Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: WWI

A Return to War With Pat Barker

The other day I realized – this is going to sound really mad – what I really think, deep down, is that the dead are only dead for the duration. When it’s over they’ll all come back and it’ll be just the same as it was before.                      – Toby’s Room

Lessons learned from reading Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker: read them in the right order. I didn’t. So a word to the wise: Life Class comes first. The two books combined follow a group of art students from 1912 until 1917. As in Regeneration there is a mix of medicine and art, this time focusing on Henry Tonks’ medical drawings of facially wounded soldiers. I enjoyed the two books together, much more than I liked each one separately. There are quite a range of topics covered in the two books but the parts I found most interesting were clashes between the changing attitudes between the younger generation and their parents.

A few Sundays ago I went to see Pat Barker speak at the Imperial War Museum and I’ve tried to remember all the interesting parts!

On History

Barker was always drawn to the First World War because she was brought up by her grandparents. Her Grandfather had a bayonet wound which although she thought was something every Grandfather had is actually very rare, only accounting for about 3% of injuries. She would see this wound every weekend whilst he was washing before going to the British Legion social club. She said it wasn’t pretty, or smoothly healed like a scar from an operation might be. It made such a big impact on her when she was young because he would never speak about it: “best way to get an author inspired – keep silent”.

She was asked about why she writes about real people, and whether it was difficult to speak for them. She replied that using real people as in her novels meant that she had to be as accurate as possible and not say anything damaging to their reputation. Incidentally her favourite character is a real person too – Dr. Rivers.

The best part of writing about real people is how they react to her fictional characters. For example, in Regeneration everyone in the hospital (including Sassoon and Owen) idolised Rivers and the work he was doing to treat psychological war wounds. Therefore she needed Billy Prior to be the fictional difficult patient. He was a way to force Rivers to expose parts of his personality and psychology that he wouldn’t normally reveal.

On Feminism

Someone asked Barker whether she was still the gritty northern feminist that wrote her earlier novels like Union Street. The answer was yes – but only as far as she ever was. She said that because she was originally published by Virago this persona was slightly enforced. She would call herself a feminist but her feminism doesn’t exclude men – hence the focus on male characters in her writing today.

On Writing

Her philosophy is to just ‘keep on going until the end’ because there is no point polishing and polishing a couple of paragraphs if you don’t have anything else to work on. What I found most interesting was something she said about writing a vivid atmosphere. She started by explaining that the Author has to act as the reader’s five senses. Furthermore, when you are writing more often than not you are in the mind of one of your characters. To give a sense of place you should pick out the one detail that your character would notice. The example she gave was that a couple with infertility problems might go into a house and immediately notice a toy lying under a sofa. The challenge is to work out what your character would see.

Had I never read a Pat Barker book I would have been won over – she came across as clever, interesting and secretly shy. The only downside is that she says she doesn’t read WWI fiction: I was hoping to get some recommendations for my reading list, but alas I will just have to read more of her books instead.

Remember When I Thought I’d Read a Few Books About War?

Canadian Stretcher-Bearers, Flanders Fields, 1915

Back in May, I came up with an idea to read more books about War. I had several unread books about WWI and WWII on my bookshelves and on my Classics Club list and thought I would make a bit of a themed reading event (albeit just for myself) where really the main outcome was to get the books crossed off. Here is my very naive original post.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I collected these books and stacked them oppressively next to my bed was that the project would turn into the biggest interest of my reading life. Seriously. It is about five months since I started, and I haven’t even made it to WWII yet. And the list has grown and grown. I am really surprised at how much this has inspired my reading – a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined anything worse than being forced to read about horrible historical events over and over again. Ah, the misguided opinions of youth.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Death of the Country Gentleman

The land had not changed. … There were still the deep beech-woods making groves beside the ploughlands and the rooks rising lazily as the plough came towards them. The land had not changed. … Well, the breed had not changed. … There was Christopher. … Only, the times … they had changed.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford was the most difficult book I have read in ages. Worthy, beautiful, atmospheric, a document of history – yes, but don’t forget confusing, lengthy and misleading. Now that I have finished reading it, I can look back and think about how good it was – something I definitely couldn’t envisage in the last few weeks of reading.

