Friday, January 24, 2014

Thomas Hardy, "the man behind the pen"

Ever since I got back from London, I've been carefully rationing Nina Stibbe's always hilarious, sometimes poignant Love, Nina, a collection of the letters that the then-twenty-year-old Stibbe sent her sister in 1982 and '83 describing her experiences as the nanny for the two young children of London Review of Books publisher Mary-Kay Wilmers. The letters are full of absolutely hilarious dialogues among Stibbe, the boys, Wilmers, and their neighbor Alan Bennett, who's constantly dropping by for dinner (and usually supplying the mordant punchline to the group's exchanges). The dialogues are so good--so odd and funny and surprising--that I think I've read half the book out loud to rocketlass by now, to her great amusement.

The letters aren't solely of comedic interest, however. They also offer an interesting picture of early 1980s London as seen for the first time by a girl from Leicestershire, and of a moment in life that will be familiar to those of us who came from rural or lower-class backgrounds: when we begin to see higher culture, to know we want to be involved with it somehow, and yet we remain fundamentally (and often comically) ignorant of what that would entail. Stibbe's vacillation between confidence and fear, interest and frustration, knowledge and ignorance are charming and touching; they remind me a bit of similar moments in Caleb Crain's brilliant novel Necessary Errors, re-creating as his book did a very particular youthful feeling of inchoate ambition and hope.

I could spend the rest of this blog's year quoting from this book, but for today I'll just share an amusing--and far from unperceptive--observation that Stibbe made after encountering Thomas Hardy's poetry for the first time. She had been assigned some of his novels as part of her A-Level syllabus, and someone had suggested that she delve into the poetry as well in order to better understand "the man behind the pen." She subsequently wrote to her sister:
Got some of Hardy's poems out of Holborn library as per the letter. Most of them are rubbish and do not help me understand him. They make me think of him as wallowing and moaning and wishing for the olden days and that he hadn't been such a cunt to his wife.

Which I already knew from the introduction to The Return of the Native.
Later, she tells a university interviewer that Hardy makes her feel insignificant, which, given the high drama and fatalism of his fiction, seems like a not unreasonable response for a twenty-year-old.

I'm sure I'll share more from Love, Nina soon. Stateside readers, meanwhile, should go ahead and have their local bookstore pre-order a copy: it will be published over here by Little, Brown in April.

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