Thursday, July 24, 2014

MARGHANITA LASKI – Apologies & "The Tower" (both 1955)

I've always meant to write a bit about Marghanita Laski, who is surely one of the most exciting and interesting of Persephone's rediscovered authors, or at least one of my own favorites.  Sadly, she only published six novels, all in the course of less than a decade, before she turned her attention to writing a single play, biographical and critical works on the likes of Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot, Charlotte Yonge, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, a couple of stray children's books, and several books about religion written from the perspective of her own atheism.

Of her six novels, four have been reprinted by Persephone—To Bed with Grand Music (1946), Little Boy Lost (1949), The Village (1952), and The Victorian Chaise Longue (1953)—and all of those are among my favorites and are novels I recommend to anyone with an interest in World War II and the postwar period.  I also very much enjoyed the two that Persephone (so far, at least) have not reprinted, both of which have World War II-related themes.  Love on the Super-tax (1944), Laski's debut, is a challenge to track down, but deals cheerfully with the black market and class relations during the war, while Tory Heaven; or, Thunder on the Right (1948, inexplicably published in the U.S. as Toasted English) is a satire that presents a surreal postwar world in which traditional class boundaries are now enforced by law, with rather amusing results for six people of varying classes who have been cast away on a desert island for the duration of the war and are only rescued shortly after it ends.

Since Laski is such an interesting and entertaining author, there's no shortage of bloggers writing about her, most of whom have probably said it better than I could.  But what better excuse to mention some of my favorite bloggers?  Lyn at I Prefer Reading discussed To Bed with Grand Music back in 2010, as did Fleur Fisher.  Karen at Books and Chocolate and Booksnob both reviewed The Village back in 2011, and Kirkus reviewed it with its usual condescension when it first appeared, ending its review thus: "The larger issues of class and caste disintegration translated in terms of everyday lives, recognizable frailties, this is gentle in its realism and warm in its interpretation. For women, with possibly stronger rentals than sales."  (I'd like to travel back in time just to box that reviewer's ears.)  As for Little Boy Lost, Thomas at My Porch was lukewarm, and Savidge Reads was exasperated, but my own experience was something closer to Captive Reader's.  Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book has discussed both Little Boy Lost and Love on the Supertax, while Reading 1900-1950 also posted a review of the latter just a few months ago.  And everyone has reviewed The Victorian Chaise-Longue (and the reviews have been mixed), but my favorite has to be dovegreyreader's because of the fascinating background she compiled of the year in which it was published.

Now that I'm poking around, though, I don't see much online about Toasted English, though Positively Good Reads did a short review a while back.  Hmmm, an excuse for a re-read and a review of my own?  As if I'm not overwhelmed enough these days!

Front flap

The novels, then, are relatively well-known, but I've always been curious about this little book called Apologies (1955)—which, according to the only references to it I could find, seemed to be a humorous collection of Laski's magazine pieces—and about "The Tower," one of the only short stories Laski seems to have published, which originally appeared in Cynthia Asquith's Third Ghost Book, also in 1955.  Mentions of these works are few and far between online, so when I managed to get my hot little hands on both, I decided I could kill two birds with one stone (though I ordinarily make it a policy not to kill any birds at all, by stoning or otherwise) and finally write a bit about Laski while sharing some information on two of her lesser-known writings.

Apologies turns out to be, indeed, more or less a collection of Laski's periodical publications, and they are indeed humorous—again, more or less—but it's not quite what I had expected.  These are, in fact, not so much articles as lists—at times funny and at times more subtly satirical—of the sorts of clichés and pleasantries people use to disguise their real views, justify their indifference or lack of knowledge, or avoid engaging with difficult issues.  Much more difficult to explain than to show, so here's one of my favorites:

It's an unusual way to make a point, but presumably it served its purpose, as an acknowledgement at the beginning notes that many of the pieces had previously appeared in The Observer, Vogue, Punch, The Spectator, and Time and Tide.  At first, however, I was a bit disappointed, hoping for more pizzazz or a few more clear-cut giggles.  The pieces just seemed to be without a lot of significant content and none too hysterically funny.  But then I started to look back over them, and suddenly they began to "work" for me.  I found that by slowing down and really thinking about each of the predicates, as it were, and imagining the kinds of people who might be making such statements, they do start to make their point and even pack a bit of a wallop.  For we certainly hear (and use ourselves?) these same kinds of benign and banal generalities today, but we don't perhaps think of just what a substantial number of them there are and what their underlying purpose might be.

Here's one more taste:

And perhaps as entertaining as the banalities Laski compiled are the wonderful illustrations "by Anton."  I tried to poke around and find some additional information on this mysterious Anton, and I swear I have read another book featuring his illustrations, but I could find nothing online and couldn't for the life of me remember in what book I might have stumbled across his illustrations before.  They are perfect complements to Laski's text, though, and I can't resist (well, when do I ever resist?) sharing a couple more.  This one rather speaks for itself:

And this one accompanies a list of the excuses we find for watching television:

Anton must stand with Joyce Dennys as one of my favorite illustrators, but who on earth was he?  Does anyone happen to know anything about him?  [I knew one or more of you brilliant readers would be able to help: check out this link, shared by Susan Daly, which tells who Anton really was. Thank you, Susan!  And this bio includes a lovely photograph of Anton/Beryl Thompson herself.  With all the women on my list who wrote under masculine pseudonyms, how on earth could I have assumed that Anton was a "he"?!]

