162–166: Mrs Dalloway; The Lost Art of Letter Writing; The House at the End of Hope Street; The Colour of Magic; and The Light Fantastic

As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners (Huxley again); decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way – her notion being that the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives, were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady.

In other words, we’re all dead anyway, so let’s party and be nice.

Just like To the Lighthouse, this is a wonderful book. The prose is rewarding – not easy, but gorgeous. I want to read it a few more times; “Having done things millions of times enriched them, though it might be said to take the surface off.”

Flipping between the shell-shocked young soldier and the fretful party-planner is a little odd at times (or, as my boss put it, “drawing parallels between a bloke who saw his best friend die and a woman who’s a little bit sad sometimes”). “She felt somehow very like him,” we are told.

Lady Bruton, who “had had good friends, known the ablest men of her day,” reminds me at least in that way of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, but also of Mrs Fisher in The Enchanted April (and I simply must reread that).

Very shortly after opening Menna van Praag’s The Lost Art of Letter-Writing, I knew it was going to be something very special indeed, and it and The House at the End of Hope Street certainly justified my suspicions. Not realising that there is continuity between the two, I’m afraid I read them in the wrong order (and missed out, I believe, a book or two in between). The continuity is loose, however, in that it doesn’t really matter, and van Praag is an admirably clear author who certainly won’t leave you lost if you dive straight in at the middle like I did.

I wouldn’t say they were exactly feel-good books. They have a strong flavour of the bittersweet. They’re enchanting fairy tales or ghost stories or what have you set in Cambridge, a world which (speaking from experience) you can well imagine hides just below the bustling surface, down the side streets and through small doors. (I did find it jarring to have the “four-hundred-year-old wooden boards of the Bridge of Sighs” make an appearance; that particular bridge is stone and, as any good Johnian knows, was built in the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth. The Mathematical Bridge is the most famous wooden bridge in Cambridge, and was built in 1749; that would probably be the closest.)

Two things. The first is that when I reached the end of Chapter Twenty-Two (page 243 in my edition) of The House at the End of Hope Street, I wrote “Well bloody played, van Praag. Well bloody played” in my notes, and that strikes me as important enough to mention. The second is that reading The House at the End of Hope Street makes the Edward and Greer storyline in The Lost Art of Letter Writing, with which I was already deeply uncomfortable, rankle even more.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are to fantasy what Douglas Adams’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books are to science fiction. The first two, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, deal primarily with Rincewind (“a coward, an incompetent, and not even very good at being a failure”) and Twoflower, the Disc’s first tourist. The Discworld itself is circular, carried on the backs of four elephants who in turn stand on a giant turtle swimming through space. It is exactly as nonsensical as it sounds, and about six times as glorious (clearly designed, Pratchett opines, by a Creator with more imagination than mechanical aptitude). The Gods live in a sort of rest home called Dunmanifestin; they have “a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows” and their “idea of an uplifting musical experience was a musical doorbell.”

What makes the books so successful, I think, is that they never degenerate into pure parody or pastiche. They are always funny, especially if you know exactly the sort of thing Pratchett is sending up at any one time (like heroines’ “armour” in a particular breed of bad fantasy), but they are also always legitimately good novels in the genre, with proper plots and three-dimensional characters.

Mrs Dalloway
Author Virginia Woolf
Published 1925
Pages 172
Best line “The blaze of his laughter (about the Duke and the Lady), which, as she heard it across the room, seemed to reassure her on a point which sometimes bothered her if she woke early in the morning and did not like to call her maid for a cup of tea: how it is certain we must die.”
Best character Honestly, I like Richard Dalloway.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing
Author Menna van Praag
Published 2017
Pages 307
Best character Ross. “Everyone likes dancing. Unless they’re so uptight they don’t even like sex.”

The House at the End of Hope Street
Author Menna van Praag
Published 2013
Pages 286
Best character Peggy. “No one believes you had an affair with Jonathan Swift, no matter how many times you quote him.”

The Colour of Magic
Author Terry Pratchett
Published 1983
Pages 277
Best character Hrun. “Hrun shrugged and went back to oiling his biceps.”

The Light Fantastic
Author Terry Pratchett
Published 1986
Pages 277
Best character Bethan.


4 thoughts on “162–166: Mrs Dalloway; The Lost Art of Letter Writing; The House at the End of Hope Street; The Colour of Magic; and The Light Fantastic

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