What I’ve Been Watching: Studio Ghibli Films

I haven’t been reading anything much lately, except hospital COVID policy documents and a lot of gloomy newspaper articles. My library and local bookshops have been shut for months and Sydney’s latest COVID outbreak has destroyed my ability to concentrate on long, complex books. However, I have subscribed to Netflix and I’ve been watching various TV series and films, which has led me to my best discovery of this year: Studio Ghibli films.

Yes, I know, people around the world have been rhapsodising about Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work for decades, but as I had little interest in fantasy or animated movies, I hadn’t paid much attention. Still, several Memoranda commenters had recommended his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, so I decided to give it a go.

'Howl's Moving Castle' film poster

I think I might have liked this film more if I hadn’t read and loved Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. One critic has accurately described it as ‘fanfiction’ of the novel. Imagine if there was a film called Harry Potter, in which there was no magic and Harry was a coffee shop owner and Draco ran the florist shop next door and Draco’s father was a property developer trying to raze the neighbourhood to build luxury apartments and Harry and Draco fell in love. That’s how much resemblance there is between the book and the film of Howl’s Moving Castle.

I quite liked the film’s version of the castle, a giant mechanical beast roaming about the countryside on chicken feet, and Sophie retained a lot of her characterisation, but oh, I hated their version of Howl! They turned a fascinating, flawed human into a romantic superhero who sacrifices himself to stop the war between two countries. (Mind you, I was so confused by the changes to the plot that I didn’t even realise the soldiers came from two different kingdoms until near the end of the film.) Calcifer is voiced by a wise-cracking Billy Crystal, the Scarecrow is a benevolent Christ-like figure instead of a terrifying enigma, Sophie’s sisters barely feature in the story, there’s no visit to the ‘Land of Wales’… But the worst part is that the ‘war is bad’ theme is hammered into each scene so heavily that there’s no space left for the story. The hand-painted animation is often very pretty, but I can’t say I liked this film very much. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I agree with the judges — The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is much better (and a lot funnier).

Netflix then recommended My Neighbour Totoro and I’m so glad I persisted with Studio Ghibli because this film is adorable. Four-year-old Mei and her older sister Satsuki move to the country with their father, to be closer to their mother’s hospital (I assume she has tuberculosis, although that’s never confirmed). The children meet some furry creatures in the forest — a small one, a medium-sized one and a giant Totoro — and have some very gentle adventures. Roger Ebert wrote a lovely review, in which he pointed out that this is:

“A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”

It’s true that My Neighbour Totoro doesn’t involve any thrilling, action-packed scenes or follow a conflict-driven storyline. The closest it comes to tension is when Mei, worried that her mother is dying, runs away from home to take her mother some home-grown vegetables, and Satsuki and all her neighbours try to find her, although I was always aware that everything would turn out just fine. There may be a lack of conventional ‘drama’, but this film is consistently engrossing, warm-hearted, funny and poignant.

'My Neighbour Totoro' film still

My favourite scene is when an awestruck Satsuki meets Totoro for the first time at a bus-stop. Totoro has only a very inadequate leaf on his head to protect himself from the rain, so Satsuki offers him an umbrella, to his delight. He gives her some seeds as thanks, then steps aboard the eight-legged Catbus and disappears. It’s a nearly wordless scene, but the facial expressions and gestures perfectly communicate each character’s feelings. I watched the version dubbed into English and I found the American actors’ voices a bit jarring. I think I might have liked this more if I’d watched the original Japanese version, even if there weren’t any subtitles.

Netflix’s next recommendation was even better. I thought Spirited Away was a masterpiece (and the Academy Awards judges agreed with me, making this “the only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film” to win Best Animated Feature Film). Ten-year-old Chihiro is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the country. Driving to their new home, they get lost and her parents decide to explore an apparently deserted theme park. Unfortunately, it’s also a gateway to a terrifying, confusing spirit world, where Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds herself trapped by a witch, who steals Chihiro’s name and makes her work in a bath-house.

