D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory

dj taylor The Prose Factory“What is ‘literary culture’?  And what is ‘taste’?” asks D. J. Taylor in his immensely readable new book, The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918.

The result is a compelling history of a century of writing, brokering, publishing, marketing, reviewing, shaping of taste, and selling of books in England.

I love reading books about books, and I admit I am partial to the list-making possibilities of reading such books.  While reading The Prose Factory, I made a long list of writers to read, among them Theodora Benson, Julia Strachey, Francis King, Julian MacLaren-Ross, and Julia Darling. What I love about this book is Taylor’s  balance between highbrow and middlebrow authors. Taylor, an award-winning novelist and biographer, knows how to tell a story, and thus has the advantage over many critics.  His story is about the impact of middlebrow fiction as well as classics, and how writers of all genres make a living.

One chapter is even entitled “Highbrows, Lowbrows, and Those In-Between.”  Taylor begins by sketching the mass readership of best-selling books in the 1920s.    He writes,

…J. B. Priestley’s The Good Companions sold so many copies at Christmas 1929 that a fleet of vans had to be laid on to deliver fresh stock to booksellers.  Simultaneously there lurked a suspicion that this new army of readers, whether clerks looking to be edified or housewives looking to be entertained, was potentially traitorous, all too ready to be lured away by the blandishments of radio, cinema and, as the interwar era wore on, television.  Even here, in an age where a six-figure copy sale of a novel that captured the public’s imagination was not unusual, it was feared that the book might soon revert to its former status as a minority interest, one among a dozen contending leisure activities, always likely to lose out in the race for novelty or to be swept away by the latest fashionable gadget….

D. J. taylor 4774

                                    D. J. Taylor

Taylor tells us how Priestley’s Angel Pavement, the story of a group of sad lower-middle-class people who work in an office, influenced Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me, centered on a group who rent rooms and apartments in the same house, and Monica Dickens’s The Heart of London, centered on a lower-middle-class neighborhood.  (I have read and enjoyed all three of these novels.)

There is also a chapter about Hugh Walpole, a writer of popular novels who was not satisfied with popularity.  Walpole tried to court writers and reviewers, even writing letters to reviewers who trashed his work.   His attempts to charm and make friends backfired.  W. Somerset Maugham destroyed his reputation in his satire of an opportunist writer based on Walpole in Cakes and Ale.

I am very interested in middlebrow novelists, and there is a lot about them.  But Taylor is equally at home writing about Anthony Powell (whom he also writes at length about); Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot; George Orwell (the subject of Taylor’s award-winning biography);  the critics F. R.  Leavis, John Carey, and James Wood; the Angry Young Men movement; and women writers of the ’60s, including Margaret Drabble, Nell Dunn, and Edna O’Brien. Did you know the  Booker Prize created a market for a new kind of literary fiction?  And that the  1980s was a particularly fruitful time for literary fiction?  There is an entire chapter on A. S. Byatt’s Fredericka Quartet.  He even writes about Paul McCartney  lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby.”  He also writes about the effect of the internet on publishing.

A brilliant book, and very enjoyable.  You can read it form cover to cover, or browse around.  It is a good read, or a reference book.

I have read several of Taylor’s books, and have written about them here and here.  

The Interview Slump & The Year of the Short Story

Brenda Starr reporter 6a00d8341c684553ef0148c74fc819970c-300wiThis is the time of year when I usually interview writers.

As a former freelance writer/”girl reporter,” I have no qualms about flipping open a notebook and asking questions.

Writers are surprisingly generous with their time.  At this blog, I have interviewed Karen E. Bender (shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award for fiction), D. J. Taylor, Michelle Huneven, Peter Stothard, Lionel Shriver, and Robert Hellenga,

This fall I haven’t gotten around to it.  Like Oblomov, the hero of Goncharov’s famous novel, I am slothful.  According to my doctor, I have jet lag. (Still?)  Sleep…sleep…sleep… is the cure.

When I wake up perhaps I’ll interview somebody, but meanwhile…

I can refer you to other interviews!

This has been the Year of the Short Story.

I am addicted to the novel, but this year, for the first time, I have read better short story collections than novels.  Here are recommendations:

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories1. Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories, Refund, is shortlisted for the National Book Award.  The stories are linked by the theme of money.  In “Reunion,” a woman with a failing home appliance repair business has an affair with a con man. In “The Third Child,” the financial responsibility of raising the two children is more than enough for a struggling couple:  the heroine. a  freelance editor,  decides to have an abortion.   In the title story, two artists dream of sending their child to an expensive pre-school, but 9/11 gets in the way of the easy money of subletting their New York apartment.

