Susan Hill: Howards End is on the Landing (2009) A Bookish Memoir

Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again. A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

I can’t tell you exactly how long it took to read this book. An evening? Two? Certainly not longer. I devoured it. What is more fascinating to read than a bookish memoir? And written by a writer. On top of that Howards End is on the Landing also contains some information on Strange Meeting, the first book I chose for my Literature and War Readalong.

Shouldn’t we all stop buying books from time to time and first read what is at hand, on our own shelves? This is exactly what Susan Hill did for a whole year. During this year she discovered and rediscovered a lot of books and writers, was reminded of many memories that are linked to books and writing and chose her own personal canon of 40 books.

It is an extremely interesting and entertaining and at times frankly puzzling book. Susan Hill doesn’t read Canadian or Australian literature. Why not? Too foreign. She thinks Joyce, Proust and a few others are unreadable. Are they? There were bits and pieces of information like this that did surprise me. But she is honest. She isn’t pretending for one second. It is obvious that this is the book of a reader, it is nothing like Francine Prose’s outstanding Reading Like a Writer, it is only about personal choices and tastes. There are whole chapters dedicated to her favourite female writers: Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner, Virginia Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald and Iris Murdoch.  She has met quite many of the writers she mentions and tells anecdotes that are interesting too.

One whole chapter is dedicated to diaries, another one to picture books, one to things that fall out of books, another one is dedicated to annotations in books and  she muses over short stories (not her favourite form).

Sebald gets a whole chapter which surprised me after what she said about Proust and Joyce and others. I’m glad I am already reading his Austerlitz or I would have to rush and get one of his books. She really makes him sound appealing. I agree with her, there is no writer like Sebald.

His subject matter is extraordinary, unpredictable and odd – he seems to collect the unusual and be interested in the outlandish, but, through his eyes, even the ordinary and prosaic becomes somehow strange. Everything he sees, everywhere he goes, every person he meets, all are filtered through some curious lens of his own devising.

Something that I liked is her evaluating some of the classics and giving advice with which one of their novels one should start. One should read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and not start with Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. Sounds sensible.

If she had two choose among the ghost stories she knows, she would choose M.R. James’ O Whistle and I’ll Come to You and Edith Wharton’s  Mr Jones. Given that it’s a genre in which she excels, I take her word for it.

When it comes to short stories in general she likes John McGahern, William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield.

Travel books are also covered and here it is Patrick Leigh Fermor who gets a special mention. He is also mentioned in her chapter on editing books, something she has also been doing for quite a while. Fermor is one of her authors.

One chapter I enjoyed particularly was the one on diaries. I would have liked to start all the books mentioned right away and have never heard of some the authors she loves to read and reread. Namely the Reverend Francis Kilvert and Frances Partridge. But she also loves Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary and, surprisingly (as she doesn’t like his novels at all), The Journal of Sir Walter Scott.

All in all I highly recommend this book. It’s very colloquial and reading it feels like talking to a good friend about the books and stories he or she likes. I found a lot of books I’m looking forward to reading now, especially those that are waiting on my shelves. In this sense it is an inspiring book that put me in the mood to concentrate more on the books I already have and not acquire so many news ones.

Out of the list of 40 novels she indicates, I chose to reproduce a list of the novels written by women that she thinks to be among the best. I chose only the women because a) they are not as numerous and b) I would like to read more female authors this year and c) you should still have a reason to read her memoir.

I read and reviewed Carson McCullers and read To the Lighthouse as I have read all the novels by Virginia Woolf (except Voyage Out). The Rector’s Daughter and The Blue Flower are those I am most curious about.

Which ones of these novels do you know and like?

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Middlemarch by George Eliott

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

To the Lightouse by Virginia Woolf

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Rector’s Daughter by F.M Mayor

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson