It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Devices & Desires, Susan Ertz

You won’t find any of Susan Ertz’s books in print these days – in fact, a quick search on Amazon returns only secondhand copies, the most recent of which was published in 1985. She was actively writing between 1923 and 1976, which is an impressively long career, and one of her books was adapted for the cinema, In The Cool of the Day, in 1960, starring Peter Finch and Jane Fonda. She also wrote a science fiction novel in 1935, Woman Alive, but I’m not aware of it being claimed by the genre. I’ve yet to find a full bibliography online – the one on Ertz’s entry on Wikipedia lists twenty-two books but doesn’t include the one I read, Devices & Desires, which was published in 1972.

To be honest, on the strength of Devices & Desires, I doubt I’ll be exploring Ertz’s oeuvre any further. While I had a positive experience with my first Storm Jameson (see here), I can’t say the same for my first Susan Ertz. It’s not that Devices & Desires is a bad book, or a badly-written book. But it’s set in the early 1970s – there’s even a mention of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and feels like it’s set in the 1930s. It makes for a disconnect that completely spoils the reading experience.

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The Gorlans – Professor, his mother, young nanny Stephanie, and three young boys – are travelling from the US to the UK for a well-earned holiday. They are travelling by ship – did people still do that in 1970? And they will be staying in a rented country house near Oxford. Also aboard the same liner is John Van Bolen, the young son of an American millionaire whose estranged British wife owns the house the Gorlands have rented. John is accompanied by Robinson, Van Bolen’s African-American chauffeur. The two groups become aware of each other during the voyage, and once ensconced in their holiday home the Gorlands continue to seem more of the Van Bolens. John’s mother, Rachel, is in a relationship with French expat architect Marcel, but the two cannot marry because Rachel’s husband won’t give her a divorce. Also, young John doesn’t like Marcel and refuses to be the son of divorced parents. Stephanie has fallen in love with Professor Gorland, but he doesn’t return the sentiment – in fact, he’s attracted to Rachel. And Robinson has fallen in love with Oriana, the West Indian maid of the local vicar and his wife.

Then, as usually seems the case in such stories, tragedy strikes. John and the oldest Gorlan boy plot a swimming race across the lake. Since they’ve been told not to do this, they drug Robinson, who is minding them. But the youngest Gorlan boy escapes his grandmother’s care, wanders down to the lake and falls in. And nearly drowns. But Robinson, knowing that John will be blamed for the near-death as it was John who drugged Robinson, commits suicide in order to take the blame himself.

Devices & Desires really is horribly old-fashioned. Robinson reads like a stereotypical African-American from the first half of the twentieth century. The American characters come across as somewhat less-wealthy Rockefellers, and the English characters are all terribly upper class. They talk about “fetching the car”, everyone has servants, and one character even has a small flat filled with expensive paintings in a chic area of London. You could move the entire story forward in time fifty years and the only thing that would need changing is the reference to men landing on the Moon.

Devices & Desires‘s prose is by no means bad. On the contrary, it’s a good deal better than you’ll find in most twenty-first century commercial fiction. And it’s clearly the product of an established writer with a decades-long career. But it also seems to be the product of a writer who is decades out of touch. And that, for me, completely ruined my enjoyment of the book.

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The habit of moderation

I have always believed in that old saw: moderation in everything, including moderation. Except when it comes to book-buying. You can never have too many books. You can, however, own more books than you can comfortably read – but, again, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Sooner or later, you will read those books. It may take a few years, perhaps even a decade or two, but it’s not like you’re never ever going to read them. Because otherwise what would be the point in buying them?

So here are some books I intend to read at some point…

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Given my love of the film, it was only natural that I’d want to read the book from which it was adapted, All That Heaven Allows; but it was bloody hard to find a copy. I managed it though. For my next informal reading project, I’m trying books by British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century I’ve not read before and who could arguably be considered “forgotten”. The Remarkable Expedition doesn’t actually qualify on two counts: a) it’s non-fiction, and b) I’m a fan of Manning’s books anyway. A Month Soon Goes, The Bridge and Devices & Desires, however, all certainly qualify. Finally, some more Joyce Carol Oates, a charity shop find, The Female of the Species

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Some genre by female writers: I’ve not been as completist about collecting the new un-numbered SF Masterworks as I was the numbered ones (so I should be grateful, I suppose, that they are un-numbered), but Her Smoke Rose Up Forever was a definite want from the moment it was announced. After last year’s awards massacre by Ancillary Justice, which I famously liked, I couldn’t not read Ancillary Sword. And after liking the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the same is true of The Mirror Empire. While working on Apollo Quartet 4, I made reference to a story by Josephine Saxton… but I didn’t have a copy of it. So I found a (signed) copy on eBay of The Power of Time, which contains the story, ordered the book, it arrived the next day, I read the story… and discovered it was a serendipitous choice for my novella. The Other Wind was a lucky charity shop find.

