“Howards End” by E.M Forster

Let’s be honest – by now, there can be no stone left unturned at Howards End. Still, I wanted to share a few of those things which have been making me think this week.

It is a story of three families – the art-loving, intellectual Schlegels; the practical, wealthy, unimaginative Wilcox’s and the lower-middle-class, struggling Basts – and is, of course, famous for being the novel in which Forster used the phrase “only connect.”  The families’ stories intertwine, there are connections sought and rejected; and through the Schlegels’ insistence, there is a constant search for truth and understanding.

I was struck firstly by how much Forster’s writing reminded me of a kind of Homeric epic. He deploys stock phrases throughout – there are references to “telegrams and anger”, to the “ropes of life”, to “goblins”, “Art and Literature.” Like the “rosy-fingered dawn” which punctuates the Odyssey, the repetitions root the story and give it an epic rhythm. Nautical imagery abounds, and Forster certainly creates the sensation that the characters are on a perpetual journey home – to Howards End. The measured, lyrical repetitions also have the benefit of freeing up the characters to make the connections Forster values. They are not caught up in the language of the novelist – instead they ride the waves from familiar phrase to familiar phrase, occasionally meeting midway.

The language also lets the novel breath, and allows the light of comedy to creep across a heartbreaking story. It seemed to me that, other than the occasions in which the families are forced together by unfortunate circumstances, the greatest connections happen during the lighter moments, when Forster lets them laugh. The relationship between Margaret and Wilcox, for example, so often floundering in miscommunication, seems most sincere when they embrace the absurdity of everyday life. The first time he kisses her she is so taken aback that she screams, which is a wonderfully funny image, and there are passages like:

“She accepted, and could not repress a little tremor; it would be her first real love scene. But as she put on her hat she burst out laughing. Love was so unlike the article served up in books…”

“He did not kiss her, for the hour was half past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace.”

Charles Wilcox, the most unpleasant character in the book and also the most isolated, is particularly described as having no sense of humour, whereas dear Aunt Juley – often misguided but genuinely having the best interests of her beloved nieces at heart – is given delightful, funny little passages.

“”Look! cried Aunt Juley…”Stand where I stand, and you will see the pony-cart coming. I see the pony-cart coming.”

They stood and saw the pony-cart coming.”

And Margaret and Helen, who connect most readily and sincerely both to one another and to the rest of the world, are often said to be laughing. I loved that about this novel. For that seems to me to reach the heart of what it means to connect with someone – one belly-laugh is worth ten times an earnest conversation about the meaning of life. Laughter is the great leveller – we can all tell when someone is putting it on – but if it is genuine, then there are few things which create such an instant bond.

Putting comedy to one side for a moment, there were also elements of this novel which reminded me very much of Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady.” Isabel Archer, like the Schlegels, longs to see all of the world as it truly is, and to find her place in it. And, like the Schlegels, she finds that connection is neither simple nor easy. In Henry James people see one another as though they had come together “in some bright stretch of a desert”, and for men and women in particular, the effort to find one another is likened to two people climbing up opposite sides of a garden wall:

“On reaching the top she found herself face to face with a gentleman engaged in a like calculation at the same moment, and the two enquirers had remained confronted on their ladders.”

In Forster’s novel, Howards End is the thing. Whatever the vagaries, pain and miscommunication of human interaction, one’s true home remains a sanctuary, the place where you can truly connect to the books, pictures, furniture of your childhood, where talking is unnecessary and there are no barriers to comfort. I could even say it is like Antal Szerb’s “Third Tower” – a connection to a place can be a true balm, and alleviate a sense of loneliness in a way that a difficult husband or distant sister cannot. For Isabel Archer, too, Rome is, in the end, her salvation from the pathological cruelty of her husband. It is not so much that it is a turning away from human things to the inanimate – more that the places we love are a palimpsest, or like the rings of an old tree – every life which has passed through them has left its mark, and there is at the same time no risk of the awkwardness of misconstruction which can blight relations with our living peers. I had not thought about this in many years, but having  just dug up my final year dissertation it seems that Forster’s Howards End and James’ Italy offer something similar to their heroines. As I wrote at the time:

The other is by Rome, where there is no threat of the misrepresentation occasioned by human eyes. Here, she [Isabel] embraces a dialogue, but with decaying buildings and ghostly voices.… It is only in Isabel that there is any chance of healthy, fully realised familiarity; and that is with a city, into whose history she can add her own voice, her own unanswered prayers…. As James wrote to his brother William, upon his arrival in Rome, ‘I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets in a fever of enjoyment…At last – for the first time – I live!’ 

