Donna Leon: Crime, Canals and Contralto

As the 31st Brunetti novel is published, Donna Leon remains as urbane and unaffected as ever. She is the crime writer who spends her time reading Dickens, Trollope and classic Greek literature. Leon presents herself as the cheerful book lover who stumbled into a career as an internationally bestselling author. Dividing her time between Switzerland and Venice, she gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying the life that success has allowed her.

As an illustration of how successful the series has become, it has spawned a Venice guidebook of walks and a cook book inspired by the Venetian food mentioned in the novels. It is also a mark of success that she has the luxury of choosing not to allow her books to be translated into Italian. She doesn’t want the bother of being famous in her own city. An American by birth, she has said in the past that she could never live in America now because she considers it, “cheap and vulgar.” Leon is not afraid to give a frank opinion.

In 1992 Leon was living in Venice. She was an English teacher with a passion for travelling, and had fallen in love with the city. She said in an interview with The Independent in 2010 that she wrote her first book “on a whim”. Similarly, in an interview with the Irish Times she said she wrote it as “a bit of a joke”. As a writer myself, I don’t believe a person writes 75,000 words on a whim. I do know that writers invent their public image to some extent and construct their own life stories in a way which is punchy and easy to communicate. This is part of the charm. (Roald Dahl claimed to have started writing after receiving a head injury in a plane crash; Agatha Christie apparently wrote her first book as a dare after her sister challenged her to write a detective story.)

Leon claims to be without ambition, which may be a key to her success. The story that she simply strolled into a new career as a crime writer may have some truth to it after all. It was the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl who said of success: “you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Aged 79, Donna Leon shows no sign of slowing down. There are precedents for writers who carry on with their profession for their whole lives – John le Carré was writing up to his death aged 89; P.D. James published her crime sequel to Pride and Prejudice aged 90; Andrea Camilleri was still writing his Inspector Montalbano books into his ninety-fourth year. Brunetti’s criminal investigations could continue for years to come, which is a welcome prospect to fans of the novels.

With success comes the freedom to do what less successful crime writers couldn’t dream of doing: sometimes Leon makes the crime a peripheral element as she brings human drama and the examination of human nature to the centre. Take her novel Earthly Remains, which is just as much about the environment and the effect of pesticides on the bee population as it is about murder. Unto Us a Son is Given is really about reflections on ageing and mortality, and the unusual decision an old man takes to ensure his inheritance goes to the right person. Even the title of one of her later novels, Falling in Love, is a title few crime writers could get away with. Most crime writers heavily indicate the genre with their choice of title, like Peter James who puts the word ‘dead’ in every title.

It is in Falling in Love that we see another passion of Leon’s, one which was there from the first book, Death at La Fenice. Opera and music are often present, appearing regularly in the setting or just in passing references in the prose. Baroque music is not just a passion of the author, but becomes part of the character of the landscape of Venice.

As well as the understated and thoughtful Brunetti, there is no doubt that the city of Venice is almost a character in itself. When the reader opens a Donna Leon book, they are taking a trip to Venice. The readers can walk through the campi and cobbled streets with Brunnetti, they can enjoy a glass of white wine and a plate of tramezzini with him in a local café.

For Leon, like many other crime writers, her books follow a pattern. It’s a pattern her readers like: a crime, the scents and sounds of Venice, a taste of the local food, and an insight into the comfortable and intellectual domesticity of Brunetti and his wife Paola. I call it a pattern rather than a formula, because a literary formula suggests something lazy or tired. Leon’s books are alive with insights into human nature, reflections on politics and society, and comments on the corrupting nature of power and money.

For me as a reader (and I’m sure I’m not alone), her least successful novel was The Jewels of Paradise. It isn’t just that the story doesn’t really take off, it’s also the lack of Brunetti. It’s her only non-Brunetti novel. As readers, we read series of books as a way of visiting old friends. The cast of regular characters in a detective story become more than literary devices for the working out of the plot. We want to spend time in their company, we want the reassurance of their presence when a crime is committed because we know from the first chapter that they will solve it. From Sherlock Holmes, through Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and all the other detectives that would make up a long list of literary heroes, we know that their presence in this fictional world will give us a taste of the order and justice we hunger for in our own.

