I am sure I will be reading a lot of Elmer the Elephant this holiday or What the Ladybird Heard which seem to be favourites in our house. Yet hope to get a little time to read our summer read of reasons to stay alive which Stephen fry claims is 'astounding'! I am also intending to read Alexander II and the modernisation of Russia and Robert Service's A History of Modern Russia. Warriors don't Cry about the events at Little Rock High School in Arkansas has also been beside the alarm clock for a while and hopefully will give me a little American history fix once I have finished Empire of Liberty by G Wood.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Discussions around the concept of England and Englishness, and indeed Britain and Britishness, have constituted a powerful undercurrent for much of the political debate over recent months and so I am looking forward to taking the historical long view by absorbing Bede’s 8th century perspective.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio. I shall be interested to find out how the creation of Caravaggio’s brilliant paintings was threaded through his rather lively life, which included killing a man in a fight and consequently spending years ‘on the run’.
Eamon Duffy’s ground breaking work The Stripping of the Altars, a book which is said to have destroyed the traditional narrative of the English Reformation having been welcomed by the masses as a means of euthanasing an already dying and unpopular religion. Duffy shows that in the 100 years or so prior to the beginning of the Reformation, English Catholicism was in rude health, widely and piously practised across the full range of social strata. Much as with Bede, it will be interesting to discover a picture of English culture which bears little in common with that of our present age.
Casting back to even earlier times, I recently acquired a hefty tome containing the complete letters and sermons of Pope St Leo (I) The Great. At over 500 pages long it is not the sort of book you read from cover to cover but each article is quite short so I shall dip into it at random.
As for novels, I’m toying with the idea of re-reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead and also reading some more Graham Greene.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – because Behavioural Economics is on the A level specification this year, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a little while.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – because it is set in Italy and I am off to Rome with a bunch of my brilliant girl friends in August – watch out Segway tour!
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell - I started this at Christmas, got 2/3 through and then got sick of the violence. I will try to finish it, give it one last try.
I shall be reading Jo Baker’s novel, A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE. This is her second novel.
Her first novel is LONGBOURN and it takes its cue from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Baker, however, tells the story of the lives of the servants at Longbourn, the comfortable residence of the Bennet family. There is no comfort for the servants, though. We are amused, for example, when Austen’s heroine, Lizzie, arrives home with her long dress caked in mud and admire her for being unconventional. What Austen does not do is to tell us what happened to the muddy dress; Baker shows how difficult it is for Polly, the lowly servant, to scrub and clean the dress with chilled-blained hands.
The lives of the servants carefully follow the lives of the Bennets...at each stage we know what is happening upstairs. Lizzie, Austen’s spirited heroine, has her counterpart in the servant Sarah; Austen’s tormented Mr Darcy has his counterpart in James, the coachman with his own history and toment.
We see the lives of the Bennets, the Bingley’s and Mr Darcy through the dark mirrors of servant life.
With A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE, Jo Baker takes her cue from another masterpiece and another great writer. This time the writer is Samuel Beckett and his WAITING FOR GODOT. Austen and Beckett, uneasy bedfellows? Not in the way Baker weaves her narrative. It opens briefly in Ireland with the young Beckett and his tense relationship with his positive and powerful mother. Then we move to Paris in 1939 just before the Nazi invasion and occupation. And it tells the story of Beckett’s life in Paris and France from 1939 to 1946.
The real Beckett joined the Resistance and when he and his lover (and later wife), Suzanne Deschevauz-Dumesnil, had to flee the city to continue the fight against the Nazis, they find themselves in the Vaucluse, that barren country that Baker desciribes with its “thin dark wives, the hungry children, the hard old folk...the families that the men have left behind”. Beckett and his lover often wait under a tree, waiting, waiting for a Resistance contact, a contact that is promised and promised and never comes. And they wait in a country road but under a tree, just as Vladimir and his querulous friend, Estragon do in the play, waiting for Godot
I have not finished the novel but am enjoying it. It does not have the grave beauty of the play’s spare prose. For that I will go again to WAITING FOR GODOT and to Beckett’s WATT, his novel that is, also, referenced in Baker’s book.
With Jo Baker I foresee a new kind of literary theory, not formulism not structuralism, nor feminism, nor modernism. Far more creative than all of these, and far more readable, this is where a novelist assesses, judges, appreciates, loves and celebrates gloriously another writer. Poets have been doing this for ages (witness Heaney’s “Route 110”) and now it is time for the novelists to catch up. Jo Baker does this with thoughtful ease. What shall I call it? I’m waiting for inspiration.