Books I read in June 2020

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A mere six books this month–partly due to the time taken to change accommodation, partly due to getting hooked on long-outdated Assassin’s Creed games, but mostly because that biography of Colette was really long, and I kept getting most of the way through one book before starting another.

Among the latest good news is that Cardiff Library now allows you to order books for pickup, or ask the librarians to selected a random bagful according to your preferences. I went for the latter and have a lovely jumble of thrillers and fantasies to browse through.

Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

I should really have read this during the month I spent researching my PhD at Chawton House, but I got stuck into Emma instead, and the moment past. Austen is probably the most reticent biographical subject since Shakespeare, given how few of her letters survive and how opaque her novels are to autobiographical readings. Tomalin approaches through the family, which means we hear almost as much about James and Henry Austen as we do about Jane, but getting enmeshed in the social networks does throw light on the work and the author. I felt for her during the silent years in Bath, and rejoiced when she found security and publication in Chawton.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, modernised by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien’s version of this medieval treasure isn’t so much a modernisation as a halfway house between the original and the modern day. You might call it Wardour Street English, if you were being unkind, but it preserves the timbre and the rhythm of the original faithfully without being as difficult. I glanced into Simon Armitage’s translation for comparison, and I’d say it goes more in fits and starts: while some of his lines excel Tolkien’s rendition, others fall well below. This is probably the version I’d go to when I want to read the poem all of a piece.

Polo, by Jilly Cooper, read by Sherry Baines

This has been a shared listen for my girlfriend and me, starting on long car journeys and turning into a regular evening event. It’s the 3rd in the Rutshire Chronicles, shaking things up with a few daring choices like having a lead male who starts the book by killing his kid while drunk driving, a lead female who is perpetually screaming abuse, and an Argentinian secondary hero who wants revenge on Britain for the Falklands War. Not least daring is the decision to centre it around Polo, a game no-one has ever seen or understood. It’s not a complacent novel by any means, and the woman the LRB dubbed ‘the Dickens of sex’ kept us guessing who’d end up with whom right up until the final hours of this 33 hour listen.

The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe, read by Jonathan Davis

Set in a future Earth so far ahead of us that the sun is dying and society has rigidified into a medieval guilt system. It’s a book I read 2 or 3 times in my teens, when it was among the strange, wild, sonorous books I was never wholly sure I understood. Rereading, I find the things I remembered aren’t always in the places they assumed, and other things seem totally new. This makes an interesting contrast with the book’s narrator, the torturer Severian, who remembers everything. I have a vague notion of the shape of the next book and only faint glimmerings of the two that follow, so I have a lot of rediscovery to do before the pelagic argosy sights land.

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, by Judith Thurman

I am not quite the ideal reader of this biography–for that I would need more interest in Proust and developmental psychology. I am, however, interested in Colette, and interest sparked by stumbling over a copy of My Apprenticeships, followed by the arrival of a biopic starring Keira Knightley. This book, despite its pulpy title, satisfies my interest adroitly. The quotations are amusing, revelatory, and selected from a deep background of research. Aside from presuming a familiarity with the whole of In Search of Lost Time, Thurman proves an adept guide to the Paris of the fin de siecle and the first half of the 20th century. I was especially amused to find out what happens after the film credits roll. I look forward to the sequels in which Colette dumps her lesbian aristocrat, marries again, sneaks out to the Western Front to sleep with her second husband, seduces her stepson, and manages to navigate the perils of Occupied Paris with her third, Jewish, husband. A life well lived!

Spiderlight, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A Dungeons And Dragons style fantasy adventure, saved from being utterly formulaic by the twist that one of the party members is a giant spider magicked into human form. This, together with a few fresh looks at old tropes and a decent final twist, forms the book’s main appeal. Lightweight, but with fun ideas under the paint-by-numbers narrative.

Chawton House Library

Chawton House panorama

It is always nice to turn up at a country house as something other than a paying visitor. The best part of collecting my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for example, was turning up at St James’ Palace with an invitation. Compared to that, the two minutes of bob and nod with the Earl of Wessex was something of a disappointment – we didn’t even get Prince Philip. Yesterday, I was not a daytripper but a visiting scholar, and at nine o’clock I was making the 45 minute drive in the pouring rain to Chawton, just outside of Alton – home not only to Jane Austen’s House, but to Chawton House Library, one of my new favourite places to study.

Owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen in the Georgian era, Chawton House was bought by a charitable foundation in the eighties and, as well as being a fine country house in its own right, now functions as a Centre for Woman’s Literature 1600-1850. This means that, with a few days forward notice, even sciolists like myself can turn up and have access to the main library collections. As the public is only allowed in for brief tours at 2:30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I effectively have a fine old country house to myself. The prospect never fails to raise my spirits.

Yesterday, for example, I came in from the rain to find a lovely smell of woodsmoke seeping back into the ancient boards, from the Edwardian Christmas event held a few days beforehand. The (insanely lucky) visiting fellows who dwell in cottages around the back of the house had all wound their projects down and gone home, and aside from me, the librarian and the receptionist, there was hardly anyone around. In the faint December light, it seemed the ideal place for Gothic fantasies, but I had an essay to write and was too busy to dream for long.

The library is on the first floor, blessed with good light and fine, weighty desks to study from, though to someone used to padded deskchairs the wooden frames take some getting used to. The only sound is the whirr as the air conditioner keeps the room cooled to British Library specifications. At my elbow five massive leatherbound quarto volumes of Catharine Macaulay’sĀ History of EnglandĀ sat, second editions from 1766 that I would never get a chance to handle in a university library. I browsed through them, enjoying Macaulay’s republican rhetoric and the wonderful texture of the old book, with its long s’s and strange spellings, and Capitalisation of abstract Nouns. But this was no time to idle, for I had an essay to write, and was swiftly constructing my plan and pulling in quotations from a dozen different sources, scattered through the library – pausing only to divert myself briefly with some of the Juvenelia of Jane Austen.

The library closes for an hour at lunchtime, and I took the opportunity to wander through the old house, whose floorboards roll and buck beneath you like rough ground, looking up at the pictures of famous women they’d assembled, and blundering into rooms I’d never seen before. I finished curled up in a bay window behind a curtain, reading a publishers catalogue and trying to pretend I was Jane Eyre. Then, back to the library again, until by 4pm I had a one page plan and three pages of usable quotations, and saw myself out with some sadness. I would have liked to remain, and read through Austen’s juvenelia until my stomach began to rumble uncontrollably. I would like to have stayed the night in one of the bedrooms, or the cottages of the visiting fellows. But alas! I had to return to my parents modern house, with its televisions and kitchens and conveniences, and leave grand old Chawton House behind.