Emma Beddington’s memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris, published earlier this month, is a memoir of a life spent, as the book’s subtitle says, trying and failing to be French. An early encounter with a library copy of French Elle promised glamorous, intellectual delights not otherwise available to a North Yorkshire teenager and prompted an enduring francophilia, leading, inevitably, to a move to Paris. At its heart, We’ll Always Have Paris is a journey of self-discovery: if, try as you might, you can’t be French, how do you find out who you really are, and what you really want to be?
H: How are you feeling now that We’ll Always Have Paris has been properly released into the wild?
E: I feel terrified and excited and like I want to run away to a remote cave, which I think must be pretty standard, especially with memoir. I have started getting texts from friends as they read through it which is very odd – good odd, but odd.
H: What kinds of things are people saying?
E: My friend Frances who is also married to a Frenchman was laughing about me saying my husband’s Proustian madeleine was tinned ravioli and saying her husband’s was coquilettes pasta (little shells) and knacki sausages which are these gross things you get in french hypermarkets that are made out of hooves and lips. Someone else was texting about early crushes – mine : Gary Speed, the man from the electricians and France, hers: the drummer from curiosity killed the cat.
H: One of the many joys of the book is the contrast between our expectations of what ‘being french’ means and the harsh reality – we think it’s all the glamour of À bout de souffle and how neatly tying a little scarf will turn you into Juliette Greco but it’s actually tinned ravioli and knacki sausages
E: I moved to provincial France in 1994 and it was NOTHING like nouvelle vague cinema. I remember watching French sitcoms (also terrible) and being mesmerised by the terrible clothes; boxy jackets with big shoulder pads, ill-advised vest tops
H: Your lovely book is subtitled Trying and Failing to be French – are you still an incorrigible francophile, or has French Elle no longer any allure?
E: I’m a ‘francophile avertie’ now – I know my own folly. I still can’t resist it, but I know it’s not the answer, really, not for me. Also, provincial France – that British Provence/Normandy/Côte d’Azur dream – holds no appeal to me. It’s Paris and nothing but. I want to be in St Germain or the Marais with a nicely groomed dog and an amazing wardrobe. Yes STILL, like I did when I was 16. Sigh, there is no hope. Continue reading →
“I didn’t become a novelist until I was forty-one. I never had an ambition to write [fiction] until I was about forty,” said Anthony Quinn at The Books That Built Me earlier this week, “It was possibly because I thought by then I could do it. Until then I’d been a journalist for twenty years, and a journalist is a sprinter whereas trying to write a novel is like going out on a really long run. It’s more pleasurable than you think.”
Anthony’s first book, The Rescue Man, won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award in 2009 – since then, he has published five novels, of which the latest is Freya. Over a glass of Bollinger, we talked about six of the books that have helped build his considerable writing muscle.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t a great reader. I loved The Beatles, I loved football and I loved drawing most of all. I noticed on my mum’s shelf a book called ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle and I thought these amazing spindly gothic illustrations were magical and so I spent my whole time just copying Searle’s pictures. It wasn’t until three of four yeas later that I started reading them [the Molesworth books]. I’d never been to public school and I didn’t know anyone who’d been to public school but as soon as I’d read Molesworth, I knew exactly what a public school was. I could smell what a public school was: chalk, boys farts and wet socks. It was evoked in those spindly lines but also in the terrific, parodic, clever language.”
“This is the first proper grown up book I read. I was twelve years old and on holiday in Ilfracombe and I was transported by it. The Raffles stories are by a man called E.W.Hornung, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s brother in law, and they’re the B-side of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Raffles lived in Albany: he was three things – a Mayfair man-about-town, the finest slow bowler English cricket had ever seen and by night he robbed the hostesses of Mayfair of their spoons. And their jewels. He’s the amateur cracksman….I always had ideas above my station: I grew up in Liverpool in a very lower middle class family but Raffles just transported me: I wanted to wear topper and tails, to smoke Sullivan cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade, to have a set of rooms at Albany and generally to swan around Mayfair as a man of leisure and as a dandy. I got the cigarettes in the end….. I put a character in Freya called Nat Fane into Albany, so that was the next best thing… he’s the spiritual heir of Raffles.”
