Friday, 9 April 2010

Howard's End is on the Landing

Oh, that I had Susan Hill's discipline! To spend a year reading only books that I already own, and to hold back on buying anything new, would be fantastically rewarding, a kind of satisfying mopping up exercise. I often look uncomfortably at books I have bought and not read; they eye me back with contempt, make me squirm guiltily. "J'accuse," they seem to say; if I had left them in the bookshop, someone would have bought them who would have read them, and their life's purpose would have been granted. But I, selfishly, am leaving them unopened, unenjoyed, pointless, on shelves and in piles, ignored, unloved... Stop! Stop! Enough! I know.

The problem, of course, is that I enjoy purchasing books almost as much as I love reading them. The act of perusing titles, selecting interesting ones and taking them down from the shelf, squeezing what one can from the blurb and brief jacket reviews from the TLS, deciding whether or not this particular novel is for you at this particular time, is exhilarating. The discovery of an unheard-of gem, the re-issue of an old favourite in beautiful binding...these are experiences that equal, sometimes, the devouring of the book itself. Indeed, the number of books on my shelves that I have bought and not yet (I refuse to say never) read, indicates that sometimes, the finding and buying is in fact a greater experience than the reading. It all boils down, I suppose, to the love of the physical book as much as of the story within. Dislike of the e-reader, explained.

Books about books are always interesting to those who love books. I suppose books about golf are interesting to those who, unfathomably, love golf. There is, though, something rather post-modern in reading about reading. Perhaps it is because reading is such a personal and private business that it is pleasant sometimes to throw open one's literary windows and to let in someone else's reading habits, to learn of their preferences and to hear their wisdoms. One may not always agree with these new and strange views on literature, but they are of profound interest nevertheless.

Susan Hill, in Howard's End is on the Landing, pleasantly affirms many of my own views, which is a boon to one's literary confidence. I found myself yesterday sitting on a train, actually nodding at a passage on Jane Austen, about whom I entirely share Ms Hill's opinion:

"Perhaps the nineteenth century, whose style of dress and architecture, design and manners, I find cold and distancing, is to blame for my inability to appreciate Austen, whose cool, ironic style is somehow all of a piece with that formality and porcelain veneer."

With the very lake out of which Colin Firth appeared sodden in the TV series of Pride and Prej just a ten minute bicycle ride out of my back garden, this may seem odd, but is, I am afraid, true.

Howard's End is on the Landing is well-structured, each chapter being short and carefully labelled so that one might find five pages on children's picture books, seven on Hardy, a handful on Bruce Chatwin; digestible chunks that can easily be returned to should one need a wise comment on a specific author or genre. It is funny in places - the chapter entitled "The Dregs" being particularly amusing, as Hill runs through a collection of books, the origin of whose appearance in her house she cannot fathom, with such delectable titles as Red Grouse and Moorland Management and Sue Barton: District Nurse. We all have our equivalents.

Hill has also alerted me to several books about which I either knew nothing, or had passed over. I shall at some point investigate further The Smaller Sky by John Wain and the life and works of Elizabeth Bowen.

There are also shadowy hints at a bleaker side of publishing - the cuts in Arts funding, for example, leads Hill to an interesting discussion of whether or not plays can stand alone as literature or whether they must be performed in order to fulfil their purpose. If the latter, does the lack of repertory theatre these days mean that certain plays, or styles of play, even playwrights' oeuvres, will die out altogether? There is more than one oblique comment about the lack of culture in modern culture - again, hints at a dystopic future for the literatii.

I do not always agree with Hill's summation of books or writers. I cannot bear crime or detective fiction, about which she raves, for example. I have never been able to be fully absorbed in any Virginia Woolf other than Orlando, which is the one Woolf about which Hill is disparaging. This, however, is simply interesting: I am not so self-absorbed that I will only tolerate literary criticism with which I agree!

No. My one criticism of Howard's End is on the Landing would be this: there are far too many - and often, frankly, dull - anecdotes about famous authors Hill has met or known. It becomes tedious. She met Roald Dahl twice, on both occasions in a professional capacity. Neither reveals an interesting enough story for retelling. And yet she does, in a 'my dear friend Roald Dahl' kind of way. It is not an illuminating addition to the book ( surely everyone knows he was a grump?), and I would far rather she simply talked about her daughters' reactions to his books and her own experiences of reading them aloud to said daughters. The same is true of her chapter on Iris Murdoch - tell me about the books, Susan, not an amusing evening you spent with the writer. We weren't there, and it seems from this anecdote that we really needed to be...

This book is at its best when Hill allows her passions full and free rein. Here she is on reading slowly:

"Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings...Not every book is worth that sort of effort...they are ice-cream reading and barely a trace of the flavour remains half an hour after they are finished. Sometimes, only ice-cream will do. But we are not nourished physically, mentally, artistically or spiritually by its literary equivalent."

Luckily for Susan Hill, despite having at least ten books by my bed that I have not yet (the crucial yet) read, I bought this one. And in this case, read it immediately. And I can highly recommend, if a copy sits in a similar pile in your own home, that you slide it out and give it a go too.


A Bookish Space said...

What a wonderful review. I've not read this yet, but it has been on my wish list if only because of the gorgeous name and cover. I also agree that book buying in itself can be as enjoyable, or even in some cases, more enjoyable than actually reading the books. I have so many books on my shelves that I haven't got around to reading yet, but I am one of those people that have to be in a certain mood to want to read a particular book. Reading a book that I am not really in the mood for may make me feel less guilty about it languishing on my shelves, but I would not really enjoy it. That's how I rationalise buying more books when I already have so many unread ones anyway :)

Lulu said...

You are SO right - I've actually not enjoyed books, not because they weren't good books, but because I've read them at times when I was just not in the right mood. And that does not do the book any good at all.

Ok, great. Now I feel I can go out and buy more books :)

Thomas at My Porch said...

A while back there was a bit of a storm in the blogosphere over this book. I fell into the minority "didn't like it" camp. Not wanting to recreate all that drama, which include comments from Ms. Hill herself, I won't go into the details. But I will comment on your opening line about Hill's discipline. You see I don't think she had discipline at all. She dupes the reader into thinking that she will spend a year reading from her shelves, but it soon becomes patently clear that she hasn't really done that at all. She has just taken a bunch of her thoughts, quirks, prejudices, and, as you say boring anecdotes and plops them into a book. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but then don't use a subtitle into tricking me into buying your book.