Friday, October 21, 2011

Peek Freans redux

It was clear from the general drift of reviews by James Wood at the New Yorker and Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books that readers were not finding Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child an achievement on the order of The Line of Beauty, which is high on my own personal shortlist of novels at the perfect intersection of critical interestingness and passionate reader-love; now that I've read the new novel, I wouldn't say that I agree with all of the specifics of either critic's anatomizing of the book's flaws and failures (Wood is much too harsh on the Jamesian echoes, Mendelson emphasizes The Swimming Pool Library too much at the expense of The Folding Star which I am convinced is Hollinghurst's other masterpiece and the book I must soonest reread, I also don't at all see that it would have been a good idea for Hollinghurst to produce more of 'Cecil Valance''s poetry a-la-Possession), but there's no doubt that it doesn't add up to something especially substantial, as lovely as the bits may be. I enjoyed it a good deal, though, and I may give it a reread in six months or so to see if it shakes out differently for me at that point.

(I was fascinated by the way that in the section titled 'Steady, boys, steady!' the protagonist of Line of Beauty has here been split into two different characters, Peter and Paul; it's something like what Austen does, sequentially, as she rewrites pairs of heroines from Sense and Sensibility to Pride and Prejudice to Mansfield Park.)

Phrases that struck and pleased me:

- of a teacher, doing something at 9.35, "with the recurrent momentary dread and resolve that come with living by a timetable";

- of the same character's playing four-hand piano music with an older female character who is a much better pianist than he is (I love four-hands piano music as it was something my mother played now and again in my childhood, very well, an appealing mini-canon of early twentieth-century stuff):
There was an undeniable intimacy in the four-hand sessions with Corinna. Sharing her piano stool, he had a sense of the complete firmness of her person, her corseted side and hard bust, their hips rolling together as they reached and occasionally crossed on the keyboard. As the secondo player he did all the pedalling, but her legs sometimes jerked against his as if fighting the impulse to pedal herself. The contact was technical, of course, like that in sport, and not to be confused with other kinds of touching. None the less he felt she enjoyed it, she liked the businesslike rigour of its not being sexual as well as the unmentionable fraction by which it was.
- the pastiche bit of Dudley Valance's autobiography that describes his mother's "book tests," spiritualist exercises in the library

- of the callow young aspiring biographer, visiting an editor at the offices of the TLS as the "trolley stacked high with tightly bound bales of newsprint" arrives: "In a moment the plastic tape was snipped, and the top copy plucked up and turned and presented to Paul with a casual flourish: 'For you!' - the new TLS - Friday's TLS, ready two days early, 'hot off the press' someone said, enjoying his reactions, though in fact the paper was cool to the touch, even slightly damp" (and then the last sentences of the chapter, a few paragraphs later: "He kept his copy of the day-after-tomorrow's TLS under his arm, which he wanted very much to be seen with. He didn't think the people in the street here were getting the point of it - but back in the North Reading-Room of the British Library he felt it might stir a good deal of envy and conjecture" - the repetition of the letters TLS is almost like the barouche-landau in Emma)

And finally, because I have had a longstanding obsession with the Peek Freans 'fruit creme' biscuit, a childhood favorite that recently somewhat unfortunately reentered my current realm of preoccupation by way of the ruminations and biscuit-eating practices of Walter on Fringe (I almost bought exactly this box of biscuits in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, only it was not the moment - but I was certainly looking at them longingly! - the name itself is so mouth-alluring and peculiar to the eye, it's definitely part of the charm, though I am not underrating the appeal of the 'creme' and also the tug of the surprisingly chewy fruit jelly in the cookie that is the one I particularly like):
Next morning Paul sat in his hotel room, going over his notes, with a coffee tray beside him: the pitted metal pot with the untouchable handle, the lipsticked cup, the bowl of white sugar in soft paper tubes which he emptied serially into the three strong cupfuls he took, getting quickly excited and overheated. On a plate with a doily were five biscuits, and though he'd only just had breakfast he ate them all, the types so familiar - the Bourbon, the sugared Nice, the rebarbative ginger-nut, popped in whole - that he was touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life, as crystallized in the Peek Frean assortment box.
Light reading around the edges: Nina Kiriki Hoffman's A Red Heart of Memories (a Jo Walton recommendation); Elizabeth Haynes's Into the Darkest Corner (very good, very scary) and Thomas Enger's Burned (also very good, I thought - showing slightly the signs of inexperience in the writing, but I will eagerly read subsequent installments in the series); and another crime novel I found somewhat silly, Colin Cotterill's Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, it just arrived for me at the library and I did not pick it up yet because I need not to be distracted from this Beattie review. But I wish a little that I hadn't read this!