You can read my post about Refund here, and there is also a fascinating interview with her at The Lost Angeles Review of Books.

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories is an exceptionally brilliant book.  Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with humor, his verbal pyrotechnics are incomparable, and his stories utilize elements of fantasy and magic realism.  In the surreal story, “Procedure in Plain Air,” the umemployed hero, Stevick, sees two men in jumpsuit uniforms jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man wearing a jumpsuit into the hole. After Stevick complains it will rain on the prisoner, they hand him an umbrella. Holding the umbrella becomes, in a way, his job. In “Traveler Home,” a dark fairy tale, the hero deals with snow, wolves, and a foundling.  But the most dazzling story in the collection is “Lucky Alan”:   the narrator, Grahame, an actor, gets acquainted with Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director, because they both go to the movies every day . When Grahame realizes Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down to find out why he left his rent-controlled apartment.  It all centers on a nerdy neighbor named Alan.

You can read my post about Lucky Alan here, and there is an excellent interview with him at Salon.

DJ-Taylor--Wrote-For-Luck-Frontboard3. Wrote for Luck is a masterly collection by  D. J. Taylor, the novelist, biographer, and critic.  In the hilarious story, “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings.  The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.” Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup.  China is broken, but Mrs. Underwood is surprisingly tough.

I am a fan of stories about work,  and some of Taylor’s best stories deal with the demoralization in the workplace. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…

My post about Wrote for Luck is here, and you can watch a  video of a very good talk he gave about Cyril Connelly at The World Literature Festival 2015.

Get in Trouble Kelly Link 51UpA-MbcYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble is another stunning collection.  Does Link write literary fantasy? Magic realism? Horror? She has burst out of the SF ghetto and is now reviewed at The New York Times and The Guardian.  I loved this collection, though I lazily didn’t write about it.  You can read an interview with her at NPR and a review at the Guardian

D. J. Taylor’s Books Reissued As E-Books & Musings on Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage

Back in print as an e-book.

Back in print !

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, and critic, is one of my favorite writers. His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003, and his elegant counterfactual novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.

Orwell by d. J. taylor {8EFA7CA0-FADC-4538-A57A-2DE04BA35866}Img400But you all know that. I have written about it before.   Anyway, here is an announcement:  several of his books have  been  reissued as e-books by Open Road Media.  The three aforementioned are available, as are  several of his earlier books, including the novels Real Life, English Settlement, Great Eastern Land, The Comedy Man,  and Trespass; a biography of Thackeray; and a collection of stories, After Bathing at Baxter’s.

I have yet to read his early books, but I did like his 1999 novel, Trespass, which pays homage to H. G. Wells’s delightful satire, Tono-Bungay.  Tono-Bungay, invented by the hero’s uncle, is a harmless concoction sold as a  pep drink through brilliant advertising.  (I wrote about Wells’ book at my old blog.)  Taylor nods to the brilliance of Wells in his comical story of the rise and fall of George Chell, whose life has been nomadic since his eccentric entrepreneur uncle was ruined by a financial crash six years ago. As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.”

And, by the way, Taylor’s new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck,  was  published last winter by Beggar Galley Press, a small press in the UK.  It is not available in the U.S., but you can find  used copies on the internet.

Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.  Years ago an archaeologist friend recommended Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, a novel whose heroine, Frances Wingate, is an archaeologist. This became one of my favorite books, and when I reread it nowadays, Frances reminds me slightly of the classicist  Mary Beard.

I have read  Drabble’s books multiple times.  Not, however, her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, which was published in 1962. summer bird-cage margaret drabble db977f612f2e6c4597777305751444341587343When I went back to it recently, I had mixed feelings.  Much of it is delightful, but it is also a bit dated.

It is a strange little comedy.  Sarah, the witty, thoughtful narrator, has been teaching English conversation in Paris. She is going home for her older sister Louise’s wedding. She doesn’t like Louise, who is beautiful, snobbish, moody, and often unkind.  Yet Sarah, who has recently graduated from Oxford,  has had enough of Paris, and doesn’t know what to do next.

Sarah’s voice is charming and comical.

I hadn’t really been doing anything in Paris.  I had gone there immediately after coming home from Oxford with a lovely, shiny, useless new degree, in a faute-de-mieux middle-class way, to fill in time.  To fill in time till what?  What indeed?  It was quite pleasant, teaching those birdy girls, but it wasn’t serious enough for me.  It didn’t get me anywhere.

I read this in graduate school, and we all chortled over it.  Would we ever have jobs? We found Drabble hilarious.  But one of my friends, who was going on for a Ph.D., thought A Summer Bird-Cage was anti-feminist.