As for successors in the genre, there are English-language writers who are continuing the tradition. Tom Benjamin’s ‘Daniel Leicester’ series of crime novels set in Bologna have the same cultural authenticity, the same desire to see past the beautiful façade of urban Italy. Philip Gwynne-Jones offers us Venice in his crime novels, but in a series which has a different tone to Leon’s. I think as readers we want someone to give us an insider’s view, allowing us to see past the ice creams and the Cyprus trees (although I do happen to like both ice creams and Cyprus trees).

To emulate Donna Leon’s success would be hard. Leon said in a 2020 interview with the Boston Globe that she no longer reads crime fiction. This is a luxury few genre writers could get away with. A writer who no longer reads their genre is not going to stay at the forefront of it. Unless, of course, you have the reputation and literary ability of Donna Leon. Her writing is so good that she can almost forget about plotting. The genre is little more than a vehicle for exploring Venice, for creating a cast of characters who engage with the forces of good and bad in the world.

I hope the series continues for years to come. It’s nice to have ‘friends’ in Venice we can visit from time to time.

The Refugee Narrative of Françoise Frenkel

Before you even read the first chapter of this memoir, the book has a curious story to tell. No Place to Lay One’s Head was published in 1945 in Geneva, and is Françoise Frenkel’s own account of her wartime experience. Neither the book nor the author made a mark in 1945. The publisher eventually went out of business and the book fell out of print. It was entirely forgotten, not even a footnote in the history of narratives and personal stories to come out of the Second World War.

Then, in 2010, a copy of it was found at a flea market in Nice. This discovery of such a remarkable and erudite account of wartime survival prompted its republication and translation into languages outside the original French. The fact that Françoise Frenkel passed her post-war life in obscurity means that some detective work was required to trace her steps. There can be no author photograph because none exist. At the end of the book is a dossier of information, including a photograph of Frenkel’s last known address in Nice, the city where she lived until her death in 1975.

Even without the book’s lost-and-found publishing circumstances, the narrative is so terse, the writing so evocative, and the story so relevant that it deserves to be read by the widest readership. (It is available as No Place to Lay One’s Head, and also under the title A Bookshop in Berlin).

In 1921, Françoise Frenkel opened a French language bookshop in Berlin. During her childhood in Poland she dreamed of owning her own bookshop. She also fell in love with French language and culture during years of living in Paris as a young woman. Her bookshop at 39a Passauer Strasse was the culmination of years of dreaming. The realisation of this dream was subject to the horrors of its time and place: a Polish Jew in Berlin had a bleak future during those inter-war years.

Frenkel describes the feeling of frustration and dread as her shop becomes the subject of scrutiny: some books in her stock are on the list of banned publications, other neighbouring Jewish businesses start suffering boycotts and attacks. Frenkel laments the destruction to lives and property caused by zealous young men who have fully embraced the National Socialist ideology.

One of the key themes of the book is escape. The first escape is from Germany itself, as it becomes increasingly clear what the future holds for Frenkel. This is one of many encounters with the indifferent or hostile face of bureaucracy. Leaving behind her possessions, Frankel gets a train to Paris, where she can live a normal life for a time. By 1940 the threat comes to Paris, and Frenkel moves south.

It was in Nice that Frenkel encountered two friends whose constant help saved her life. Monsieur and Madame Marius owned a hairdressers, and had a reputation for helping refugees. Again and again, Frenkel comes back to them in desperation as accommodation falls through and authorities round up Jewish residents to be sent to camps.

One of the saddest elements of Frenkel’s book is the sense of belonging she was searching for. Leaving her native Poland, she believes that she has found a new home in Germany, then in France, but in both places she is an outsider, forced to silently bear the insults of people who are less educated, less intelligent, and less compassionate than herself.

We don’t have to look far to find contemporary stories of refugees, even in Europe. Compare the pictures on our television news to the observations in this book, and the similarities are striking: people carried all they could, including beloved pets, cars queued to leave the city, train stations were crowded with desperate passengers wanting to escape, crushing to board the train. People ran out of fuel for their cars and food for their families.

