Time to talk about Paris ….

That’s Paris in July, hosted for a third year by Karen at Book Bath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea.

A celebration of the French capital, taking in books, cinema, music, food …

I’ve been pondering books for a while now, and I have come up with far more wonderful possibilities than I could ever read in a single month.

There are the older classics:

Three French writers from the 19th century have been calling me for a while now, and I so want to read Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.

I’m not entirely sure which of their books I shall read, but I’m  drawn to Bel-Ami, Pot Luck and Père Goriot at the moment.

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There are the 20th century classics:

I must confess that I had quite forgotten that Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché was a book before a film until I picked up a used copy a little while ago. I wonder how the two will compare.

I love her writing, and so I know that The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen will be a joy.

And I now that whenever I need a book to fit a particular theme I will fins something on my Virago shelves: this time it’s Pillion Riders by Elizabeth Russell Taylor.

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And there’s wonderful, real history:

I want to read Liberty by Lucy Moore, the story of the women caught up in the French Revolution.

The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler, true stories of crime and detection from La Belle Epoque, looks wonderful.

And when I caught sight of a lovely new edition of Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford I remembered that I had an old Penguin edition of that same biography waiting at home.

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So I have a wonderful pool of books to choose from, and I’m sure I will discover more when Paris in July arrives.

There will be films and music too, but I’ll write about that another day.

Do you have plans for Paris in July? Or recommendations maybe?

I Found a Heroine to Cherish … and I Share Her Taste in Books …

I picked up my copy of ‘The Lighthearted Quest’ by Ann Bridge in a second-hand bookshop some time ago. It looked wonderful, but when I learned that it was the first in a series of eight, and that all were out of print, I decided that I must track down the other seven before I began to read.

There are few things more infuriating than getting part way through a series and coming to a grinding halt!

I found three more books with ease, two more with a little difficulty, but the last two remained elusive. Why does that happen so often when I try to collect a series or an author I wonder?

But luck was on my side – Bloomsbury is about to reissue all eight books, and so I will be able to fill in the gaps.

A couple of days ago I picked up that first book, and I finally met Julia Probyn. I found her to be such an engaging heroine, with charm, vitality and intelligence, and I am having a lovely time following her through Morocco.

I shall endeavour to write more before too long but here, by way of a teaser, is that passage illuminating Julia’s taste inliterature:

“… In many if those houses they came across small round baths, six feet or more across and around the depth of a modern bath, cemented within, their raised rims decorated with designs in mosaic: one of these bore a pattern of gold-fish. Julia was instantly reminded of Linda’s bath, with the swimming gold-fish in its side in ‘The Pursuit of Love’, and was ravished; she drew Mr. St John’s attention to this resemblance, and he gave his dry prehistoric chuckle. They had to explain the joke to the airman, who had not read Nancy Mitford, and was less amused …”

Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford

“… this was all very sudden and unexpected and has caused us inconvenience in a thousand ways, but the most unfortunate part of it is that we had arranged, as usual, several large hunting parties at Dalloch Castle, I wrote and asked your father and mother if they would go up there and act as host and hostess, but Sylvia tells me that they have to pay their annual visit to Baden just then. It occurred to me that perhaps you and Walter are doing nothing during August and September, in which case it would be a real kindness to us if you would stay at Dalloch and look after our guests… If you decide to go we will send you up in the car and you must invite some of your own friends…”

Sally and Walter jumped at the chance. They were young, madly in love and very poor. Well, in London in 1931 a thousand a year wasn’t a lot to live in. Walter had tried working, but with the cost of a new wardrobe, taxis and lunches it was never going to pay, was it?

Yes, they were totally irresponsible, but I couldn’t help but be charmed.

They took up the offer to bring some of their own friends.

There was Walter’s school-friend, Albert, a surrealist painter home from Paris for his first London exhibition. And there was Sally’s good friend Jane, who found Albert quite irresistable.

And so it was that four bright young things set out for the highlands to meet the hunting, shooting and fishing set. They really didn’t understand each other at all, and that led to some wonderfully entertainment.