So: to me, and very simply, Forster is urging us to look for laughter, and like Odysseus, to find and enjoy our homes. Life’s tragedies will always inspire connection, but in those moments when we’re simply cresting the waves from “telegrams and anger” to “telegrams and anger”, we can always find intimacy in comedy, and our “Third Tower.”

“From the garden came laughter. “Here they are at last!” exclaimed Henry, disengaging himself with a smile. Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.”

“The Third Tower” by Antal Szerb

I was given a copy of “Journey by Moonlight” when I was nineteen, and have loved Antal Szerb ever since. He is a beautiful writer, combining that peculiar sense of Hungarian fatality; a relish for the absurd; and acute observations of the human condition with a remarkable lightness of touch. In Len Rix’s wonderful translations, he is also always eminently quotable:

“In London November isn’t a month, it’s a state of mind.”

“We carry within ourselves the direction our lives will take. Within ourselves burn the timeless, fateful stars.”

I wish I knew more about his life. I know that that he lost his position as a Professor of Literature at the University of Szeged, and that his History of World Literature was put on a list of forbidden works, because he was from a Jewish background. Despite being given several opportunities to leave Hungary during the 1940’s, Szerb stayed because he would not abandon his friends, family and other writers. He was eventually sent to a concentration camp in 1944, and was beaten to death a year later.

I cannot, or perhaps will not, apply practical criticism to his work, or divorce his writing from the story of his own life – particularly when reading “The Third Tower: Journeys into Italy.” This short volume, beautifully published by Pushkin Press, contains a series of mini-essays and observations written by Szerb during a holiday in Italy in 1936. His writing, as always translated by Len Rix, would be hauntingly beautiful enough even without its prescience. But the fact is that Szerb foretells the war here, and the way in which Europe would shortly be torn apart:

“Then it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy – while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be able to set foot outside his own country.” 

What Szerb could not know, even though it feels as though he suspects it, was that this brewing conflict would lead to his own death, and that lends this volume a brutal pathos. Particularly because in amongst these pieces about bourgeois self-consciousness; the fierce heat of an Italian summer; the apparent plainness of Venetian women; and the great art which Italy has inspired, is what is essentially a declaration of independence. During this trip, Antal Szerb found peace through solitude and, when confronted by the strange, homogeneous mass of holidaying Italians, asserted his own integral sense of individuality:

“I can feel the good this solitude is doing me. My thoughts arrange themselves in longer sequences. My feelings are more intense, and I see their outlines more clearly….It is a comfort to know that I have discovered this panacea, even if it wont always be part of my life.” 

He was killed in 1945 in part because Jewish families were stripped of their individuality, and people were reduced to groups; again with his prescience he identifies something of that in the Fascist state – individuals sacrificing themselves to the mob – and instinctively rejects it. It is almost as though we see him becoming his own champion, formulating his opposition to anti-Semitism years before he himself would be the victim of persecution:

“But, on a moral or ethical level, this immeasurably inflated patriotic self-esteem has transformed every Italian into a hero, puffed him up into a citizen of a second Roman Imperium. Sitting here on the train I have the feeling that, compared to anywhere else the people are altogether more of a body…their boundaries dissolved in the shared Fascist enthusiasm.”

His journey through Italy leads Szerb to a recognition of the importance of rejecting collectivism, and protecting his own soul from governments or “any set of beliefs” – “I shielded my solitariness from them, and from the European future that they represented for me.” It seems entirely right that this message should have survived his own senseless death, and should be one of the ways in which he is remembered and for which he is loved.