Frenkel has an eye for detail, whether profound or absurd. At one point she finds a room to rent in a “sweet little cottage” which is made unpleasant by the fact that a municipal abattoir has been built opposite and the smell wafts over on the wind. A young man trying to sleep on a train stretches his bent leg and rests it on hers, but she doesn’t move it because he is sleeping and she could tell he had been in physical pain. In Nice she would spend hours queuing for food at the shops, making sure to wear a straw hat to protect herself from the heat of the sun.

Frenkel’s first attempt to escape to the safety of Switzerland ended in heartbreak. The local man who is paid to take them across the border is unpleasant, and Frenkel’s fellow travellers are impatient with her and often leave her well behind on the road. They are all arrested, apart from the local guide, who runs away. After a night in prison she is transferred to Annecy. It is on this bus ride that she sees a hole in a barbed wire fence which she walked past the night before. In the darkness she hadn’t spotted it, but now she sees how close she was to escaping to Geneva.

Having experienced the best and worst of human nature, Frenkel reflects on how humans behave, without allowing these reflections to slow the narrative. After witnessing extreme and unnecessary cruelty against refugees she concludes that “some deep sadistic urge must lie hidden in every man, waiting to be exposed when the opportunity arises.” The shock of the events unfolding is communicated well, with one woman exclaiming “God in heaven, and these things are happening in France!” A society which was advanced and sophisticated is crumbling under everyday, casual brutality. This is contrasted by unexpected kindness, such as the way an Italian soldier from Napoli catches her at the border and should hand her over to the police, but instead protects her from discovery and lets her go unharmed. An elderly lady who helps her in the street and takes her to a café before walking off turns out to have secretly paid for her meal.

The book is not just a heart-wrenching story of survival, but it also reads like a thriller. Hiding in one city then another, in one house then another, always questioning who to trust, always plotting her escape to Switzerland, the narrative has a momentum that makes it very easy to read. Frenkel is a sympathetic, unsentimental narrator.

One of the most poignant details comes in the Dossier section at the end of the book, where there is a photograph of an original inscription by the author after the book’s 1945 publication. It is inscribed to Reverend Father Pierre Noir. After expressing gratitude, Frenkel writes, “I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace…How great is my suffering.”

It speaks not just of the suffering refugees have to endure in their ordeal, but the ripples of grief which continue into peace time.

A New Year for Reading

Mid-January is traditionally the time when we break all the resolutions we made at the start of the month. The new exercise regime is a pain, drinking less coffee was ditched when you discovered it was one of the few things pushing you through a busy morning, and going dry means you’ve denied yourself one of life’s small pleasures: a glass of Rioja on a dark, winter’s evening.

And how many people have decided they will read more books this year? Probably quite a few. Read more books, watch less Netflix. I’ve heard that a couple of times in the past few weeks.

The deluge of hardbacks published in time for Christmas now have 50% off stickers on them, and as we see these books lined up on the Sale shelf of the bookshop, or paraded beneath a flashing red banner on Amazon, we begin to wonder whether anyone wants to read a celebrity autobiography, or another television tie-in, or whether we all just assume other people might want to read them as we buy them as Christmas presents.

Now that the flurry of marketing is over, and the brightly-coloured headline books are taken out of the shop windows, we can look across the literary landscape and see its richness. I can see the obscure farming memoir from the 1940s that I’ve always wanted to read (The Worm Forgives the Plough by John Stewart Collis), the almost-forgotten coming-of-age novel by the author of Black Narcissus, which is set during a summer in France, and has a title that appealed to me the moment I saw it (The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden). I can see, lined up like a range of mountains, the complete Barsetshire chronicles, which I’ve always meant to read. Down on the shoreline, I can see all the Booker prize winners I’ve never got round to. Some of them are being swept away by a tide, never to be remembered again, some of them will remain and still be read. I will read that fascinating book on child psychology coming out in Penguin classics (Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M Axline), I will buy Georges Simenon’s The Venice Train when it comes out in its new edition.

I want quality and quantity. I want to catch up on all the wonderful books that are waiting to be discovered. I want to get through them like you would all the items on the menu at your favourite restaurant. I want to uncork them like wine bottles, eager to find out whether the taste matches the description.

I will be surprised, I will be enthused, I will be disappointed. I will pick up some amazing books for almost nothing in charity shops; I will pay full price for books which turn out to be duds. By the end of the year I will know the names of writers I’ve not heard of yet, writers I’ll wonder how I ever lived without. I will read books on sandy beaches in Portugal, I will read them in the early hours of the morning when I cannot sleep, I will listen to them through my earphones while I weed the rhubarb patch at the allotment, I will read them with large cups of tea and small glasses of brandy. I will read them when I’m bored, I will read them when I’m interested.