I wouldn’t go that far, but today Sarah’s scorn of “academic women” seems a little jarring.

When her roommate says parties are tiresome, Sarah thinks,

As she said that, I suddenly glimpsed in her the traditional university woman, badly dressed, censorious, and chaotic.  I didn’t like what I saw…

Oh, dear.  I do know what she means.  I used to think my women professors were hired because of their eccentricities and lack of style. I long ago repented of that view, but perhaps this is simply how the young think.

A Summer Bird-Cage Margaret Drabble 41xhpFHPI0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_I still find Sarah’s lack of direction vaguely charming, because women’s personal lives are often more important than their  jobs.  But the novel is not just about Sarah’s youthful squandering of time.  It is also about  her love-hate relationship with her doppelganger, Louise, who is fashionable, brilliant, and beautiful, but really quite disagreeable.  Louise snubs her guests, and when Sarah points out that Louise is wearing a dirty bra under her wedding gown, she doesn’t care. She goes off joylessly to Italy with her unlikable, but very rich, writer husband.  Her reasons for marrying him?  You’ll find out.  She is blatantly having an affair with his best friend, an actor.

Meanwhile, Sarah moves to London with Gill, an artist friend, and gets a job at the BBC.  The job means nothing to her:  she is more interested in parties.  She is observant and witty and vaguely looks forward to marrying her old boyfriend, who is at Harvard.  She doesn’t know quite else what to do.

But we finally learn that Sarah isn’t without direction:  she hopes one day to write a novel as funny as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.  And we know Drabble succeeds.

In general I prefer Drabble’s later novels, but if you want to read a great ’60s comedy, try Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The  scholarly heroine, Rosamund, approves of the sexual revolution, but she hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her academic research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant.  She decides to raise the baby on her ow,.  This slight book is comical, moving, and beautifully written.

D. J. Taylor’s Wrote for Luck


This year I have read Trollope, Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, Stella Gibbons, and Mary Webb.

I know, I know.  I usually read the dead.

I do occasionally read a good new book, though.

In D. J. Taylor’s sharp, witty new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck, his characters rely on gentle irony as they struggle to fulfill  social obligations and navigate the workplace.  They dine with people they do not like, sell few books at their bookstores, give readings at Oxford, break china, and argue with their bosses.

Few writers are wittier than Taylor.  In his hilarious story,  “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings. The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.”  Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup.  Tony wonders:

What heights had the teacup scaled in its past life that such efforts had to be made to preserve it?  Done service on some far-off Garsington lawn?  Been sipped out of by one of the Bloomsbury group?  There were pictures of Virginia Woolf and Carrington on the walls of the Underwoods’ tiny drawing room, and a bookcase harboring the signed first editions of Cyril Connolly and Angus Wilson.

The Underwoods are old and fragile now.  Mr. Underwood has given up writing his book about Cyril Connolly.  They have not been to the Corot exhibition at the Tate.  They don’t “gad about” anymore.  When Tony carries the tea tray into the kitchen, Mrs. Underwood complains about having caught her husband writing an inappropriate letter to an actress. Tony breaks some china, but learns with relief that Mrs. Underwood is tougher than her teacups.

Taylor’s women characters are particularly sympathetic.  In “As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still,”  Claire, a novelist, is slightly strung-out at the Holiday Inn as she studies pages of her novel before a reading in Oxford while her husband Jamie and their children sleep. She worries about Jamie’s taking the children to meet his eccentric friends without her supervision.   (Once the children were not fed.)   And at lunch after the reading, there is indeed a disconcerting accident, and the situation spins out of Claire’s control.

In the subtle, gracefully-written title story, the heroine Lucy and her partner Mark dine with his millionaire boss, Clive, and his wife, Henrietta,. Envious of their extravagant house and enraged by Clive’s superficial regrets about  breaking news of financial ruin to a client, Lucy argues about the economy and  mocks Henrietta’s taste in books. When Henrietta asks why writers write what they do, Lucy replies with the non-sequitur, “Beckett wrote for luck.”  Although this expresses her dissociation and sense of the surreal, we feel that Lucy could use some luck, too .Without  Mark’s salary (five times what she gets at the BBC) they could not afford to buy a house, but once home, Lucy learns that Mark’s absorption in the money business  will ironically get in the way of their buying a house.

