Reading Challenge 2016: A Book Published Before You Were Born

 

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Barbara Comyns Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

(The 2016 Reading Challenge: A Book Published Before You Were Born. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and I was definitely born after that.)

I found a copy of Comyns’ novel in a charity shop, and bought it for its attention-grabbing title and beautiful cover – a reproduction of Stanley Spencer’s Marriage at Cana: Bride and Bridegroom (pictured above) – and very glad I am too that I managed to pick up this particular edition, because the newly repackaged Viragos are just hideous.New cover

See what I mean? More Barbara Pym than Barbara Comyns, I would say. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked Excellent Women, but I’m not champing at the bit to read anything else by Pym, whereas I’ve already put in orders for Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (the latter title is a quotation from Longfellow’s The Fire of Drift-wood).

There are quite a few reviews for Our Spoons Came From Woolworths on the interweb-thingy, all largely focused on the same points. To begin with, the book’s reviewers claim that it is mostly autobiographical in spite of its disclaimer, and there is certainly more than a passing similarity between the life of the fictional Sophia and that of her creator. Both married a fellow artist, both suffered extreme poverty, both left their husbands and worked as part of the domestic staff in a country house. However, the disclaimer states that

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty

My feeling is that it’s probably best not to overdo the biographical reading, especially as Comyns has asked you not to. But – and this is another point on which all the reviews agree – Comyns is plain in her wish that special attention be paid to the three chapters mentioned. These chapters deal with the birth of her first child and the absolutely appalling treatment to which she was subjected. Her fictional counterpart, Sophia, is only 21 years old and extremely frightened. In fact, and in reference to the reviews again, Sophia seems initially to have a fairly hazy notion of how babies are created in the first place and certainly has no idea how to prevent conception:

I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control.

The blame for her repeated pregnancies is laid very squarely at her door by her husband Charles and his awful mother, Eva:

She didn’t seem to think it was Charles’ baby – only mine, because later on, when I was upstairs putting on my coat, she kissed me quite kindly, but spoilt it by saying ‘I shall never forgive you, Sophia, for making my son a father at twenty-one.’

How dismal it must have been to be female in the 1930s. And this is before the NHS, of course, so to add insult to injury, Sophia had to find the money to pay for her wretched hospital birth. Once admitted, she is given an enema and a ‘large dose of castor oil’, which combine to render her helpless with sickness and diarrhoea. The nurses reprimand her every time she makes a mess and accuse her of having ’disgusting habits’. Sophia begins to feel that she has committed a criminal act in having a baby and is humiliated by the whole depressing experience:

they made me put my legs in kind of slings that must have been attached to the ceiling; besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully ashamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal.

Of course, the ghastly Charles can barely tolerate the child at all. Sophia tells us that

I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from.

I often heard the threat ‘I’ll kick you into the middle of next week’ when I was a kiddie and I always found this idea rather interesting, that a boot up the bum could be such a hearty one that the recipient would be propelled forward not only in space, but also in time, to arrive next Wednesday. That’s exactly what I’d like to do to selfish, narcissistic, lazy, pointless Charles.

Barbara Comyns-our-spoons-came-from-woolworths
Barbara Comyns

The story of Sophia’s early life is a woeful one, but apart from the chapters discussed here so far, it is told with such lightness of touch and such humour that it is a very amusing book. I wondered how this could have been achieved and pondered the sense of temporal distance that characterises the novel. I had already noted the lack of direct speech which Sophia herself comments on at the beginning of chapter nine: there is indeed some direct speech, but mostly the reader is following Sophia’s own account of events, and spoken utterances are generally rendered in indirect speech as they are filtered through Sophia’s voice. Sophia relates her tale to us exactly as she does to her friend Helen, which gives us the framing device for the story. There is slightly more to it than this, however. My understanding of the novel is that the distance is created because there is no second Sophia, the Sophia-narrator of the past. There is only the Sophia of the present, which explains why everything can be told so simply, with emotional reactions boiled down to bald statements such as ‘I felt very sad’ or ‘I was happy’. While the Sophia of the present day can remember that at such-and-such a period she was indeed very happy or very sad, she cannot describe her emotions as fully as she would have done at the time.