Whatever else you give up on this month, don’t let it be books.

Why I Continue to Read Agatha Christie

Like many fans, I discovered Agatha Christie’s books as a teenager, when I was finding engaging novels to read independently. They contained mystery, suspense, and big characters. There were also around seventy novels to read, which mirrored the patterns of the collections I’d just grown out of, such as Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton, who wrote more books than any child could read.

To begin with I read tattered paperbacks from my parents’ bookshelves, such as The Listerdale Mystery and Crooked House, then I borrowed or bought the famous ones: Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None. None of her books were too long, all of them were easy to read. They took place in the world of steam train engines, remote islands, luxury cruise ships, and picturesque villages. In this respect, they weren’t unlike the adventure stories I had not long grown out of.

One Sunday, I remember overhearing a family friend over the meal table remark that Agatha Christie books were “okay for teenagers, but you grow out of them”. It was probably an expression of the common snobbery towards genre fiction, and the belief that any formative reading was just a stepping stone towards reading and understanding Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov.

And yet, years later, I still haven’t grown out of reading Agatha Christie.

My reading is wide and varied, from classic fiction to epic poems, from spirituality to psychology. However, I always go back to the crime genre and to Agatha Christie. I still love those classic elements of drama, suspense, and mystery. In Agatha Christie’s books we get them in concentrated doses, alongside the quality of the great illusion, as we wait for the big reveal and find out how we’ve been tricked by misdirection and red herrings.

Drama

The drama element of Agatha Christie’s books sometimes gets lost in her reputation for crime and mystery. Take, for example, Sad Cypress, in which an engagement is threatened by a woman’s past, and there isn’t a murder, or an appearance from Poirot, until halfway through the book. Similarly, Towards Zero offers an intriguing personal problem: should Nevile Strange and his new wife take a holiday at the house of a family friend, knowing that his estranged ex-wife is there. And once it seems clear that the holiday will go ahead, the other guests are trying to work out whose idea it was and who will gain from such an awkward house party. Again, there is no crime until halfway through the book, but Christie handles emotional, human drama very well.

In Anita Brookner’s classic Booker-winning novel Hotel du Lac, a woman stays at a hotel by a Swiss lake after a personal crisis. In this picturesque setting, the protagonist observes the daily habits of her fellow guests, getting clues as to who they are and why they’re there. It struck me as I read it that it’s almost an Agatha Christie set-up. Personal crises, foreign hotels, strangers thrown together, all of these are classic Christie ingredients. The difference is that Brookner channelled this into a literary novel, and Christie used such details as part of the physical and emotional landscape for crime stories.

As well as crime novels, Agatha Christie wrote a series of novels under the name of Mary Westmacott. Those that I’ve read are probably best described as family dramas. I found Absent in the Spring to be intriguing, with its middle-eastern setting and its tangled family relationships. It was, in many ways, a classic Christie novel, just without the murder. The denouement was focused on a woman’s relationships with her children and husband. Or, to put it another way, the book’s final revelation was emotional, not criminal.

Languages

When I decided to learn Portuguese, I chose an Agatha Christie book to be the first Portuguese language book I read. Why? Because it was the perfect mix of the unfamiliar – the Portuguese language – and the familiar: the settings, plots and characters of the Poirot short stories. The book was The Labours of Hércules (Os Trabalhos de Hércules), and I still remember the little bookshop in Porto where I bought it.

In my (off and on) attempts to learn French I’ve read some of the Agatha Christie bande dessinee adaptations. Many of these aren’t available in English, but reflect the popularity of BD books in France and Belgium, as well as the universal and enduring appeal of Agatha Christie. I would actually recommend Agatha Christie fans use their enthusiasm and knowledge of the books if they are trying to learn a new language.

Literary Value

Agatha Christie’s books are uneven, without a doubt. You can read one of the best ones, then move in to one of the weaker ones and wonder why a writer capable of writing one has written such a poor book as the other. Perhaps this is what comes of writing so many books.