The workplace is a hostile force in many of Taylor’s stories.  In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over.  In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife.  In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college;  on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s  poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…

All teachers have their breaking points.  In “Wonderland,” a realistic, beautifully-written, slightly edgy story, Amy, an unhappy English teacher who lectures on modernism at a third-rate (or fourth-rate?) university, dislikes her vacuous students.  She thinks of them as the anorexic girl, the “fat-arsed one,”the dull sisterly pair, and ” Lily Chen, formerly of the University of Taipei or some such place.”Amy especially dislikes Lily, who does not know English well enough to read Virginia Woolf and seldom comes to class. When an administrator confronts Amy about the failing grade on Lily’s paper and suggests it is racism, Amy is shocked.  But  a twist at the end of the story makes Amy sympathetic to Lily.

I very much enjoyed this remarkable collection of short stories, and am impressed, as always, by Taylor’s versatility and brilliance.

A little bit about Taylor:  His novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.  His histroical novel, Derby Day, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.  And he won the Whitbread Award for his biography of Gerorge Orwll in 2003.

D. J. Taylor Wins the Sidewise Award for Alternate History

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, is one of our best 21st-century writers.   His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, and his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003.

Now his elegant novel, The Windsor Faction, has won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History.

The Sidewise Award, which is given at the World Science Fiction Convention (LonCon this year, because it was in London), is not a prize one associates with Oxford-educated writers.  Yet it has gone to literary novels before:  in 2007, Michael Chabon won it for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,  in 2004 it went to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in 1998 to Stephen Fry’s Making History.

And this year, in strange wrinkle in time, or do I mean in alternate histories, there was a tie between Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies:  What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, a self-published novel written in the form of a book based on a tabloid magazine. (Fans and detractors of the Kennedys may very well find it interesting:  I wrote about it here.)  Perhaps it won’t surprise you that Taylor’s style is more to my taste, but I also find it fascinating that SF is open to self-published books. 

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorI have written about The Windsor Faction here and here, so I will only talk about it briefly.  Taylor’s suspenseful, unputdownable novel explores the question of what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne. In Taylor’s novel, the king’s mistress, the divorced Wallis Simpson, whom Edward married in real life, dies in 1936.  And because Edward had fascist sympathies, a powerful pro-Hitler group forms what they call  “The King’s Party” or “The Windsor Faction.”   Taylor creates the details of a vivid 1930s atmosphere, and describes weekend parties,  politics, and the workplace.  Beverley Nichols, a popular novelist and garden writer (have you read Merry Hall?), is one of the main characters. But by far my favorite character is Cynthia Kirkpatick, a bored young woman living in Colombo with her parents, who, on her return to England, works at a spy-ridden literary magazine.

Since I am known for abandoning contemporary fiction on p. 50 (a practice I encourage), it is quite unusual for me to read a number of books by living writers.  This year I have read five of Taylor’s. 

What makes me read a living writer?    I much prefer to read writers who are more brilliant than myself.  To take examples from the dead, I might in a pinch be able to write a low-rent D. E. Stevenson  (fans will diasgree!:)), but I could never possibly toss off a Barbara Pym or a Pamela Hansford Johsnon.

I’d much rather read books than write.

By the way, the Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History went to Vylar Kaftan for “The Weight of the Sunrise.”

You can read more about the Sidewise Awards here.

Alternate History: D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorThis summer I have read several alternate histories (sometimes known as counter-factual histories).

It is a fascinating genre.  Both science fiction and literary novelists have experimented with this “what if” form, among them Philip K. Dick,  D. J. Taylor, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, Jo Walton, Pamela Sargent, and Joanna Russ.

I have just reread D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a finalist for this year’s Sidewise Awards for Alternate History.

Taylor, whose novel, Derby Day, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and whose biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2003, is a versatile, brilliant writer of fiction, biographies, and literary criticism.

In this elegantly-written, suspenseful page-turner,  set in England from 1936 to 1941, King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne because his mistress, Wallis Simpson, whom he intended to marry, died in 1936.

And, at the beginning of World War II, the King has fascist sympathies.  A group of powerful men who oppose the war  and are mostly pro-Hitler call themselves “The King’s Party” or “the Windsor Faction.”

Taylor’s novel is told in multiple forms–traditional narrative, diary entries, notes, and newspaper articles.  His vivid understanding of the details of the period gives the book a striking hyperrealistic tone,  though, of course, the subtle changes of history are factored in to the plot.

The most sympathetic character is Cynthia Kirkpatrick, an intelligent young woman who is bored by  life in Colombo with her parents in the late 1930s.  When we first meet her, she is dreading a dinner party with her parents’ friends, the Bannisters, and knows she will be expected to entertain their son Henry, who has a reputation as an “awful young man.”