'Spirited Away' film still

I don’t speak Japanese, haven’t visited Japan and know almost nothing about Shinto beliefs, so, much like Chihiro, I only understood about a third of what was going on, but I was still enthralled by every minute of this film. Each scene is beautifully depicted, from the witch’s elaborate, Western-style penthouse furnishings to the mechanics of the Japanese bath-house to the amazing landscapes. Chihiro is a relatable character — initially spoiled and sulky, then terrified by her situation, unable to decide who to trust, then determined and compassionate and courageous. The supernatural characters are fascinating, scary and often hilarious (my favourites were the soot sprites who fake injuries so Chihiro will do their job and then steal her shoes and socks, although I also developed a soft spot for enigmatic No-Face). The plot is inventive and complex and intriguing. The messages about the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction are cleverly woven into the story. I was still thinking about this film for days afterwards. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t usually like fantasy or animated movies. If anyone has recommendations for further Studio Ghibli films, please do let me know.

My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

What I’ve Been Reading

Remember how I resolved to spend more time reading books and blogging about them in 2020? Hmm, that’s worked out well, hasn’t it? Other people may have spent lockdown reading War and Peace or the collected works of Anthony Powell or teaching themselves Italian so they could fully appreciate the original manuscript of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I’ve been getting up each morning to go to Day Job, then coming home and collapsing. I work as a hospital administrator in a large, busy public hospital — a job that is stressful and underappreciated at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I should note that I work with some lovely people dedicated to the well-being of their patients and colleagues, and that Australia has so far, through a combination of luck and good governance, avoided the terrible rates of infection, sickness and death that other countries have experienced during the pandemic. I also know how lucky I am to have a job, when so many others are now unemployed. But I’m still tired and stressed and I don’t feel much like reading long, complex books. Also, my library has closed down, so I’ve mostly been re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves. However, I have read a few new-to-me books that I liked.

'The Secret Place' by Tana FrenchI read The Secret Place by Tana French way back in February, in the Before Times, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s a suspenseful murder mystery, cleverly plotted with some surprising twists, but along the way, it thoughtfully explores some interesting themes through vivid, authentic characters. The narration alternates between four Dublin schoolgirls and a young, ambitious detective who is investigating a murder in the grounds of their posh boarding school. The intense friendships between the girls felt true to me, although their fate is rather depressing. There is also a supernatural element that didn’t work so well for me. I don’t want to get into spoilery details, but the girls experience something occult and then there’s an outbreak of ghost-sightings in the wider school community. Mass hysteria in a school is believable, but what actually happens in the book isn’t. It’s possible that the author is critiquing Irish superstition and I’m missing some important context. Anyway, this was a riveting read and if my library ever re-opens, I’d like to borrow more of Tana French’s Murder Squad books.

'The Crown' by Robert LaceyI also liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle And The Years That Define Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, which provides a good summary of the actual historical events portrayed in the TV series, The Crown. The author of this book was the historical consultant for the series and he sets out which parts of the script actually happened (or occurred in a less dramatic manner than portrayed on screen). I gave up on the TV series at the end of the first season because the historical inaccuracies were driving me up the wall and I found Prince Philip and Matt Smith deeply irritating, but as Robert Lacey points out, “drama is not the same as documentary”. I would have liked more photos of real events, but there’s a good index and bibliography and I learned some interesting things. For example, did you know that Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1968 and replace him with an unelected ‘Government of National Unity’, headed by Mountbatten himself?

'The Queen' by A.N. WilsonAs a companion read, I picked up The Queen, an eccentric extended essay by A. N. Wilson, a novelist and popular historian who doesn’t let facts get in the way of his opinions (apparently he wrote a scientifically-illiterate biography of Charles Darwin that argued against the theory of evolution). In this book, Wilson asserts that although Queen Elizabeth II is badly educated and dull, her steadiness and respect for tradition have been good for Britain, so hereditary monarchy is a logical and beneficial system of government. He thinks Prince Philip is basically a good egg and that his notorious gaffes are simply due to his tragic childhood; that Princess Anne would make a much better regent than Prince Charles, but at least poor Charles is earnest and well-meaning; and that Prince Andrew and the other young royals are beneath contempt (and this was published in 2016, before the depths of Andrew’s depravity were public knowledge). I can’t say I learned a lot about the British royals, but this was a quick, entertaining read.

