Savouring time – First Class train travel and first class reading

September 15, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Posted in Burgundy - description, Gail Honeyman, loneliness in literature, Sally Rooney | 1 Comment
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In the days when we had time for afternoon tea …

I used to go into the Co-op Bookshop at ANU in the 1990s, in those days when workers had time for afternoon tea and when the university bookshop used to sell a wide range of high quality books, not today’s electronic gadgets and toys and, apparently as an afterthought, some course handbooks. I used to go there with a friend at afternoon-tea sometimes and he’d say, ‘Prize and size, Penny. Find me a book that’s won something, and find me something brief. Life is short. I don’t have time for 300 page novels.’

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is 383 pages but my old friend would be whipping through it in no time like I’ve just done. And what it might lose in size it makes up for in prize: many prizes. Gail Honeyman’s novel (HarperCollins, 2017) won the Costa First Novel Award for 2017, the British Book Awards Book of the Year for 2018 and several others, including the Specsavers National Book Award for Popular Fiction, as well as making it onto lots of award shortlists and longlists.

Eleanor Oliphant lives an ordered life in Glasgow with defined boundaries and carefully built up habits. She has her job in a Graphic Design office – but not, as she’s quick to point out, doing anything in the creative department. At lunch-time she eats her sandwich in the staff room and does the Telegraph cryptic crossword. That’s where her Classics degree comes in handy.

Outlining her weekend routine takes only a sentence or two and then what comes next tells us everything we need to know about her circumstances: ‘Monday takes a long time to come around.’

In publishing circles they say that all first novels are flawed. The author of this novel doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s hard to believe that this is her first.

Often a writer has written some unpublished novel manuscripts before one is finally accepted. Tim Parks and Iris Murdoch wrote four and five novels each before being successfully published. That means that their (apparent) first novels made quite a splash since the quality was so far above the average first novel.

Either Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is not actually the first novel that Gail Honeyman has written or she’s a genius. If the latter’s the case, good luck to her, and lucky for us, her grateful readers!

A unique voice

The most striking thing for me about this novel is the unique voice of the protagonist – it’s impossible to listen to her over-formal syntax and incongruously erudite vocabulary without being convinced that hereby hangs a tale.

And what a tale it is. Once you start reading this novel, you’ll be neglecting other things you should be doing in order to keep reading. Eleanor Oliphant’s voice expresses a sophisticated education and astute social commentary combined with spectacular inexperience and naivete. This allows ample scope for plenty of dramatic irony, you know – that enjoyable situation where we readers know more than the character does – for example, here’s one of her observations about her work mates:

‘It never ceases to amaze me, the things they find interesting, amusing or unusual. I can only assume they’ve led very sheltered lives.’

This novel is so easy to read not only because of the protagonist’s unique voice but also because of the author’s perfectly judged suspense, pacing, structure and best of all humour. This book might deal with some distressing issues but it is hilarious.

‘A wild new landscape of experience’

I’ve been travelling on European trains and in between looking at fields and rivers it’s relaxing to think, to do a bit of my own writing, and to read. (And if you’re of these persuasions I can tell you that, for some countries, like Ireland, it now makes all the difference to shell out only a little extra back in Australia for a First Class Eurail Pass. Sadly, as in the UK, the notion of private affluence, pubic squalour has never seemed so relevant.)

Gail Honeyman’s novel, about loneliness and the evolution of empathy, about alienation and loss, and about the power of kindness and the possibility of love, is the best book I’ve read in a very long time. It definitely deserves all those prizes.

The novel I read before that one was also about a damaged young woman, this time set in Dublin: Sally Rooney’s Normal People. It also is powerfully original. Rooney’s use of language in this forensic exploration of a relationship soars into new territory in depicting intimacy and examining the scars on the soul.

It starts with Marianne and Connell, from different social classes, still at school, and we travel with them through their student years at Trinity College, Dublin, to life beyond university.

When I was young, grownups sometimes said something unfathomable to me at the time: ‘I wouldn’t be young again for quids!’ I was reminded of this expression when reading this novel. We relive the intensity, social awkwardness and the inchoate yearning quality of adolescence, explored with a fresh rawness that gets under our skin.

Once at university Marianne and Connell’s social positions seem to reverse, bringing a different dynamic but no real change, especially in Marianne’s case, to the troubled soul within, and of course no change to Connell’s precarious financial situation.

The tough battle towards self acceptance

Chekhov said, ‘Real drama is soul drama’ and Sally Rooney is exceptionally gifted at examining the inner life of her protagonists and presenting it in all its discomfort, pain and anguish. Her description of landscape is also penetrating:

‘Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way grey stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea colour of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic.’

The novel explores the tough battle that we, most of us, must fight: the battle towards self-acceptance. There is much accomplished, graceful witty dialogue among their group of academically gifted young people, but mostly the other characters fade into the background since the author focuses on the central figures of Marianne and Connell, ‘like figure skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both.’

It’s quite a journey we travel with the alternating perspectives of the two main characters. This novel is a profound exploration of what ‘normal’ is, as we see in the ramifications behind all kinds of relationships depicted in it and in the agonising vicissitudes within the relationship of Marianne and Connell. It’s no surprise that this novel was nominated for the (2018) Man Booker Prize.

Finding ‘myself in someone else’s words’

And between reading these novels on trains I stayed at the home of friends who live part of the year in a mediaeval village in Burgundy. It’s wine country, with flourishing bright green vineyards, cascades of red, yellow, white and blue flowers bordering walls of mellow creamy-golden stone. It has friendly people and fantastic food, and enough marvels geological and archaeological, as well as culinary, to fill a lifetime.

In my friends’ own walled garden, between lots of laughs and every evening red wine of a delectable smoothness and depth, I read one of their many books: Why I Read: The serious pleasure of books by Wendy Lesser (Farrar, Straus & Girroux, 2014). Lesser reads ‘[t]o savor the existence of time. To escape from myself into someone else’s world. To find myself in someone else’s words.’

It’s been such a pleasure to find all this and more in the books I’ve read on this trip, between looking at landscapes and churches, castles and gaols, between cordon bleu meals and bread and cheese. I could write about those things and about the wonderful people I’ve met, old friends and new, but this blog focuses on literature and language and the former topics would make a different sort of blog.

Now it is off to climb the high hill I see close to my bedroom window. It’s so green it looks artificial and from its top, my landlord* tells me, I’ll be able to see all the way over to County Galway, County Clare and County Kerry.

* In deference to my esteemed and noble host I feel I must attach this Post Script. “That’s the first time in my life I have been called a landlord,” he said to me mock sternly after reading the above. It was at the dinner table the evening after the Sabbath night as we sat before what I soon confirmed to be excellent repast.

I also should confess that I used a modicum of artistic licence in bringing the bright green hill closer to my window than in actual fact it is. Details like these contribute to the sensation (an entirely pleasurable one, I assure you, dear reader) of being somehow trapped in a Victorian novel.

1 Comment »

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  1. Lovely blog Pen. It made me want to rush over and share those trains & landscapes (& Jan & Chris’s Burgundy walled garden) immediately!

    Not sure if replying to this blog will work so I’ll email separately soon. I have a visitor till Wed & we’ve been busy.

    Seems you are enjoying your trip.


    Sent from my iPad


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