Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Novels we read as teenagers or young adults have the most incredible power to capture the flavour of those years. When I resort to nostalgia and run through those personal icons in the pub or at parties I'm delighted to stumble onto common ground - Camus, of course, Fournier, Plath, Hughes, Gunn - but one name is rarely recognised: Rumer Godden.

I read her novel Greengage Summer as a teenager and the emotional power of that story has stayed with me. I wanted to buy it for my daughter this Christmas. The copy I read was my mother's, so I don't have my own to lend her. But my local Waterstones doesn't stock it because apparently she doesn't sell. This is the writer of Black Narcissus.

It wasn't a day for ranting....I had a list as long as my arm to get through and it's hard enough, isn't it, wading through the mountains of rubbish in a bookshop nowadays. There was a time when I could engage. I remember once being in Waterstones in the King's Road and was shocked to discover there was nothing by Jorge Amado on the shelves, while Archer took up several feet of space. The conversation with a very snotty assistant began with the usual brush off, the same as I received for Godden - "oh, he probably doesn't sell...." So, having time on my hands, I asked if he'd search what was in print.

I watched his face change as he scrolled down the list of Amado's work. There was an "oh" moment. Yes, Brazil's leading writer (who was then alive)......whose work summed up a continent, the late 20th century, who examines religion, relationships, contemporary life with such humanity and humour......didn't even rate a single title in the As.

How can booksellers claim something doesn't sell when they don't even give us the chance of buying it? Of course, poets know all about this. How many times do we hear that lame excuse - poetry doesn't sell? As my kids might's not on the shelves, it's not promoted, it's not given that little handwritten tag saying buy this because our staff like it.

But, back to Godden. I pick up second hand copies of her books whenever I see them and have a couple of 1940s hardbacks - War Economy Standard - of The River, and A Fugue in Time, the story of a house. When I found them I felt as if I'd discovered a piece of fine porcelain. It reminded me of days when I used to visit a small secondhand shop in the village of Compton with my mother, turning stuff over for the marks underneath. Godden's name was there on the shelf!

This is how A Fugue in Time ends (like a poem, and I hope I'm not transgressing any copyright law here, but the passage is so beautiful it has to be read in its entirety because it leaves the reader with a true sense of our place in time, and gently, so you can imagine it being spoken, the voice quiet and measured. Is there something of Dylan Thomas in this?).....

"And the house continues in its tickings, its rustlings, its creakings; the ashes will fall in its grates, its door-bells ring; trains will pass under it and their sounds vibrate; footsteps will run up the stairs, along passages; dusters will be shaken; carpets beaten, beds turned down and dishes washed; windows will be opened and shut; blinds pulled up, pulled down; the tap will run and be silent; the lavatory will be flushed; the piano will be played and books taken down from the shelf; brushes will be lifted up and laid down again on the dressing-table; the medicine bottle will be shaken, and flowers arranged in a vase; children will perhaps play spillikins, and perhaps they will not; but mice, for mice will be mice and their fashions do not change, mice will run in the wainscot and the family will set traps for them. "In me you exist," says the house."

She is a star, an original. A website dedicated to her says 2007 is her Centenary Year "watch the press for new editions of the books." I guess, since I rarely do much except flick through the books sections of the papers because they're too jam-packed with celebrity nonsense, I might have missed something.

Godden wrote novels, biographies, children’s books and poetry. She was born at Eastbourne in 1907 and died in Dumfriesshire in 1998. Her last book, “Cromartie versus The God Shiva Acting through the Government of India” was published by Macmillan in November 1997.

The same website includes a quote by Godden from her autobiography A House with Four Rooms, which I am determined to get hold of and read..."everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person"."

One of the most brilliantly expressed thoughts on writing and living I've read. Oh, and apparently she loved dancing.

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