Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans at The Books That Built Me

The marvellous, clever, hysterically funny, utterly delightful Lissa Evans had guests eating out of the the palm of her hand at last Tuesday night’s Books That Built Me. 

After leaving medicine for a stint in stand-up, Lissa made her name in radio and television comedy, winning a BAFTA for Father Ted, creating the format for Room 101 and producing/directing hit shows  – The Kumars and Have I Got News for You, amongst others. Like so many brilliant women writers, she came to writing novels after having done all sorts of other things first, which I always find tremendously heartening: I have a theory that women do their best work later in life, which quite contradicts Kazuo Ishiguro’s conviction – or is it Martin Amis’ – that ‘most literary masterpieces are written people under forty’) . Her first novel, Spencer’s List, was published in 2002 and she has since published three other novels for adults and two for children.  

The latest, Crooked Heart is set in and around London during the Blitz and tells the ‘odd-couple’ story of the unlikely relationship between ten year old evacuee Noel -a precocious ‘walking-dictionary’, orphaned, raised in wealthy Hampstead by his ex-suffragette godmother Mattie – and the impoverished hustler, Vera Sedge, who takes him into her shabby St Alban’s home more as one of her rather unscrupulous money-making schemes than from a sense of civic duty.

As one might expect from an author with a background in film and television, Evans’ deft, precise prose, engaging plotting and vivid evocation of life on the home-front firmly grounds Crooked Heart in its time whilst allowing the friendship between two lost and lonely souls to develop with great warmth, humour and poignancy. It’s their need for each other that gives the novel its glorious heart. 

The Books That Built Lissa Evans

1. My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell

I can pinpoint the exact day I read it,’ said Lissa, of her first book. ‘It became my world…you can quiz me about any page.’

One of the things I particularly love about Crooked Heart is how perfectly it nails the character of Noel, a bookish, precocious child of ten whose life changes utterly, almost overnight. My Family and Other Animals is Durrell’s marvellous autobiographical story of how, when he was ten, his family left dreary Bournemouth for Corfu, as if on a whim. At about the same age, Lissa’s family moved house and she had to start again in a new school in a new part of the country, so she intimately understands the nimble strategies a child employs to survive in a new environment. Yet it’s not only this that connects Lissa so strongly to My Family and Other Animals, or the wet camping holiday in Wales during which she first discovered it, it’s that Durrell’s novel taught her ‘the precision of being funny

2. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

 Lissa’s parents were great readers, with bookcases full of Penguin Originals – crime novels in green covers, and Penguin’s eclectic mix of fiction in its distinctive orange livery. It’s in her parent’s shelves she found Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London when she was about twelve, and loved it so much she gave it to her best friend fr her birthday, sneaked in alongside the Trojan Horse of a copy of Eric Segal’s Love Story.

Orwell’s first book is an account of his time on the breadline, first in Paris where he works as a plongeur in the horribly filthy kitchen of a very posh hotel, and then in London, when, left destitute when a job falls through, and discovers what it is to be a tramp, living entirely without income in the London of the late 1920’s. As Lissa says, Orwell ‘said good prose should be like a window-pane: that sort of vivid clarity is what I’m always aiming for‘, and more than that, his descriptions of the exhausting, boring, chaotic struggle just to survive that the very poor have, gave birth to Crooked Heart’s other protagonist, Vee.

3. The Egg and I, Betty McDonald

Betty McDonald’s mother impresses on her from an early age that one must always allow one’s husband to follow his career passions, which in McDonald’s case leads her to an isolated, broken down chicken farm in the Olympic Mountains in Western Washington where the nearest neighbours -can only be described as a very mixed blessing- arefour miles away. Like a less refined ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, The Egg and I chronicles its heroine’s struggles with the relentlessness of farm life with a wry, precise humour. If, as Lissa says, it’s occasionally like ‘being buttonholed by a raconteur’, it’s an immensely funny book full of extraordinary characters-‘I owe her a great deal: I wish I’d met her’