A completely unexpected comparison can be made between Levin of Anna Karenina and Christopher Tietjens: Both are members of the upper classes connected with the land. Whilst Levin is seen as a bit of a reformist trying to make money out of farming his estate but not at the expense of the people who work on it; Christopher is presented as the last of his kind. That is, a man highly concerned with the preservation of his ancestry and obeying what he feels is his duty to the lower class people who rely on him and his land. I really liked how the Groby Great Tree becomes a symbol of pastoral scenes of country life: local couples get married underneath it and people adorn it with lucky charms during festivals. Sylvia threatening to cut it down in the years after the war are a way of showing the changing times.

Whereas Christopher was everything I wanted him to be, Valentine was a bit of a disappointment. At the beginning of the novel she is quite revolutionary. However (without plot spoilers) in the last chapters she suddenly becomes very predictable and, well, kind of drippy. I’m not sure whether this is a response to the things that happen to her or whether it is a failing of Ford’s: Maybe he couldn’t write stream of consciousness as a woman?

What would Parade’s End have been like without the crazy plot structure? I don’t need a book to be completely linear, but I had such trouble working out what was happening, let alone how much time was passing. All in all, Parade’s End is excellent in terms of character and themes, but I’ll always prefer The Good Soldier for readability.

The News Where You Are

I am so pleased to be able to say in this update that on Sunday evening I finished Parade’s End! As good as it was, I couldn’t concentrate on it any longer. Look out for a proper post about it later this week, along with an update on my original War Books project (hint: it is a much bigger list than when I started).

So my enthusiasm for re-reading Anna Karenina has not gone to waste – I’m just starting the second part this evening. All the comments on my last post made me look forward to reading it even more and so far it is just as great as I remember.

Yesterday evening I went to a talk called Dickens and the House of Fallen Women which was set in the most amazing library I’ve ever been in. Think of hundreds and hundreds of old leatherbound books on dark wooden bookcases, cracked leather armchairs, fireplaces, a ‘polite literature’ section – it was the stuff of a book lover’s dreams. The talk was good too, which was much needed because I haven’t read a Dickens novel in ages and am planning on Martin Chuzzlewit next month. I’ll give you the two most interesting snippets of the evening:

  • Dickens’ morality runs through all his stories, as he judges which characters are deserving of punishment. Generally speaking they are either female characters who ‘fall’ or male characters who treat women badly. These are always the characters who die. The characters that are able to be saved – i.e. re-establish themselves in society – live.
  • A nature of writing for serial publication was that Dickens often had to drastically change characters or storylines according to readership figures. Now I know why people say Dickens would be writing for soaps if he was writing today!

This afternoon I bought some new books:

On a war theme:

  • Toby’s Room and Life Class by Pat Barker
  • The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon which includes Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man – which I have wanted to read ever since I read Rachel’s post back in April, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress

I’ve also picked out:

  • The Charmers by Stella Gibbons
  • The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

I’m really excited to read my first Émile Zola – I’ve picked The Ladies’ Paradise because of the imminent BBC drama and thought a trip to nineteenth century Paris would be the thing, but my hype is really down to Fleur and o‘s posts recently.

Hope you are having a great literary week too.

Some Do Not…

The first book of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is beautiful. Seriously beautiful. I’ve loved Ford’s writing ever since I read The Good Soldier and am pleased that the new adaptation will get people reading it again.

Some Do Not… is beautiful because the way of life described is contradicted by the war the reader knows is coming. The last, long English summer is a much used metaphor which Ford uses to his advantage: Whilst everything and everyone is witty and sparkling and modern, inside they are slightly rotten and passionately flawed. Real, I suppose.

Christopher and Sylvia’s marriage is going to be one of the most interesting parts of Parade’s End. Katherine described Sylvia’s love as a desire for possession, which I completely agree with. Their relationship is built on layers of trust and mistrust, double meanings and potentially shady pasts. Valentine, the potential mistress, is an interesting character too – a suffragette supporting her family.

If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it.

As a side note, I think Rebecca Hall is going to be amazing as Sylvia and I’m looking forward to watching her performance. All the characters are so well written and I feel as though I have only caught a glimpse of their depth.