I remember reading The Secret of Chimneys and laughing out loud at the Wodhousian dialogue and characterizations. It was sharp, funny, and the plot was tight. In contrast, other books (such as Murder is Easy, or The Clocks) come across as wooden and humourless. Sometimes her books are sparkling and well-observed, while others are clumsy and lifeless.

No doubt there are literary critics and authors (published or unpublished) who resent the inexplicable success of Agatha Christie, just as there was an inevitable backlash against J.K. Rowling. I say ‘inexplicable’ because there are wonderful writers out there who are overlooked or forgotten, like Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham or John Dickson Carr. Allingham is a better prose writer than Christie, and many of Christie’s contemporaries are more consistent in quality. But Christie has an X factor, as many successful writers do.

I recently read Towards Zero for the first time, and I thought it was very good. There are still a handful of Christie books I’ve not read, but not many. I’ll ration them, because at some point I’ll run out. I’ve tried reading some of her contemporaries, like Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, but the books didn’t have the appeal. There is still something of an enigma to Christie’s appeal and success, that even her most famous detectives would struggle to solve.

What’s My Motivation?

Unless writing is a part of your life, for creative or academic reasons, you probably don’t have much of a relationship with the Word Count function of your word processing software. But for some of us, that glance at the word count is a reflex, and the number it displays can make your heart sink, or provoke a little bubble of pleasure in your stomach.

I’m currently writing a crime novel which will total 80,000 words.

Doubts creep in: What do I really know about Portuguese police procedure?

Isn’t that clunky sentence in chapter 4 evidence that I actually can’t write and I’ve chosen the wrong vocation?

I’ve just spelt the word ‘February’ wrong. Further evidence that I chose the wrong vocation.

Is anyone except my parents going to bother reading this book?

Hadn’t Graham Greene or Stella Gibbons published several bestsellers by my age?

What could my income have been if instead of studying English and spending my student days reading Caribbean Poetry, sprawling Victorian novels, and obscure works of Gothic Romance, I’d studied Law, Medicine or Finance?

Having written 60,000 words of an 80,000 word novel, have I just realised that I don’t think it’s working?

These and many other doubts rise up and make me ask: What’s my motivation? Sometimes motivation comes from the sheer energy you get from a good idea. That energy rarely lasts for the writing of the whole novel. I remember Terry Pratchett saying that to motivate himself to finish his current novel he would think about the excitement of starting the next.

For writers with works in progress, these will be familiar thoughts.

Money and contractual obligations could be motivation, but if you’re a writer without an agent or publishing contract, these factors don’t really feature. Maybe you will get money for the novel at some point, but surely that’s too far away to motivate you. I remember when I was writing radio comedy for BBC radio I was motivated not just by contractual obligation, but the fact that the producer believed in me and I didn’t want to let him down. With a novel no one has asked you to write, these motives are absent. (Although I’ve heard stories that Douglas Adams was notoriously late when it came to deadlines, and William Golding was plagued by doubts with almost every novel. If big names like this still found it hard, maybe this is a constant struggle?)

Something that has struck me in reading widely and reading about writers is this: some very average writers have had great commercial success through sheer determination and luck. Conversely, some astonishingly talented people have got nowhere because of lack of discipline and lack of endurance (and perhaps bad luck too). It’s not just about your talent. It’s also about how hard you work at writing. Have you ever picked a book to read at random, been underwhelmed by it, and thought ‘I could do better.’ Perhaps you could do better. But the person who wrote that book finished it, then edited it, then rewrote parts of it, then worked hard to find an agent. You might be more talented than them, but do you have as much determination to work hard and finish that manuscript?

If you’re an aspiring writer with a work in progress, you must push all your doubts to the side. They will undermine every chapter you try to write, every story you try to construct, and will make you push the snooze button when your alarm goes off at six o’clock in the morning because you planned to get a few hundred words in before the school run.

It’s not going to be easy. As Carlos Ruiz Zafon put it, sometimes you have to ‘squeeze your brain’. Writing a novel is sometimes a romantic idea. We picture Colin Firth in Love, Actually, writing a novel by a picturesque lake with seemingly no commitments around him. Oh, and he found a marriage partner at the same time. How easy was that?