Taylor portrays the atmosphere perfectly:

There was not a great deal to do at the villa during daylight hours.  In fact, there was not a great deal to do at any time.  The garden, which had been cool and mysterious by night, turned hot and noisy, and the Bougainvillea burned so bright in the sunshine that it might have been overlaid with poster-paint.  Mr. Kirkpatrick went off to see his broker at Galle Face Green.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick had herself driven to Madame Bandaraike’s salon in Barnes Place, where the assistants had names like Evangeline and Margot and spoke in passable imitations of Home Counties accents.

Cynthia’s reluctant relationship with the Bannisters is cemented after the Henry dies in a car crash on an after-dinner drive.  This cements the reluctant Cynthia’s relationship with the Banniser family.  Back in England, Mr. Bannister joins the Windsor Faction.

In 1939, after the Kirkpatricks return to London, Cynthia escapes from the strict conventions of colonial life and is thrilled by her job at a literary magazine  in Bloomsbury, which is “bound to be a success, people said, because the cinemas were closed and there was nothing for pleaure-seekers to do in the evenings except read.”

Taylor writes sharp, funny office scenes:  Cynthia types, her friend and housemate Lucy translates French, and Desmond, the talkative editor, corners people to gossip about the glass panes of a dog track roof’s being painted over for a blackout.

But there is an office spy:  don’t all literary magazines have one?  (Well, I’m thinking about Peter Matthiessen, the CIA spy at the Paris Review.)  Anthea, a bright, bohemian woman who seems to know everybody, is a spy who casually, informally “conscripts” Cynthia to get information about the Windsor faction: Cynthia’s boyfriend, Tyler Kent, is a cipher clerk at the American Embassy; and then she also knows the powerful Nazi sympathizer, Mr. Bannister.

Beverley Nichols, the English writer of humorous garden books, journalism, and novels, is another vivid, often endearing, character, a Pacifist who collaborates with the King on his Christmas speech.  From Beverley’s diaries, we learn not just about his pacifist politics; he also shares literary gossip, and writes about his homosexual encounters with young men. Nichols is hilarious:  He says of the King’s room, covered with mementos of Wallis everywhere:  “Definite air of Miss Havisham in her chamber, so that one almost expected to see ancient wedding cake sunk under cobwebs.”

A fascinating unputdownable book:  really a great summer read, and if we Americans don’t all know our English World War II history  as well as we should, I recommend you start with the Author’s Note at the back of the book.

All will become clear.

D. J. Taylor’s From the Heart

There comes a point when your life begins to resemble your job.”–D. J. Taylor’s From the Heart

From the Heart by D. J. TaylorD. J. Taylor’s novella, From the Heart, has recently been published as a Kindle Single.

Taylor, whose novel, Derby Day, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and whose biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2003, is one of my favorite contemporary writers.

This fascinating, complex novella is a fictional consideration of work, love, and loss.  It is told from three points-of-view:  Anthony’s, Alison’s, and Lucy’s.  The main character, Anthony, is an Oxford alumnus, age 38, dissatisfied, as so many are in their late thirties, with the direction his life has taken.  Although he is not nostalgic about Oxford, he is morose about his work and marriage.   Anthony is an insolvency practitioner who works on the liquidation of bankrupt companies. He married Alison, a PR director, because she “liked” him.  They have two children.

But he has long been in love with Lucy, his fantasy woman, an Oxford friend who has, unbeknownst to him, become a researcher-writer-interviewer for a BBC history show.  He hasn’t seen her in 17 years, but often illicitly examines what he calls the “Lucy file” (photos and papers) when Alison is busy.

Anthony’s soulless occupation is balanced by his bookishness and  his obsession with the heart.  He still has Lucy’s copy of Silas Marner from college; he admires her marginal notes (she has written an essay on goodness).  And he muses fascinatingly on the image of the heart in literature and art and its differences from the actual muscle.  As a student he saw a photo of a heart from the dissection lab.   The heart was

…simply a slump of muscle and sprouting, hacked-off tubers….Had any of the poets who wrote so blithely of the stirrings of the human heart, compared it to singing doves, arrows, anvils, india rubber, stone, said that it was clogged, aching, timorous or sullen, ever seen one?

His very nice, ordinary wife Alison (who did not, by the way, go to Oxford) knows Anthony is discontented.  She thinks:

Even now, at an age when most of us can barely remember what we did at university, he still wishes he was sitting in a set of panelled rooms, telling a sofa full of nineteen-year-olds about George Eliot and Anthony bloody Trollope.