The fact that "The Tower" really couldn't be more different from Apologies is consistent with the astonishing variety of Laski's body of work in general.  The story first appeared, as I noted above, in Cynthia Asquith's Third Ghost Book in 1955, but it was reprinted more recently in both The Norton Book of Ghost Stories (1994) and The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories (1996), both of which are likely to be cornucopias for fans of ghosts and the supernatural—in particular, the latter's other authors range from E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elizabeth Bowen to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, and Penelope Lively.  It's rather a shame that Persephone didn't include "The Tower" in their reprint of The Victorian Chaise Longue, as it shares some of that work's themes and is similarly harrowing.  It would have made a perfect companion piece.  Weighing in at only 8 pages, the story is a concise little masterpiece of tension building into horror. 

Of course, I can't share too much of it here without spoiling it, so I will merely tease you and encourage you to read it (preferably not late at night or when you're alone).  It's about Caroline, the newlywed wife of David, a British Council worker in Florence.  She has relocated to Florence with him just three months ago, and has spent much of that time being led on a cycle of tourism by her husband, whose fascination for Italian art and architecture is insatiable and a bit on the pretentious side:

Caroline had come out to Italy with the idea that when she had worked through one or two galleries and made a few trips—say to Assisi and Siena—she would have done her duty as a British Council wife, and could then settle down to examining the Florentine shops, which everyone had told her were too marvellous for words. But Neville had been contemptuous of her programme. 'You can see the stuff in the galleries at any time,' he had said, 'but I'd like you to start with the pieces that the ordinary: tourist doesn't see,' and of course Caroline couldn't possibly let herself be classed as an ordinary tourist.

Among the things she has seen with David is a haunting portrait of a young girl, painted by Niccolo di Ferramano, a Renaissance artist and perhaps a dabbler in black magic as well.  Caroline learns that the girl was the young wife of di Ferramano and that she died at only 18 years of age, while David notes the resemblance of the young girl to Caroline herself.  As the story opens, Caroline has had her first day out exploring the Italian countryside on her own, and has come across a guidebook reference to an intriguing tower, coincidentally also built by di Ferramano:

The road begins to rise in a series of gentle curves, passing through pleasing groves of olives and vines. 5 km. on the left is the fork for Florence. To the right may be seen the Tower of Sacrifice (470 steps) built in 1535 by Niccolo di Ferramano; superstitious fear left the tower intact when, in 1549. the surrounding village was completely destroyed....

Triumphantly Caroline lifted her finger from the fine italic type. There was nothing to mar the success of this afternoon. Not only had she taken the car out alone for the first time, driving unerringly on the right-hand side of the road, but what she had achieved was not a simple drive but a cultural excursion. She had taken the Italian guide-book Neville was always urging on her and hesitantly, haltingly, she had managed to piece out enough of the language to choose a route that took in four well-thought-of frescoes, two universally-admired campaniles, and one wooden crucifix in a village church quite a long way from the main road. It was not, after all, such a bad thing that a British Council meeting had kept Neville in Florence. True, he was certain to know all about the campaniles and the frescoes, but there was just a chance that he hadn't discovered the crucifix, and how gratifying if she could, at last, have something of her own to contribute to his constantly accumulating hoard of culture.

And now she has come across the tower, which offers an even more exclusive experience.  Naturally, Caroline decides to climb the tower, despite the approach of evening, but I can't tell you much about her ascent and descent except to say that it will make you grip the arms of your chair.  The tension builds throughout, but most of the suspense is quite relatable, what any of us might feel and think in climbing a rickety, abandoned old tower as the sunlight outside is fading (though these days I imagine the tower would have a ticket line out front and a heinous audio tour to accompany it, which would lend a very different sort of nightmarishness).  

It's only—brilliantly and with wonderful subtlety—in the final line of "The Tower" that the horror dawns, and even then, as with all the best spooky writing, it is merely implied and suggested, so that our own imaginations do most of the work of terrorizing us.  And it might sound like a joke to say that the horror has to do with mathematics—some of us have a fair horror of math to begin withbut trust me, it won't seem like a joke when you're reading it…


  1. Always hoping to find a ML I don't own while browsing second-hand shops. The thrill of finding that old orange Penguin copy of Little Boy Lost with the pathetic waif on the front...I can't tell you! As for The Tower, thanks for reminding me just how terrifying that one was...but no spoilers here!

    1. I know what you mean, Darlene. I love the Persephone editions, but I know I couldn't resist a seductive old Penguin either. They just feel good in one's hands somehow.

      The first time I read "The Tower," I didn't quite "get it," I think. Then I re-read it, in broad daylight but alone in the apartment, and quite managed to terrorize myself!

  2. Gorgeous illustrations - I wonder who the mysterious Anton was, and what else s/he illustrated.

    1. As it happens, Vicki, we now know--see the note I added above, thanks to Susan Daly's research. At least you realized the possibility that Anton was not a "he"!

  3. Anton for Punch cartoons - hoots of laughter!

    Wiki article lists cartoonists & authors (Delafield, etc.) but no Anton

    Some citations at article’s end might yield results.

    Happy hunting & CONGRATULATIONS!


    1. Sorry for the belated response, Del. Thanks so much for the link to the Punch cartoons! I love them, and may have to devote a follow-up post to a few of them. I've been laughing out loud at some of them.

  4. 'The Tower' has stuck with me for years. Alan Garner called it "simply, the most terrifying story I know".

    1. I have to agree, Pamela. When I saw your comment, I had a flash of the end of the story and a chill ran down my spine!

  5. I read it yesterday when i was teaching my students of O level. since then my mind is stuck there in that dark and dingy tower with endless stairs. I feel pity for Caroline.

  6. Hearing Joss Ackland's reading on BBC R4Xtra this afternoon reminded me of my first encounter with The Tower in the hands of the superb Eleanor Bron. Was it the female voice, or just my more impressionable, less critical age? (it might even have been on the Third Programme, me in my teens). Or was she just even better? Thanks, Beeb, and Joss too, for the reminder. But if you get the chance ....


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