The “Third Tower” of the title, then, refers to the three medieval towers in the mountaintop town of San Marino. Very near the end of his holiday, Szerb made his way through the heat and along the Road to the Third Tower – and, as the other tourists and day-trippers fell by the way-side, carried on alone; literally climbing his way out of the feeling of restlessness and uncertainty which had been plaguing him. It was at the foot of that final tower, as he looked out at the view of a country he loved but which was not his own, that his happy solitude reached its zenith. By the time he reached his journey’s end in Trieste he was tired – he had endured mosquito bites, pokey hotel rooms, packed trains and sleeplessness – but he had discovered peace and the strength to face whatever the future might hold. As I say, his closing words are all the more powerful because we know what Antal Szerb would be confronted by over the final years of his life – but they are still incredibly important now, when it is so easy to lose your own sense of self in the noise of the modern world.

“Somehow, all it needs now is courage. Just don’t surrender your solitude for anything or anyone. How does Milton’s Satan put it? “What matters where, if I still be the same?” Whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.

It’s enough.”

liberty statue_n

Liberty Statue, Budapest

“Howards End is on the Landing” by Susan Hill

I so rarely read literary criticism any more, and Susan Hill’s latest book has made me realize how much I miss it, and what a difference it would make to my armoury as a reader. The premise of Howards End is on the Landing is a simple one – rather than being seduced by the lure of best-seller lists and celebrity book-clubs, Susan Hill spent a year reading through the books she already owned. That choice leads her to revisit the authors she loves most dearly, and in doing so she is able to tell us stories about her life as a writer, and a reader, and the encounters she has had with some of the most important cultural figures of the past century.

I must confess that this is the first Susan Hill book I have ever read. I knew about The Woman in Black, of course, but I have never read it, or seen any of the adaptations. And the thing that struck me most of all is how much I enjoyed her writing – she describes her love of books (both specific and in general) with such warmth and insight – and her memoir, if that’s what you might call it, is full of jewels, like:

“I have put the light on, but the bulb is weak on the top landing. The books have somehow shrunken back into the shelves. Into themselves, like old people hunched into jackets that are too big for them, sleeves that are too long. They seem to be singing.

All through the house, the books are murmuring, turning over in sleep like pebbles on the shoreline as the tide recedes.”

It’s a beautiful passage, one of many, and what’s so wonderful is that this language is also used to offer us those reasons why she values some authors and some books so highly. And that she does with a light touch, and consummate skill. It felt rather like being in a university tutorial again, in the best possible way – I can’t remember the last time I was prompted to examine so carefully why I love Thomas Hardy, or Ted Hughes, just as she does. Luckily for me, and I’m sure countless others, she lands on some of my most treasured authors, too – Gerald Durrell; Virginia Woolf; T.S Eliot; P.G Wodehouse; Roald Dahl; Ian Fleming – it is impossible not to trust implicitly the opinion of a woman who speaks so fondly of My Family and Other Animals. (Which meant, unfortunately, that I have entirely contravened the spirit of Susan Hill’s endeavour by already purchasing six of the books she mentions and which I had never heard of before. It was impossible not to – she gives you the most tantalizing reading list.)

When I say reading this book was like being in a tutorial, it is not just because Susan Hill’s appreciation is so vivid – “She [Elizabeth Bowen] knows that detail can be either pointless, tiresome padding which contract’s the reader’s own imagination, or that it can be made to count, in the way it can somehow echo a sentence, illuminate a moment of choice, stand for a very particular emotional situation” – but because she made me think about the way I read for the first time in years. She counsels slow reading – lectio divina – pausing over words and sentences, revisiting the two pages of the novel you have just read, giving the writing the time it deserves. This is not a skill I claim to have in abundance any more. I remember during the Christmas holidays after my first term at university, I read a page or two of the The Faerie Queene every day, painstakingly poring over every line. In our Shakespeare exam at the end of second year, we had to be able to gloss Hamlet – which meant hours of careful study and concentration. Nowadays I’m more used to flitting between work emails and news articles, interrupting a film to read a text, quickly guzzling a page or two of a novel before bed. It’s not good enough. Having read this book, I have resolved to read a Ted Hughes poem every night. Slowly, with a pen in my hand, going over the lines again and again until I think I might be beginning to understand what it all means, rather than just enjoying the sound of the words. I used to be able to do it, and Susan Hill has made me want to do it again.

Throughout Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill also makes the point, very beautifully, that books become totally entwined in moments of your life. They can immediately evoke particular times, memories, people – the books we read, as she says, become our literary DNA. Again, this made me think about things I hadn’t dwelt on in a long time – but she is absolutely right. There are three books which have marked the most important times in my life, and I was surprised by how forcefully Susan Hill brought that home to me. Very briefly, then, because this is a review rather than an autobiography, the first for me is Jane Eyre. When I was perhaps ten years old, a supply teacher broke off from her lesson to tell us about Jane Eyre. I read avidly by then, but mainly Enid Blyton or C.S Lewis – I had never read what I thought of as an “adult” book. But her description captured my imagination, and I told my father how much I wanted to read it. That weekend, then, he took me into town to buy a copy. He was not much of a reader himself (he wrote his entire English A-level exam on Sir Walter Scott, even though Scott wasn’t on the syllabus, because he was the only author he knew) and was so keen to make sure that he had got the right book that we went to two different shops, and he bought me a copy in each. It is still my favourite novel, possibly partly because it is bound up in such a precious memory, and I still have those two copies. When my dad died shortly after university, Hamlet was, strangely, the one text that made me feel slightly less alone. And when I moved into my boyfriend’s parents house in Oxford a couple of years ago, I was astonished to find my copy of The Portrait of a Lady on his bookshelf. We had been at the same college at Cambridge and had both studied English, but we had never been friends – neither of us could even remember having had a conversation before we re-met five years after graduation. Yet somehow he had my second favourite novel on his shelf, and it felt like a sign. Anyway, I am grateful to Susan Hill for reminding me.

I am often wary of books about reading – simply because I’d rather be reading a good book than reading about reading a good book. But this is absolutely an exception to that rule. I would recommend this whole-heartedly to anyone who loves reading – and I can’t wait to start making my way through Susan Hill’s recommendations. Slowly.

“Mapp and Lucia”, by E.F Benson

Given the recent, brilliant television adaptation of “Mapp and Lucia,” which I confess is what prompted me to read their most famous outing, I suppose there is little I need to say in order to set the scene here. Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas (or “Lucia” to her friends) are two warring, would-be queens, lording it over the inhabitants of the pretty coastal town of Tilling, and doing everything in their power to embarrass one another as brutally as possible. Miss Mapp – whom Lucia’s faithful deputy Georgie characterises with the single word, “Teeth” – is a braying egomaniac, who has been used to running Tilling society with a tried and tested system of endless Bridge parties, gossip, tea and the constant surveillance of her neighbours from her garden-room. When Miss Mapp decides to let her home for the summer months, however, Lucia comes to Tilling and immediately disrupts the status quo. Like her opponent, Lucia is endlessly vain, selfish, snobbish and self-assured, and in her turn seeks to exercise control over her new neighbours through interminable musical recitals, calisthenics classes, a smattering of spurious Italian and sheer force of will. Unlike Miss Mapp, however, Lucia is a veritable force of nature, exuding vitality and a zest for life which, in spite of all her faults, makes you root for her.

E.F Benson describes this epic clash of wills with the language of real, heated warfare – “The main lines of this defensive campaign being thus laid down, Lucia, with her Napoleonic eye for detail, plunged into minor matters” – and the inhabitants of Tilling watch the two alpha women trade blows with unadulterated delight. It gives the onlookers a new lease of life, and both “Liblib” and “Lulu” thrive in this martial environment. E.F Benson displays brilliantly how their skirmishes absorb the entire town – as in Jane Austen, the hierarchies and alliances within this small society are all-consuming; the stories of Tilling are the only thing that matters to its inhabitants, and the outside world is utterly forgotten. It very much reminds me of the way in which the sinking of the Titanic was allegedly reported in the local paper of my grand-parents Norfolk village – “Yarmouth man dies at sea.”