To clarify this further, let’s consider another semi-autobiographical novel such as David Copperfield. There are at least two narrators: the David of the present day, the one who is telling the story, and the David of the past, the one who is living the story. These two Davids are the same character, but two different enactors, because they exist in different time periods and one is older and knows much more than the other. But when the events of the novel are described, they are told from the younger David’s point of view and presented to the reader as the events are being experienced. And this, it seems to me, is the difference between Comyns’ novel and the conventions of biographical novels that one has come to expect. The tale is told by the present-day Sophia and there is no younger Sophia-enactor. This would account for the ever-present sense of distance.

The novel by no means suffers as a result of this device, however. On the contrary, it is refreshing – and no less emotionally charged for not giving way to lengthy lamentation. The reader is a human being after all, and is perfectly well equipped to imagine how Sophia must have felt without having it carefully spelt out.

Only one thing puzzles me: what happened to the war? The story is set in the 1930s and Sophia is relating events from a distance of eight years, so World War II must be in there somewhere. Sophia lives in London, leaving aside her three-year sojourn in the countryside, so must have noticed that there was a nasty war going on. But now I come to think of it, I’m not sure there is anything in the novel which definitively states that the events depicted actually are set in the thirties, although it is confidently claimed that this is the case in the blurb. Comyns herself spent the war working as a cook in a Hertfordshire country house.

I don’t know what to make of this, so at this point, I think we have to recall that Comyns told us quite plainly that apart from certain sections, this story isn’t true. A weedy cop-out on my part, I know. Everything else about the book tells you that the narrator shares the world we live in, but how to account for this huge chunk of missing history? Ah well. Virginia Woolf happily left the war out, as noted by a disapproving Katherine Mansfield.

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books: #4 ‘Eustace’ by S. J. Harris

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Eustace is new this year, and it’s astonishingly good. Like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, it’s a work of two halves, although with Eustace I’m afraid both halves are tragic: there’s no happy ending here, in spite of the dramatic turn of events when Uncle Lucien (‘Lucy’) shows up almost exactly half-way through.

The first half of the book is really quite remarkable. Our narrator is Eustace, a terminally ill eight-year-old boy who is confined to his bed. On the face of it, there’s not much scope for narrativity given that Eustace is so ill he can barely move and his room is bare and unfurnished; however, Eustace manages to be an entertaining narrator nevertheless. We learn about his parents’ appalling neglect, his mother’s unhealthy fixation on Frank, her eldest son, Eustace’s dread of physical contact with his aunties, the ghastliness of his boisterous cousins, his ineffectual uncles, and the unsavoury doctor, who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believes Eustace to be a time-wasting malingerer. Eustace addresses the reader directly and it becomes clear in the second half of the book that these theatrical ‘asides’ are, in fact, clearly audible to the others present, and Eustace’s guests can’t understand why the boy is chattering away to himself all the time. The reader is cast in the role of ‘invisible stranger’ rather than ‘invisible friend’ (Eustace won’t allow invisible friends in the house anymore), and we are at first rather taken aback to learn that Eustace’s words are overheard by the characters. This is one of the ways in which Harris goes about breaking the fourth wall, as it were. There’s another example of this sort of thing on page 21 when Eustace tells us that Frank is in the army, but the image of Frank changes in the following frame when Eustace realises that the uniform Frank is wearing as he stands next to the bed is probably outdated. The story constantly draws attention to itself, and we are repeatedly reminded that none of this is real. Free and imaginative use is made of space and frames: for example, parts of the picture fade or disappear, often leaving Eustace stranded and floating in white space.