4. The Leopard, Lampedusa 

The Leopard is ‘a truly immersive book about someone you don’t imagine having anything in common with….it’s a little like Buddenbrooks [and] intensely beautiful. ‘

Set in Sicily, mostly in the summer of 1860, against a backdrop of Garibaldi’s invasion, The Leopard is the story of the decline and fall of the house of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats. It first appeared in 1958, but its perfect evocation of a lost world suggests a 19th, rather than 20th, century novel. Lampedusa is an exquisitely precise writer – when she’s writing, Lissa prefers to hone and pare each sentence til it passes muster, and build sentence on sentence, rather than press on with a first draft and then go back and draft again. ‘I hate being given notes’ she says.

5. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

Lissa first came across Oliver Sacks as a medical student and read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat to the night porter and sister during one long casualty night shift. ‘It’s what medicine should be about …he tilts the prism to see people find themselves again‘.

6. The Penguin Book of Hymns 

This is where it all began- hymns were entertainment during assembly‘. If, like Lissa and I, your school day invariably began with an interminable assembly, you’ll know Hymns Ancient and Modern, or the New English Hymnal, and if, like us, you found assembly utterly tedious, you may also have lost yourself in the rich poetry of hymns. ‘The language is wonderful for seven year olds – there are words to ponder, rich vocabulary and imagery…. hymns gave a vocabulary that transcended class.’ Anyone who has read Crooked Heart, and grown to love Mattie, the former suffragette, will understand why Jerusalem, hymn of the suffragettes long before it became the W.I’s theme tune, is Lissa’s favourite. I’m enormously excited to hear that Lissa’s next book may be a Crooked Heart prequel, giving us more of Mattie and the Suffragettes.

Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans, published by Doubleday, £14.99

 

Helen Brocklebank

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Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

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Fortunately for me, I’m neither down nor out in London, and nor was I earlier this month when in Paris on business. And one can hardly call reading a book over coffee in The Wolseley slumming it. I’m counting my blessings and frantically swotting for next week’s The Books That Built Me with marvellous Lissa Evans, author of Crooked HeartI don’t think it will spoil anything to tell you one of the books she’s chosen is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. 

Poverty is what I’m writing about,’ says Orwell, describing the people he meets in Paris, ‘the slum, with its dirt and queer lives, was first an object lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences… For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others.  You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact it annihilates the future.’

Down and Out in Paris and London is an object lesson in poverty and it’s full of vivid, Rabelasian characters – there’s an extraordinary Russian called Boris for whom ‘war and soldiering were his passion‘ so much so that he favours a particular cafe simply because there’s a statue of Marshal Ney outside, and he prefers to get out of the Métro at Cambronne – ‘though Commerce was nearer, he liked the association with General Cambronne, who was called upon to surrender at Waterloo, and answered simply, ‘Merde!’

Orwell’s first book is a memoir rather than autobiography, ‘faction’ rather than roman à clef in that it’s a much tidied up, novelistic account of his time in Paris – working as a plongeur at Hotel X and down but probably not out – and in London living as a tramp. Orwell’s experiences help develop his political focus and give him a keen appreciation of the precariousness of life on and below the bread-line

‘At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.’

Rejected first by Jonathan Cape and then by T.S Eliot at Faber, it was published by Victor Gollancz who gave Orwell an advance of £40. Critical reactions were slightly mixed – Cyril Connolly’s ‘I don’t think Down and Out in London and Paris is more than agreeable journalism’ is particularly sniffy, and it may not be Orwell in his pomp, but it’s a brilliant, radical, and by turns painful and funny account that takes the lid off the life of people who are usually without a voice, those at the outer fringes of society, dispossessed by poverty. It should be required reading for anyone who uses the expression ‘hard-working families’ to perpetrate the pernicious myth that the poor is divided into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.