What I enjoyed most about E.F Benson’s writing was the unadulterated cruelty. There is no redemption here; the two heroines do not exist on a moral arch which carries them from self-absorption to a kind of Emma Woodhousean transformation into something genuine. They are consistently shallow and mean, and apart from Lucia’s winning joie de vivre, utterly deprived of anything approaching goodness. The friendships in Tilling, too, are fickle and subordinated always to self-interest, and when it looks as though both Elizabeth and Lucia might have shuffled off this moral coil in a freak accident at the end of the book, not even Georgie approaches anything which looks like real grief – “A very long pause of silence followed, broken only by the crashing of toast in the mouths of those who had not yet finished their caviare.” This callousness, however, is never judged – Georgie frequently catches Lucia out as she places her own interests above those of their relationship, however he just shrugs his shoulders, contemplates punishing her, and ultimately lets it slide. Likewise Diva always knows when Elizabeth has done something foul, but it never stops her from accepting an invitation to tea or treating Elizabeth with cordiality. This cast are all universally accepting of one another’s grotesque behaviour, and morality has little place in Benson’s world – it is really very refreshing!

L.P Hartley said it best, with his line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Perhaps more than any other time in history, we have totally lost touch with the prelapsarian, pre-world war England. Jane Austen’s Highbury may differ very little from E.F Benson’s 1930’s Tilling, but it is difficult now to imagine a time when your village was your world, and the people in it, the dramatis personae of your life’s drama. Twitter; Facebook; email – we are more connected than in any other time in history, but the price we pay is that most people seem more absorbed in their cyber dramas than what’s going on in the post-office down the road. It makes a novel like “Mapp and Lucia” even more bitter-sweet – the people of Tilling seem to have a lot more fun darting between Elizabeth and Lucia’s endless gatherings than we could possibly have poking around on Facebook for an hour, looking into the lives of people we barely know. I’m very tempted to move to Rye to join a Bridge club.

Pondering feminism…

As I mentioned in my review of “All That Is”, I had a number of occasionally tricky conversations about feminism over the Christmas holidays. And as is so often the way, the process of defending something has crystallised my own views, and forced me to re-evaluate exactly what it is I mean when I cry “I am a feminist!” over the brandy butter.

The brandy butter might have been replaced by a miserable to-do list, but I should start by laying my cards on the table. I am a feminist. I support feminism – which the Oxford Dictionary defines as being “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes.” Essentially it’s a no-brainer – I’m a thirty-year old woman who has grown up at a time when it’s still acceptable for a national newspaper to print topless pictures of women; when a growing political force in the UK has spawned an MEP who is totally comfortable saying that, “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of childbearing age”; and when it’s apparently an acceptable thing to threaten to rape women on Twitter or in a stand-up routine.

That doesn’t mean that I’m always totally comfortable with shouting my feminism from the roof-tops, though, or that I think it’s a flawless ideology. Not because I have an issue with the essence of the word, but because, culturally at least, it does have negative connotations for a lot of people, some of which I think we need to talk about more. Ultimately it also comes down to the fact that I would never usually try to define myself using an “ism” –  I’m with Ferris Bueller on that one – because any collective is always going to have elements within it you don’t really want to associate yourself with. Caitlin Moran is an awesome role model for any young person, but do I really want to align myself with pop-stars who now claim they’re feminists because they take their clothes off and writhe about on stage? Or a woman who wants to eliminate the male sex? No, not really. I also just don’t really think about my gender that much, or ever want to start sentences with the phrase, “as a woman.” I appreciate, of course, that I have the luxury of taking that approach because of the brave women in history who fought so hard to give me the opportunities I’ve had, but there seems to be to be a paradox in fighting for gender equality using such an obviously gendered word. I’ll come back to that problem in a bit.