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossHowever, the best book I’ve read recently was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. This is an intense, deeply affecting novella in which a history professor, his three students and Bill, a local expert in living off the land, spend a week emulating the lives of Iron Age hunter-gatherers in the north of England. Seventeen-year-old Silvie is dragged along on the field trip by her father Bill, along with Silvie’s long-suffering mother. Bill is a bigot and a bully, tyrannising his wife and daughter, controlling every aspect of their lives, keeping them in line with vicious verbal and physical abuse. He’s not a cartoon villain, though — we see glimpses of his pride in Silvie, it’s clear he’s hard-working and intelligent, and his frustration with his working-class life becomes more understandable when we see how patronising the professor and his students are. But there are no excuses for how Bill and the other men start to behave during the field trip and the tension ratchets up to nearly unbearable levels. I should warn you, this book is really grim in parts, but there’s a hopeful ending. I saw this as a powerful book about domestic violence, but I’ve since read reviews that discuss it in the context of Brexit and the rise of the far right in Britain, and that makes sense, too. It’s about how men use their own versions of British history, which may or may not be based on fact, to justify their oppression of less powerful people. It’s also really beautifully written, despite the dark, confronting themes.

I also read False Value, the latest Rivers of London novel by Ben Aaronovitch, and I’m sorry to say that I found it disappointing and I won’t be continuing to read that series. I’ll do a separate blog post about that if anyone’s interested.

What I’ve Been Reading: Non-Fiction

At the end of last year, I resolved to blog more about books I’d enjoyed. Mmm, that’s been going well, hasn’t it? Anyway, I have been reading more this year, but for some reason, I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of the fiction I’ve read. Fortunately, I’ve had more success with non-fiction books.

'The Disaster Artist' by Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe most intriguing and entertaining book has definitely been The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. I have never seen The Room, a cult favourite “revered for its inadequacy and its peerless ability to induce uncontrollable laughter”, although this collection of scenes gives some indication of its er, unique qualities. The Disaster Artist is narrated by Greg Sestero, a handsome young all-American guy who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. At one of his acting classes, he meets Tommy Wiseau, who speaks largely incomprehensible sentences in a thick Eastern European accent and has a burning desire to be the next James Dean, despite being a very weird-looking middle-aged man with dyed black hair and no discernible acting talent. Tommy latches onto Greg like Tom Ripley attaching himself to Dickie Greenleaf, and the two become unlikely friends, roommates and (eventually) co-stars in a movie that Tommy decides to write, direct, produce and finance himself. The Disaster Artist describes the process of making a movie with no coherent plot, full of dialogue that no real person would ever speak, designed and shot according to Tommy’s bizarre and inept direction.

Interspersed with the film-making melodrama is an account of Greg and Tommy’s strange relationship, as Greg tries to figure out why Tommy is the way he is. Tommy gradually reveals something of his background, although the more we learn, the more confusing his story becomes. Is he suffering from PTSD caused by his experiences when escaping from behind the Iron Curtain? Did the near-fatal car accidents he claimed to have been involved in cause brain damage that has left him unable to remember and recite the simplest lines of dialogue (which he wrote himself)? Is he a deeply repressed and unhappy homosexual? Is he simply a refugee struggling to belong in a foreign land? At times, it seems Greg is being a bit mean, making fun of a man with such obvious problems – but Tommy is more often a bully than a victim, manipulating others to get his way, throwing massive tantrums, humiliating the young actress who plays his on-screen love interest, screaming homophobic abuse at the one crew member who calls out Tommy for his blatant lying. And Tommy, far from objecting to Greg’s account, has welcomed the attention the book and its recent movie adaptation have brought to him. He’s still friends with Greg – in fact, they’ve just made another movie together (in which Tommy plays an eccentric mortician, which seems more appropriate than the all-American hero he tried to portray in The Room). The Disaster Artist is a fascinating psychological study of a very strange man, but it’s also an interesting look at creativity, ambition and the American Dream.

