Tag Archives: epistolary

Home Thoughts: Tim Parks

“And the people,” he went on, “who crave company are always moving about to get it, or to get a more satisfying version of it, while the people who like to be left alone are always moving about to escape it. It all keeps society in motion and generates a sort of dynamic tension.”

In Home Thoughts from Tim Parks, Julia, a 33-year old Londoner, dumps her job and her married lover for a new life teaching English in Italy. Through a series of letters from various characters, an image of Julia’s life emerges. As she settles into the somewhat miserable, incestuous British ex-pat community, dramas erupt including domestic squabbles, infidelities and backstabbing manoeuvres from various members of the British faculty as they claw to keep their jobs. 

Home thoughts

So a fresh start for Julia who thought her life was stale, but once in Italy, things almost immediately start to go wrong. Her secure job in London has been exchanged for an position that comes with a rapidly approaching expiration date. Her best friend Dinah is exchanged for the militant feminist, highly organized (read exhausting) Flossy who puts herself and Julia on diets with weekly weigh-ins. And then not long after Julia arrives, she becomes involved with Italo-Canadian Sandro–a “smary” sly, opportunistic, Lothario who, although he specializes in poaching married women, is perfectly willing to sleep his way to the top. 

The gym walls were all mirrors so that the chrome of weights and work-out machines seemed to stretch away in all directions. Likewise the bodies of the women doing their exercises. For although the exercise class was open to all, there was a tendency for the men to stay on the weights and leave the aerobic jumping about to the women. Thus, heaving in front of his mirror (mens sana in corpore sano), Sandro could watch not only the attractive flexing of his own muscles, but also the scissoring open and closed of fifteen pairs of legs

Initially, Julia doesn’t realise that “it was herself she had wanted to leave in leaving England.”

She had wanted a metamorphosis. Yet everybody back home had appeared rather to have liked that old caterpillar. […] And so when she had wanted the serial to end, to change her part, they had all protested.

Yet isn’t there a part of Julia that is dismayed when she realises that everyone in England is surviving, possibly even thriving, without her?  Julia writes to her friend, Dinah, brother, and her mother who “seems to be going backwards in time and is now cruising her way through an especially prudish patch of the 1880s.” While Julia ‘let’s go’ of certain aspects of her life in England, easily abandoning her ailing mother, for example, she obsesses on her past with married lover Lenny. She writes long, reproachful letters to Lenny–the man she supposedly left England to avoid. Some of the funniest letters are written by an outraged and disgusted Flossy as she sees women, “slave[s] to traditional conditioning,” continually fall into bed with worthless men. Somehow or another hyper-responsible Flossy always gets the raw end of the deal–from being stuck watching small children while women meets lovers, listening to the plumber lecture her about condoms (used by others) that have plugged up the toilet, to being propositioned by men when their other, more attractive options, run off. 

There’s a host of other characters here–mostly the shallow, self-obsessed British ex-pat community which is composed of men who’ve abandoned England and their first wives (and families) to start afresh in Italy. So with all of our characters, who see the world through the lens of their own problems, the issues they hoped to leave behind in England simply follow them. Alan, Flossy’s brother, who seems to be waiting for some cosmic event to release him from the doldrums, acknowledges he  “lost his way in life,” and writes in his notebook:

My wife: sometimes it’s as though I’d only met her yesterday and were trying to decide whether I really wanted to see her again. 

Minor academics who ostracize themselves abroad, for whatever reason: adventure, travel, a change of pace, to escape something at home, find that it’s not so easy to return, and miserable, depressed Alan is the epitome of this:

What was he doing in Italy in a dead-end job? And what was worse with a time limit attached that would cut him off at precisely the age he became more or less unemployable in the UK? He’d come out here to write (it was the ease of the job that had fooled him) and all they’d done instead was have children.

He had allowed his energies to be dissipated. He had lost his way in life. Friends back home were leaping up the career ladder and he was teaching lousy students where not to put adverbs, getting no useful experience and merely filling wastebins with this trash that no word processor would make saleable. 

The novel isn’t entirely composed of letters. I’d say it’s about 50-50 letters and narrative, and most of the vicious humour is found in the trainwreck of these characters’ lives–in the disasters that occur in between letters and the firm resolves which are followed by awful behaviour. I was waiting for the Italians to toss this lot out of the country. On a final note, we don’t all find the same things funny, and there’s one thing that occurs in the novel that’s in bad taste. But apart from that I liked reading about the messy lives of these Britons who move to Italy only to find that their problems have moved right along with them. 

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Filed under Fiction, Parks Tim

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Filed under Non Fiction, Weldon, Fay