There is room for self-criticism and questions over specific aspects of your book later on. There is time for an editorial process. But for now you need a first draft to work with. You need to hit your word count. So block out the questions that undermine you, block out the ‘Nothing will ever come of it’ voice that pops into your head, and WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!

The Novelist as Illusionist

I’m currently reading John le Carré’s book Our Game. It has all the classic le Carré elements: spies, questions of loyalty, isolated figures with murky pasts and a constant sense of moral ambiguity. Reading the book has reminded me of how good a novelist le Carré was. His attention to detail when it comes to characterization and setting are wonderful. His portraits of human behaviour, in all its absurdity and contradictions, are sharp and powerful.

However, one thing I wasn’t expecting was a sudden plot twist. I hadn’t associated le Carré with plot twists.

A plot twist is often used as a cheap gimmick. I’ve lost count of the number of books I see online, which are advertised as having a “killer twist”. I enjoy the crime novels of Sophie Hannah, who is sometimes described as being a master of plot, and someone whose narratives feature twists and turns. If I’m honest about this, sometimes I find these convincing, sometimes not. The same could be said for Harlen Coban. Both great thriller writers, but are we always convinced by the plot twists? There have been times when I could barely suspend any more disbelief.

When I say “convinced”, I mean does the twist seem right. Does it illuminate what’s gone before or undermine it? I’ve come across plot twists which simply undermined the story up to that point. An example would be this: A character seems really nice, a perfectly friendly and normal person. The twist: They are a killer who is not nice at all.

The problem I have with this kind of plot twist is that when we reach the twist, everything we know about that person so far is undermined. In other words, it is dishonest. (I will point out here that this is the cheapest kind of twist, and that the two writers I’ve just mentioned are both above it.) The clues must always be there for the reader to pick up on; the game must always be fair.

This brings me back to le Carré. The reason I was so taken by this plot twist was that the author had pulled off an illusion. I was carefully watching the whole time, and the truth was there for me to work out if I only could, and yet I was taken in. When I learned how I had been tricked I said, ‘Of course! I should have known that the whole time!’ And in the example of Our Game, the twist undermined nothing, but illuminated a lot.

Why do we Read?

I sometimes say that I read obsessively and write compulsively. I usually have three books on the go at once, and if I wasn’t more disciplined I’d probably have at least as many writing projects running concurrently too.

However, I rarely stop and ask myself why it is I read so much, and why I feel compelled to write. Do we read in order to escape reality, or to explore it? I’m still not sure. Last night I was reading História de Portugal Para Gente Curiosa (History of Portugal for Curious People), where I learned that a unit of currency was once called a Real and that the green and red Portuguese flag was once blue and white.

I was reading out of curiosity, and surely with different motives to when I read Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia for the fifth time. Are these two reading experiences the difference between exploring reality and escaping it?

Two other things spring to mind. One is the opening line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”.

She’s not talking about reading, but rather easing us into the horrors of Hill House. But it did make me wonder whether some of our reading is a response to the pains of absolute reality. In other words, we read to stay sane.

Something else that comes to mind is the Preface to Guy de Maupassant’s novel Pierre et Jean. Perhaps your eyes have just glazed over. I’ve just mentioned a nineteenth-century French author, a book whose title rarely gets translated, even in English translations, and what’s more I’m talking about the preface to that book, not the novel itself. Let me reassure you: it’s a short, very accessible book about family secrets and sibling rivalry.

The preface (part of which is pictured) touches on what the reader wants from the writer: consolation, amusement, sadness, laughter…

If all this is true, then we can’t narrow down the reader’s motives to just one or two. There can be many reasons, sometimes all mixed together.

I’m particularly struck by the line ‘Make me dream.’ It links to the quote about absolute reality.

But when I read my Portuguese history book last night, I certainly wasn’t looking for the author to make me dream. I wanted him to present me with reality.

So reading is about escaping reality and also facing it. It can be about dreams and reality, sadness and happiness, thinking and not thinking. It’s a landscape of desires and motives. A full bookshelf is a well-stocked cocktail bar, ready to take whatever order you fancy giving.

Reading With the Seasons

One of the most pleasurable and escapist reading experiences I’ve had in recent years is Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. It opens on a “miserable” February afternoon in an “uncomfortable” London club. Mrs Wilkins reads an advert in the newspaper: “a mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” is available to rent in April.