I am surprised Parade’s End is not a more frequently cited Modernist novel. It was first published just two years after Ulysses and there are some similarities between the two. Ford Madox Ford uses the stream of consciousness in different voices like Joyce did, but in an infinitely more readable way. He has also played around with conventional forms by jumbling up the story’s chronology. Time jarringly skips forwards and backwards, but it enables Ford to present parts of the story as memories. Isn’t that how real stories are? And how life is?  I think the style makes the book so much richer.

I am watching the series as well, luckily I had managed to read enough to be able to watch on Friday without fear of spoilers. Hopefully I will be able to keep ahead! I enjoyed the first episode, I think they’ve really captured the style and tone of the book.

I can’t wait to read on.

A Love Letter

I find refuge with people in drawing rooms; pulling dust sheets from the furniture and filling silent spaces with stories. I am not content with today by itself – I want context, I want meaning and I want history. I like discovering and bringing the past to life. I need The Classics. I know that older isn’t necessarily better, so I like historical fiction too – new writers bring new perspectives after all. But what is better than the wicked wit of Mitford? The cutting observations of Woolf? The universal truths of Austen? Narrowing it even further: How can you improve upon writing from the most turbulent and influential periods in history?

I’ve had a break from classics whilst I read a few of Jo Nesbo’s crime novels. They were all action, twisting plots and brutality. Yes, there are plenty of action packed classic novels (and plenty of brutal ones too) but there wasn’t that magical quality of a classic. The sense of being welcomed into something – initiated, maybe – into a much beloved book. I really enjoyed them but I didn’t want to savour them, which is another way of saying that I’d recommend them but I don’t want to write about them.

So I’ve come back to the classics, and my Classics Club list  and have started Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. Set in my favourite period of history, the crossover between the Edwardians and the Great War, the story is made up of four separate volumes: Some Do Not…No More ParadesA Man Could Stand Up- and The Last Post. The BBC adaptation starts tonight and I have nearly finished the first book so hopefully it won’t spoil anything! There is a nice introduction to Parade’s End on the Penguin Classics features page here.

As you can gather, I’m returning to the War Books project I started back in May –  a list of books that seems to be spiraling out of control, so an update post might be required soon. The Penguin link above mentions a few other WWI titles that sound interesting –

  • The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning
  • Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
  • Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington
  • Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

I finally move house next week (cannot wait) so after Parade’s End I may have to content myself with reading whatever is unpacked. But for now, I’m going to curl up and read about Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens and the last long Edwardian summer.

Reading in July

We’re fully into summer reading now, and I’m not quite sure what direction to go in. June has been a challenging month for me, where I tackled a couple of books I never thought I’d read. The benefit of challenging books are that (for me anyway) they inspire me to read so much more. The slight downside of reading something difficult that I wouldn’t usually is that it makes me absolutely crave reading every kind of what I would consider my usual books. I’m being pulled in a million directions.

Firstly, I still want to read through my list of war books. I think finishing the WWI books would be a good place to get to, and then I can have a break before starting the WWII books. This means reading:

  • John Boyne, The Absolutist
  • H. G. Wells, Mr Britling Sees It Through

My second option is to go with some American books inspired by my last two books – Mrs Bridge and Revolutionary Road (post to follow in the next few days):

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (love this book but haven’t read it for many years) but I also have Tender is the NightThe Diamond as Big as the Ritz and The Tycoon on my Classics Club list.
  • Amor Towles, The Rules of Civility
  • Lucy Moore, Anything Goes (non fiction about the Jazz Age)

Or do I break with my twentieth century reads and go back to the Victorians for more Dickens (I’m currently reading A Tale of Two Cities), or indulge in a little Shakespeare? Make a start with Anthony Trollope? Try another Charlotte Brontë? Plus sometimes I think I should just dedicate a month to Clarissa.

Too many books. My favourite time.

Regeneration: War Books [7/15]

So, I’m back to war! I actually finished this book just before starting Ulysses but didn’t get around to writing about it until now – I’m currently finding my opinions of Ulysses too difficult to summarise! Regeneration is a fantastic book and I’ll definitely read the rest of the trilogy when I allow myself to buy some more books. Surprisingly, a lot of the same people from Goodbye To All That  appeared as characters in this book which was a nice link – Graves himself, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen being a few.

