When I read nonfiction, I tend to peruse such esoteric tomes as Philip Hardie’s The Last Trojan Hero: A Cultural History of Virgil’s Aeneid.
But this weekend I am reading two very entertaining new books, Wendy Pollard’s biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, and Andrew D. Kaufman’s Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times.
Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson (1912-1981) is carefully-researched and engrossing. The fast-paced narrative is interwoven with excerpts from Johnson’s diaries, letters, detailed précis of her novels, and a history of their reception. It is the first biography of Johnson.
Johnson, a critically-acclaimed novelist and the author of literary studies of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Proust, is one of my favorite writers. Her Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide, is slightly reminiscent of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.
Many of Johnson’s novels, including the Helena trilogy, are now available from Bello as e-books or print-on-demand books.
I am utterly intrigued by this biography. Pamela was the daughter of Amy Clotilda Howson, an actress and singer. After Pamela’s father died when she was 11, Amy’s close relationship with Pamela became almost obsessional. Pamela left school at 16, worked as a secretary, wrote poetry, and had a rocky relationship with Dylan Thomas. Amy disapproved of some of Pamela’s boyfriends, though she liked Dylan Thomas, and, indeed, she and Pamela visited Dylan’s family in Wales. Pamela eventually married an Australian journalist with whom she had two children, and later married the novelist and scientist C. P. Snow, with whom she had one child.
Pollard, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, is especially strong on criticism and reception of Pamela’s work. She critiques all of Pamela’s books, including a play and pseudonymous mysteries co-written with her first husband, and carefully summarizes and quotes the reviews
.There is also lots of literary gossip. When Pamela was writing a study of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Ivy invited her to dinner, but Ivy and her cronies addressed few remarks to Pamela, preferring to converse about people Pamela didn’t know. Later, when they met again, so Ivy could give her reviews to read for the study, she talked over Pamela’s head
Pamela recalled: “As I leafed roughly through [the reviews], I heard her talking busily above my head, but not to me. It was an uncanny experience.’
She did not, however, permit Ivy’s eccentricities to interfere with her criticism.
Pamels’s husband C. P. Snow upset many friends who were featured in his novels obviously based on real-life incidents. (Not to the extent of Karl Ove Knausgård, of course.) Ironically, Pamela was upset when William Cooper (the pseudonym of Harry Summerfield Hoff) featured Snow and a former girlfriend as characters in a charming series of autobiographical novels about a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant (Scenes from Provincial Life, etc.) . Pamela was so disturbed by the portrait of the relationship that Cooper did not publish Scenes from Metropolitan Life until 1982, after the deaths of both Pamela and Snow.
Reading Pollard’s book has introduced me to many books I’d never heard of. It took her biography for me to find out that the Helena trilogy is actually a quartet. Pamela’s out-of-print novel Winter Quarters features characters from the Helena trilogy as minor characters.
I will write more about this biography after I’ve finished.
Andrew D. Kaufman’s Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Time is a short, accessible book on the significance of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, War and Peace. (Yes, I am also rereading War and Peace, for the tenth time).
Kaufman provides valuable background, and there are many brilliant insights. I have a much better understanding of Tolstoy’s intentions (or lack of them) in writing W&P.. He did not want to write a book in the European tradition. For instance, did you know that Tolstoy disliked Turgenev’s short elegant Fathers and Sons? That when readers didn’t appreciate his long novel, he wrote a rebuttal? That he didn’t consider War and Peace a novel?
What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed. Such a declaration of the author’s disregard of the conventional forms of artistic prose works might seem presumptuous, if it were premeditated and if it had no previous examples. The history of Russian literature since Pushkin’s time not only provides many examples of such departure from European forms, but does not offer even one example to the contrary.
Kaufman explains that Tolstoy’s unliterary language astonished readers. Kaufman writes, “War and Peace thrust readers raised on more polished literary fare out of their familiar paradigms and into a brave new fictional world,which, for all its strangeness, somehow starts to feel more “real” than reality itself.”
Tolstoy is unlike anyone else. The characters in W&P always seem fresh to me, and I wonder every time if Natasha or Andre will behave differently druing their terrible romance.
Kaufman’s tone is sometimes too pop–rather blog-like–but the book is excellent.
I hope your weekend reading has been as fascinating as mine.