'The Durrells of Corfu' by Michael HaagI also enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, about the family who produced two celebrated authors – Lawrence Durrell and his even more famous younger brother, Gerald Durrell. I was especially interested to read about the Durrells’ life before and after Corfu, which turned out to be far less amusing than Gerry implied in his books. Both parents and all the siblings were born in India, where the eldest daughter died of diphtheria, choking to death in her mother’s arms while four-year-old Larry watched. Then, when Gerry was still a toddler, their father died and their mother decided to ship the family ‘home’ to England, which proved to be cold and unwelcoming. Their subsequent escape to Corfu wasn’t a whim, as Gerry depicted in his books, but a desperate attempt by Larry to save his mother, who had fallen into alcoholism and a deep depression.

Fortunately, life improved somewhat in the sun. This book has lots of excerpts from the siblings’ books, letters and journals, as well as fascinating family photos, but the author also sorts out fiction from facts. For example, while Gerry portrayed all his tutors as bachelors, most of these men were actually husbands and fathers – in fact, Theodore’s daughter, Alexia, was Gerry’s best friend and both families hoped they’d get married (they didn’t). Larry himself was married to Nancy Myers, a beautiful English artist, and there are descriptions of visits from their famous bohemian friends, including Henry Miller, which caused local outrage due to naked sea-bathing and other scandalous goings-on. Sadly, war broke out in 1939 and the family’s carefree life was over. Gerry and his mother left for England immediately, but Larry, Nancy and their baby daughter ended up fleeing from the Nazis in an overcrowded boat to Egypt; Margo married a pilot and ended up in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Ethiopia, where she “gave birth by Caesarean section, without anaesthetic, to their first son”; and Leslie, having impregnated and abandoned their Greek maid, went on to a life of depravity. This book is a good introduction to the real story of this fascinating, unconventional family of mythmakers.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

What I’ve Been Reading : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

For various reasons, I haven’t felt up to reading anything new lately, so I’ve been working my way through old favourites from my bookshelves. This has included a whole shelf of novels and short stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I find her work consistently engrossing, although I’m not sure why, because she wrote the same story over and over again. Generally a Westerner – someone from America or Britain, usually with German parents or grandparents – arrives in India with great enthusiasm and is either gradually or suddenly disillusioned. Often there is a guru involved, who may or may not be as benevolent as he initially seems. In her later work, the setting is New York or London and the master is a tempestuous Central European musician or psychiatrist or academic, but the theme is the same – that the characters must efface themselves to reach true fulfilment, which rarely turns out to equal true happiness.

Her fiction always seems very autobiographical and in her introduction to Out of India, entitled ‘Myself in India’, she wrote:

'Out of India' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

“I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year […] There is a cycle that Europeans – by Europeans I mean all Westerners, including Americans – tend to pass through. It goes like this: first stage, tremendous enthusiasm – everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian is not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable. For some people it ends there, for others the cycle renews itself and goes on. I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down.”

She was particularly interested in religion and “whether religion is such a potent force in India because life is so terrible, or is it the other way round – is life so terrible because, with the eyes of the spirit turned elsewhere, there is no incentive to improve its quality?” The heart of her problem, she said, was this:

“To live in India and be at peace, one must to a very considerable extent become Indian and adopt Indian attitudes, habits, beliefs, assume if possible an Indian personality. But how is this possible? […] Sometimes it seems to me how pleasant it would be to say yes and give in and wear a sari and be meek and accepting and see God in a cow. Other times it seems worthwhile to be defiant and European and – all right, be crushed by one’s environment, but all the same have made some attempt to remain standing.”

