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Stuff I’ve Been Reading December 2018/January 2019

Stuff I’ve Been Reading December 2018/January 2019

Nick Hornby
2 Snaps

BOOKS READ:

  • Rosamond Lehmann—Selina Hastings
  • The Echoing Grove—Rosamond Lehmann
  • The Weather in the Streets—Rosamond Lehmann
  • Invitation to the Waltz—Rosamond Lehmann
  • Grant and I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens—Robert Forster

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker—Charles Webb
  • The Weather in the Streets—Rosamond Lehmann
  • Invitation to the Waltz—Rosamond Lehmann
  • The Gypsy’s Baby—Rosamond Lehmann
  • Princes in the Land—Joanna Cannan
  • The Idiot—Elif Batuman

How and why did I spend a few weeks, mostly on vacation, immersed in the life and works of Rosamond Lehmann, an author I had never read before? I hadn’t planned to read her, particularly. It just happened. I have been feeling sufficiently baffled by my dedication that I decided to retrace my steps, and I now see that the journey started a couple of years ago, on holiday in Dorset. My family and several others stay in a big house there every year, and one of the many reasons we keep going back is the little market town of Bridport. And while it is not strictly necessary to provide an account of Bridport’s appeal before coming to grips with a Bloomsbury novelist who, as far as I know, never went anywhere near the place (Bridport, not Bloomsbury), I’m going to do it anyway.

Bridport contains two proper secondhand-book shops, an excellent independent bookshop, a decent Waterstones, a secondhand-record shop, and a fantastic hat shop called Snook’s. I live in Islington, North London, and we’ve got a Waterstones and a secondhand-record shop. In other words, Bridport is now more interesting than North London, if we’re talking about the Saturday retail experience. When I was young, I used to travel twenty-five miles to London so I could buy the books, records, and clothes I wanted; now it’s the other way around. Nobody can afford to own an independent store in my city, and maybe not in yours, either, and as a consequence, surprises and hats have been rendered nearly impossible to find. This year I found in Bridport vinyl copies of albums I’d wanted by Buddy Rich, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Florence, and Stan Kenton, among others, at a record fair in the back of a church, and a paperback copy of an old Charles Webb book I’d never come across; the summer before last, I bought a beautiful 1953 edition of Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove in one of the used-book stores. That was step one of three.

Step two: The Echoing Grove sat on a shelf, lovely but unopened, until this year, when I was looking at my shelves for holiday reading and picked up not The Echoing Grove but another unread book, a paperback copy of Selina Hastings’s biography of Lehmann, obtained from I don’t know where, very possibly Bridport. It looked great, garlanded with quotes about its readability and gossip and charm and wisdom, but can one read four hundred pages about a literary life without reading the literature first? I decided I couldn’t, and opted for the novel.

Step three: I was talking to a friend about Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, which I loved, and my friend compared it to Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets, one of her favorite books, she said. So then I wanted to read The Weather in the Streets as well as the biography, but first I had to finish The Echoing Grove, and then I received an email from said friend warning me that I wasn’t allowed to look at The Weather in the Streets without buying An Invitation to the Waltz, a prequel of sorts, so I was stuffed: I had to read four books by and/or about the same woman. And now you’re stuffed too. You have to read a column about four books by or about the same woman, a woman of whom you’ve probably never or barely heard. Yours is the less onerous task, but that may mean you don’t read the next couple thousand words. Life is short, and there are many demands on your time. I understand.