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I’m a fan of Palliser’s novels, but I hadn’t known he had a new book out – he’s not exactly prolific, five books in twenty-five years – so Rustication was a very happy charity shop find. I’ve been working my way through the Bond books, hence The Man with the Golden Gun, although I don’t think they’re very good. Kangaroo is another one for the DH Lawrence paperback collection. And Strange Bodies was praised by many last year so I thought it worth a try (despite not being that impressed by Theroux’s also highly-praised Far North).

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Some crime fiction – actually, I don’t think Ghost Country is crime, although Paretsky is of course best known for her VI Warshawski series of crime novels. Murder at the Chase is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set Langham & Dupree novels. I’ve seen the film and the television mini-series, so I thought it was about time I read the book Mildred Pierce.

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I read the first part of Sanctum a few years ago but never managed to track down English translations of parts 2 and 3. I was going to buy the French omnibus edition at one point, but then spotted this English version on Amazon one day. It has its moments, but I’m not sure it was worth the wait. Valerian and Laureline 8: Heroes of the Equinox is, er, the eighth instalment in a long-running sf bande dessinée, and they’re very good, if somewhat short.


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Post-war women writers of the twentieth century

One type of fiction I enjoy reading as much as science fiction is British post-war literary fiction, but most of the authors of this type I know are male – Lawrence Durrell, Paul Scott, Malcolm Lowry, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, etc. The only two women writers which fit my somewhat arbitrary definition of “post-war” – ie, started sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, active until the 1950s or 1960s – whose books I keep an eye open for are Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor. (Although there are a few women writers who started writing later that I’ve read, such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Bernice Rubens.)

Recently I decided it was time to remedy my ignorance of women writers of this period and, with the help of a few people on Facebook and Twitter, I put together a list of seventeen female authors who had books published between 1925 and 1969 (and one or two earlier than that). Two of the authors I’d heard of before – Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is a well-known novel, and I’ve seen the film adaptation; and I have the Women’s Press paperback of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (but I was astonished while researching this list to learn how many books she’d had published). The remaining names were completely unknown to me. And, I hasten to add, my list is undoubtedly incomplete, even given that I excluded some writers because they weren’t published after WWII, or because they published exclusively in genre, either science fiction, fantasy or crime.

The plan is to read something by each of these writers – it’s unfair to describe them as “forgotten”, as several still have books in print, either as Penguin Modern Classics, Vintage Classics, Virago Classics, or even by small presses such as Persephone Books. A few, however, will require some patient hunting on eBay and ABEBooks. If I like what I read, I may well consider those writers alongside Manning and Taylor as ones whose oeuvres I plan to work my way through.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973)
Born in Ireland, but married an Englishman – although the marriage was reportedly never consummated (but she did have numerous affairs). Her first book, The Hotel, was published in 1927, and her last, Eva Trout, in 1968. She wrote ten novels, a children’s book, and twelve short story collections. Many of her books are still available as Penguin or Vintage Classics. Eva Trout was shortlisted for the 1970 Booker Prize, but lost out to Bernice Rubens’ The Elected Member.

Lettice Cooper (1897 – 1994)
Grew up in Leeds, where she briefly worked for her family’s engineering firm, but she spent most of her adult life in London. I’m not entirely sure how many books she wrote – Wikipedia only gives a “Selected Works” listing a dozen books, beginning with her first, The Lighted Room (1925). She never married, was the book reviewer for the Yorkshire Post between 1947 and 1957, and was awarded an OBE in 1978 for her work as leader of the campaign to secure Public Lending Rights.

O Douglas (1877 – 1948)
The pen-name of a Scottish novelist, Anna Masterton Buchan, the younger sister of author John Buchan. Her first novel, Olivia in India was published in 1912, and her last, The House that is Our Own in 1940. She also wrote a dozen other novels, a memoir of her brother, and an autobiography. Her novels were mostly set between the wars in small Scottish towns and villages.

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Susan Ertz (1894 – 1985)
Born in the UK to American parents, and spent much of her life shuttling between the two countries. She wrote twenty novels and two short story collections, beginning in 1923 with Madame Claire. Her last book was The Philosopher’s Daughter in 1976. Her novels are allegedly “sentimental tales of genteel life in the country” (according to Wikipedia). One, In The Cool of the Day (1960), was made into a film, starring Jane Fonda, Peter Finch and Angela Lansbury.

Pamela Frankau (1908 – 1967)
Born in London, the daughter of novelist Gilbert Frankau, she was extremely prolific, writing thirty-seven books between 1927 and 1968 (the last was published posthumously). Her novel, The Bridge (1957), which I’ve bought, has the following on the cover-flap: “The bridge spans the distance between this world and the next. A writer called David Nielson walks across the bridge, after the moment of his death. On the way, he meets his past selves, from the child he was, to the man who died in middle-age. He re-lives with each of them, a high moment in his life, a moment of adventure, sin and tragedy, unresolved then, awaiting his judgment now.”

Frankau, Pamela - A Wreath for the Enemy old paperback cover

Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989)
Best-known for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932), she wrote a further twenty-three novels, three collections of short stories, a children’s book and four poetry collections. Her last novel, The Woods in Winter, was published in 1970.

