Thursday, December 29, 2022

the last book I read

The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble.

Jane Gray - no, not that one - is having a mixed time of it. A published poet - hooray! - but not writing much these days - boo! - and about to give birth to her second child with husband Malcolm - hooray! - who has just moved out of the family home after an irretrievable breakdown of their marriage - boo!

Luckily she has a bit of help managing this emotional rollercoaster from her cousin Lucy and her husband James, not to mention some more practical assistance with giving birth at home (to a daughter, Bianca, to go with son Laurie who is about three) and subsequent basics like getting to the toilet and acquiring shopping. 

We get a bit of back-story now: Malcolm is a guitarist and singer, quite highly-regarded in the particular musical circles he moves in (vaguely folky, maybe even a bit classical, as far as we can gather). The exact circumstances of his and Jane's split aren't made completely clear, but there seems to be an implication that Jane suspects he might secretly be gay - nonetheless it seems that post-split he has managed to shack up with another woman, so who knows. James, on the other hand, is a slightly shady car-dealer and occasional amateur racing driver.

Anyway, any doubts about the irrevocability of the split are soon, as it were, put to bed, as James' extreme attentiveness to Jane's welfare extends to his volunteering for helping-out duties without Lucy in tow and, during one of these, ending up in Jane's bed for a bit of light and cautious post-partum firkytoodling. The relationship continues as James' "business commitments" allow him a plausible smokescreen to be away from Lucy for days at a time, time he spends popping over and being jovial Uncle James for the kids for a while before taking Jane upstairs for a good seeing-to.

Eventually a "business trip" presents itself that offers an opportunity for James and Jane to get properly away, in this case to Norway where he is personally delivering an Aston Martin to a customer - inevitably in some shady way involving dodging tax, duty and/or insurance. The trip involves catching a ferry from Newcastle and so James and Jane and the kids head off there in the Aston Martin. All goes well until the car hits a brick dropped from a lorry ahead, flips over the central reservation, gets hit by an oncoming car and ends up ploughing into a tree on the opposite verge. By some miracle Jane and the kids are unhurt, but the driver of the oncoming car is dead and James is severely injured. All a bit awkward for Jane - James was scheduled to be away for two weeks, so as long as he recovers within that time they can get away without being rumbled. But James' injuries are more serious than that, and, in any case, what if he dies? Don't Lucy and his parents have a right to know? Jane bimbles around uselessly for several days until the decision is taken out of her hands by Lucy phoning her at her hotel - Malcolm has rumbled them and told her and she has made the necessary enquiries and found out what's happened.

Thankfully it turns out that James will make pretty much a full recovery - after Lucy arrives and takes charge of his convalescence it becomes clear to Jane that their affair will be over, though once he's recovered they do manage to meet up for a bit of valedictory fucking. Jane finds herself OK with this and moreover finds that the experience has rekindled some of her poetic inspiration. 

So what to make of this? I recall in my short but rambling review of Drabble's A Natural Curiosity back in the very very early late-2006 days of this blog I bemoaned not quite grasping what the book was meant to be about or what its purpose was. I think I have similar feelings here, although I guess I do see some of the purpose: The Waterfall was written much earlier in Drabble's career (1969) and embodies some proto-feminist themes like female independence, female control over sexuality and fertility, not having to settle for a man just because he is the major breadwinner and father of your children, getting sexually involved with men just because you want to rather than for any ulterior motive involving marriage or support. That said, and despite the back cover blurb describing the novel as "a bitter-sweet song of sexual love", there's never much insight into what attracted Jane to James in the first place. We don't get any clear sense of unstoppable lust from either participant, especially not Jane who is a strangely inert and passive central character. James' motivations are similarly opaque, and even allowing for his business trips it's unclear how he's able to conceal the affair from Lucy. 

Those considerations aside this is perceptive in its observations about 1960s sexual politics and the messiness of love and childbirth, without any of the central characters being engaging enough to really make you care very much about what happens to them. I'm not sure I really buy its being described here as "experimental", unless that refers to the occasional shifts between first-person and third-person narrative voices; this seems like a very low bar to clear for "experimental" status, though. I think Margaret Drabble probably suffers a bit from her surname being ripe for cheap puns on the word "drab" as well as other related puns. Of the three novels I've read from her lengthy career The Radiant Way is probably the best. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

here's summit I prepared earlier

A bit of an end-of-year tidy-up of unblogged stuff here, in particular this photo which I came across when looking at some stuff on Google Photos with the kids. You'll be aware that I've posted a few mountain summit and trig point shots here over the years, but I am pretty confident that this is the one which features the largest group of living individuals (I don't say "people" for reasons that will become obvious shortly).

