Monday, 5 March 2012

A Book Like a Large, Smelly, Red Brick!

 Since I am in ‘tidying’ mode, not only do I have a list of Books To Be Read (with sub-lists for categories), I also have a list of Books I’ve Read And Not Written About, as well as a list of Bookish Things To Blog about (including a trip to the Chained Library at Hereford, and a visit to the Johnson Birthplace at Lichfield). And yes, I do know there are probably far too many unnecessary capitals there, but somehow lists, with titles, in capitals, make me feel as if I am taking positive action and organising my life. However, these moods where I try to sort things out rarely last long, and I expect I’ll be back to my usual muddle by the end of the week.

Rebecca West, pictured by Madam Yevonde
Meanwhile, here’s a review of The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West, which I read for the Cornflower Book Group. This was my first encounter with West, and it took me a while to get into the book, which was written in 1957 but set half a century or so earlier. To be honest, it’s difficult to know how to view this fictionalised account of West’s own childhood: I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I would re-read it, and it certainly wouldn’t make my list of Favourite Novels.

Some other group members felt it was similar to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (which is on my ‘favourites’ list), but I think it has more in common with Sisters by a River and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns (another much-loved author – if you’ve never read her please do so as soon as possible). West lacks Comyns’ dark, surreal edge, and she’s certainly not as macabre, despite ghostly horses, mind reading, fortune telling and a poltergeist. All three books lack a strong central plot: they are more a series of loosely connected incidents, which fit together to give an overview of the characters and their lives, without leading anywhere. And each novel features a dysfunctional family, with cultured, well educated parents who have come down in the world, and are living in genteel poverty – but still see themselves as a cut above everyone else, and can be very cruel about those who don’t meet their exacting tastes and standards.

Rebecca West pictured as a young woman.
In The Fountain Overflows, the Aubrey family (with the exception of Cordelia, view Miss Beevor as a figure of fun.

We instinctively knew that we hated her and hoped we would never see her again. She was not at all as Mamma had imagined her, being a tall and sallow woman, with a battered pre-Raphaelite look to her, wearing a sage-green coat and dress and a wide felt belt of darker green, and a long string of amber beads. In those days, when skirts reached the ground, a big woman in badly cut clothes sad in colour had a massively depressing effect hard to imagine today. She was carrying a white hide handbag stamped with the word ‘Bayreuth’ in pokerwork.

Mamma herself has a somewhat eccentric style of dress, with shabby, old clothes (what about that sealskin jacket where the fur has worn away to the leather below?), so it seems a little unfair to criticise the appearance of others but, presumably, her garments are tasteful, while Miss Beevor’s are not. And there’s a wonderful moment when Mamma realises their visitor does not, as she thought, teach French, but merely stands in for a sick colleague, falling back on ‘Dick Tay’ to fill the lessons. Mamma, who speaks French, is much too polite to correct her guest’s pronunciation, and feigns deafness to cover an awkward misunderstanding.

“Who is Dick Tay?” asked Mamma, stupidly.
“Dictée,” whispered Cordelia savagely.
My mother grew red with shame. “You must excuse me,” she said. “The children will tell you how very deaf I am.”

A beautiful edition of the book...
But they can be kind. When Papa (impossible to think of him as Piers Aubrey), a journalist, espouses the cause of a woman who has killed her husband, they  take in the murderer’s daughter Nancy, and her sister, Aunt Lily, who speaks in clichés and rhyming slang. The Aubreys despise her speech, and her fussy clothes, but provide support during the ordeal.

Cruellest of all is the relationship between Cordelia, the eldest daughter, and her siblings and mother. For Cordelia, we are told, is the unmusical member of a musical family. Mamma, on the verge of a brilliant career as a concert pianist when she married Papa, now devotes her energies to training the children. Rose (who narrates the story), Mary and Richard Quinn are all gifted musicians, but violinist Cordelia is not although, oddly, she is the only one to possesses perfect pitch, and is regarded by many as an infant prodigy, so she cannot be that bad. She seems to be someone for whom music is not important, who plays the violin without feeling. Music has great significance for Mamma, but was she an outstanding pianist? Did marriage provide escape from what would have been a second-rate career? Or is music an escape from an unsatisfactory marriage, a means of clinging to the remnants of her identity and the person she once was? And what about the children - is she pushing them into the success she never had, or nurturing their talent? Then there’s her attitude towards poor Cordelia, who longs to be ‘normal’, like other people.

Another beautiful edition...
Indeed, Mamma is a curious character, mentally fragile, totally in thrall to her husband, yet tough enough to  cope with the various crises that occur – and astute enough to convince him three Gainsborough paintings are worthless copies,  so (like Miss Beevor with her Dick Tay) she has something to fall back on when the inevitable happens and he leaves. 

For charming, charismatic, self-absorbed Papa is a rotter, and the family know it. But when he walks out on them they would give everything they have to see him again. He is central to their well-being, although he takes little interest in them. Regarded as a genius, he is an unreliable, feckless, womanising gambler, who alienates friends, family and work colleagues and is unable to hold down a job for any length of time, continually downsizing to smaller papers.

 Somehow the children – and especially their cousin Rosamund – seem older and wiser than their parents, and better able to cope with life, a fact that Rose herself comments on as she tries to make sense of life in the large, decaying house where Papa spent much of his childhood.

My unbeautifil library edition.
I have to mention the copy I read, which was ordered especially for me by my local library from ‘reserve stock’, and I am very grateful. But, alas, it was a singularly unattractive edition, published by Macmillan with a front in a particularly repulsive shade of red, and a nasty protective plastic cover which was sticky and greasy to the touch. And it had that strange, musty smell which used to distinguish all old library hardbacks. And it was enormous. It was like reading a large, heavy, smelly red brick. In fact, had it been a garment, I would have stuck it in the washing machine on a hot wash, but you can’t do that with a book, so I used cleansing wipes to try and improve the smell and feel! 

1 comment:

  1. I tried to read it. But it felt too much like the dysfunctional family novels that are so prevalent now, and which I run a mile from. I didn't like the family and the way the children were really the parents. Not for me at all.