'The Nature of Passion' by Ruth Prawer JhabvalaThis author is probably best known for her Booker Prize-winning novel, Heat and Dust, and her Academy Award-winning script writing for the films of Merchant and Ivory. I like Heat and Dust, a book that contrasts historical and modern British attitudes towards India, and the film is pretty good, too. But my favourite Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel about India would have to be The Nature of Passion. It’s a clever, droll, beautifully constructed story about a family in New Delhi in the 1950s. Lalaji is one of the new super-rich, a man who has acquired millions of rupees by a combination of ruthless scheming, graft and sheer hard work and believes his security lies in sticking to traditional Hindu values. His youngest offspring, however, have opposing ambitions. Chandra is trying to establish a squeaky-clean career in the Civil Service, Viddi wants to travel to Paris to be an art critic, and beautiful Nimmi longs to be modern and independent and marry for love. A crisis looms for Lalaji when a politician begins a campaign against bribery and corruption:

“Bribery and corruption! These were foreign words, it seemed to him, and the ideas behind them were also foreign. Here in India, he thought, one did not know such words. Giving presents and gratifications to Government officers was an indispensable courtesy and a respectable, civilised way of carrying on business. It was a custom, a tradition even, and hence should be respected; not tampered with by upstart Deputy Ministers who had been abroad and brought home unsuitable ideas.”

For those who prefer short stories, Out of India is a good representative collection of her work, although I also like A Stronger Climate because it divides the stories into two useful categories, ‘The Seekers’ and ‘The Sufferers’. I also enjoyed My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, in which the nine stories, set in India, America and Britain, explore fictional “alternative destinies” for the author.
'Shards of Memory' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

When it comes to her novels set (mostly) outside India, the one I keep returning to is Shards of Memory, a family saga involving a wealthy Anglo-German-Indian family living in New York and linked to a mysterious spiritual Master. I don’t know why I like it so much, because it’s certainly not flawless (for one thing, it ends too abruptly). I think it must be the characters, who are so complicated and eccentric and oddly endearing. I especially like Henry, the young man who reluctantly accepts his destiny as the Master’s heir, and Henry’s grandfather Graeme, a cynical British diplomat – and also, possibly, a spy…

Castle Stalker

A Brief History of Montmaray

The bleak castle depicted on the hardcover edition of A Brief History of Montmaray may seem like the work of an illustrator, but I recently discovered it’s an actual castle.

Castle Stalker by Norrie Adamson
Castle Stalker. Photo by Norrie Adamson, licensed for reuse by Creative Commons Licence.

Okay, the book cover designer made a few adjustments to make it look as though the island were in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. But Castle Stalker is a real place that you can actually visit (if you happen to be in the general vicinity of Appin in Argyll, Scotland). And not only does Castle Stalker have a splendid name, it has its very own published Brief History, which is even more violent and dramatic than the history of Montmaray. It begins:

“In 1463 Sir John Stewart was keen to legitimise his son by getting married to his Mother, a MacLaren, at Dunstaffnage when he was murdered outside the church by Alan MacCoul, a renegade MacDougall, although he survived long enough to complete the marriage and legitimise his son, Dugald, who became the First Chief of Appin. The Stewarts had their revenge on MacCoul at the Battle of Stalc in 1468 opposite the Castle when the Stewarts and MacLaren together defeated the MacDougalls…’

There follows several centuries of Stewarts, MacLarens, MacDougalls and Campbells killing one another in various colourful ways. The Stewarts had a particular knack for getting murdered, even when they weren’t actually in Scotland – for instance, Duncan Stewart was appointed Governor of Sarawak in the 1940s and was assassinated a couple of weeks into the job. The Stewarts also weren’t very good at betting and lost the castle to the Campbells in a drunken wager. Unfortunately for the Stewarts, they’d fortified their castle walls so strongly that when they later tried to win it back from the Campbells by force, “their 2lb cannon-balls merely bounced off the walls”.