So starts the story, which is part drama, part comedy of manners, and part celebration of gardens and the natural world. As April approaches, with its promise of rain and unreliable temperatures, I would also like to escape to a beautiful castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. In fact, this April I intend to re-read the book.

I wonder whether there is a special joy to be had in reading with the seasons. Moreover, I suspect we all do that anyway, without noticing. When summer comes, the bookshelves feature front covers with swimming pools or beaches. In winter, the shelves feature Christmas books with snowy images on the front. I think Spring and Autumn are harder seasons to pin down, so book covers usually stick to sunshine or snow.

One of my favourite Georges Simenon books is Maigret’s Holiday. My main reason for liking it is personal: it is set in Les Sables d’Olonne, on the West coast of France, where I spent many childhood holidays. But apart from that I love the book’s evocation of sun, sand, and chilled white wine. In the story, Inspector Maigret is on holiday with his wife, who is taken ill. While she is recovering in hospital, Maigret is inevitably drawn into solving a crime.

But sunshine has another place. I believe that in the depths of winter we turn to sunny books for some form of literary vitamin D. I’ve always enjoyed the Montalbano books, and to read one is to spend an afternoon in the Sicilian sun. It doesn’t matter that the books are full of crime and drama and tension. It is still some form of escape, perhaps because we know that in a detective story, the detective will bring a sense of equilibrium by the end.

I wrote about my love of Christmas books in a previous post. As well as this love of stories filled with snow and frost in winter, there’s a pleasure in submerging ourselves in sun-soaked books in summer. Or perhaps just before summer, when we are most looking forward to the longer days and the hot temperatures.

Three Reasons to Love Poetry

For every hundred conversations I have about some great new Netflix series, I probably have one about poetry. And yet poetry is something I read, enjoy and think about. It’s sad that there seem to be few readers of poetry. And yet I believe it will always be written and read, because it is necessary.

So here are three reasons (among hundreds) why you can enjoy and embrace poetry.

One: We use poetry when we are trying to communicate the most complex and profound ideas.

There comes a point where literal, prosaic language just doesn’t do the job. If I’m giving someone directions from a Sainsburys local to the Park and Ride, I’ll use the most plain language I can. When I’m explaining to someone how much I love my children or discussing big ideas like life and the universe, I need poetry.

When the Challenger space craft exploded during take off in 1986, President Regan gave a speech in very difficult circumstances. It is said to be one of the ‘great speeches’, and it was written by Peggy Noonan. The whole country, many of them children, had just witnessed a tragedy live on television. President Regan ended his speech with poetry, quoting from the poem High Flight by John Magee. He said the deceased astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” And that touches the heart. It’s better than saying, “There was some faulty tubing, which caused an explosion and some people died, which is sad.” That last sentence is absolutely true. But it’s not fit for the occasion.

This is also why we read poetry at weddings and funerals. We are marking the fact that something big is happening, and nothing does that better than poetry. It’s no surprise that religious texts contain so much poetry. When you’re exploring the meaning of life, the character of God, what it is to be human, for all this you need poetry. You are reaching so far towards profound meaning that everyday language is inadequate.

Two: Poetry is timeless.

Sometimes we watch a film or television programme which has not aged well. Even if the story is good, the production values are so dated that it provokes laughter. Technology has moved on, special effects have improved. Now take a sonnet by Shakespeare or a poem by Christina Rossetti. Contemporary writers are catching up with them, not the other way around. Dante’s Divine Comedy has not been overtaken by someone else’s Divine Comedy.

In his play The History Boys, Alan Bennett wrote:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Whether it’s a poem about the nature of love by Luís de Camões, or a poem about isolation by Stevie Smith, we can suddenly see that someone has already felt what we are feeling, somebody has already walked on this path. Poetry is a shortcut to seeing the depths of human feeling, human folly and everything else on the spectrum of human experience.

Just as 2021 started with new lockdown restrictions, alarming numbers of hospitalizations, and a sense of fatigue as we faced a very dark winter, I stumbled across this poem by John Masefield:

I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.

It was, to more or less use Alan Bennett’s sentiment, as if a hand had reached out to me across time.

Three: Brevity

Poetry is like a measure of whisky. It is deep meaning distilled into a few words.