Elsewhere in London, Lucy is also discontented with her life. Her bookish boyfriend, Mark, who in situation and interests in similar to Anthony, also has a complicated life in the City.  Their relationship is unraveling.  He charms her parents in the same way that Anthony charms Alison’s parents.  (Both women are annoyed by this charm.) She wittily, cynically observes,

In her decade-and-a-half in London, Lucy had never known a man who hadn’t left for work by 7:30.

Insolvency practice in the city is changing, becoming more sophisticated and global. Things are falling apart for the upper classes: Ian Kennedy, a beefy Oxford graduate who has gone bankrupt, cannot believe his company will be liquidated. At the same time,  Kwanko, an African educated in Paris, is on his way up, part of an international exchange at Anthony’s firm.  When Kwanko moves in to Anthony’s basement to avoid the ambassador’s wife, who has a crush on him, we learn that, like Anthony, he reads Victorian novels.  The life of the well-educated African aristocrat is not that different from Anthony’s, as long as the political life is stable.

Adultery is a complicated issue for all these numb readers of Victorian novels. They do not just jump into bed, like the characters in a film.

Morality matters.  Changing lovers is complicated.  Is it worth it?   There are a couple of endearing married sex scenes that show Anthony still finds his wife attractive, even though he’s restless.  “Outward primness and secret lack of shame is a failsafe combination.”

From the Heart is compelling, astute, and witty.  Real life can be dull, and even those of us who didn’t go to Oxford sometimes burn out and wonder why why why…  We’ve all had our Anthony /Lucy moments.  I enjoyed this very much, and consider it a great book to read indoors.  Definitely not a beach read.

D. J. Taylor’s Trespass

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, an English writer, is very popular with American critics.

He was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for his 2011 novel, Derby Day.  He also won the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.

I just finished Taylor’s brilliant 1999 novel, Trespass, which is set in the 1950s through the ’70s, and tells the story of the rise and fall of George Chell, the hero and narrator.

Or is he the hero?

TresspassHe has lived “a vagrant life” since his eccentric uncle’s financial crash six years ago. He is, with the help of a freelance writer, writing a book about his uncle, who died shortly after the collapse of his financial empire.  As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.

In the prologue he tells us:

Some instinct took me east.  Not to Norwich, where I’d grown up–which would have been a rather symbolic admission of defeat–but to the coast.  Enough money had survived the bust to allow me a competence, and for a couple of years I lived a frugal, solitary kind of life in bed and breakfasts and cheap flats.  The oddest things kept me in one place or sent me on my way again:  the way a cat sauntered across a farmyard in the early sun; the slant of a line of trees from a railway embankment.  I couldn’t explain these sensations, or the contradictions they produced–the wish to settle down countered by the need to be moving on…

George’s sense of place is vivid:   place defines his struggles with the  English class system (about which I am certainly not qualified to write).   During his childhood in West Earlham, his single mother, suspicious of church, school, and most of their neighbors, hates to dole out money for gym shoes, believes that charitable societies are a racket, and thinks tinned salmon is the thing to serve to her friends at high tea:  crab is ostentatious, and frankfurters are simply low-class.  His mother, who, George tells us, has no sense of narrative, will tell George nothing about his father until he reads a sentimental novel and asks her when “Father” will return.  (She says he’s dead.)  She has nothing to say about his uncle, either.

After George loses his first job at a newsstand, he is banished to London, where he works indifferently at various numbers-crunching jobs.  In his spare time, he reads a lot and explores London with a friend.  But his sex life with various women is terrible:  he insists on marrying Carole, a woman with whom he fights constantly and is obviously incompatible. He describes their honeymoon as “a fortnight of low-spirited sight-seeing and dismal semi-intimacy.”  (All too easy to imagine, isn’t it?)

His life changes dramatically when his uncle, a former toy salesman, becomes a City tycoon through a complicated financial scheme and takes George under his wing.  George doesn’t quite understand the scheme, nor does anyone else.  His funny, charming uncle is faintly reminiscent of chacracters in H. G. Wells’ comedies about class and money.

His uncle says,

What do people want, George?  Money, of course.  But they want security as well.  Now how do you get security?”  And he paused for a moment to look reprovingly above the tops of his eyeglasses.  “In my day it used to be savings. But what good’s savings with all this inflation, eh?….You want a guarantee on your money, that’s what you want.”

George lives very high for a while. He is briefly entangled with the very upper-class Helena, a lovely, rich ditz, who is very, very funny.   Later, after the crash, he befriends the freelance writer, Frances, who helps him with the book:  an eccentric, well-educated woman, she conducts many interviews on the phone, reads books about Iris Murdoch, and is obsessed with Mr. Archer, the strange owner of the hotel.  But romance is not a possibility.

