Wednesday 29 May 2013

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Rereading I Capture the Castle means treading very carefully, because I'm treading on my dreams. When I first read this book in my teens, I longed to step into the shoes of its clever heroine, living in the ruins of a castle with a handsome young swain hopelessly in love with me. My heart was beating to the rhythm of the prose, but could my devotion survive the passing of the years?

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (she of 101 Dalmatians fame) is set in 1930s rural Suffolk where seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family are living in genteel yet fascinating poverty. Her father is a famous author who once wrote a very good book but has since been unable to pen another, her stepmother is an artist's model who enjoys communing with nature and her sister Rose is beautiful but bored. Then there's live-in hunk Stephen, who is devoted to Cassandra and keeps dropping lines of poetry into her hands.

The family is surviving by selling their furniture, but everything changes as the local manor house Scoatney Hall is inherited by Simon, a dashing young American who takes up residence, along with his brother Neil. Life is definitely about to get more interesting for the Mortmains...

The novel is written in the form of Cassandra's journal and her voice is as clear and engaging as I'd remembered. Half-child half-woman, she is a narrator who instantly takes you into her confidence, appealingly honest, funny and perceptive about herself and those around her. Her life's ambition is to be a writer and she practices by 'capturing' her characters with vivid and unsparing descriptions. As the story unfolds, it appears the family's poverty can only be alleviated by Rose making a good marriage, unless their father can be coaxed into writing again.

This is a wildly romantic tale and I suppose I was never going to recapture the youthful imagination with which I first read it. One or two things did jar; I began to think the Mortmain family's poverty could not be quite as decorative as it appeared; they were usually hungry and cold and there's nothing much less decorative than that. I was cross that the only way out of their poverty seemed to be through a good marriage - this is the 1930s I know, but weren't Rose and Cassandra capable of doing anything more practical? And I questioned that they seemed to exist in isolation of world events - hadn't Mr Mortmain been caught up in the First World War at all? Wasn't there at least the odd wisp of a storm cloud to foretell the advent of the Second?

But then I'm applying too much realism to a story set in the 1930s and written in 1949, in the aftermath of World War II when escapism was just what was needed. A rather well-written, superior form of escapism is just what is provided by I Capture the Castle, a book you don't so much read as live within.I still enjoyed it second time around - not quite as unequivocally as the first, but the fabric of my dreams is very much intact.

Have you read I Capture the Castle? What did you think of it?

(pictures from film courtesy of

Saturday 18 May 2013

Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams (and a touch of Bridget Jones)

There's no doubt that certain books resonate with particular times of your life. Think about travelling in North America accompanied by beaten up copies of Steinbeck and Kerouac, or devouring I Capture the Castle as a romantic and wistful teenager.

But others are as mismatched as dry fingers on a fret board, with every sentence grating so much you feel a violent impulse to expunge this book from your life. At least, that's how I reacted to reading Bridget Jones's Diary just after I'd had my first baby - there was Bridget spending hours deciding which pants to wear, obsessing over whether she'd gained a pound or two and flirting with that cad Daniel Cleaver, while I was leaking breast milk and trying unsuccessfully to insert cabbage leaves down my bra. Given half a chance, I would've battered singleton Bridget with her diary.

Yet at another time, I would probably have enjoyed the book as much as I did the film a few years later. Wrong book, wrong time. And that's how I felt when reading Niall Williams' Four Letters of Love for our book club recently.

Williams was born in Dublin but now lives in the west of Ireland, and Four Letters of Love, written in 1997, was his first book. It's the story of Nicholas and Isabel who are, so we're told, made for each other, if ever they are able to meet. So far so good, we begin with Nicholas whose father has been told by God that he should give up his civil servant's career to become a painter, while his mother's reaction to this news is to take to her bed; something she does with increasing frequency as the households assets drain away. Nicholas' story is told in the first person, Isabel's meanwhile is told in the third. I had the sneaky suspicion this might be to distinguish their otherwise similar voices.

Isabel goes to school on the mainland of Ireland, but her home is a rain-lashed island off the coast. Returning to Galway after Christmas in her final school year, apparently she doesn't know she's about to fall in love. This doesn't seem unreasonable, problem is, it's not her soul mate Nicholas that she's about to fall for but the much more prosaic Peader, owner of Galway's least successful haberdashery.