When, in his poem The Rolling English Road, Chesterton says we must not allow ‘the folly of our youth to be the shame of age’ he has hit on something important that it would take me a whole paragraph to sum up: when you’re young, bad decisions and behaviour can be put down to the foolishness of youth, but if you’re still making those bad decisions and exhibiting that behaviour when you’re older, it turns from foolish to shameful. And even more, are we talking about a country in its youth and not just a person? In which case there’s further meaning to it.

Why use a paragraph when you can use a line of verse? The literal explanation sounded clumsy, but Chesterton’s poetry lifted it to something eloquent.

To finish, I would encourage everyone – especially keen readers – to find poems and poets they love. I’m as happy as the next person to talk about what great new series I’ve been streaming recently. But secretly I’d rather be talking about poetry.

Christmas Books

For the past few years, I’ve taken great pleasure in choosing a Christmas-themed book to read on cold December evenings. In the depths of winter, on foggy evenings when the streets are glistening with frost, I curl up with a book to enjoy one of the great cold-weather comforts.

The white Christmas lights are blinking on and off in the window, the heating is on, and I open a bottle of port. I choose a bottle of Sandman port if I can – a small reminder of a hot summer’s day when, on one of my first trips to Portugal, I visited the Sandman cellars, and walked up and down the riverside at Vila Nova de Gaia with the woman who is now my wife.

I’ve always been enthusiastic about Christmas books, and I don’t care whether or not I’m falling for some marketing gimmick (I probably am). If a writer I like has written a book to be read around Christmas, I will seek it out. Whether it’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or a specially published edition of Laurie Lee’s Christmas memories. Crime writers, poets, authors from the canon of English language classics, obscure short stories by Anthony Trollope, classics of German Romanticism, I’d happily read them all.

Yes, the front cover will probably feature snow, and perhaps splashes of red and green to indicate the season. And yes, the ending might be a bit sugary. What’s more sugary than a mean Scrooge becoming a good man, or of Inspector Morse giving an anonymous Christmas present to show he’s not really all that grumpy? The Christmas Hirelings is a Victorian classic recently made available in audiobook form. I think I guessed the ending after the first chapter, but still enjoyed seeing it play out to its sweet-as-a-gingerbread-house end. Even the gritty stories have a bit of sweetness: the Simenon story called ‘The Little Restaurant Near Places des Ternes’ (from A Maigret Christmas) where a down-and-out prostitute saves another girl from her fate in the spirit of goodwill on Christmas Eve in Paris.

A few years ago, a forgotten crime novel called Mystery in White was a surprise bestseller. A train gets stuck in snow on Christmas Eve, and the passengers find shelter in an abandoned house. Is one of them a murderer? It’s got a splash of Murder on the Orient Express about it. I happened to be in Portugal in 2017, so bought it in Portuguese. It seems bizarre that an obscure, out-of-print crime novel from 1937 can become a hit, and something so English as the classic detective story can travel so successfully.

I can revisit the magic of a child’s Christmas by reading children’s books to my daughters: Mog’s Christmas and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Shirley Hughes has just published Dogger’s Christmas – a sequel to the much-loved Dogger which has been published over 40 years after the original. I will buy that for my children, whether they want to read it or not.

Then there is the tradition of the ghost story. The tradition seems to have come, at least in part, from M.R. James (and a little from Dickens?). A Cambridge don, James would tell a ghost story around the fire at Christmas. I actually don’t remember any being set at Christmas time, but the stories of M.R. James are classics, and perfect for dark winter evenings. They have the right atmosphere, and go especially well with that glass of port.

Then there’s the story of the nativity. For me, the gospel accounts don’t get tired, and also don’t allow for sentiment. The baby Jesus was a refugee, born in filth, his life threatened by the insecurities of a corrupt ruler. And the person who has to cope with this is a teenage mother who is well out of her depth, along with her husband who is quietly bewildered. It’s a wonderful story, and it’s worth reading the original, whether or not you regard yourself as religious. Its themes of light and darkness are timeless.

And so I enjoy it all – the Christmas books, the mysteries, the Sandman port wine, the gospel narratives, the sentimental, the unsentimental. Small comforts and big comforts; all of them great pleasures. Turn on your Christmas lights, pour a glass of something warming, light a fire if you have one and reach for a book with snow on its cover.