So, what are these negative connotations, then? First, the man-hating chestnut. Being a feminist does not mean that you hate men, or long to subject them to centuries of a dominant matriarchy. That’s not always as easy to refute as you’d think, though. It doesn’t really help when feminists write articles educating men on “what not to do,” or when even moderate online feminists gleefully seize on any ambiguous comment made by a man and tear him to shreds. If a man wrote an article saying, “hey, all of womankind, let me teach you how not to act like a tit,” I’d probably be fairly irritated. I’m also not convinced it helps when feminists make films showing what it’s like for a woman to walk down a street as scores of men heckle and stalk her, and offer it up as the norm. I’ve had a few sticky walks home in my time, and certainly know what it’s like to feel intimidated – as I’m sure most women do – but I don’t run a gauntlet of cat-calls every time I nip down to the shops. I’ve had a very privileged life in many respects but I haven’t lived in a bubble, and my experience is that, in the UK at least, those kinds of encounters are pretty rare. That doesn’t make them any less shocking, or wrong, or frightening when they do happen – but we don’t need to ramp it up. The reality of it happening from time to time in 2015 is weird enough.

In a similar vein to the “man-hating” point, I get the feeling that for some feminists, there’s a certain enjoyment to be had in catching men out. Let me repeat that feminism has absolutely nothing to do with hating men – but that does not mean that some women who call themselves feminists do not seek out a kind of moral superiority. There are indeed some fairly middle-of-the-road feminists out there who approach conversations on the subject like carrion birds, eagerly pouncing on any slip of the tongue or misplaced word which can be used to evince sexism. It’s exhausting. Feminism was born because women were genuinely oppressed – they had no legal rights, no power over their own lives, no right to education or independently-earned money. So when middle-class women sit around a dinner table now, drinking white wine and berating the poor man who has had the gall to say something they view as being “off-message”, it instinctively makes me want to distance myself from the “feminism” they are using as a way to score points: female genital mutilation is a modern outrage against British women’s rights – being offered a seat on the tube is not. That does not, though, mean that the rest of us should just abandon ship. Just as there are some sexist men out there, there are bound to be feminists who don’t really like men. I don’t refuse to support democracy just because it’s a kind of political structure shared by some people whose views radically differ to my own, and I won’t abandon feminism just because I disagree with the views espoused by a handful of other feminists.

And then there’s the word itself. Thanks to the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, many people now consider feminism to be the political, social and economic equality of the sexes. What that neutral definition misses, though, is the emphasis on female advocacy. This is a word which is totally rooted in what it is to be a woman – hardly surprising, when you consider why it was created and when. Now, though, as feminists are increasingly inviting men to join the party and wear t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “this is what a feminist looks like”, men understandably don’t always know where they stand. If this is about equality, then when does it just talk about the feminine part of the equation? How would women feel if men asked us to embrace “manism” as a way of articulating equality between the sexes? Those totally fair questions do not mean that the word itself has run its course, though – they simply highlight the fact that this is an historic term forged in the heat of dissent, when the only way to achieve equality was to advance the cause of women. Of course the parameters have shifted over time, and feminism (in the UK at least) is no longer about procuring the vote for women, or legal independence. Now, it’s purpose is to achieve fairness in a greatly-changed, but still flawed social set-up. The feminism of 2015 is not the feminism of 1890, or 1970 – of course it is rooted in the advances made by those waves of feminism, but it is not shackled to them. The fact that “female” is at the heart of the word is our legacy – a reminder of the stark imbalance that used to exist until very recently, and the fight believers in equality specifically needed to undertake. And, as Caitlin Moran points out, the ultimate aim of feminism is to cease to exist. The moment we have raised women’s rights to the same level as men’s, “feminism” will evaporate and we can brand the ensuing preservation of equality any way we want to. We’re just not there yet – so hold on, ye haters of the word, it shouldn’t take too much longer.

