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The Temptation of Mrs Harris

It was astonishing to me that a grown-up could cry, and more than astonishing that anyone should cry for joy. The memory came back to me a few weeks ago, as I reread, with my 9-year-old daughter, Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris. For Gallico, most fondly remembered as the author of The Snow Goose, was a master of the bittersweet, of the mysterious kinship between suffering and joy. He knew how to fold together humour and poignant detail in just the right proportions to prevent his prose from curdling into mawkishness and sentimentality.
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A Noble Cause

A Noble Cause

War in Val d’Orcia consists of the diary Iris Origo kept between the end of January 1943 and July 1944. The Origos were based throughout at La Foce, south of Montepulciano in central Italy, though they made occasional excursions to Florence and Rome. She and her Italian husband Antonio had devoted their pre-war lives to reviving the estate, something that could only be done by cooperating with Mussolini and his Fascist bureaucracy; when the Fascists allied themselves with Hitler and Nazism, the Origos keenly adopted the anti-Fascist cause. In what was a remote part of Tuscany they created a remarkable agricultural community, though its close-knit texture would be stretched to the utmost under wartime conditions.
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Avid to Live and Learn

Avid to Live and Learn

I shall always be grateful to A Cab at the Door. I read most of it one Sunday evening in a Victoria line tube train which was stuck for two hours outside King’s Cross station. The train lights dimmed and instead of the Blitz spirit a sullen, twitchy silence set in. I was spectacularly lucky in my companion. The sheer vigour of V. S. Pritchett’s writing and his benign, shrewd storyteller’s voice kept me suspended in his Edwardian boyhood until ‘the juice’, as the panic-stricken driver called it, came back on and we trundled away at last.

Dog Days

‘In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk.’ My copy of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – of which these are the opening words – is a first edition of the English translation from 1998. In fine condition these now fetch high prices, something that was pointed out to me as I stashed it in a knapsack last summer, and set off with two friends to retrace part of Sebald’s route along the Suffolk coast.
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The Sensation of Crossing the Street

I remember thinking clearly: what a momentous day this is, and here I am, reading a novel set in London on a single day. What a chime, what an echo! These were not the words I used to myself, as I walked in the dazzling sun, but I now think they should have been, resonating as they do with the famous opening lines of Virginia Woolf ’s novel, when Clarissa Dalloway sets forth on a perfect June morning to buy the flowers for her party: ‘What a lark! What a plunge!’
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Swallows and Amazons for Ever!

Swallows and Amazons for Ever!

The train from the south drew in to the junction with the line that led to the hills. We changed, and already there was freshness in the air on a day of azure skies and deep shadows. I went to admire the Puffing Billy that was to haul us on the last leg of our journey, inhaling the intoxicating cocktail of hot oil and steam that engines exude. The whistle blew, I ran back to the carriage, the doors slammed, and we clanked our way west with the setting sun. I hurried from side to side of the carriage . . .
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Strangely Like Real Life

Strangely Like Real Life

My own prime favourite is Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time: panoramic, sharply observed, farcical, ironic, yet shot through with what Kingsley Amis called an endlessly inquisitive melancholy. We shadow the narrator Nick Jenkins from the callow half-understanding of youth, in the Twenties, through the drastic remaking of lives and relationships by war, to late middle age in the heady Sixties and Seventies – a whole new age of absurdity against which the novel’s various endgames are played out.
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Underwear Was Important

Underwear Was Important

Posy’s dialogue is as good as her draughtsmanship, and she has a talent for names (an area in which so many writers fall down) which is as good as that of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell. What enchants and convinces in all her work is the brilliantly observed detail. If Posy draws a French coffee pot it is a completely authentic French coffee pot. The appearance of her characters – toddlers, sulky teenagers, pushy mothers, angst-ridden authors, pretentious publishing types – is always spot on. This kind of texture, she says, is the equivalent of verbal description in a novel . . .
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