Rosamond Lehmann was born in 1901, and if that’s what I’m starting with, it looks like I’ll be writing about the biography first. She wasn’t born difficult, as far as one can tell, but she grew up to be a beautiful woman, and if you think that’s neither here or there, then Selina Hastings would tell you different: her beauty had a profound influence on her writing, and one could argue that it wrecked her life. Glamorous men fell in love with her, but when they left her, unable to cope with her constant craving for adoration, she, too, was unable to cope. Her sense of betrayal when she was abandoned by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis (father of the actor Daniel) was such that, in 1982, she said to a friend, “There is only one person in my life I know I haven’t forgiven.” By this point, Day-Lewis had been dead for ten years, and he’d given her the elbow in 1950. He had been married to somebody else for the duration of his relationship with Lehmann, and she had been sexually unfaithful to him at least once (with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond). For a writer of such extraordinary sensitivity, she found it awfully hard to hear what she sounded like. When Day-Lewis told her he had fallen in love with someone else, she insisted that he see a psychiatrist, insanity being the only explanation she could think of for his betrayal. After the tragic early death of her beloved daughter, Sally, she became a spiritualist and spoke to Sally quite regularly; perhaps inevitably, Day-Lewis popped up from the other side to say “in a very dead voice”—well, there might be an explanation for that—“how wretched he was, and implored me to forgive him.”

Lehmann’s subject was love, in her life and in her fiction, and there isn’t as much as there might have been of the latter, partly because there was an awful lot of the former. There were two tempestuous marriages, and a long affair with the writer, Marxist, and temporary Soviet agent Goronwy Rees, a man with the notable distinction of appearing on Google immediately if you type in the first six letters of his first name; as she got older, she contented herself with seducing her son’s friends. “What’s been good for the music hasn’t always been so good for the life,” Ben Folds sings in his song “Phone in a Pool,” but of course it’s very good indeed for a biography. The harder a writer works, the duller the story, by and large, and Lehmann’s half dozen novels and stories over a fifty-year period leave plenty of room for fascinating and occasionally exasperating trouble.

If you like it when recognizable historical figures wander in and out of a biography, then Hastings’s account of Lehmann’s April of 1958 is for you: Lehmann dined with Mr. and Mrs. Stravinsky and the Huxleys at one party, and Mel Ferrer, Lauren Bacall, David O. Selznick, and Joan Fontaine at another. Her biography is good, too, if, like me, you’re endlessly fascinated by the working lives of writers. There is plenty here about advances and sales, and some of the figures are startling. Lehmann’s fourth novel, The Ballad and the Source, sold six hundred thousand copies in the US, and the film rights went for a quarter of a million dollars—in 1945. And yet Lehmann’s career died—but was completely reborn in the 1980s by the feminist publishing house Virago, which republished her when many of her novels had fallen out of print. It’s never over.

There is also, as you may have guessed, plenty here about the peculiar domestic arrangements of early twentieth-century bohemians. We are, I would guess, much prissier by comparison, but maybe it’s because we’ve heard about the disastrous and frankly exhausting experiments of previous generations: Cecil Day-Lewis had a two-months-on, two-months-off thing going with his wife and Rosamond, and it nearly killed him. For Day-Lewis, falling for a third party, the actress Jill Balcon—that “grotesque little piece of human material”; that “ghastly, over-emotional, fawning creature,” as Lehmann wrote, with her usual staggering gall—and divorcing everyone else must have seemed like the simplest, wisest, kindest course of action.

The Echoing Grove, the novel I began with, is a good place to start, it turns out. It’s not Lehmann’s best book—I will announce the winner of that coveted award later—but it quickly lets you know what the author is about. There’s a delicate, complicated opening chapter, a scene between two apparently long-estranged sisters, full of repressed feeling that we can’t yet source, and then a flashback, sudden switches between third- and first-person narrative, lots of ellipses… We’re somewhere between Austen and Woolf, but the story that emerges through the faint modernist mist is strikingly fresh and dark. The estrangement between the sisters is explained: Dinah had a passionate, anguished affair with Madeleine’s husband before his sudden death. Yeah, well, that would makes Christmases awkward. It’s a deeply unhappy book, written over several years and published three years after Lehmann’s traumatic split from Day-Lewis; whether the author identifies with the betrayed Madeleine or the heartbroken Dinah is anyone’s guess. She was certainly at home in both camps, even though she always seemed to see herself as more sinned against than sinning. I was properly converted to fandom by one phrase: Rickie, Madeleine’s husband, describes the naturally contented daughter born out of his attempt to settle back into his marriage as “a laughing matter.” This coinage seemed to me so simply elegant, so clever in its reversal of positive to negative, that I knew I wanted to stick around and see what else she could do.

