This is the first is a new series of monthly columns by Emily Rhodes. CultureKicks will also soon have ‘What I’ve been watching…’ and ‘What I’ve been listening to…’ columns to go alongside it.
I saw in the New Year up in Scotland, where some friends were getting married on New Year’s Eve itself. I’d bought Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain with me – a slim masterpiece about a life spent getting to know, or, as she puts it, experiencing a ‘traffic of love’ with the Cairngorm mountains. My Scotland trip turned into a three-day party with not a spare second, so I read most of the book on the train back to London, the magic of Shepherd’s beautiful, sensual prose cushioning the blow of returning to real life.
I’d been back at work in the bookshop for about a day and half when Francesca Segal, author of The Innocents, came in looking for something by Penelope Fitzgerald. My jaw dropped, for Fitzgerald (Penelope, not F. Scott) is one of my very favourite authors, yet is all-too-often overlooked. She’s a genius, I managed to say, once I had closed my mouth. Yes, she said, Julian Barnes really likes her too. We went on to have a great book chat, discussing a mutual love of Jane Gardam, and I ended up selling her, as well as two of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels (The Blue Flower and Offshore), Elizabeth Taylor’s mischievous Angel – which I think every writer should read for the cringing moments of self-awareness as well as brilliant comedy; Iris Murdoch’s punchy first novel Under the Net (of which more later…); as well as West with the Night by Beryl Markham – a peculiarly feminine memoir of a life of derring-do in Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century. By the time Francesca Segal left, I was utterly under her spell and swiftly bought a copy of her novel The Innocents, which has just won the Costa First Novel Award.
Evidently the shock of mundane life was too much for me, as I was soon knocked out by the lurgi. A day was spent more-or-less asleep, but I got through the bed-ridden moments of hazy wakefulness by indulging in my favourite thing to do when feeling poorly – reading old books from my childhood. This time I raced through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising with just as much relish as when I was a ten-year-old. It’s the gripping tale of a boy who discovers he is one of The Old Ones and is soon engaged in a time-travelling quest of good versus evil. If only grown-up books were half so full of adventure!
Once the evil lurgi had been defeated, I was excited to pick up Black Vodka by Deborah Levy, the latest book from And Other Stories, which arrived on my doormat just before Christmas. And Other Stories is a terrific indie publisher that works on a subscription basis. You pay £50 and receive the next six books they publish, with your name printed in the back of each, alphabetically in place among their legions of supporters. This is only their tenth book, and already they’ve enjoyed great success with Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and also with Down the Rabbit Hole by Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. I found this latest book of Deborah Levy’s short stories sharp and powerful. They are strange, potent stories about relationships which are, more often than not, failing – a hunchback meets an archaeologist for vodka on Exhibition Road; an English tourist swims with Serbian women in a lake outside Prague; one ad man inherits another ad man’s memories and they both have a nervous breakdown. These are nuggets of painful brilliance.
Now I have just begun to re-read Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, one of the books that I recommended to Francesca Segal. We are discussing it in my Walking Book Club and I want it to be fresh in my mind so I don’t make the embarrassing blunder of mixing up the characters’ names or getting the order of things wrong. I loved it the first time round, so it is a feast of best bits to revisit. I am especially looking forward to the drunken night-swim in the Thames and also to when Jake, sitting on a Marylebone fire escape and eavesdropping on an important conversation, is thought to be an escaped mad man and so a cleaner prods him with her cobweb brush. That had me laughing out loud last time.
Re-reading is the only way I’ve found to vanquish the dreadful feeling of worry I get as I near the end of a brilliant book. I hate the moment of having to say goodbye to the author, longing for the book to keep going forever, or at least for another hundred pages. But if I know I will re-read it, then I feel a little better. For when I come back to a book that really is that good, it feels as joyful as a great big hug with an old friend, who’s been away for a while but within seconds is jabbering away at you like old times. Not that Iris Murdoch jabbers away exactly, just that it feels like the conversation picks up again where it left off, only with the best bits yet to come.