[if Anthony Quinn could only keep one book of the six, he’d keep Raffles]
“I remember reading Brideshead and it was the first novel where I actively slowed down my reading because I couldn’t bear it to end. It was one of those books that completely bewitched and enchanted me. I wasn’t prepared for it really: I suppose it was the first serious English novels I’d read. I started it in ’81. I was seventeen. Two things happened – I was applying to Oxford and the famous ITV serial came out in the Christmas of ’81, just when I’d applied. Those Oxford passages [in Bridehead] still seem to me beautiful and magical and the whole first section is called Et In Arcadia Ego which as any fule kno [q.v.Molesworth] means ‘I too was in Paradise’…it’s a real Innocence and Experience book.”
“It has such intelligence and depth and complexity: it is a wonderful distillation of everything that’s great in the Victorian novel. It’s a unique book to me: this is the book that made me think the novel was the great form….I am totally in awe of [Middlemarch]: you know that you’ll never ever come near it as a writer, and yet it’s a shining beacon to you too.”
“There are some writers you seem to wait your whole life for: it’s the discovery of a writer whose voice you instantly identify with, and you feel lucky when you do, and for me George Gissing is that writer. This is just one of the great novels about money and marriage in lower middle class Victorian London but it’s an absolutely unsurpassed novel about creativity, about writing, about how to earn a living from writing…. It was a hot topic then and it’s an even hotter topic now. “
“This lovely salon that Helen has invited me to is called The Books That Built Me but what we all know about builders is that they never quite finish the job and I never consider myself – as a reader or a writer – the finished article. I hoe that I will still be reading new stuff, discovering new stuff and he writer who I feel so grateful for discovering in the last three years is Elizabeth Taylor….She is one of these writers who, as soon as you read her, you realise you’re absolutely in the hands of a master. It’s no exaggeration to say that this woman is a modern Jane Austen…just because your canvas is small and your milieu is small it doesn’t mean to say you’re going to write a small book.”
I asked Tony what he felt Elizabeth Taylor had taught him as a writer. He quoted from one of her earlier books: A View of the Harbour –
“I’m not a great writer, whatever I do, someone else has done it before and better. In ten years time, no one will remember this book. The libraries will have sold all of their grubby copies of it second hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares? People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on?”
Me, I said, me! I will implore you to go on, as will all the guests you’ve captivated this evening. If you haven’t yet discovered Tony’s work, try the first chapter of Freya (you can read it by clicking Freya 1st chapter)- spend just a few minutes in the worlds he so cleverly conjures and I challenge you not to implore him to go on writing too.
[You can buy Freya by clicking the underscored link.]
With thanks to Tatler and to Prestat for supporting the salon and to the Club at Cafe Royal for hosting The Books That Built Me – the Cafe Royal is a fabled literary destination; it has played host to the great and the good of British writing since Oscar Wilde managed to get a writ served on him there, and crops up in countless novels, not to mention its walk on part in Raffles, Brideshead Revisited, New Grub Street, and Tony Quinn’s Curtain Call and Freya.
I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author, Lionel Shriver to the Books That Built Me on 17th May to hear her talk about the books that have inspired her writing.
Lionel Shriver shot to fame with her best-selling novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Never one to shy away from the difficult or controversial, her books since have explored the U.S healthcare system, obesity, population growth and terrorism. Her latest, ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’ is published on 12th May: its subject is a future financial apocalypse and her novel combines terrifying plausibility and inventive satire.
Lionel has chosen an original and intriguing six books to discuss next month: I can’t wait to explore how they’ve marked the milestones on her extraordinary writing journey. Tickets are £35 and include a copy of The Mandibles, A Family, 2029-2047, a six month subscription to Tatler, a glass of Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate.
Deborah Moggach’s Books That Built Me offered guests at the Club at Café Royal a mini masterclass in writing – I went away thinking that these six [pictured] each contain such a profound lesson about how to write, they should almost be set texts on my alma mater’s hallowed creative writing MA.
But the jewel in the crown of the literary treasure trove was Moggach herself – warm, funny, generous, erudite and full of marvellous anecdotes. I’m mad about her, as I am about her latest novel, Something to Hide
Huge thanks as always to Champagne Bollinger, Tatler, Prestat chocolate and The Club at Café Royal, and also to Alex Peake-Tomkinson (vast gratitude for the notes below, Alex).