A couple of centuries later, the Campbells finally lost interest, abandoned the castle and allowed a Stewart to buy it back, and the process of restoration began. I would love to take one of the tours, but alas, I don’t think I’m likely to be visiting Scotland any time soon. I did do the virtual tour, which is pretty entertaining. And if you’re wondering where else you might have seen Castle Stalker, it makes an appearance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Castle of Aarrgh.

‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I feel slightly foolish rhapsodising about this novel. It’s rather like saying, “I saw this great play last night! You should see it! It’s called Hamlet!” because apparently, The Leopard (or Il Gattopardo, the Italian title) is one of the most famous novels ever published in Italy. However, as I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago, when I read a reference to it in a travel article1 about Sicily, then I’m guessing at least some of you may not be familiar with it, either, and you ought to know about it because it’s WONDERFUL.

'The Leopard' by Giuseppe Tomasi di LampedusaThe ‘Leopard’ is Don Fabrizio, the head of an ancient noble family of Sicily in 1860, which is not a very good time to be a Sicilian prince. Should Don Fabrizio continue to prop up the disintegrating Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or should he support Garibaldi and his Red Shirts as the rebels attempt to unify Italy? Don Fabrizio’s handsome, charming nephew, Tancredi, has no doubts. “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” declares Tancredi. Then he rushes off to join the Red Shirts, gains a heroic (but not very serious) wound, and swaggers back to the family’s country estate, where he falls in love with the mayor’s beautiful daughter, to his cousin Concetta’s dismay. A further dilemma for Don Fabrizio! Should he permit, even encourage, this marriage? The mayor, Don Calogero, is vulgar, devious and violent, the very opposite of a nobleman, but he’s rich and powerful and the marriage would allow ambitious Tancredi to prosper in this new regime. But what about poor Concetta’s broken heart? Will she continue to spurn Tancredi’s friend, the shy but devoted Count? Will the hapless family priest, Father Pirrone, ever manage to convince Don Fabrizio to take religion seriously? Will Paolo, Don Fabrizio’s useless son, ever turn into a worthy heir? And will Bendicò, Don Fabrizio’s affectionate but destructive Great Dane, ever stop digging up the flower beds?

The plot provides no great surprises, but the delight of this novel lies in the rich descriptions of characters and settings and particularly, in Don Fabrizio’s droll, sardonic reflections on life and the decline of the aristocracy. Imagine if Anthony Trollope had written a Sicilian version of Brideshead Revisited and you’ll get some idea of the tone of the novel. Don Fabrizio observes the rebels with mild interest, too intelligent and cynical to believe they will benefit Sicily, but too fatalistic (and lazy) to try to stop them. When they offer him a post as senator in the new government, he turns it down, saying, “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter about doing things well or badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all”, going on to claim that “Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery”. He winces at Don Calogero’s vulgarity but reluctantly comes to admire the mayor’s ability to solve problems, “free as he was from the shackles imposed on many other men by honesty, decency and plain good manners”.

I loved Don Fabrizio’s descriptions of the stark, arid Sicilian countryside where he spends summers at one of his immense, deteriorating palaces, Donnafugata, in which there are “apartments and corners not even Don Fabrizio had ever set foot – a cause of great satisfaction to him, for he used to say that a house of which one knew every room wasn’t worth living in”. There are also gorgeous descriptions of his palace near Palermo and of a grand ball at a friend’s mansion, at which Tancredi anxiously introduces his future wife and father-in-law to Society.

The Leopard seems such a glorious nineteenth-century kind of novel that it comes as a shock to read that the grand ballroom, with its ceiling painted with “eternal” gods, is destined to be destroyed by “a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn” in 1943. The author, the last Prince of Lampedusa, wrote this in the 1950s, after his own palace had been destroyed in the war2. The character of Don Fabrizio is based on his own great-grandfather and the settings of the novel are so beautifully, authentically described because they were the author’s childhood homes. As David Gilmour writes in the introduction to the English translation3, “So much of Lampedusa’s life, his wisdom, his learning and his sensibility, were distilled in its pages that it is doubtful whether he could have written a second novel of similar quality and intensity. The Leopard is a masterpiece because its author waited so long before writing it.”