So this is the culmination of a walk we organised with the members of the NCT group we were part of while in the last stages of expecting Nia in early 2012. Members of the group have been the subject of previous expeditions featured here in the past, but those were mainly Dad-centric expeditions leaving the wives and kids, bless 'em, at home. This time we decided we wanted to do a more inclusive thing and take everyone (or everyone who wanted to come and was available, anyway, which in our household meant me and Nia); that meant some careful planning so as not to go hog-wild and devise some terrifying 15-mile ridge scramble that would take all day and probably result in some deaths. 

Having been given responsibility for route planning, what I came up with was a walk featuring as its centrepiece and highest point Pen Cerrig-calch, the mountain that overlooks Crickhowell, and which also takes in on the way up the Iron Age fort of Crug Hywel which gives the town its name. Route map and altitude profile are below.

It's a fairly simple straight-up-and-down sort of route, and at about six and a half miles probably about right for a group including six adults, five kids (aged between eight and ten) and two dogs - all of whom, if you look carefully, are included in the summit photo at the top of this post.

By my reckoning I'd been up here twice before, once with Huw and his dog Baxter in December 2013 when we did a similar walk which also took in the neighbouring (and slightly higher) peak of Pen Allt-mawr, and once as the first part of my epic 19-mile solo Black Mountains horseshoe walk in April 2010. The one thing almost all walks starting from Crickhowell have in common is that you pop into The Bear for a pint afterwards, something we made sure we adhered to here.

Monday, December 05, 2022

the last book I read

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. 

Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her early twenties, carrying out a menial and pretty unrewarding job as personal assistant, companion and general dogsbody to the dreadful Mrs Van Hopper, who is rich, brash, American and generally frightful. Into their orbit in the Monte Carlo hotel where they are currently staying comes Maxim de Winter, fortysomething, slim, handsome, but troubled in a moody and - hey - slightly sexy way. Once Mrs Van Hopper has been conveniently removed from the field of play for a couple of weeks by a well-timed bout of illness our narrator and Mr de Winter find themselves mutually at a loose end and end up spending some time together. He is twenty years older than her and a bit prone to mysterious periods of enigmatic silence, but he evidently finds her company refreshing and ends up asking her to marry him (and ditch Mrs Van Hopper into the bargain).

After a low-key wedding the new couple return to England. But where will they live? Well, it just happens that Maxim has a mahoosive country house called Manderley in south-west England (probably Cornwall but never explicitly identified as such). So the new Mr and Mrs de Winter rock up there in their fancy motor car and move in. Gargantuan house, hot and cold running servants, all the pâté you can eat, plus extensive grounds and access to a private cove and harbour - what's not to like? Well, a few things, actually: most significantly the lingering influence of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who drowned off the coast nearby a year or so earlier and the remnants of whose presence can still be felt around the house, in things like the decor and menu choices but more directly in the form of Mrs Danvers, Manderley's housekeeper and dominating presence among the staff, and who (it soon becomes clear) had a very close relationship with Rebecca and was utterly devoted to her. 

A more assertive character might take a new broom to all this stuff and put their own stamp on the place, but the new Mrs de Winter is a slightly shy young woman and is a bit intimidated by the whole affair, and by Mrs Danvers in particular. Indeed it soon becomes apparent that Mrs Danvers' devotion to her former mistress may have made the short but significant journey from devotion to obsession - having set up home in Manderley's east wing, Mrs de Winter discovers that Maxim and Rebecca's former rooms in the west wing have been kept by Mrs Danvers in pristine condition exactly as Rebecca left them on the day she died: dust-free, clothes in the wardrobe, fresh flowers, nightdress laid out on the bed.

Rebecca's continuing influence seems to extend to Maxim as well, though, who is occasionally remote and uncommunicative. As a consequence the subject of Rebecca is never raised around the house, and tension and mutual misunderstanding continue. Is Maxim still in love with Rebecca? Does he regret his hasty second marriage? Will anyone actually talk to each other and find out? Things come to a head when the de Winters agree to host a fancy-dress ball at Manderley and Mrs de Winter is manipulated by Mrs Danvers into commissioning a costume resembling one of the de Winter ancestors, only to find that it is an exact replica of something Rebecca wore shortly before she died and that her husband now refuses to speak to her for the remainder of the evening. 

More important real-world considerations intervene the following day when a large ship runs aground on the rocks near Manderley. That of itself doesn't directly affect the inhabitants of the house, but when a diver goes down to assess the damage to the ship's hull he discovers Rebecca's boat, the one she went out in on the night she drowned, on the sea-bed nearby; not only that but the remains of a body are in the cabin. 