“I was going to marry him, I just adore him,” The eponymous William is eleven in Crompton’s books, and Deborah discovered them at the same age. Although her parents were both prolific novelists, she wasn’t a bookish child, but William made her realise that being funny is one of the greatest gifts books can give us – there’s a truth in laughter and “humour in everything….’When my mother was suffering from dementia, she said, ‘Debby, there were two men in my bedroom last night; one in the wardrobe and the other under the bed. Well, I’ve never believed in threesomes and I’m not about to start now’.”
More than the humour, Crompton’s refusal to patronise younger readers makes her writing extra special; she uses what might be thought of now as challenging language and expects readers to just keep up (which of course they do) “People [in the books] were always saying ‘testily’ or ‘unctuously’ – she’d even say ‘William ejaculated’…. She made language come alive.
Deborah said that, like everyone of her generation, she was affected by both DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf – Woolf “sensitised me to language”. She also said that “Woolf’s snobbishness is very hard to deal with now.” She liked that everything and nothing happened in Woolf’s novels and compared this to Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, a novel in which a man tries to buy a pair of shoelaces. She said “nothing happens but it is absolutely thrilling.”
Deborah also likes Agatha Christie and Mrs Trefusis pointed out that Christie “is all about plot whereas Woolf is all about voice.” Deborah mentioned how autobiographical some of Woolf’s fiction is and said that her first novel, You Must Be Sisters, was also autobiographical, but writing it “took my past away.”
Describing Edward Casaubon, the man that Dorothea Brooke – the heroine of the novel – decides to marry, Deborah called him “a frightful dry old stick.” Discussing Middlemarch also led Deborah to talk about how she depicted her own first marriage in fiction – in Close to Home, she wrote about a young mother living in Camden Town, just as she was. She also said that real people can’t be depicted in fiction – “it’s like newsprint, when you hold it too close to your eyes, it blurs”.
She went on to say that in order to create fictional characters who seem real, you should ask questions: what would they do if they got stuck in a lift, for example.
Deborah described this novel as being “all about people clinging on to their humanity and customs as the world collapses around them”. She described the “myopic world” of this book but also said “a novelist is there to help us broaden our empathies, it’s very important.
Deborah adapted both The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate for television and says that Mitford’s “dialogue is to die for.” She also commented that Fabrice, Linda’s lover is a “chatterer” and that the “sexiest thing ever” is him calling Linda the minute after he has returned to his own home after the two have spent the night together so that they can talk at length.
Deborah admitted that she loves Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Short Cuts as much as she loves Raymond Carver’s short stories. She commented “Carver understood that writing is all to do with what you leave out. Hardly anything need happen, he understood that. Those stories are an object lesson in how people’s lives are intertwined.”
I write this sitting, not in the kitchen sink, but in 9F of a British Airways flight back from a business trip to Italy, trying to not to let the passengers either side of me see that the last pages of Alex Preston’s ‘In Love and War’ are making me cry.
Quite by chance, an appointment with Salvatore Ferragamo took me down the Via Tornabuoni in Florence, where so much of the first part of the book is set, I walked past St Gaetano, ‘ugliest church in Florence’ and longed to have the time to pop into Procacci, where raffish Gerald promises to take Esmond, In Love and War’s protagonist, for ‘milk rolls and jam‘. There’s something magical about a literary itinerary, particularly an unintended one: it gives you a sense of complicity with the text, of seeing what it has seen.
In Love and War is the moving, exactingly researched, exquisitely written story of Esmond Lowndes, son of a leading light in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Caught in flagrante, he is sent down from Cambridge and despatched to Florence to set up a commercial wireless station for the British Union of Facists, to raise money from advertising and to promote the relationship between Italian and British Black Shirts. His first days in Florence, living at the British Institute on Via Tornabuoni, are idyllic, all very Brideshead-in-Italy, but when a party to celebrate the coronation of George VI is violently broken up by fascists, the brutal realities of Mussolini’s Italy start to make themselves felt. As war comes, Esmond is drawn into the resistance, and falls for Ada, his aide de camp at Radio Firenze; their love becomes a courageous counterpoint to the terrifying weight of war.