Storm Jameson (1891 – 1986)
Born in Yorkshire, she moved to London and lived there for the rest of her life. She was married to the writer Guy Chapman, and wrote two sf novels: In the Second Year (1936), set in a fascist Britain, and Then We Shall Hear Singing (1942), about a Nazi invasion of an invented country (I’m not aware of these books being claimed by science fiction; perhaps they should be). She also wrote a couple of books under pseudonyms – two as James Hill and one as William Lamb. I have A Month Soon Goes (1962), which is “a light comedy with a chorus … Sarah Faulkner, celebrated diseuse, who has come home to rest after four years of touring in Europe and America…”

Rosamond Lehmann (1901 – 1990)
The daughter of the man who founded Granta magazine, her first novel, Dusty Answer (1927), apparently caused a bit of a stir with its frank depictions of schoolgirl sexuality. Two of her novels were made into movies, The Echoing Grove (1953) and The Weather In The Streets (1936). The latter novel sounds especially interesting – according to Wikipedia: “Stylistically, the novel uses techniques and forms that were pioneered by modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, with a fragmented narrative style building up a complex interiority that helps us to explore subjects that were relatively taboo during the 1930s such as female sexuality”.

Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999)
Born in Edinburgh, and originally a scientist like her elder brother JBS Haldane, but with the outbreak of WWI she turned to nursing. She wrote over 90 books, and was made a life peer in 1964 with her husband, Labour MP Gilbert Richard Mitchison. Her novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) was in the Women’s Press sf series, and her The Corn King and Spring Queen (1931) is seen by many as the best historical novel of the twentieth century.

E Arnot Robertson (1903 – 1961)
The pen-name of Eileen Arbuthnot Turner (née Robertson). A journalist and film critic, she wrote eleven novels, beginning with Cullum in 1928 and ending with The Strangers on My Roof, published posthumously in 1964. She was known as a popular “middlebrow” novelist, and one of her early novels was adapted into a movie by Cecil D BeMille.

GB Stern (1890 – 1973)
Gladys Bronwyn Stern wrote around forty novels, several books of literary criticism, half a dozen plays and ten autobiographies. Like many of the women in this list, she lived in London for much of her life. The National Portrait Gallery holds four portraits of her, and her novel The Ugly Dachshund (1938) was made into a film of the same name by Disney in 1966.

Jan Struther (1901 – 1953)
The pen-name of Joyce Anstruther, best-known for her character Mrs Miniver, who first appeared in a series of columns in The Times in 1937, were collected into book form in 1939, and made into an Oscar-winning film starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in 1942. She also wrote a number of hymns. In the 1940s, Struther moved to the US, where she remained until her death.

MrsMiniver

Hilda Vaughan (1892 – 1985)
A Welsh writer who began writing in 1925 with The Battle to the Weak and whose last novel was The Candle and the Light in 1954. She was married to the writer Charles Langbridge Morgan. Due to ill-health, she did not write anything for the last two decades of her life, although she did try to get her earlier novels re-issued – unsuccessfully. Many of her books are now back in print as she is considered a prominent writer of Welsh literature in English.

Rebecca West (1892 – 1983)
Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, and described by Wikipedia as “widely considered to be among the important public intellectuals of the 20th century”, she wrote a dozen novels between 1918 and 2002 (her last two books were published posthumously). In 1947, Time described her as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer”. She also wrote a lot of non-fiction, and was an active feminist and liberal. She was made a CBE in 1949 and then a dame in 1959 for contributions to British literature.

Dorothy Whipple (1893 – 1966)
A Lancashire-born and -based writer of some eighteen books and described by JB Priestley as the “Jane Austen of the 20th Century”. She was very popular in the 1930s, and two of her novels were made into films. Five of her short stories were recently broadcast on Radio 4 in The Afternoon Reading.

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Antonia White (1899 – 1980)
Born Eirine Botting, she wrote a dozen books. She seems to have had a somewhat tempestuous personal life, having been married three times by the time she reached thirty, and spending a year in a public asylum. She was expelled from school at age fifteen for writing a novel, which she planned to give to her father, and which apparently featured characters indulging in bad behaviour. She did not write again until after her father’s death in 1924.

EH Young (1880 – 1949)
Emily Hilda Young wrote eleven novels between 1910 and 1947, and a pair of children’s books. In 1980, the BBC broadcast a television adaptation of some of her novels, chiefly Miss Mole (1930), under the title Hannah. Originally from Northumberland, she moved to London after the death of her husband at the Third Battle of Ypres, and moved in with her lover and his wife. She was a best-selling novelist in the 1920s and 1930s.

This will be, I think, a long-running project. I’ve already bought a couple of books on eBay – first editions, too, because first edition. And they proved cheaper than brand-new paperback editions from Amazon. I’ll also be keeping an eye open in charity shops. I’ll initially try one book by each writer, and see how that goes.