There I was, moaning to blogging friends last week that I rarely get sent really enticing books to review, when one came through the post that I instantly opened and read. It’s called Howard’s End Is On The Landing; A year of reading from home by Susan Hill, and is a collection of short essays that are essentially about Hill’s ongoing love affair with books and the part they have played in her life. I was very glad to have an opportunity to try her writing in a different genre. I’ve read several of her novels but not got on particularly well with them. It’s very hard to put my finger on just what doesn’t mesh with me, but it’s to do with the unresolved darkness that seems to fascinate her. It’s almost as if she wants to get the reader up as close as possible to suffering without redeeming it or protecting them in any way. Try I’m The King of the Castle, or the first of her crime fiction novels, if you want to see what I mean. This doesn’t make her a bad writer, in fact far from it; she is an excellent stylist, and perhaps unsurprisingly, her ghost stories, notably The Woman In Black, have been huge hits. So no, she is deservedly recognized as an important author, it’s just that odd, alchemic interaction between my reading and her writing that hasn’t quite come good yet. But I thought this was the book that might do it for me.
Susan Hill was a blogger for a while and it shows in this compilation. Her essays are essentially top-notch, stylish blog posts, cutting right to the heart of the kind of things that interest book lovers, but random and digressive in their composition. There is no order to the essays, just as there is no order to the shelving of her books. She tells us how ‘A tall book shelters a small book, a huge Folio bullies a cowering line of Quartos. A child’s nursery rhyme book does not have the language in which to speak to a Latin dictionary. Chaucer does not know the words in which Henry James communicates but here they are forced to live together, forever speechless.’ The serendipity of wandering around her house, letting books speak to her, preserving the memories they unleash, remembering the people who wrote them or were associated with them, is the driving force of this collection. Susan Hill published her first novel as an 18-year-old university student, already taken under the social wing of establishment author C. P. Snow, and thereafter introduced to many other writers through her work on cultural programmes with the BBC and on judging panels for book prizes (the source of some wonderful anecdotes about the curmudgeonly behaviour of Roald Dahl). The pages here are busy with some classy reminiscences; the time when E. M Forster dropped a book on her foot in the London Library, the time she saw Iris Murdoch when she was just sinking into dementia, the abiding admiration she felt for Benjamin Britten, the last glimpse of Bruce Chatwin, suffering from AIDS, which he covered up by perpetrating the rumour that he’d been poisoned by eating a thousand-year-old egg in the depths of the Far East, the time when Elizabeth David, by contrast, turned up her nose at the food in the BBC canteen. Hill is clearly a good friend, for her loyalty and love ring true on the page, and the portraits she paints of authors, either in the flesh or known through their writings, are all singularly brilliant.
Ostensibly this is a book about Hill’s desire to not buy any books for a year, but to read the ones she already possesses. It turns out that she doesn’t mean: read the ones she hasn’t got around to yet. No, this is rather a sifting through her collection to discern the jewels among the rubble, and so when the focus shifts about two-thirds of the way through to identifying the forty books she would single out as the books to accompany her through the rest of life, this feels the more plausible and convincing intention. There is much pleasure to be had here, reading about authors that she loves and that coincide with my favourites too; we both think Penelope Fitzgerald is a genius, unjustly underrated, we both love P G Wodehouse, Anita Brookner, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nancy Mitford. There were authors here who I realized I wanted to spend more time reading – E M Forster, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and there were unknowns to me who have now gone down on my wish list, including a book by the former Vicar of Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, Michael Maynard, who wrote a memoir of the year he was crippled by ME. These are the real bookworm delights, being introduced to new authors, or partially known authors, finding accounts of books you simply have to have, or enjoying the recognition that comes with another reader’s reminiscences on beloved narratives.
And then there were many places where we disagreed. I can sort of see why Hill’s literary imagination has not quite managed to appeal to mine. She adores Dickens and Hardy, two authors I struggle with, and is a big fan of John Carey, whose What Good Are The Arts? was a huge missed opportunity to my mind. Hill can be sharply judgemental too. She talks about ‘the rubbish available in book form’, and the ‘rubbish’ on television, whilst e-readers are anathema and: ‘Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted,’ she states with authority. Or ‘Bookplates are for posers, even when beautifully designed by real artists and engravers, though most people claim they are only there to identify the owner in case of loss. I don’t believe that. Do people put ID plates inside their handbags and wallets, or etch them on the family silver and china? Of course they don’t, and only children have name tags sewn into their clothes.’ I have to take issue with this one, as my dad, who all his adult life has had a small sideline as a printer, prints book plates for me; because he can, because we both love books, because it’s something he likes to do for me and I like him to do it. I wouldn’t have them if they didn’t come from my dad, but they are special to me because they do. I don’t expect Susan Hill thought of that possibility, so I’m not insulted. And I guess that’s just what book fanatics do, test out their ideologies against one another, seeing where they fit and where they don’t, but there’s an element of asperity to some of her commentary that may amuse some readers, and potentially irritate others.
All in all this is a fun collection of essays that are rather like a box of fudge – it’s tremendously easy to keep dipping in for some more. Unlike Hill, though, I couldn’t spend a year rereading books, however much I loved them. I’m not a great re-reader, although I wish I could be. What this book did for me, instead, was spur me on to make a list of all the authors I haven’t read – or haven’t spent sufficient time with – to tackle over the next few months. That’s what really motivates me in reading, the thought of all those pages as yet unturned, the treasures as yet still buried. This book reminded me of Anne Fadiman’s wonderful collection, Ex Libris. I have to say that Fadiman is the better essayist; I’ve yet to come across any one writing as well as she does about book lust, but for anyone who loved Ex Libris and has been searching for something similar, I would certainly recommend it.