So no, I don’t agree with every branch of feminism. To those feminists who think it is a movement for women only I say good luck to you, but leave me out of it. To those people who think all feminists have it in for Andy Warhol, I’d say do your research. Of course there are outliers, but there’s a very good reason why misandry and feminism are two very different things. To those people who dislike feminism because women and men are biologically different – parity and uniformity are not the same thing, and we’re not trying to elide them. I know I’m never going to bench-press 700 lb, and I wouldn’t expect my other half to breast-feed our children. I simply want to live in a world in which I don’t have to risk penury in order to have a child (thanks for the offer, though, UKIP).

“All That Is” by James Salter

It is not often that a novel leaves me cold – particularly one written by a man described as being “the writer’s writer.” All That Is, though, left me feeling very little for any of its characters, particularly the protagonist.

Leaving my emotional response to one side for a moment, I can certainly see how accomplished a novel this is, and how talented James Salter is as a writer. The story follows Philip Bowman through his long life – from his 1920s childhood, through his experiences in the Navy during the War, and finally the many years he spends touring the world as a book editor. Bowman’s story is interlaced with vignettes showing the lives of the people who pass through or touch his own life, and many of them are exquisite little capsules – portraying unhappy marriages, infidelities and grief with deft brush strokes. For me, though, it is a body of stories without a spine, let down by the fact that Bowman himself is strangely shapeless. In scale and context it reminded me of William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart” – but whereas Boyd’s fictional journals literally wring the emotion out of you, Salter’s felt like more of an intellectual exercise. The problem was that there is something fundamentally unappealing about Bowman; not because he is often faintly sexist or shallow – Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart is frequently repellent – but because he felt rather faceless. It was like walking around a beautiful mansion without any paint or furniture – I could see that it was finely built, but I didn’t want to spend any time there.

When I say that I felt slightly cool towards it all in the end, I must say that it was in part because I got the sense that neither Bowman nor Salter felt a great deal of fondness for the female characters. In many ways this is a novel with a rather unkind vision of sex: the women in Bowman’s life are variously soulless, greedy, naïve or fundamentally lacking in some way, and whilst his sexual encounters might be exhilarating, they seemed to me to lack a kind of warmth. And whereas Salter seems to expect you to respect Bowman as the urbane bachelor, he also seems fairly indifferent to readers’ reaction to his women. After a Christmas holiday spent articulating my own feminist credo in the face of the scepticism of various friends/members of my family, I am pretty sensitive to the fact that I don’t just want to write this novel off because I caught a whiff of sexism from a few of the characters. After all, I don’t love James Bond any less just because his attitude towards women is hilariously prehistoric; and even darling Bertie Wooster views his female contemporaries with a kind of mystified horror. I can cope with some generational differences of opinion, and I also appreciate that there is clearly a distinction to be drawn between the views of fictional characters and their creator. I’m also not a fan of literary critics who look at everything through a feminist prism – I had contemporaries at university who analysed every text from a specific politicised perspective, be it feminist, Marxist or whatever else – and I don’t think it’s a particularly useful or enjoyable way or viewing art. So it’s not that I disliked this novel because it felt sexist – more that I disliked it and it felt rather sexist. The attitude towards women simply appeared to be symptomatic of a general kind of coldness that pervades the story – there is little love lost here in any sense, other, perhaps, than for a beautifully turned sentence.

I might have been able to move beyond that more easily if Bowman had been portrayed as a kind of everyman – an image of his time, built to reflect the society in which he lived. But that is not what I drew from this – he might be intended to be an archetype of a particular kind of man, but I did not get a feeling of that kind of universality. He felt specific, but very much in the shadows – enjoying his books and his whisky and his moderate wealth, but without any distinct personality. And whereas “Any Human Heart” feels so rooted in the last century, and distinctly linear in the way that it merges a single life and the passage of a particular period of time, All That Is felt strangely rootless – I could see Bowman aging, but the world did not really seem to change with him.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t like this more – and as I say, I certainly don’t want to link my reaction to the treatment of female characters in isolation – it simply didn’t engage my heart in any way. I enjoyed the crisp beauty of Salter’s language, and some of the lesser characters are very finely drawn, but this wasn’t my kind of novel. That being said, most of the other reviews I have read have been extremely positive, so I’m very open to being told that I’ve missed something….