It is a stunning, very dark, often comical, novel about “trespassing” in different strata of society.  Taylor’s style reminds me of Anthony Powell’s, laced with H. G. Wells.

P.S. In recent months, I have blogged about four of Taylor’s brilliant novels, The Windsor Faction, a counterfactual history about what might have happened in World War II if Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne in the 1930s; Derby Day, a historical novel about the Epsom Derby; Kept, a kind of prequel to Derby Day; and Ask Alice, the story of a Midwesterner who runs away to England and becomes an actress and society hostess.  Taylor is an eclectic writer:  his style is flawless, and it changes with genre;  he can write Victorian English in his pseudo-Victorian novels, or lucid contemporary English.


D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice

AskAliceThe Midwestern landscape can be eerie.  Thousands of empty miles of flat or gently rolling fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and prairie grass.  There are more hogs than people in the Midwest.  I mean that literally.

Not much Midwestern literature is published.  Though Willa Cather’s sagas of loneliness and resilience on the Nebraskan prairie are widely known, few Midwestern writers have made it into the canon.

So you may be surprised when I categorize the English writer D. J. Taylor’s novel, Ask Alice, as an honorary Midwestern novel.  Though most of this novel is set in England, it begins in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, and we first meet the heroine, Alice, traveling on a train through Kansas with her Aunt Em.  And, yes, if you’re thinking of Oz, so you should. This is the beginning of Alice’s journey from sweet Midwestern girl to successful English actress to London society hostess in the Jazz Age.

After Aunt Em and Alice part, a charming salesman, Mr. Drouett, picks up Alice.  Thrilled by his tales of travel, she half dreams of escape from the emptiness of Kansas.  He persuades her to go to dinner with him at a hotel, then seduces her.  They live together near De Smet in South Dakota, until Drouett deserts Alice during a terrifying blizzard.  After a few years of marriage to a strict young Scandinavian minister, she steals a church relief fund and absconds to England with her child, Asa.  Eventually she ends up on the stage.  She has to farm out Asa to caretakers.

Taylor pays homage to several writers in this complex, beautifully written novel, among them Dreiser, Laura Ingalls Wilder, H. G. Wells, and J. B. Priestley.  He deftly depicts Alice’s naiveté and theatrical dreams: her friendliness and unselfconscious beauty ensure her success first on the stage and then as a society hostess.  There are multiple story lines in this intricate novel:  much of the book is  narrated by the gently witty Ralph, an English orphan who does not know who his parents were, and who vividly describes his life with his eccentric “uncle,” a brilliant inventor of a new red dye, called hogpen.  And it is not spoiling anything to say that Ralph is actually Alice’s son Asa–you will realize this immediately–though this is not officially revealed till the end.

Taylor fashions Alice’s sexual and theatrical adventures along the lines of those in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a naturalistic novel in which Carrie, a country girl, meets a traveling salesman on a train to Chicago, where she will eventually become an actress. Taylor’s Alice is likable and kind, except when it comes to men, and then she is cold and calculating:  can they be of use?   When her husband, Guy Keach, won’t allow her to perform in a charity theatrical, she is annoyed but has an epiphany.

He coughed his cough and it occurred to her again that there would come a time when he would not be there to read her letters and refuse her invitations, that she might look forward to a future in which she could do what she liked, write as many letters as she chose and have whoever she pleased to live with her.  Shortly after this he went away, the sound of the axes rose up again from the distant wood and the letter Alice had thrown towards the fireplace burned itself to extinction against the glowing coals in the grate.

Ralph, on the other hand, is very much enjoying his life with his uncle, who, now that he can hobnob with the rich, is even happier than he was as a mad inventor.  Ralph is now a gentleman, with friends who are Jazz Age socialites.  His  observations are astute and witty but also very kind.

My uncle was very great in those days.  I have said that the mark of his genius was a willingness to adapt himself to whatever environment in which he happened to fetch up.  He was as at home on the prow of Atry’s yacht as it tacked desultory across the Solent as he was slaughtering grouse on Lord Parementer’s Aberdeenshire estate, as happy dispensing seedcake to the Dowager Duchess of Southerland in Pont Street as parading in the Ascot Enclosure.  I have a memory of him from this time at some reception on the House of Commons terrace, with a charged glass in his hand and Mrs. Stanley Baldwin on his arm.  It was the look of an athlete who, having breasted the tape of some long and arduous race, glances over his shoulder at the flotsam of the finishing line straight behind him.  He was, or so it seemed, always seeking out new territory even as it colonised the ripped-up earth beneath his tread.