 Down and Out in Paris and London was one of the Books That Built Lissa Evans, 28th April 2015

Andrew O’Hagan

andrew o hagans books‘If my writing is about any one single thing,’ said Andrew O’Hagan at The Books That Built Me, ‘It’s about the precariousness of identity’.

The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s latest novel (Faber £17.99), deftly and movingly explores themes of identity in the combined narratives of former photographer, Anne Quirk, and her ex-soldier grandson, Luke Campbell. It articulates brilliantly the sense that no one is only one thing, in the way that Woolf, and Stevenson and Dostoevsky – Luke is a rare soldier ‘who knows that Browning is not just a small arms weapon’, Anne is the alzheimer-suffering occupant of an old people’s home whose past life comes back to her in increasingly illuminating flashes. We are about the omissions and the yearnings and the latent desires and the ways in which others see us, at the same time as we say ‘That’s not me,’ or ‘I’d never do that’, as if our identities are somehow a fixed point.  And if selfhood and the way identity is constructed is the thread that runs neatly through O’Hagan’s writing life, whether fiction or non-fiction, then so too are the books he selected to show what has inspired and delighted him along the way.

The books that built Andrew O’Hagan

1. The Penguin Book of First World War poetry

The first job O’Hagan had after graduating and leaving Scotland for London was at St Dunstan’s, a charity for blind ex-servicemen, some of whom had fought in the First World War –  ‘Sassoon’s men called by bugles from the sad shires’. Their voices echo down the years through the poetry.

2. I am David, Anne Holm

I can’t believe I’d never read I Am David as a child – it’s an atmospheric and moving story of a boy who escapes the prison camp where he’s lived all his life – he has no idea who he is, he has no idea of his origins, all he has is his name, yet he has a strong and immediate sense of self.  Andrew O’H and I grew up in a world dominated by the Iron Curtain, and it’s almost impossible to imagine the how divided the world was until relatively recently.

3. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde offers an extraordinary metaphor for the power an author has to reveal the hidden lives and desires of their characters to readers, the things that can’t be seen by the people around them.

4. Norma Jean, A Biography of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Lawrence Guiles

If Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about the divided self, the same is true of the myth of the divided Marilyn – Guiles is responsible for concreting into the popular imagination that the ‘real’ Marilyn Monroe is Norma Jean. I adored Andrew O’Hagan’s last novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, And Of His Friend, Marilyn Monroe, in which we get Monroe through yet a further lens, that of the imagined opinions of her maltese terrier and I remember reading an interview in which A O’H wrote she was ‘a woman who had somehow been erased as a woman and replaced with mythology’, but Norma Jean is in the list less as a way of illuminating that novel, though it does, or so that we can talk about the role of writers in constructing a public identity for their subjects, though we do, but because it’s the only book A O’H remembers his father giving to him. A bookish child in a resolutely un-bookish family, it’s an oddly touching and tender gift (and who knows, without it, would Maf the Dog have ever been written?)

5. The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer

Mailer, of course, was famously accused of cribbing vast swathes of Guiles’ Norma Jean for his own Monroe book, a work he called ‘a species of novel’, or ‘a novel biography’.  A O’H got to know Mailer well when interviewing him for The Paris Review [wonderful, read here], and like A O’H, Mailer is that rare breed of writer who moves adroitly between fiction and journalism – we talked a lot about A O’H’s work for the LRB, particularly the brilliant account of his aborted attempt to ghost-write Julian Assange’s autobiography.

6. The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark

Set in 1945 in a shabbily genteel boarding house for young ladies, in the same part of Kensington that A O’H lived in when he first moved to London, The Girls of Slender Means is one of Spark’s finest novels. She’s savagely brilliant in the economy of her prose, and no character emerges unscathed – some are literally not slender enough to live. If you’ve never read Spark, or are only vaguely aware of her from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, do please immediately get hold of a copy of The Girls of Slender Means. Stylistically, A O’H has been compared to Spark, though if this is the case he’s infinitely kinder to his creations.

Buy The Illuminations, Andrew O’Hagan