Cynics would say that the difference between The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove is easy to spot: in The Weather in the Streets, there is no sister, just adultery, and it’s true that the two novels are not as different as they might be. Rollo Spencer, the errant husband in Weather, as we Lehmannites (Lehmings? Rosies?) call it, could easily be mistaken for Rickie in The Echoing Grove: both are charming, handsome, wealthy, not as cultured as their femmes fatales. But then adultery is one of Lehmann’s subjects, just as Rembrandt is one of Rembrandt’s, and it is a pretty good one, and one not usually approached with such frankness, especially back then. And The Weather in the Streets contains a wonderful, chilling scene in which Rollo’s powerful, privileged mother visits Olivia, the protagonist, who is sleeping with her married son, to warn her off. I can’t recall ever feeling such fear while reading a novel about love and adultery. Even the ones where one of the three parties goes nuts and start stabbing people aren’t as scary as Lady Spencer.

My favorite Lehmann book, though, is An Invitation to the Waltz, which is entirely successful in a way the others aren’t, quite possibly because it’s the shortest. The other two I read are baggier, and contain minor characters whom Lehmann doesn’t seem to know or ever come to grips with—sinister Communist doctors living in the demimonde of the East End (Lehmann was more Knightsbridge than Whitechapel; that is, more Upper West Side than Bronx) and peculiarly drawn working-class Lotharios. Invitation is as disciplined and single-minded as an early Nicholson Baker book; Olivia, the hapless adulteress in Weather, is ten years older, about to attend a dance at the Spencers’, and the novel is entirely taken up with her preparations and the big night itself. It could have been a book about nothing, but it’s a book about everything, or at least everything from Olivia’s viewpoint. It’s the beginning of the world, or the beginning of her emotional life, anyway, which is the same thing, according to Lehmann, and the jumbled intensity, the triumphs and disasters of the evening, form a superbly effective mosaic. So there we have it—that’s the headline. You must read Invitation to the Waltz. I’m sorry if you feel I took too long to get to that point.

Any suspicions long-term readers of this column may have had that it was artfully sculpted in some way, with literary themes elegantly educed from carefully chosen works of fiction and nonfiction, will hopefully be allayed by the inclusion of Robert Forster’s Grant and I. What kind of idiot would end a consideration of the life and works of Rosamond Lehmann by writing about the beloved Australian indie-rock band the Go-Betweens? Well, I’m afraid there was nothing to be done. My reading is chaotic—like everybody’s, I’m guessing.

The Go-Betweens meant and still mean a great deal to me. I can’t explain why, but once a week or so I find myself singing a couplet from the song “The Wrong Road,” from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, one of my favorite albums, and one of the few bright spots to illuminate the musical wasteland of the 1980s. Grant and I is the story of the band, which is also the story of Forster’s relationship with Grant McLennan, the band’s cofounder and Forster’s songwriting partner, friend, burden, savior, teacher, and student. McLennan died at the age of forty-eight from a heart attack, and so, unhappily, the book describes the entirety of the relationship, in the way that Just Kids describes both the beginning and the end of Patti Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Grant and I is above all about being in a band that never quite made enough money or achieved enough success, even though all the music papers and everyone I knew back then loved them; unfortunately, music critics and my friends were not representative of the world at large. Forster writes really well about songwriting, touring, the fraught and fractured relationships that blight and define a collaborative life in the arts.

But this book ended up catching me by surprise in all sorts of ways. Forster is the same age as me, but in spite of living, for much of his life, on the other side of the world, his frame of reference is thrillingly similar to my own. And just as Lehmann charmed me with her “laughing matter,” Forster got me with this: “[I] thought I was the smartest person at the university. Yes, really. It just didn’t show up in my grades. How could it, when what I valued, a messy mix of high and low culture, wasn’t being taught on campus. I knew I had something no one else had, but what?” My university life! Described in a book! Forty years too late, but still! Thank you, Robert. Oh, and he used to live up the road from me, and I never knew, and Grant and I contains a loving paragraph describing the charms of my neighborhood—my street, even. I was going to wedge this book in here whether it belonged or not.

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