Heavenly Places

Life is pretty short on miracles. I know this because I have made that shift, as pretty much everyone has, from my childhood state of believing pretty much ANYTHING, to the slightly flattening realisation that unexpectedly wonderful things are few and far between. Which is fair enough, because life is unmiraculous, and I’d be hell […]

Book Snobs: Down With That Sort of Thing

Book Snobs: Down With That Sort of Thing

Alternative Title: I Learned Everything I Know From the Novels of Marian Keyes.

In the midst of the never-ending clearout of my possessions, I re-organised the bookshelves and took stock of all the stories I have loved. I had the usual array of Nabokov (girls love Nabokov: true fact. Boys should know this) and a well-worn copy of Ulysses. I also had 10 Marian Keyes novels – the whole lot. And you know, it was the cutesy covers of the Keyes novels that I was most excited about, because I knew I had a whole lot of joyousness right there to re-read my way through.

I started with Last Chance Saloon when I was 15, and I was besotted. Behold, the original secret style icon, Katherine the accountant, a character who lived in London, owned a ‘powder-blue Karmann Ghia’, went to the cinema by herself and had matching pyjama-and-dressing-gown-sets. She was everything I wanted to be (except an accountant).

Keyes provides big chunky books that just carry you along – tender, compassionate portrayals of people going through just the worst – bereavement, alchoholism and rehabiliation, illness.. and actually surviving. And, they’re all very funny.

If we are in any doubt about her genius, I’d like to present exhibits A and B.

A) Marian’s take on feminism (and the bad rep that it has had): “As long as you believe you’re entitled to the same rights as everyone else (i.e men) you’re a feminist. See, that’s not so bad, is it? In the words of that bard and visionary, Adam Ant: There’s nothing to be scared of’.

B) In ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ (clue: the book is not about a holiday), there is a side-plot about a group of Irish men who hang around in the same New York bars as the title character, and are all fairly poor studenty types, who share between them their favorite pair of leather trousers, which they believe to be incredibly cool and quite the hit with the ladies (these men are supposed to be pretty abysmally lacking in judgement). They actually have a time-share on a pair of trousers. There is no reason for that to be in the novel. It just is. Amazing.

So- to get back to Book Snobs – it seems obvious that while I studied English, some of the books I hold dear wouldn’t ever see the far side of an Eng Lit reading list. Book Snobbishness is rife in this world.

But. It works both ways.

In my own dream reading list, there would be Rachel’s Holiday, and there would be The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, and there would be Ulysses. Has ever a book been so savaged as Ulysses? It’s unreadable nonsense, written for critics, the witterings of a madman…

To be fair, it is a battle. It takes steely determination to get through some of it. There are whole chapters that I just couldn’t read. But it is also a deeply compassionate book, expressing the real horrors of life, both public (the anti-semitism in 1920s Dublin, brilliantly, scathingly picked apart by Joyce, as a rebuke and a warning…) and personal (Bloom’s painful, diffused, utterly secret feelings about his wife’s infidelity). All kinds of hypocrisy are laid bare. As well as the horrors, there sublime and the beautiful (Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, her enduring love for her husband).

Tiny excerpt: Bloom gets into bed, his wife is already asleep: ‘the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his’. In such a huge book this is the only statement of certainty about whether or not she’s been unfaithful. Later Bloom lies in bed and thinks of ‘the inanity of extolled virtue: the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars’. He has forgiven her, and feels that she doesn’t really need to be forgiven anyway (the pointlessness of ‘extolled’ virtue – he thinks it would be wrong to hold a moral argument over her) and then he thinks of ‘the apathy of the stars’; that none of this really matters, in the context of the world, the stars, all of life.

Phew. It’s brilliant, is all. Here’s a picture of a Karmann Ghia. WANT.

Secret Style Icon No.3: Nabokov

Secret Style Icon No.3: Nabokov

I’m pretty sure that most (or, some) people who like reading books go through a very serious and important phase of reading solely about unrequited love affairs, painful memories and champagne drinking. It usually starts with The Great Gatsby. It’s a gateway book. It often leads to Nabokov. that’s what happened to me, and although I’ve drifted away recently (I got lost somewhere around The Luzhen Defence because, well, it’s a book about chess) I still think Nabokov could write better than (almost) anyone. Which is pretty galling for every native English-speaking writer, because he was Russian.

Anyway – he wrote pervy books full of lust and memories, and for a straight man he had an excellent eye for lady fashion. The character of Lucette in Ada or Ardor gets all the best outfits, from her ‘emerald-studded cigarette case’ and ‘very short evening gown in lustrous cantharid green’ to her bright copper hair and series of black silk handbags that ‘click’ open. What a dame. (Cantharid is a kind of beetle. I had to look that up.)

Check out this sustained passage of serious chic:

‘He headed for the bar and made out, through the optical mist, the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone. For a minute he stood beside her, sideways in remembrance. She wore a high-necked, long-sleeved romantic black dress with an ample skirt, fitted bodice and ruffy collar, from the black soft corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose. We know, we love that high cheekbone and the forward upsweep of black lashes and the painted feline eye’.

There must be other literary hotties that I’ve missed out on. Let me know about them. I need their unattainable glamour in my life.