SOME BOOK REVIEWS

The End of the Story

Lydia Davis, The End of the Story, £8.99 Penguin

Originally published in 1995, The End of the Story is the only novel by acclaimed writer/translator Lydia Davis. It is a book about writing a book about a short-lived yet unforgettable affair. It is highly stylized. Characters are not named, places are not specifically identified, and events are regularly revised as the author/writer wrestles to shape them into a narrative, telling us what she’s doing the entire time.

This kind of self-consciousness should be annoying, but though I giggled now and then at the mannered style, I found the prose inescapable and irresistible. It rearranged my electrons, provoking incredibly vivid dreams during the two days I spend immersed in this slim volume.

The actual story is mundane: Woman meets younger man, they have an affair, love and passion are ignited but do not last, and their relationship ends, though not her curiosity about him and his effect on her. This novel demonstrates that everything depends on how you tell a story even more than the story itself. Yet revisiting my book to see what I’d underlined to quote in this review, I only find sentences that, for all their impact upon me at the time, read as banal when taken out of context. This novel, like a poem, relies on its interior rhythms to hypnotise and beguile.

The effect is like a wall of crystals or mirrors offering glancing – occasionally devastating – glimpses of the human dilemma. I had the strongest sense of residing entirely in imagination, mine much as hers, which probably explains the dreams. Reading about her unreliable narrator’s long-ago romance stirred up memories of my own similar experiences in a spooky, visceral way that other books have not achieved.

NB: I found this review interesting: http://quarterlyconversation.com/like-sugar-dissolving-on-the-end-of-the-story-by-lydia-davis

Lesley Blanch, On The Wilder Shores of Love, a Bohemian Life, £20 Virago

For years now I’ve had a second-hand paperback of The Wilder Shores of Love on my shelves. I keep meaning to read it, but instead I devoured (greedily, always wishing for more) this collection of Blanch’s shorter writing, edited by her goddaughter Georgia de Chamberet. It includes Blanch’s childhood memoir, selections from her work for Vogue, a memoir of her marriage to Romain Gary, and a clutch of essays about travel, including pieces on New York, Afghanistan, Mexico and Turkey.

Blanch is said – with some sniffiness – to inspire heroine-worship. You can add my name to that list of acolytes. After a few dozen pages I bemoaned that she’s no longer around to befriend. I long for her company over a drink and a gossip. What a bright, good-humoured, resilient woman.

Born in Chiswick in 1904, Blanch enjoyed a privileged early existence. Her adored parents were obsessed with one another and had little interest in their unexpected issue. She grew up with a longing for travel that would shape her entire life and career. After her mother’s money ran out Blanch went to work to support the little family, first as an artist, then as a journalist. The family had an eccentric friend in Theodore Komisarjevsky, who came and went “like the flight of some strange bird” and who was the great love of Blanch’s life. They consummated their May-December relationship behind her parents’ back and later also collaborated on theatrical productions.

There were other  love affairs and enduring friendships. Though addicted to new destinations, Blanch loved returning home, as well, but she survived (not without regrets) the loss of her beloved home and all its contents to a fire.

When she was very poor she depended heavily on men. Her goddaughter writes: “[She] was taken out to dinner and spilled soup down her dress purposely so her companion would buy her a new one which she referred to as polite prostitution.” (Blanch herself later wrote about the double and treble rows of diamond bracelets worn by great beauties, noting, “they are vulgarly known as service stripes.”)

Blanch had an illegitimate child, whom she gave up for adoption, and an unrelated, short-lived, early marriage. Her first husband’s chief appeal was a beautiful little William and Mary house overlooking the Thames.

In the 1940s she met Romain Gary and they married in 1945. He called her very “Eighteenth century,” because she tolerated his infidelities. Blanch often travelled alone, but also accompanied Gary, making homes in France, Bulgaria, Los Angeles and beyond, going wherever his career with the French Diplomatic Service took them. He eventually left Blanch for the actress Jean Seberg, and after their divorce she continued to travel, write, and entertain with her trademark élan, spending the last chunk of her life in France. She lived to be 103.

Blanch’s goddaughter recalls: “The Lesley I knew was seductively glamorous, witty, fiercely intelligent and overwhelmingly well-read with eclectic tastes; and much loved by her friends. She was great fun; age did not matter. A good listener, she held her own in conversation; and never lost her curiosity about life.”

All of these qualities – wrapped in ribbons of period detail – are much in evidence in this wonderful book, which I recommend that you read immediately! It is illustrated throughout with Blanch’s drawings and family photographs.

Coming soon: Reviews of The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild; The Green Road by Anne Enright; and The Household Spirit, by Tod Wodicka.

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