Howards End is on the Landing

This morning I stumbled across Susan Hill’s HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING – though “stumbled” is perhaps the wrong word as this book sits comfortably on my coffee table, on top of THE FOLKLORE OF DISCWORLD and THE LORE OF THE LAND. Hill’s book is about books, about the books she owns, the writers she has met, the books she has never read. Some passages are somewhat snobbish, and she could be accused of rather heavy name dropping, but still, I like her book because it always makes me think about my own library. (Besides, you can’t really blame her for babysitting Arnold Wesker’s children back in the 1960s.)

And thinking about my library this morning, made me realise that, for somebody teaching English Lit at university, I have rather plebeian tastes. Sure, I love Ludwig Tieck’s “Blond Eckbert”, and I adore E.T.A. Hoffmann’s KATER MURR as well as Gaskell’s NORTH AND SOUTH and CRANFORD. I have read and enjoyed Austen’s novels (yet I don’t like all of them). I prefer Thackeray to Dickens, and thought THE NEWCOMES a lot of fun. I’m very fond of Anna Seghers’s DAS SIEBTE KREUZ, which I once knew by heart (years I helped to prepare the centennary edition and had to read the whole novel about six times in as many weeks…). I have always enjoyed medieval literature, and thanks to Dorothy Dunnett I have fallen head over heels for late medieval and Renaissance poetry as well. Despite his suicidal maidens, I’m also very fond of Tennyson, and love a score of other poems and ballads.

Modern literary fiction, however, leaves me stone-cold. As a student I gave up on a seminar on Virginia Woolf because I considered her books tedious in the extreme. Robert Musil – dear heaven, when I struggled to get through DER MANN OHNE EIGENSCHAFTEN, most of the time I didn’t have the faintest, foggiest clue what the author was talking about (if any novel ever deserved the title of “loose, baggy monster” it’s this one!). Ondaatje, THE ENGLISH PATIENT – uhmm …. what’s the point??? And A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION bored me to tears because I thought it was so utterly predictable. I’m currently reading Alan Bennett’s THE UNCOMMON READER, which is funny, sure, but IMO, a short story would have done the trick just as well, or rather, even better. I’ve reached about the middle of the book, and I’m already getting impatient and wonder what the point of this story is. Where does it go? Indeed, I find that this is my biggest problem with a lot of mainstream as well as literary fiction: a story that kind of ambles along without a clear goal (e.g., solve the crime, get the two lovers together, kill off the hero, etc.) makes me itchy. What’s worse, a lot of it is pretentious and utterly depressing. Why the heck would I want to read a book that’s utterly depressing? If I want to get depressed, I switch on the news, thank you very much.

I wonder why literature written by dead people works so much better for me. Probably because said dead people were dependent on writing stuff that actually sold (don’t get me started on publishers‘ policies in regard to advances for literary fiction vs advances for popular fiction! sufficient to say that it makes my blood boil). Hence, they had to be entertaining. Moreover, I can more easily stomach the world view of dead white men, whereas I really don’t see the point of involving myself with the world view of living white men.

See? I admit it: when it comes to reading I’m a shameless sexist, with only a few exceptions, among them Terry Pratchett and Guy Gavriel Kay

This might not be so very obvious in my study, where the classics live and all my books on literature and British history. The other, the older, half of the inhabitants of the study are, perhaps, much more interesting: there, books on on doll houses and on building castles huddle next to books about wolves, dogs, and snails. There are books about nineteenth-century fashion, cooking and historical erotica, about Roman plumbing, mythological creatures, the history of gardening and about European china. This is the collection that goes back the furthest into my own history, the collection that was started twenty years ago or even more. No wonder then that I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I stand in front of these shelves and contemplate their contents.

Though the study contains the majority of classics I own, traces of classics can also be found in the library: Louisa May Alcott lives there as well as Frances Hodgson Burnett. WINNIE-THE-POOH hangs out somewhere, too. But for the most part, the library is filled with rows upon rows of romance novels (which can hardly come as a surprise to anybody who reads this blog!), some fantasy novels and mysteries. There’s Christie, of course, but also Sayers (a more recent addition) and Kerry Greenwood’s wonderful Phryne Fisher series. Next to Phryne, you’ll find some old green Penguins squeezed into the shelf. I got them secondhand a few months ago and thought about starting a collection of green Penguins, but quickly abandoned the idea once I saw how grubby the copies were that I got (and they had been deemed to be in good condition on abebooks!).

On another shelf rests a string of Mrs. Pollifax novels (written by Dorothy Gilman). I got the first of them ages ago on a holiday in Spain back in the 1980s. It was so hot that summer that all you could do was sleep or read, and naturally I chose to do the latter with the result that after a few days I had run out of reading material. So I snatched one of the novels Dad had brought with him. Now, THE PERFUME is a book that’s not exactly meant to be read by young teens, and so, not surprisingly, my parents took it away once they figured out what I was reading (that was the one and only time they forbade me to read a particular book). The very next day the family drove to Benidorm in search of suitable books for me. There wasn’t much on offer, really, that might interest an adolescent girl. I chose an anthology with short stories about cats, I believe (or was it an anthology about hobgoblins and ghosts?) (anyways, it obviously didn’t make much of an impression), and an omnibus edition of the first three Mrs. Pollifax novels. The subtitle read “3 heitere Romane in einem Band“, i.e. “three amusing novels in one volume“. “Amusing” sounded nice enough, if slightly old-fashioned, and the book certainly didn’t disappoint. A few years later I was thrilled to discover that Gilman had written even more Mrs. Pollifax novels, though none of them, imo, is quite as charming as THE UNEXPECTED MRS. POLLIFAX

Several of my favourite novels are grouped together in a cabinet in my hallway, right next to the dining table. It contains some childhood favourites – Rosemary Sutcliff, Auguste Lechner, and Henry Winterfeld, who made me fall in love with historical fiction. There are the German editions of Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthur trilogy and her BEACON AT ALEXANDRIA, Diana Paxon’s WHITE RAVEN, Penelope Williamson’s KEEPER OF THE DREAM, and Margaret Hodges’s AVENGER. On a lower shelf you can find Anne Rice’s vampires, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and German translations of Susanna Kearsley’s novels (for some strange reason, I’ve never read her in English). But the best-loved shelf of this cabinet is that which houses Dorothy Dunnett’s novels. I simply love the sight of the bright, colourful spines of the Penguin edition of the Lymond Chronicles (another sight that is bound to give me warm fuzzies). On top of her Johnson Johnson mysteries rest Tom S. Hall’s TRAMPING HOLIDAYS IN SCOTLAND, which I bought because it once belonged to Dunnett’s husband, Alastair Dunnett, and Mary Stewart’s THE WIND OFF THE SMALL ISLES, which I bought because it came with a letter from Dorothy Dunnett: in 1974 she had sent the book to a friend after a dinner invitation. “I don’t know anyone else,” she wrote, “with such a gift for sending their friends away at the end of a dinner not only full of lovely food and drink, but pleased with themselves in the bargain! Bless you both.” Judging from the letter, Dorothy Dunnett, bless her heart, was just as charming in real life as her novels lead one to believe. 🙂

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