Jane couldn’t get to grips with shooting etiquette at all, while Albert was quite taken aback by some of the conversation about art. But they entertained wonderfully with some brilliant pranks.

Just occasionally things dragged a little, but there was always the promise of something more interesting around the corner.

Yes, this was definitely the kind of house party that would be the subject of anecdotes for many years to come.

It all ended with great drama. But, of course that wasn’t really the end. There were consequences for everybody and when the story ended all of the loose ends had been tied very nicely.

Along the way there was dazzling wit, high comedy, great drama and pitch perfect dialogue.

Experienced Mitford watchers may well be able to see echoes of the family and roots of characters from later, better known books. Certainly the characters rang true, but they were very simply drawn, and that lack of definition may have stopped this book from really singing.

And so I couldn’t say that Highland Fling is a great book, but it really is great fun.

You really do need to read it to enjoy all the details!

Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

Pigeon Pie

Sophia is wealthy, idle and bored. When war is declared she hopes that it will bring some excitement into her life.

“Sophia Garfield had a clear mental picture of what the outbreak of war would be like. There would be a loud bang, succeeded by inky darkness and a cold wind. Stumbling over heaps of rubble and dead bodies, Sophia would search with industry, but without hope, for her husband, her lover and her dog. It was in her mind like the End of the World, or the Last Days of Pompeii, and for more than two years now she had been steeling herself to bear with fortitude the hardships, both mental and physical, that must accompany this cataclysm.”

But the reality of 1939 and the “phony war” doesn’t quite live up to Sophia’s expectations. Life changes little. She finds herself employed at a first aid post with little to actually do.

It is particularly galling that most of her friends seemed to be occupied with secret missions of huge importance. Wouldn’t Sophia have made a wonderful, glamorous spy?!

And eventually she gets her chance. Sophia finds spies in her own home and, when nobody takes her seriously, she sets out to find proof. Along the way she will encounter threats, betrayal, kidnapping and much more.

Pigeon Pie is badly dated – a book about the war written in 1939 and published in 1940 is bound to be – but there is much to enjoy.

The story has a lovely blend of entertainment and satire. Nancy Mitford pokes fun at her characters, but it is clear that, underneath at all, she does love them.

Sophia is quite charming and her supporting cast is wonderful – her social rival Olga Gogothsky (nee Baby Bagg), and her godfather Ivor King (The King of Song), are particularly enjoyable.

The tone is maybe a little uneven, but when the wit works it really does sparkle.

“Rather soon after the war had been declared it became obvious that nobody intended it to begin. The belligerent countries were behaving like children in a round game, picking up sides, and until all of the sides had been picked the game could not start.

England picked up France, Germany picked up Italy, England beckoned to Poland, Germany answered with Russia. Then Italy’s Nanny said that she had fallen down, running, and mustn’t play. England picked up Turkey, Germany picked up Spain, but Spain’s Nanny said she had internal troubles and must sit this one out. England looked towards the Oslo group, but they had never played before, except little Belgium, who had hated it, and the others felt shy. America, of course, was too much of a baby for such a grown-up game, but she was just longing to see it played. And still it would not begin.”

It is understandable that Pigeon Pie is not as well known as much of Nancy Mitford’s other works, but it is still a charming curio of its period.

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-1973

curzon-st

Nancy Mitford was, for a number of years, a bookseller.

Between 1942 and 1945 she was employed in Heywood Hill’s bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, and effectively ran the business when he was called up for war service.

Her interest in the shop continued when she moved to France after the war and she corresponded with Heywood Hill right up to the month before she died in 1973.

This book travels through that correspondence.

Nancy’s letters talk about books, enquire about the reception of her own work and gossip about her life and social circle, while Heywood passes on stories of the shop and its customers, news of mutual friends and reports of literary life and events in London.

Both are wonderful letter writers and their different styles work well together.

However, John Sumarez-Smith, the editor and present manager of the bookshop, has opted to omit letters that have already been published elsewhere and, in many cases, only uses very short extracts from letters.

As a result the book doesn’t flow as well it could, and I can’t help feeling that, while this slim volume was a lovely read, the story and correspondence could have formed the basis of an even better book.