All goes well with Alice and Ralph in their separate spheres until Drouett, the salesman, shows up in England in search of Alice.  Then the lives of all three dramatically change.

The journal of the novelist, reporter, and ghostwriter Beverley Nichols lightens up the last chapters of this novel, though I won’t reveal the context.

This is a dazzling novel, with a huge cast of fascinating characters, most in search of some quality that eludes them, even when they acquire money (though money helps). Taylor is a brilliant writer, and this book fascinates me so much that I want to reread it in tandem with some of the books Taylor mentions or alludes to.

In the past few months, I have read three other stunning novels by Taylor, The Windsor Faction, Derby Day, and Kept.  They’re all remarkable, but this is my favorite.

D. J. Taylor’s Kept

kept-victorian-mystery-d-j-taylor-132x200In D. J. Taylor’s Kept, a brilliant prequel to his novel Derby Day (which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize), many secrets are kept, and finally uncovered.

Set in the 1860s, this stylishly-written novel follows the arc of a well-plotted Victorian novel,  paying homage to Dickens, Thackeray,  Trollope, Mrs. Oliphant, Wilkie Collins, George Gissing, and other 19th-century writers.  Taylor expertly mimics Victorian language without losing his modern voice; in a sense, Kept is a meta-Victorian novel, with a mix of fictional characters, historical characters, and characters from other Victorian novels.

Taylor writes in a number of different styles here: traditional narrative, diary entries, even newspaper articles. He  interweaves a fictional diary entry of George Eliot’s with the musings of a mad woman in an attic with the double-dealings of out-of-pocket Londoners who turn to crime.

The characters are deftly-depicted and strikingly odd.  There is James Dixey, a collector of rare eggs and mounted animals, who has also collected and confined a mad woman, the quirky and sympathetic Mrs. Ireland (based on Thackeray’s mad wife).  A raging wolf prowls his estate; in a parallel but contrasting scene, another wolf benevolently and totemically stalks a cousin of Mrs. Ireland in Canada who is trying to find his way back from the wilderness to the city.  Then there is the criminal Mr. Perdew, a character in Derby Day, who keeps discounted bills, does odd tricks with money, and plans a theft of gold bullion (based on the Great Train Robbery).  And there is the maid Esther, who becomes a confederate of Mrs. Ireland, and later runs away to London.  All these people are connected, and some are kept by others.

There are occasionally authorial asides, at least fictional authorial asides.

I will own that I am a curious man.  And yet my curiosity is, as it were, of an altogether curious kind.  A sealed casket holds no charms for me.  A locked door seldom makes me yearn for a key and the right to admittance.  Rather, my fascination lies with great people and the moment when their greatness has, albeit temporarily, been put aside.  How does a bishop conduct himself when, retiring to the bosom of his family, he divests himself of his mitred hat?  What does Lord John, coming back from the Treasury chambers, say to his wife, his butler or the domestic who hands him his tea?  Half the charm of fiction resides in these imaginings.  Write a novel about a ploughman in his field or a City Croesus striding about the floor of ‘Change with his hands plunged into his trouser pockets and no one will read it, but let a distinguished nobleman, the heir to broad acres and the confidant of half the Cabinet, tell his wife that he has the gout or that he will lend no more money to her scapegrace brother and the public is instantly agog!

Many secrets have to be deciphered, among them the reason for Mr. Dixey’s locking up Mrs. Ireland after her husband’s death.  When Mrs. Carstairs, a relative, goes to Easton Hall to visit her, Mr. Dixey will not let her see her.

The mystery of Mrs. Ireland’s disappearance–to Norfolk, to Dr. Conolly’s establishment, to wherever it was that she might be lodged–seemed to her so obviously a mystery that she could not believe that any other person could not imagine it so.

Kept by D. J. TaylorThe police officer, Mr. McTurk, who is also a character in Derby Day, eventually solves the train robbery and some other odds and ends.

And characters from other novels appear.  One of Trollope’s characters, Rev. Josiah Crawley of Framley Parsonage and The Last Chronicles of Barsetshire, and a Miss Amelia Marjoribanks–perhaps a relative of Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Lucilla Marjoribanks of Miss Marjoribanks?–play a part in the novel.

The rich texture and breadth of this novel would make a great BBC miniseries for those who like Downton Abbey.  (Victorian, but isn’t that really as good?)

Both Derby Day and Kept are excellent.  I don’t know which I enjoyed more.  Perhaps Derby Day is better-written; perhaps Kept is more fun.  Some may feel the opposite.

It is always wonderful to find a good contemporary writer, because, as some of you know, contemporary fiction is not always my thing.  My resolve this year?  Read more 21st-century novels.