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The pictures fade to blankness when Eustace asks the reader to leave so he can use the chamber pot. The effect of all this is twofold: first, the reader is given a role in the story and is actually addressed as a presence in the room, and second, one is led to ask just how much of what we see is actually just a figment of Eustace’s imagination. A small boy confined to bed has to find some way of passing the time, after all. There is a scene in which the aunties actually start devouring Eustace’s cousins, all of which is clearly in the small boy’s mind: he imagines on page 38 that when his aunties tell him he has a label sticking out, they are in reality pulling at his clothes in order to shove a bayleaf down his back before running to the kitchen to switch the oven on.

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And there’s something in the artwork I don’t think I’ve ever seen before – a smaller frame taking up a fraction of the larger frame to suggest not just movement, but a passing moment. On page 143, Eustace begins to address his father, but gives it up as a bad job, and the reader sees in one panel both Eustace’s abortive attempt to get his father’s attention and his angry, despairing expression a second or two later. It’s very effective, and in this instance, very moving.

Eustace’s days are enlivened by the visits of his aunties, one of whom has a splendid left hook and manages to give Eustace a lovely shiner with a blow meant for one of the other aunties. Aunty Nin’s catty remark (‘in that hat, which you wear so relentlessly, my dear, you remind me of one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – and his horse’) is what sparks the row, and Nin’s retaliatory left hook goes wide of the mark and knocks poor Eustace out. A steak is brought for his eye, and in the pages following, the reader travels with Eustace through his nightmare landscape of the unconscious. Pages 102-105 are the most beautiful and the most disturbing in the whole book. Eustace, still in his pyjamas, wanders through a bleak landscape until he comes across a horribly wounded man tied to a tree with barbed wire. The man has no legs and his blood flows freely. The man is posed as a Christ figure, or perhaps St Sebastian, but he is identified as Frank when men in uniform rumble past in their tanks shouting ‘Three cheers for Frank!’ The family resemblance between Eustace and Frank is so strong that Eustace could almost be looking at himself in the figure tied to the tree. He drives away two crows who are eating what’s left of Frank’s legs and sobs, ‘Oh Frank, what have they done to you?’ and Frank responds with ‘Eustace? That you, old thing?’ Eustace attempts to caress Frank’s poor face, but as he does so, Frank’s mouth melts and in the following frames, his entire body liquefies. Eustace wakes up with a start to find a bloody steak on his face.

Disturbing though this is, the second half of the book demands a stronger stomach still. Uncle Lucy is wanted by the police for crimes of fraud and embezzlement and is ‘lying doggo’ until he can find a way out of London. Uncle Lucy sets up camp in Eustace’s room, and is soon joined by a succession of criminals, whores, pimps and many other characters from London’s underworld. In fact, Eustace’s bedroom becomes The Place To Be, but there is a catch: Uncle Lucy won’t allow anyone to leave in case the police are alerted to his whereabouts. Now everyone is a prisoner in Eustace’s room, and this includes the reader, being, as we are, one of Eustace’s inventions. Eustace was imprisoned before by his illness, but now he is under threat of physical violence if he makes any attempt to leave. All this is very odd and the reader is left wondering whether any of it can be real, but, unreliable narrator though he is, even Eustace couldn’t make this up: an eight-year-old boy as sheltered as Eustace could not possibly be able to imagine the goings-on of the second half of the book. In fact, he quite clearly doesn’t understand what he sees. The reader knows a great deal more than the child-narrator and reads events very differently: we know what Frank and Peter are doing under the bed, and what Uncle Lucy and Oubliette are doing in the wardrobe, but Eustace doesn’t. We read the pictures differently and Eustace is no longer in control, as he was when he re-imagined Frank’s uniform.

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The book ends with a newspaper report detailing how the events of the book play themselves out, but this tongue-in-cheek report is obviously not designed to fool the reader into believing that anything narrated here actually took place. Nevertheless, it adds yet another inscrutable layer to this surreal tale. I can’t recommend it highly enough…but be warned: the second half in particular is graphic in every sense.