Sunday, 29 January 2012

Eva Trout

So, being (as I was) at the seaside, and thinking about doing some rereading of Elizabeth Bowen, and happening to read a piece by Tessa Hadley in the Guardian about Eva Trout, her last novel (1969), in which she says that for Bowen ‘English seaside towns are carnival, unsound, stimulating places, where anything crazy might happen’, Eva Trout it was.

Eva is big, ungainly, awkward, solitary, wealthy, ungovernable, and she creates havoc: friendships splinter, marriages break up, estate agents are bewildered. Not least because of the misfit between, on the one hand, love and sex and desire, and on the other, the social codes. Eva is on the back foot from the start: family ties, after her father’s affair with the man who, until she comes into her inheritance, is her guardian, are nil.

Eva remembering another girl at the ‘experimental’ school she was sent to: ‘The hand on the blanket, the beseeching answering beating heart. The dark: the unseen distance, the known nearness. Love: the here and the now and the nothing-but. The step on the stairs. Don’t take her away, DON’T take her away. She is all I am. We are all there is.’ Against such, the whole awkwardness and comic absurdity of frustrated desire in action – here is Eric responding impulsively to Eva’s bland indifference to why he has left his wife to come to her: ‘Eric got hold of Eva by the pouchy front of her anorak and shook her. The easy articulation of her joints made this rewarding – her head rolled on her shoulders, her arms swung from them. Her teeth did not rattle, being firm in their gums, but coins and keys all over her clinked and jingled. Her hair flumped all ways like a fiddled-about-with mop. The crisis became an experiment: he ended by keeping her rocking, at slowing tempo, left-right, left-right, off one heel and onto the other, meanwhile pursing his lips and frowning speculatively. The experiment interested Eva too. Did it gratify her too much? – he let go abruptly.’

Like Eva herself, the novel is preposterous. A child is acquired by criminal means; the child turns out to be deaf and dumb; a chapter is given over to a letter from a character never met, and which is never received by its addressee; a mock marriage verges on becoming a real one; a gun is introduced, and you know that at some point it will be fired, and it is. Many of the sentences too (‘those prickly sentences,’ says Tessa Hadley of Bowen’s habitual style; my italics): ‘As though the train had started and started swaying, they swayed slightly.’ But it’s one of those late works in which an author has earned the right to go off the rails (TH: ‘There’s something of a lordly, deliberate carelessness in how Eva’s story’s emphasis is on accidentals, random swerves’), and in this case the ride is exhilarating.

For Tessa Hadley on Eva Trout, see here; or buy the new Vintage edition, which has Hadley’s piece as an introduction.

(I'd've prefaced this with a photo of my 1971 Panther paperback edition, whose cover is more true to the book than than the new Vintage edition, which suggests 1920s/30s and is altogether too slick, if the connecting cable hadn't vanished.)

A century ago

Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France, winner of the Costa biography prize and so very nearly overall winner, is a lovely book. Today’s lesson is taken from one of the early chapters:

‘Rupert Brooke was a frequent guest at Edward Marsh’s apartment in Gray’s Inn, London, and one night in September 1912 he and Marsh sat up late, discussing how best to shake the public of their ignorance of contemporary poetry. There and then, they counted a dozen poets worth publishing, and put the idea of an anthology to [Harold] Munro. Five hundred copies were printed: half received on 16 December 1912, the remainder on Christmas Eve; all were sold by Christmas Day. A reprint was hurried through, then another and another. By the end of its first year, the book was in its ninth printing and was on its way to 15,000 sales. The name of this remarkable anthology was Georgian Poetry.’

15,000 copies of a book of poems by writers unknown to the general reading public, from a publisher equally unknown. Of poems of a kind – ‘Georgian’ – that, even as the book was being printed, was being put out to grass by Pound and Imagism and then Eliot and all that followed.

The first (and in most cases last) print run of a poetry book put out now by, say, Faber, is – an educated guess – perhaps 3,000. Sales of many poetry books, good poetry books, put out by small presses struggle to reach 100. And the UK population, by the way, is now 50 per cent bigger than it was in 1912.

Given that books do not now occupy as central a position in the culture as they once did (and that even within books, poetry is marginal), does that leave those of us who still engage with the stuff – as writers, as readers, as publishers – like a soon-to-be-extinct tribe on the Andaman Islands, whose language will cease when they do? No, because there was poetry before books and there will be after. But meanwhile, it’s damn hard to sell the things.

Friday, 27 January 2012

‘Passed art’

I’ve been making space. (Which is what you do when you come home from time away and see what a tip you live in.) That is, carting off whole shelves of books to Oxfam. I shift into ruthless mode – but then, as the books come off the shelves, the letters fall out, the postcards, the yellowing reviews and interviews, and it takes a little longer than I’d expected.

The letters are for me to deal with. The clippings from newspapers remind me how repetitive newspapers are, of how much that is said now has been been said before. ‘I dislike the whole social context of the novel, and where it is, the conventional apparatus which has featured so largely for so long. The novel in England in this kind of society is passed art. The tradition wanders on in a desultory fashion . . . The novel is no longer a reliable metaphor for what’s going on.’ That’s 1970, forty-odd years ago. That’s David Storey.

David Storey’s first three novels – This Sporting Life (1960), Flight into Camden (1961), Radcliffe (1963) – didn’t so much speak to me as grab me by the goolies. Northern, father a miner, wrestling with the inner life and the social codes, he was, in a rough way, Lawrence, but alive and writing now (then). After those, plays, and other, cooler novels (he won the Booker in 1976), and long silences. Sometime while I was working at Faber they published a book by his daughter, the fashion designer Helen Storey; there was a party at some extravagant venue to which I didn’t go, and when someone told me there was an older man there, on his own, not mixing, wished I had.

Thursday, 26 January 2012


I’ve been AWOL for a couple of weeks, a bit longer. Some writing, some reading, at the out-of-season seaside. This may be a way of training CBe, and myself, to understand that, entangled though we are, occasionally varying the distance, or the perspective, may be no bad thing; that there is no reason why our needs should always coincide; that neither of us is indispensable.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Nick Lezard has featured BB Brahic’s translation of Apollinaire in his Guardian books column. (The above picture, showing a sequence of Apollinaire and a friend made at a photobooth in Paris in August 1914, is on the CBe page where you can order the book; other photos of Apollinaire have just gone up on Wayne Burrows’ fine Serendipity Project site.) And Beverley Bie Brahic’s own collection of poems, White Sheets, due from CBe in June, has been chosen as a PBS Recommendation for the Summer quarter. And planning for next September’s poetry book fair has been humming along. And it’s become important that a new CBe title, fiction this time, Dai Vaughan’s Sister of the artist, is published now rather than later. More on that next week.

When the Guardian asked me for the cover image of the Apollinaire book to go with the review, they addressed their email ‘Dear Charles and team’. As if. But it’s still possible to get in my own way, or have days or even longer when I’m not on speaking terms. Back now.