The de Winters (their disagreement of the previous night seemingly forgotten) discuss this new development: who could the body be? Rebecca was supposedly alone on the night she died and her body was washed up, battered by the sea and rocks, months previously, identified by Maxim and interred in the family crypt. Yeah, well, about that, says Maxim: actually [MULTIPLE PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD] I lied - the body in the boat will be found to be Rebecca's. But how do you know, dear? Well, because I shot and killed her and then put it there. 

The full story of Maxim and Rebecca's marriage then emerges: enraptured by her beauty and charisma and (I like to imagine) eye-watering sexual proclivities Maxim married her without getting to know her very well, just as he had with the second Mrs de Winter, but unlike the second Mrs de Winter Rebecca turned out to be a borderline psychopath: controlling, violent and pathologically unfaithful to Maxim including having a long-running affair with her own first cousin, Jack Favell. 

While Mrs de Winter is still giddy from the revelation that Rebecca is not, in death, a rival for her husband's affections, and that in fact he detested her, it soon becomes clear that there will be an inquest into her death and that Maxim will be required to testify and answer some awkward questions. These don't include having to explain why she was shot, as luckily his bullet passed straight through her without smashing into any bones, but do include having to account for the fact that the boat appeared to have been deliberately scuttled. The inquest eventually reaches a verdict of suicide, but back at Manderley Jack Favell turns up wanting some answers about a note she sent him on the day of her death and a mysterious visit to a London doctor a few days earlier. The de Winters, Favell and one of the officials from the inquest hotfoot it to London (no mean feat in the days before the M5 and M4) to track down the doctor and determine the purpose of her visit. Was she pregnant? If so, who by? And does that make it more or less likely that she subsequently killed herself?

The doctor retrieves his notes and reveals that no, she wasn't pregnant, but instead had some sort of inoperable tumour that probably would have killed her within a year. We are invited to conclude that she then goaded Maxim into killing her by claiming to be pregnant with someone else's child, thus avoiding a lingering and painful demise. Released from the prospect of Maxim getting put away for murder they speed back towards Manderley, learning on the way that Mrs Danvers has done a flit, presumably tipped off by Favell. Maxim has a Bad Feeling and wants to get back to Manderley as soon as possible, driving right through the night to do it, only to arrive back to a dark and moonless night but with an odd crimson glow on the horizon. Yes, you know what they say: red sky at night, Manderley's alight.

Just as with Pride And Prejudice and probably a few other titles on this list, my expressing an opinion is unlikely to change the accumulated weight of critical opinion about Rebecca, so embedded is it in literary culture from its famous first line onwards. As it happens, I enjoyed it greatly, building from its mundane opening May-to-December romance via the various plot revelations to increasing levels of weirdness and borderline hysteria, with the accompanying (but skilfully avoided) risk of ridiculousness. It seems to me as much a novel about the ridiculousness of arbitrary social structures based around class and sex as it is one about manipulation, betrayal and murder, but there is of course no problem with it being both things. Both of the principal protagonists have traits that will irritate modern readers: Maxim is remote, emotionally distant and generally a bit of a pompous and insensitive arse, and the second Mrs de Winter is frustratingly pliant and unassertive, although she does grow a pair somewhat in the second half of the book. Mrs Danvers' motivations remain slightly opaque: while it was evidently narratively OK to strongly imply that Rebecca was a cock-hungry man-eater and that the little seaside cabin she used to use for assignations was regularly liberally festooned with jism, giving anything more than the faintest nod towards the notion that Mrs Danvers loved Rebecca in that way would probably have been unacceptable in the 1930s. 

On a similar subject, when the famous Hitchcock adaptation was made in 1940 they were obliged to alter the circumstances of Rebecca's death so that it was accidental (slipping on the wet quay and hitting her head), as the accepted moral code in force at the time for films would not allow a spouse to get away with murder. I have never seen that film, nor, perhaps surprisingly, have I acquired any knowledge of the plot of the second half of the book over the last several decades, so all the various twistiness was pleasingly fresh and surprising to me. Daphne du Maurier's books were a rich source of material for films, notable examples being The Birds and Don't Look Now (both based on short stories). 

Lastly, our protagonist is never named during the book (apart from being the second Mrs de Winter, of course) but does let slip on one occasion that people regularly mis-spell her name, so I like to imagine it being Paraphernalia or Emphysema or Chlamydia or something. Other books featured on this blog whose principal protagonists are never given a name include Rogue Male, The Road, Blood Meridian, Surfacing and The Memoirs Of A Survivor.