I don’t want to talk too much about plot, it’s there, and it’s gripping and marvellous and has all the right kind of narrative arc and drive and so on. It’s more than plot that marks this book out as the work of a stunningly accomplished writer: In Love and War is about ideas and ideologies and how both are compromised by the realities of love and war. It’s also a novel that’s deeply engaged in the business of writing: all of its characters with the exception of Esmond and Ada are real people, which brings its own challenges, and it uses letters, telegrams, and transcripts of recordings alongside more conventional narrative techniques as an original and effective story-telling devices.
Preston has been compared to Hollinghurst and to Forster, and I think, with In Love and War, the comparisons are justified. He is a writer whose literary skill builds with each book he publishes, and we have yet to see the best.
Guests drank delicious Champagne Bollinger and took home with them a copy of In Love and War, a six month subscription to Tatler, and a bar of Prestat’s Classic Earl Grey with a twist of lemon in their Teatime Frolics range, which I chose because someone told me Alex is related to the original Earl Grey…
It’s often said that there isn’t a great writer who wasn’t first a great reader.
The Books That Built Me is an idea borne of the belief that inside every book-lover is a memory-palace full of stories – tales of enchanted princesses and magical beasts, of smugglers, spies and buried treasure, stepmothers and boarding schools, something nasty in the woodshed, loves lost and found, vanquished enemies – perpetual summer holidays in other people’s imaginations. None of us is the book we’ve just read, we’re the sum of all the novels in our lives; the books that built us.
In a sense, that’s is the inspiration for The Books That Built Me, but its catalyst was something I read in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s autobiography, Slipstream. She reminded me it’s not only readers who are built of books, but writers. Howard was, by virtue of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, stepmother to a teenage Martin Amis, who apparently read nothing but comics, Harold Robbins and ‘the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He’s about sixteen, I think, when she asks him what he wants to do when he’s older. ‘I’m going to be a writer, Jane’ he says. Howard stares at him, askance, ” ‘You – a writer? But you’ve never read anything. If you’re so interested in writing, why don’t you read? He looked at me and said ‘give me a book to read then.’ And I gave him Pride and Prejudice. ”
Howard goes onto give him a reading list that adds Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Waugh, Green and Golding to Austen, and these are the books that built Amis into the writer he aspired to be.
I’m aware it’s no easy task choosing just six books that have built you as an author; I know I’d find it impossible. It has to be about books which still have you in their power, no matter how great the distance since the last re-reading. Being of an anti-canonical bent, Jilly Cooper and T.S Eliot could loom large in any list of mine, however uncomfortable they find each other as bedfellows; I’ve never had any time for artificial boundaries between high and low culture, only for books which entertain, comfort and educate and which must be judged, not in context, but on their own terms.
Angela Carter taught me how storytelling could be at once magical, exuberant and slyly subversive. She conjured clever heroines who could challenge patriarchal norms, turning the tables on Bluebeard and snuggling cosily with the Wolf rather than being gobbled up by him, and made every story fantastical. Seamus Heaney taught me language, about the ‘word-hoard’, and told me I could ‘rhyme…to see myself. To set the darkness echoing’.
Sliding inside Mrs Dalloway’s head and then being pushed in and out of it and into the other protagonist’s and never quite knowing where one ended and another began, Woolf helped me feel, rather than see, how words could refract emotional experience as music does. Nancy Mitford showed me that satire wasn’t the preserve of men, and nor did it have to be didactic, and was the coup de foudre behind my love of comedies of manners. The Good Soldier’s stylistic perfection and narrative power relies on paradox and a reader who’s prepared to put in the work – I’m not sure that before I read it, I’d been quite so aware of the necessary complicity between author and reader – and like Martin Amis’ Money, it made me aware that a book’s characters don’t have to be nice, or behave well – the flawed and often dislikeable Ashburnham and Leonora, John and Florence Dowell, are all perfectly horrid in equal measure, and yet it’s still ‘the saddest story’. The Go-Between is a book that so ambushed me when I read it for A’Level that I haven’t been able to bear reading it again – it’s about naivety and knowledge, the revealed and the hidden, secrets and memory. But Ali Smith (and there’s an author I’d give my eye-teeth to have as a guest at The Books That Built Me), has it best when she says its a book about re-reading; “books are, in essence, go-betweens, works which conjure rhythm and release across time and history, across places of familiarity and those foreign to us; and personally and individually too, it’s all a going-between, for every person who picks up a book for a first, then a second, then a third time”