There's certainly some beautiful writing but this wasn't really the book for me. Lots of tortured souls mooning around, accepting their fate and enduring the chronic misery of their lives without doing anything much to help themselves. Mixed up in all this is the conundrum of whether Nicholas and Isabel are ever going to get together, as well as those letters, which I eventually stopped caring about.

Four Letters of Love is poetically written in the Irish tradition and there are some lovely, rambling phrases:
the clouds sat down, the light left the day, and the pastoral greenness of all the stone-walled fields surrendered to a grey and desolate emptiness. For miles it was raining. At the edges of the sky you could see the fraying of clouds and the water spilling, like so many downstrokes of a sable brush'.
But some of it made me cross:
Wives create their husbands. They begin with that rough raw material, that blundering, well-meaning and handsome youthfulness they have fallen in love with, and then commence the forty years of unstinting labour it takes to make the man with whom they can live.
This novel has had some great reviews, so very likely it's just me, but I couldn't feel my way into getting swept along by it.

Monday 13 May 2013

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King

I first came across Ross King at the Bath Literature Festival back in February, talking about his latest book Leonardo and the Last Supper. I'd say he's one of that rare species - an author who wears his extensive knowledge lightly and is able to convey it without his audience losing the thread. So I vowed to read more of his books, and, what with a trip planned to Florence this summer (I hope, I hope, I hope!), Brunelleschi's Dome was just what was needed.

This is a factual story of ingenuity and intrigue, of bitter divisions and close collaborations and above all of how one man, born and brought up in the shadow of the building site of Florence's great cathedral Santa Maria del Fiori, overcame enormous obstacles to raise the highest and widest dome in the world.

The foundation stone of Florence's new cathedral had been laid back in 1296, but the original architect, a master mason by the name of Arnolfo di Cambio, died soon after construction began and his model for the design was either lost or demolished. So in 1367 the office of works in charge of the cathedral selected the plans of one Neri di Fioravanti, who believed his ambitious design for an octagonal dome could be supported by the use of a series of stone or wooden chains encircling it as an iron hoop does a barrel. Problem was, his theory was largely untested and many considered it impossible, while others simply had faith that God would at some stage send a man who could provide the solution.

It was against this background that Filippo Brunelleschi, not an architect but a master goldsmith by profession, entered a competition in 1418 to design the dome. Competitions for such projects were common but tended to cement existing rivalries, like the one between Filippo and Lorenzo Ghiberti who had already beaten him in the competition to design the magnificent bronze doors of the baptistery.

The Baptistery and Ghiberti's bronze doors
This time Filippo's plan was audacious and revolutionary, proposing to construct the dome entirely without the use of 'centring' or scaffolding, and it was initially greeted with scepticism and even hostility. But eventually, his design was accepted ahead of his rivals', and by 1420 Filippo was able to begin his work.

The ox-hoist (here drawn by horse)

At every stage of this story, Filippo had to overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties, which he achieved through combining studies of recently rediscovered Greek and Roman techniques with his own ingenuity. He invented sophisticated winches powered by oxen to haul huge sandstone blocks into place and exacting methodology to ensure the angle of the dome's inner and outer walls were ascending as they should. Not everything went according to plan, though, and alongside his triumphs he suffered significant failures, such as the loss of a whole cargo of marble being transported along the Arno. These were failures which his enemies were waiting to exploit, even when the cupola was being consecrated in 1436.

This is a compact but engaging tale of one man's perseverance and remarkable inventiveness and King tells it well, catching the flavour of the times in his description of ordinary working men's lives as well as the divisions which beset the project. The problems Fillipo had to overcome and his solutions are well illustrated, although with my very limited scientific knowledge I must admit to losing track from time to time. My husband was well impressed though (not to mention a little shocked!) by my explanations of hoop stress and tramelling (building a circular wall), so much so that he's about to embark on the book. I'd certainly recommend reading it before visiting Florence, as besides the astounding achievement of the dome, King's writing breathes vitality into the wider life and development of this fascinating city.

