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Spoken Word

Daunt Books Festival, 27/28 March 2014

Celebrating Virago Modern Classics: Maggie O’Farrell, Susie Boyt and Deborah Levy, questions by Lennie Goodings

Virago was created as a publisher in 1973 to challenge the notion of ‘great’ women writers. They calmly and effectively appropriated the idea of Penguin Modern Classics for themselves, and O’Farrell, Boyt and Levy opened the inaugural Daunt Books Festival by discussing which Virago novels particularly inspired them. It was a relatively unusual opportunity to hear writers talk about reading without their being obliged to tie in their own work unless they felt like it.

Deborah Levy (Black Vodka and Hot Milk are two of her recent titles) chose Angela Carter and Muriel Spark as her authors. She compared Carter’s ‘long, luscious, feverish and slightly inflamed sentences’, that are all about revealing desire to Spark’s short, spiky sentences about it being concealed.

Spark feathers her books with many beautiful, slightly psychopathic female figures, about whom she is unapologetic. Levy described Spark as a genius at depicting human frailty and human cruelty, which she did not appreciate until years after first reading her. Spark inserts a kind of ‘mild panic’ into her calm sentences, which informed the way Levy wrote Swimming Home, creating a splinter on the surface of the prose. In this way, Levy explained her feeling that “books are laid inside us” until you re-read them and uncover more at a later stage.

Carter was described as altogether more theatrical, with desiring female characters; their bodies no longer buttoned up – in fact, they tend to have the first five undone. Levy cited Baudelaire’s influence on Carter before reading a passage from The Magic Toyshop in closing.

Overall, Levy’s confidence in her choices was partly derived from the fact that neither writer tends to have characters doing things like putting a chicken in the oven. The characters are given minds, enabled to travel on horseback – vulnerable and fragile – but are often ‘travelling across terrain to find something they need’.

Every time Maggie O’Farrell sees a dark green Virago spine in a second-hand bookshop, she buys it on principle. She described being drawn to the aesthetic of it: the portrait on the cover and the whiteness of the pages.

Her first choice was Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyn (the ‘daughter of a madwoman and a violent, cruel man’). She asked that you not be put off by the title, having herself been transfixed by Comyn’s unique prose style within five minutes. Quick as a whip, she pre-empted my next thought by acknowledging that the word ‘unique’ is overused, but asserted that Comyn’s narrative voice is unlike any other. Her character will take a newt to a dinner party and let it swim in the water jug, delivered in the same tone as a child dying of scarlet fever. The novel illustrates 1930s Bohemian London pre-Beveridge report, wherein barbed comedy rapidly descends into the destruction of a marriage.

Her next choice was Mollie Keane, ‘a Hibernian Evelyn Waugh’, who wrote about the minute calibrations of class and family in the Anglo-Irish last days of Empire. The novel portrays a family of poverty stricken snobs who value dogs above one another, and who would rather die than eat rabbit mousse, as it is ‘low’ food – having been caught for free rather than bought in a butcher. Their servants – who are starving – are sacked for eating starch in the laundry, and grocers are ‘robbers’ if they have the temerity to actually send a bill. You say nothing when your husband sleeps with servants, or when your son dies. If you are still standing after all of that charm, the language will still hold you fast, as every word Keane uses pulls its weight. She is the master of the disparity between what we feel and what we say: let’s take the dogs for a walk rather than actually talking about it.

Her third and final choice was Rosamond Lehmann’s The Invitation to the Waltz, which captures a seventeen year old girl preparing for a party – and that true insight that the prospect of the night is always better than what actually takes place, the anticipation always being superior to the event. At the party she encounters the master of the house’s son. More on this at a later date (when I have finished the book).

The final speaker Susie Boyt chose Elizabeth Taylor in the hope that one day the film star will be called the “other Elizabeth Taylor”.

Boyt carefully explained that Taylor repeatedly pulls off effects that are very hard to achieve with no effort at all, from simple, perfect sentences (“The chair scraped back and talk broke out”) to expertly set moral thermostats and particularly good group portraits: one scene was cited where a clutch of ladies cook their lunch – lamb chops on a Baby Belling – at the same time as melting wax in a little pan to do their moustaches.

She also described an air of recklessness to Taylor’s stories, including one where a new groom gets so caught up in the joy of being in the pub that he simply forgets about his new bride upstairs in her lilac underwear. He automatically goes home to his mum’s house at the end of the night, alone, and ‘no one knows what to think at all’.

Boyt also gave a synopsis of a brilliant short story by Taylor of two people posing as a married couple in order to land a job offered to a pair of married waiters: these people are serious enough about their vocation to be lifted by ‘the glacial table linen’ and the elegance of the clientele. The ‘husband’ takes their cover story seriously enough to put a photograph of ‘their son’ in the flat, and asks her to leave out her hairbrush and a pot of face cream in order to convince any curious visitors. Of course the story does not end well.

Taylor expertly shows all the things in family life that can go wrong, something that Boyt, who described herself as liking ‘to write dark books with high spirits’* and with the same moral agenda as Taylor, clearly sympathizes with. A slightly more optimistic way of describing it could be a way of showing how to be good in the world without being ground down to a paste.
This concludes Part One. Part Two, featuring Evie Wyld and others will follow shortly.

*Boyt on cities: “I like dual carriageways and litter and all the things you are not supposed to like but I really do”.

The Editors

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