The story revolves around Sassoon and his decisions to write his Soldier’s Declaration, which was a kind of open letter that stated why he didn’t want to fight in the war anymore. Sassoon didn’t object to soldiering in principle, but he disagreed with what he saw as the prolonging of war and needless sacrifice of young lives. He is sent to a military hospital called Craiglockhart (which was a real hospital) specialising in healing soldiers with mental traumas like shell shock, loss of speech, and psychological distress. It raised lots of interesting questions about what a ‘normal’ reaction to the horrors of war would be, and why some soldiers couldn’t carry on when others did. It was moving to read about how much the survivors were suffering, but they were only being recuperated so they could be sent back to die.

I enjoyed the mix of historical fact and fiction and liked the emphasis Barker placed on war as a psychologically damaging experience, which is something Louisa Young did with My Dear I Wanted To Tell You. Is healing more of a modern preoccupation? The books I have read recently that have been published in the last twenty years or so have tried to continue the story past the end of the war, which I have found fascinating.

I bought this book from a charity shop a couple of weeks ago, and when I picked it up to start reading I found an old photograph inside. If finds like this aren’t a good reason to buy second-hand books, I don’t know what are. I’m slightly obsessed with wanting to find out when the photo was taken, and who the boy is, who left it in the book and why.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You: War Books [6/15]

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You really exceeded my expectations. It starts with a couple of love stories, some mediocre trench warfare but ends up being all about healing – soldiers’ minds and families as well as wounds. It is easy to be skeptical about modern books written about WWI because in some ways, although there are thousands of individual stories that could be told, everything has been said already BUT this was quite original.

The title is taken from the field card soldiers used to get, (I’ve never heard of these before) that look like the cover of the book – with blanks for names, dates and injuries. Another bit of trivia I learnt from this book was that when people were enlisting at the beginning of the war, they were given a choice between joining either for a year or for the duration of the war. So anyone listening to the ‘It’ll be over by Christmas’ propaganda would be getting much more than they were bargaining for.

Here’s why this book is great:

  • The book follows two couples: young love across social classes and a married couple just starting a family. The best parts of this book are those that describe how the relationships adjust after the men return from war.
  • The inability of some women to understand what their husbands had gone through was spot on.
  • Ditto the descriptions of women’s war work and nursing.
  • Realistic characters, especially the mistakes they made trying to hide their recovery (or need of it) from their families.
  • I learned lots about the plastic surgery offered to wounded soldiers wound, parts of the book were quite gruesome but fascinating at the same time.

Slightly less great:

  • The actual war parts weren’t amazing, the trenches and battles were quite lacklustre, especially in light of some of the other books I’ve read recently.
  • The common problem of historical fiction – getting the language right, at times this seemed far too modern.

Definitely worth a read, especially if you are interested in the VADs and women at home.

Goodbye To All That: War Books [5/15]

I am so pleased to have finally read this book, I loved it, and reading it after All Quiet on the Western Front was perfect timing. Robert Graves’ autobiography is totally gripping and completely different to what I was expecting – Goodbye To All That covers the horrors of war in a really cold, detached way. The opposite of Remarque’s emotional prose, but just as moving. A real testament to how good this autobiography is: even the beginning was interesting. Normally, I’m not a fan of the first few chapters of biographies, but Graves writing made me interested in everything he had to say. His childhood seemed to be a quintessentially English upper class one, although a boys boarding school seemed to be not without its own problems! This was so readable because of the immediacy, his memories are very clear and honest.

Graves spent his army life as an Officer, mostly at the front, until he was wounded. There are the horrible scenes you would come to expect in a truthful account of the trenches but the part that separated this for me was his thoughts about the continuation of the war past 1916.

We no longer saw the war as one between trade-rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.

What has made this book stand out from the other war books I have read so far, is that the book continues after the war. I suppose because there was a future for Graves, although it wasn’t the one he may have thought about as a young man prior to his army life. I really enjoyed reading about his marriage to Nancy, a feminist quite ahead of her time! His life as a poet also meant he was meeting a lot of writers who we now regard as iconic, like Siegfried Sassoon, T. E. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. A really sad part towards the end is when Graves mentions losing his son in the Second World War. As his generation becomes the elders, his children suffer the same horrors.