Jean Ure has been writing novels since she was a child. She had her first book published at the age of 16. Before turning to writing full-time, she scrubbed floors, waited tables, worked as a nurse and at the BBC, and was employed for several years in Paris as a translator for UNESCO. Jean is a vegan and an animal lover, and has seven dogs and four cats. Her books include A Proper Little Nooryeff, Sugar and Spice and Boys Beware. Here Jean writes about some books that have been important to her.
Jean Ure on Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman, and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
When Norm invited me to contribute to this series I accepted on the instant, as which of us would not? Only later, in the cold light of self-analysis, did the creeping conviction steal upon me: I am here under false pretences.
I say this for two reasons, the first being that although I had my first book published while I was still at school and have been furiously writing ever since, it is music rather than literature which has most illuminated my life - this in spite of the fact that I am not in the least bit musical. But for me there has been nothing to compare to the intoxicating excitement of discovering, say, Beethoven's late quartets, or the transcendental glories of Bach. No book has ever brought me quite such emotional and spiritual fulfilment. And yet, for all that, if I were forced to make the appalling choice of either/or, I would have to opt for the printed word, for I am soaked in words. Like most writers, I tend to think in finished sentences. Whole paragraphs unfold in my brain. (There are those who claim to think in pictures. I have never understood this. How do you think in the abstract without words to clothe your thoughts?)
So, I come down on the side of books, as a writer should, but this brings me to my second reason for self-doubt. Most of my favourite fiction, just as most of my favourite movies – The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Midnight Run, etc. – tend to be works of comedy. (I am taking favourite here to mean those movies and books to which one can return almost endlessly.) It is a frequent complaint of comic writers that humour wins no prizes, is denied the critical acclaim meted out to more serious-minded works. However, I am not entirely persuaded that they have a case. It is possible I say this only because humour comes easily to me, whereas serious writing is squeezed out drop by painful drop, with blood and sweat and tears. But I don't think so. It seems to me that humour, even in its highest forms, pretty well skates over the surface of life. It may drop the occasional plumb line, but it quickly hauls it up again. Comedy is not weighty: its job is not to delve into the depths. Norm's blog is a serious blog; I am therefore constituting myself the light relief.
Looking back to my early teenage years - always the most impressionable - a long list of books goes tumbling through my brain. Some of them well past their read-by date, others still with the power to amuse and delight. Those which I suspect are past their date might be the books of Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon – No Bed for Bacon, Don't Mr Disraeli, A Bullet in the Ballet. How I used to love them! And what a disastrous effect they had for years to come upon my writing.
"Gentlemen," pleaded the born leader to the rollicking procession. "Can't you march in step?"My first published book is filled to the brim with short choppy sentences à la Brahms and Simon. Subsequent efforts, for quite some time, favoured J.D. Salinger's style, for Catcher in the Rye was another favourite, and one which is definitely not past its read-by date. Three Men in a Boat? Probably is. Diary of a Provincial Lady? Almost certainly is. But not so that other diary, The Diary of a Nobody, wonderful evocation of lower middle class Victorian life, with a character who will surely live forever in the humble, servile, frequently self-righteous and upwardly-striving Mr Pooter, with his atrocious puns - I'm afraid my cuffs are rather frayed - and his bottles of Jackson Frères for special occasions. And then, of course, there is Richmal Crompton's William; the sublime William, earnest, pugnacious, essentially well-meaning, and in a perpetual state of outraged indignation at the injustices perpetrated upon him by adults. I would rate the best of the William books as comic masterpieces.
The procession stopped. They considered. "Impossible," they told him.
There is one outsider in the works which jostle for my attention, and that is Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. Berkman, as most readers of this blog no doubt already know, was a leading anarchist in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Friend and lover of Emma Goldman, he attempted to assassinate the owner of a steel plant who had used Pinkerton agents, with disastrous effect, to break a strike by steel workers. Berkman was given a 14-year jail sentence, and served all 14 years in a state penitentiary. Such a book may seem a strange choice for one who has so firmly nailed her colours to the mast of comedy - indeed, it may seem a strange choice full stop. But I read it in my early twenties, when I was researching for a large, important novel on social conditions in Victorian England (which was never published), and the impact it made on me was devastating. It stayed with me for years; I identified completely with both Berkman and Goldman. I was young, I was hot-headed, and I was largely unthinking. Propaganda by the deed seemed perfectly justifiable. An act of desperation born out of love for humanity. Actually, anything but, for I believe Berkman idealized humanity at the expense of its constituent parts, but that realization came to me much later. At the time I found him a tragic figure, and his journal almost unbearably moving.
Hardly, however, a book to read and re-read and grow old with. If I am to have just one desert island companion, I shall have to fall back on an old favourite, Mansfield Park. Not perhaps the choice of most Jane Austen fans, for if Elizabeth Bennett is the world's sweetheart then Fanny Price must surely be the world's biggest pain in the backside. Fanny Price is what happens when a comic novelist falls in love with one of her own characters and can see no wrong in her. This creates its own kind of humour, as witness the following hushed exchange between Fanny and the saintly Edmund.
"She ought not to have spoken of her uncle as she did. I was quite astonished. I could not have believed it!"Whether or not Jane Austen intended such superlative smugness to be amusing I have my doubts, but generations of readers have rejoiced in it nonetheless.
"I thought you would be struck. It was very wrong; very indecorous."
I love Austen for her wit, her elegance, her caustic humour and, perhaps most importantly, her sparkling array of characters; in particular, in Mansfield Park, poor simple Mr Rushworth, so anxious to impress everyone with his 'Five and thirty lines' in the play Lovers' Vows; prating Mr Yates, your typical popinjay actor even then; the wonderfully ill-tempered Mrs Norris, forever on the lookout for a free lunch and perpetually meddling in what does not concern her. Even Austen's most minor characters are comic creations, more real than Dickens's cartoon people. I feel I know them all intimately; which I think is what I should want on a desert island.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]