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  1. In which, from memory, the travel writer stayed in a palace belonging to Lampedusa’s family and actually met his adopted son, who served as a model for Tancredi.
  2. Lampedusa died before his novel found a publisher, so he didn’t ever see The Leopard become a bestseller, win the Strega Prize and become an acclaimed film.
  3. I read the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, who seems to have done an excellent job, apart from a couple of jarring phrases coming from the mouths of peasants – but I expect it’s pretty difficult, translating Sicilian slang into English.

Book Recommendations, Please

I know the people who regularly visit this blog are widely read, highly intelligent and have excellent taste, so could you please recommend me some books? But not just any books. I am looking for some very specific books – namely, books set in England, preferably London, in the 1950s or early 1960s, about middle-class or upper-class schoolgirls. The books can be novels, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies (or chapters of biographies or autobiographies) – I don’t mind, as long as they centre on the lives of schoolgirls and the author really knows what he (or preferably, she) is writing about. To be even more demanding, I’d prefer to read about girls at day schools, rather than boarding schools. A 1950s or 1960s version of A Long Way From Verona or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, set in London, would be perfect.

Here are some of the books I’ve recently read, or re-read, that didn’t quite meet my requirements:

An Education, a memoir by Lynn Barber, included some chapters describing how Lynn, a bright but naïve schoolgirl, was courted by a much older con man who convinced her (and her parents) that she should leave school and marry him. It was also made into an excellent film, written by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan.

Girlitude: A Portrait of the 50s and 60s, a memoir by Emma Tennant, looked promising, but wasn’t really about her life as a child. It’s about how the author, a spoilt, rich member of the aristocracy, drifted through the fifties and sixties, picking up and discarding husbands, lovers, friends and houses, dumping her child on her long-suffering parents, and occasionally deigning to work for a few months at a time at some fashion magazine or other (the jobs arranged for her by her family, as she’d left school at fifteen and had no qualifications or apparent skills).

I also read, or re-read, a few Noel Streatfeild children’s books, including the ‘Shoes’ novels (Apple Bough/Traveling Shoes remains my favourite), Caldicott Place (which was okay) and Gemma (which was dreadful). Then I read some grown-up novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, All Change and Love All, as well as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which included schoolgirls as minor characters.

Any other suggestions, readers? Has anyone read the World’s End series by Monica Dickens or any of Mary Treadgold‘s children’s books, and would you recommend them? My only other proviso is that I’d prefer the books to be readily available. (For example, I’ve been intrigued by reviews of Antonia Forest‘s Marlow books for a while, but they’re in copyright yet out-of-print, and the last time I went online looking for a second-hand paperback copy of End of Term, it was listed for SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS, which is beyond my book-buying budget.) Thanks, everyone!

‘The Montmaray Journals’ Optioned For Film and Television

I’m happy to announce that the film and television rights to The Montmaray Journals have been optioned by an independent US production company. Here’s a statement from producer Lucy Butler:

Book One: 'A Brief History of Montmaray'

“Roommates Entertainment is excited to have optioned Michelle Cooper’s trilogy of novels entitled ‘The Montmaray Journals’ including ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’, and ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’. We feel passionately that the journey of the young, soul searching and strong female protagonist, Sophie, forging her way in life in the era of WW2, will not only be dramatic, visual, informational but upmost inspirational, and will be a magnet for the audiences young and old.”

Having a book optioned is merely the first step in what is usually a long and convoluted journey from the page to the big (or small) screen. However, Lucy’s enthusiasm for the Montmaray books and her understanding of their historical and cultural background convinced me that she would be the right person for the job, and I’m hopeful that any film or television series that results will be true to the spirit of the books. I wish the production team all the best as they get started on this project, and I’ll keep you posted about any further developments.