally: it often has a sort of muscularity – I am still not sure what the right word is – that is of its time, a way with words that it is both matter of fact and very expressive.  There is a lot of focus in many of those books on subtleties of character and relationships, more than on plot.  It is essentially the same story as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (which was his next novel, so that should be the other way round).  Bernard is very like Gerald Middleton, the chief protagonist of the later novel, and having seen the TV series of that, I could only hear Bernard as sounding – and looking – like Richard Johnson, who played Gerald.  I don’t know all that much about Angus Wilson, but have the impression that both characters are versions of himself.  Both have difficult wives – and one of the things that irritates me a bit about Wilson’s two books is that women generally are portrayed as pretty awful; but Ella Sands is not nearly as awful as Gerald’s ex-wife Inge in the later book.  She’s not awful at all, in fact, but for most of the novel is ineffective; to soothe my irritation about Wilson’s women, however, she actually becomes heroic by the end of the book.

Both books end with a kind of resignation; a sense of good things achieved but acceptance that some things will not be resolved.  I had a conversation about it with someone just the other day, saying I enjoyed it but didn’t think it was a *great* novel; but last night I had about 20 pages to go and deliberately didn’t finish it as I didn’t want it to end.  I do think it’s a wonderful book.

I was trying to think about why I love the writing in those mid-century novels, and I think it’s partly the slightly formal literary style, even of the dialogue; I am now reading Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, which has me completely drawn in, but made me realise that it’s not just the writing of those older books that I love, it’s the way people talked.  The phrases they used, the more complex sentences…  I love films from that period too.  Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films of all, and while its cut glass accents have been mocked, I find the way the characters talk utterly beautiful.  I remember reading Adam Thorpe’s marvellous novel Ulverton, which follows life in a village from the seventeenth century to the present day, and one of the most notable things is how spoken language deteriorates.  Of course we  have no idea how people talked in the seventeenth century!  We only have written language to go on.  But that written language is sublime.  I also recall AS Byatt saying she liked to write historical novels because they enable her to use words that have gone out of common usage.

So those are my rambling thoughts on Angus Wilson’s 1952 novel Hemlock and After.  Thank you to my county library for supplying it.  Thank you to Backlisted for choosing to discuss it.  John and Andy are directing many of my reading choices these days!

The joy and rewards of re-reading novels

middlemarchRe-reading novels is an idea that seems to divide people.  Some people think that life’s too short; for the rest of us, re-reading is one of the most joyous things about being a novel-reader at all.  I often hear people say that life is too short to re-read things, or simply that they don’t see the point; but we often watch films several times, listen to songs and pieces of music lots and lots of times, look at paintings time and again.  Why are books different?  Some novels are certainly written simply to be read and passed on – entertainment, or just a good read, nothing more substantial.  I’m not criticising that, I read a lot of such novels and enjoy them immensely.  Sometimes we re-read books because we want to enjoy the experience all over again, or because they make us feel better in a dark world.  And really good, literary novels don’t give up their treasures all at once.  Some are dense and so full of things that you simply can’t take them all in at one reading.  Some use language in such a way that the full beauty and impact can only be appreciated from reading the book several times.  Some embed themselves in our lives, consciously and unconsciously.  A guest on the Radio 4 programme A Good Read talked of how she started reading T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets in her teens, and has been re-reading and re-reading them ever since.  She still doesn’t understand everything in them, but she has absorbed the language, the ideas, the images and every so often she sees something or something happens, and a line comes into her mind.  She then feels closer to understanding the poem(s), and the intertwining of life and poetry is enriching.

I have just read a short article on re-reading that irritated me slightly at first – I didn’t read Great Expectations just for the plot the first time I read it, I have never been bored by Ethan Frome, and in fact it was my second reading of Wuthering Heights that made me want to throw it out of the window, I loved it the first time.  The article that mentions these is by Joan Wickersham in the Boston Globe

My two re-readings of Wuthering Heights were twenty years apart.  At the age of 18-20 (can’t quite remember) I absolutely loved it; at the age of about 40 I thought it was ridiculous.  This says more about me than about the book, and this is the point at which the article became much more interesting.  My favourite of all novels is George Eliot’s Middlemarch (I am very proud of the fact that Warwickshire is the birthplace of England’s – and I mean England not Britain! – two greatest writers, Shakespeare and Eliot).  This is what Joan Wickersham in the Boston Globe article says about the experience of reading and re-reading it:

The first time you read “Middlemarch,” most likely in college, you think it’s a book about other people. You would never steer your life in the wrong direction, like George Eliot’s sympathetic but misguided characters: Dorothea, who marries a man she thinks is a genius only to learn he’s a selfish, suspicious, shriveled-up pedant; Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor who falls for a narcissistic airhead; Fred, who keeps throwing money around even though the girl he desperately loves will marry him only if he stops throwing money around. They all start out with dreams and ambitions; life disappoints them and they disappoint themselves. Poor fools, you think.

When you read the book again — say in your 30s — you have a somewhat sickening fear that it’s a book about you. You haven’t made the same mistakes as George Eliot’s characters, but you’ve made different mistakes. You’ve had your own disappointments. Career plans that didn’t work out. Romantic missteps. Secrets you’ve kept, with disastrous results; secrets blurted out, equally disastrous. You’re still here, but you’re humbler, less lustrous. In short, you’ve lived.

And the more you go on living, the more prepared you will be to re-read “Middlemarch” yet again. This time you will realize that it isn’t a book about other people and it isn’t a book about you. It’s about all of us. In fact, it’s the broadest, most dimensional, most dispassionate, and most loving human panorama ever written. I reread it about a year ago, with a 77-year-old friend who was also re-reading. Almost every morning we would call each other to gossip about the inhabitants of Middlemarch, what they were up to and why. George Eliot’s town had become our town.

I love that – it’s close to my own experience, but is I think the point of reading any great novel.  Many of the novels that have survived from previous centuries have done so because they have this same quality.  They are not just about themselves, they are not just about us (though they are about both those things), they are about life.

So I try to encourage people to re-read.  Our relationship with a book changes as we change.  We don’t see ourselves changing, but re-reading Wuthering Heights after a 20-year gap showed me that I had changed, and showed me how.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever read Wuthering Heights again, but I really should – maybe when I’m 60, see what I make of it then.  I will definitely read Middlemarch again, several times – it really is the best novel.

As Joan Wickersham says at the end of that article:

Re-reading never gets old. The books change because we change. The great books get greater as we understand them better: reading them over and over, and knowing that we will never be finished.

My little shop will certainly encourage re-reading, and may provide on its shelves books you had forgotten you had read, as well as books you didn’t know you wanted to read.  I can’t wait!

[PS – Middlemarch was, of course, also adapted marvellously for television by Andrew Davies, longtime Kenilworth resident – definitely worth getting hold of on DVD!]