Have you visited Brunelleschi's Dome? If I make it up those 463 steps to the summit this summer, I'll be reflecting on the daily ascent of those early renaissance workmen who ate their lunches and drank their wine up there at 140 feet and of how, despite modern technological advances, the height and span of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiori has still not been surpassed.

 Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, 192 pages, published by Vintage
Picture of ox-hoist courtesy of Newton Excel Bach

Monday 6 May 2013

Two Gentlemen of Verona - Tobacco Factory and on tour

I've been making good progress with my bucket list lately, but started to worry about being able to see some of Shakespeare's less frequently performed plays. So when I spotted Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, I leapt at the chance to see it before it sets off on tour. Post-booking, I'll admit to more than a quiver of anxiety though; lesser performed plays are often performed less for a reason.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is believed to be Shakespeare's earliest work for the stage, a comedy often best known for being the only play in which Shakespeare casts a dog. It introduces his oft-rehearsed themes of close friendships and star-crossed lovers, mixing them for good measure with a large dollop of inconstancy.

The play opens with Valentine discussing his imminent departure to Milan with his great friend Proteus - he'd like Proteus to accompany him, but Proteus is in love with Julia and wants to stay in Verona. But his father orders him to travel to Milan after all to complete his education, prompting a tearful farewell and exchanging of rings with his sworn love.

 In Milan, Proteus finds Valentine now in love with Silvia and, despite his recent declaration of undying affection for Julia, he too falls for her. Problem is, Silvia's father, the Duke of Milan, wishes her to marry Thurio and locks her nightly in a tower, from which Valentine intends to free her with a rope ladder. Proteus tells the Duke of this plan and Valentine finds himself banished from the city to the forest beyond. Julia meanwhile has decided to follow her lover to Milan disguised as a boy and is distraught to find Proteus' affections now directed elsewhere.

The story may sound far fetched, but then Shakespeare often asks us to accept what must ever have been unrealistic - think of two sets of twins being separated in a shipwreck and coincidentally reunited years later or statues being miraculously restored to life. Proteus' mind-changing, albeit on an industrial scale, doesn't seem all that outlandish by comparison and it's made all the more believable in this production by the evenly-matched excellence of the Tobacco Factory ensemble, breathing life into characters which could so easily be two-dimensional. Proteus (Piers Wehner) is as likeable as it's possible to be in the circumstances, and his betrayal of friendship and love is portrayed as the rash, misguided foolishness of youth rather than anything more sinister. Valentine (Jack Bannell) is easily deceived by his friend but heroic in his actions and Bannell's comic timing in his scene with the Duke of Milan and the revelation of a hidden rope ladder is immaculate.

Julia (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and Silvia (Lisa Kay) are played with great energy and spirit and their linking of arms at the end is a feminist triumph. Much of the comedy is provided by the servants Launce (Chris Donnelly) and Speed (Mark Geoffrey) who are spell-binding, making the most of every line and taking the audience along with them.

This was my first visit to the Tobacco Factory, and I felt myself falling in love, too - with this intimate space in the round that could be walked across and chatted upon until the lights went down, when all at once it transformed into the focus of our undivided attention. Andrew Hilton's direction is superb and there was greater clarity in the performance line by line than I've ever felt in a Shakespeare play that I haven't seen or read before. The design by Harriet de Winton, setting this production in the Edwardian era of pale, crisp linen suits is stylish and effortless and the music by John Telfer brings considerable charm and and cohesion to the production. The only uncomfortable aspect of the evening was the seating (and this is about to be upgraded)!

And then there's the dog...the charismatic Crab (Lollio) with his instinctive obedience undermining Launce's richly embroidered tales of Crab's wide-ranging misdeeds.I could hardly believe from the programme that this is Lollio's theatrical debut - he has his own blog but surely needs an agent as well! I found myself envying those in the front row who got to hold his lead and diverting my attention in his direction, no matter what was going on around him.

This is an evening spent in the sure hands of a company completely at ease with a play which stands up to scrutiny in its own right, a play which should certainly be performed more often. Two Gentlemen of Verona is now on tour to Lancaster, Cheltenham, Scarborough, Exeter and Winchester, facing the challenge of adapting to new and different spaces. I hope they remember to bring Lollios's blanket, water bowl and treats, but if they do I can only imagine this production will continue to be a triumph.

Pictures courtesy of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory