Sunday, 19 June 2016

'A Lady & Her Husband' - Amber Reeves

There are few greater literary treats than the bi-annual publication of a few new books from the wonderful Persephone Books in London. And this re-issue of the 1914 novel A Lady And Her Husband by Amber Reeves is, of course, no disappointment.

Amber Reeves had a fascinating life story, not least of all because she was the muse for the character Ann Veronica in HG Wells' 1909 suffragette novel of the same name. (I wrote about Ann Veronica here back in February 2012.) Reeves and Wells had had an affair in which both seemed to inspire the other in equal measure, and many say that A Lady And Her Husband is Reeves' response to Ann Veronica. Having read both, it is interesting to be able to compare them. 

In A Lady And Her Husband, we follow middle-aged and privileged wife Mary Heyham who, when her youngest daughter announces her engagement, is given a gentle job with the family's thriving tea shop business to help occupy her time. This job involves going around the tea shops with a secretary and checking on the welfare of the many young ladies who work in the shops. But what happens is that Mary's consciousness is rapidly raised to socialist values and the awful treatment that the waitresses and staff endure at the hands of her mean-spirited husband, who also pays them very meagre wages. And in turn, this opens Mary's eyes to her own culpability in the mistreatment of the waitresses and she vies to do all she can to turn things around. Inevitably, this ties in with her waking up to the state of her own marriage and treatment within it.

One recurring factor in the novel is the way that Mary's suffocating and tedious husband James, who can best be described as a phenomenal bore, repeatedly refers to Mary as "little mother", "old mother", "the absurd old lady" and so on. He repeatedly belittles her opinions, plays down her intellect, stifles her views, ages her, and tries to remind her that she is weak, sickly and infirm (she is not). In fact, this presentation of Mary from James is so enduring and repetitive throughout the book that I was truly stunned to learn two-thirds of the way through that Mary is in fact only 46 years old. I had to put the book down at this point, flick back to earlier sections to check I had read passages referring to Mary correctly, and then re-read the passage when she reveals her age. I felt truly incensed on her behalf.

Ultimately, Mary is in a very privileged position. Thanks to her husband's philanthropy, she is extremely wealthy. So much so that when she decides to leave the family home and seek some solitude for a while in a rented flat in Chelsea, she has the funds and resources to do so seemingly within the space of a few hours. There is no recognition that Mary is in an unusual and fortunate position to be able to do this, and I found this a little frustrating, given how common Mary's treatment must have been in many marriages of the time. 

While A Lady And Her Husband is perhaps not a compulsive page-turner of a book, and it definitely has various ebbs and flows to the narrative, it is still a fascinating story. However, I would have liked to learn more about the young women who worked in the tea shops, and to find out what became of the troubled waitress Florrie (to whom several chapters are devoted early on, but then she disappears from the story). To me, the characters within the tea shops were among the most intriguing and curious and I'm now led to wonder if there are more novels that delve into the early 20th Century phenomenon of tea shops as a new and acceptable space for women in public (women who had previously been denied unchaperoned public places).

But as always, Persephone Books does not disappoint and having read this, I will definitely be seeking out more from Amber Reeves. Although something tells me that Persephone themselves may well see their way to reprint further books from her in the future.

'Super Zelda - The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald'

On a trip to Paris this April, I briefly distracted myself from my pre-marathon nerves by paying a pilgrimage to the world famous Shakespeare & Company bookshop, close to the Notre Dame Cathedral. 

This legendary mecca for bibliophiles was inspired by a similar Parisian bookshop opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919, which was a second home for the many American literary ex-pats who fled to Paris during the war to avoid conscription. Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, James Joyce... these were just a handful of the writers whose patronage of the shop is immortalised in beautiful illustrated portraits up and down the store's staircase. With a Master's Degree in Modernist Literature, this has long been a period of cultural history that fascinates me, and Djuna Barnes and F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald particularly caught my imagination.

As a souvenir, I decided to buy myself a book on my visit to Shakespeare & Company, not least so I could have it stamped on the inside cover with the shop's famous ink stamp, and to have a collectible paper bag to take it home in. Because that's how acquisitive I am! 

It felt only right to choose a book that had a link to the shop's Modernist history, and after much debate I finally selected Super Zelda: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald by Tiziana Lo Porto and Daniele Marotta. As the name implies, this is a graphic novel that is also a biography of F Scott Fitzgerald's wild wife Zelda - a woman who was the muse for all but one of his most famous novels, and from whom, she claimed, Scott lifted entire passages from her letters and diaries to put into his novels and pass off as his own. Zelda's own novel, Save Me The Waltz, is one of my favourite books. 

Oh - and the book also includes an illustration of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop, which I've put a copy of here next to my photo of the shop front in April.

Super Zelda is a charming and unusual way to celebrate the life of this wonderful Modernist and the original Flapper. Daniele's drawings are evocative and fun, while Tiziana's text (although perhaps losing something in translation to English from its original Italian) is captivating. Although I already know the life story of Zelda fairly well, it's fun to see it here interspersed with quotes from the Fitzgeralds' famous friends (such as Dorothy Parker, Carl Van Vechten and co) to put a different slant on the story of this most tempestuous of artistic couples. 

Monday, 13 June 2016

'Murdered With Straight Lines' by Garth England

I read a gorgeous piece about a book in The Guardian recently that made me rush out and buy a copy of that publication the minute I finished work. Here's a link to that piece in The Guardian

Murdered With Straight Lines is a beautifully presented collection of the (admittedly rather naive) drawings by Bristolian Garth England, showcasing his interpretations of many south Bristol locations thanks to his 79 years spent trawling the streets as a postman, telegram-deliverer and milkman. 

Although Garth passed away in 2014 and never saw this finished publication by Redliffe Press and the Future Perfect project, he gave the project his blessing. His drawings were discovered when local historian Jo Plimmer visited him in a nursing home and he showed her the sketches he had created in his twilight years, and she instantly recognised the sociohistorical value of them. 

Garth's drawings are clearly simplistic. He uses a ruler to create his near edges (hence the title of the book), and roughly colours in with crayons. But the value in his work is less in the quality of his drawings (which, anyone will admit, is rudimentary), but in the community spirit and local history that he brings to life. 

Through Garth's drawings, readers can see the everyday houses that Garth, his family and those he met on his delivery routes lived in. In some cases, we see the interiors as he remembers them, and in others we seem them as he imagines them. There are even detailed illustrations of key items of furniture, as well as roughly drawn floor plans for the buildings. It's absolutely fascinating. How often do we get this inside glimpse into other people's real lives?

Accompanying Garth's drawings are little comic strips detailing his time in the army, or delivering papers as a teen, or starting work for the GPO. The naivety and lack of pretension in the whole project is what brings it alive. 

That and the fact that for me, Garth is drawing and writing about an area that I have called home for the past 4.5 years, and since reading Murdered With Straight Lines I have walked about my neighbourhood seeing it with brand new eyes. Indeed, one of the houses that Garth lives in is just a few doors along from where I currently live. And the bakery that he visited is still a bakery and one where I buy myself the occasional treat. 

Although many things in society have changed since Garth was born in 1935, it's also reassuring to know that the buildings around us largely remain the same. It's just the people inside them that evolve. 

Murdered With Straight Lines is on sale in the Arnolfini bookshop in Bristol, as well as via the Redliffe Press website (free postage)

Thursday, 2 June 2016

'The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk'

Photo - Steve Tanner
"Each night, Marc comes homes and we invent a new colour,"
says his true love Bella.

Like a Russian Charlie Chaplin and Louise Brooks, actors Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson control the stage at the Bristol Old Vic with fierce slapstick abandon in this fresh production of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk from the ever-reliable Kneehigh Theatre Company.

Directed by Emma Rice as her swansong, this is the impassioned love story of painter Marc Chagall and his wife and muse Bella Rosenfeld. From their roots in the Belarus town of Vitebsk, the couple move across Europe and into New York with artistic abandon in their quest for recognition and appreciation, via the occasional return to Bella's hometown of Vitebsk. 

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is like a 1920s silent film that bursts through the fourth wall and comes all singing, all dancing into your lap like a paint-spattered sprite. There are moments of gleeful slapstick as Antolin and Brisson cavort around the cubist set throwing shadows and shade in their wake. The moments where the cast perform as human shadow puppets are truly delightful.

But more than anything, the love of this couple that endures through the increasingly tough times and the war years is what shines through. "Can you hear my eyeballs?" asks Marc of his belle in their early courtship, meaning could she hear the love he had for her pumping through his every being. You truly believe in the love of this playful, happy couple on their 'milk-moon', doing somersaults across each other in a wonderfully choreographed sequence by Etta Murfitt. 

In many ways, the representation of Marc and Bella reminded me of a happier version of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who existed in a parallel universe to the Chagalls. While Scott was lauded as the talented writer and Zelda his muse, her own talents as a writer were ignored until after her death. Similarly, Bella's own talents and desires as a writer were sidelined as she must be a mother to Marc's child while he focussed on his painting, and it was only after her premature death that her talent as a writer was discovered. As Marc mused in grief, "Although we saw the same things, she saw them with her own eyes."

Music written by Kneehigh regular Ian Ross is an integral part of the production and is as much a part of the script as the spoken words from the actors are. Ross was singularly responsible for composing all of the music in this production, which is also performed by James Gow. 

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk feels like an opportunity for Bella's story to come out of the shadows while Marc tags along for the ride. "Come on, Marc! Take part!" she implores him in the second act of the evening... and you feel there is more to be read into this than just the obvious. 

This is a proper love story. See it while you can.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is performed at Bristol Old Vic until 11 June. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. After it's run in Bristol, the show tours to various other locations around the UK - click here for more information about this