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Armchair traveller: doors to automatic and cross check

I'm a bit spoiled for choice with reading material at the moment. Feeling not quite ready to dive into Laura's next book club read (Like A Sword Wound by Turkish writer Ahmet Altan), I turned instead to Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair, which took me to the streets of Paris I haven't visited in person for nearly two years now. And I thought about how brilliant it is that while we still might not be able to travel in real life, through reading we can go anywhere in the world. I've also been to Trinidad, via How The One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones. I've been listening to this one on audio, and it has me absolutely gripped. The author is very good at ending chapters on notes that often make me gasp. I'm thoroughly invested in all the characters and at this point, about halfway through, have no idea what will become of them all. For once I'm positively looking forward to the drive down to my parents' house tomorrow so that I can listen to some more. And finally I've been staying in the mountains of Austria. It wasn't such a fun trip as I got trapped with a woman behind an invisible wall. Luckily she was clever and resourceful and we made the best of it. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to eat a potato again, though. More below.
Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair

Maybe it's a result of lockdown, I'm not sure, but I'm increasingly drawn to non-fiction these days. Although I still love a good novel I find I really enjoy reading about real things. What I love about good non-fiction is not only do you learn about the subject in question (the Blakiston fish owl, for example) you also learn a lot about the writer with a clear sense of their inner voice.

Deirdre Bair's book was a fascinating study in this, because in her career first as a journalist and then as a biographer her instinct was to keep herself out of the story. What electrified this book, for me, was the tension between her professional role and her struggles to keep her personal life on track, balancing the demands of family and a busy teaching schedule with the work of writing about someone else's life. As you would expect from someone who ended up writing a biography of Simone de Beauvoir there is a core of feminism that runs through the book like fine steel. 'The 1970s', Bair writes, 'were the early days of women writing and publishing novels and memoirs about their own lives and biographies of other women. Although feminist theory was on the upswing, women were told (mostly by men) that they could never achieve success because their subjects were not worthy of study and besides, when they did write, they approached their subjects with too much timidity to make them authoritative. They were accused of "writing differently," and this difference meant that what they wrote was second-rate.' 

Initially I found the writing quite formal, a little old-fashioned, and I wondered if it was going to be hard to get into. Bair had originally conceived the book as an academic guide for biographers, describing her methodology and tips for dealing with difficult subjects. 'Yes, yes,' her publishers apparently said, 'but tell people about de Beauvoir and Beckett.' And so, with some resignation, she incorporated her two most famous subjects into the narrative. She is never ever gossipy – one of the things you quickly come to appreciate about her is how scrupulous and ethical she is with regard to her work. She does, however, have a wealth of real-life encounters with the two writers to draw on, and you do feel you are getting an insider view. Not only that, but you also access their inner circles, the people who were close to them who either help or hinder Bair in her research. With Beckett she had to overcome his famous reserve and desire for privacy. With de Beauvoir she had to avoid becoming her mouthpiece. What took my breath away, though, and indeed Bair's, was the misogyny she consistently experienced at the hands of 'the Becketeers', Beckett scholars who accused her of having gained so much revelatory material by seducing Beckett. Bair held her head high and let the work speak for itself, sustained by a remark made by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois who told an interviewer 'a woman has no place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won't be eliminated.'

Seeing everything from Bair's point of view you want to cheer when things go well, and feel devastated for her when they don't. I loved being in her company and was sad when the book ended – I was sorry not to have got a good few more chapters on how the de Beauvoir biography was received but Bair ends instead with her own conclusion just after the book was finally published. 

I had a shock just now. Idly googling to see how old Deirdre Bair was, I discovered that she died of heart failure just a couple of weeks ago, aged 84. I'm sad she is no longer in the world, but happy that she left us this wonderful book. She ends with a quote from Rousseau: 'My purpose is to display a portrait in every way true to nature and the person I portray will be myself. Simply myself.' 'If I have managed to do that,' she writes, 'I will have succeeded and I am content.'

Buy Parisian Lives from

Further reading: For more, the natural next step is Bair's biographies. Beckett seems to be a little hard to get hold of, a library might be your best bet, but Simone de Beauvoir is available for a price. If you want to feel like you're in the Café de Flore drinking wine with Sartre and de Beauvoir, and to understand the ideas that preoccupied them, At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell is the book, a brilliant, funny and accessible yet still scholarly guide.

Thanks to the magic of the internet and the Free Library of Philadelphia you can watch Deirdre Bair talking about Parisian Lives here.
The Wall by Marlen Haushofer

I'm still catching up with talks from the London Library's Literature Festival last weekend, but one I watched and thoroughly enjoyed was Round the World in 10 Books, with Scott Pack and Judith Robinson. Apparently these two have been doing this double-act for a while, and change the line-up of books each time. It was a brilliant way to discover some titles I hadn't heard of, and one that intrigued me was The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. It sounded like the kind of dystopian fiction I generally avoid, a woman enjoying a stay in a remote hunting lodge with friends becomes trapped, alone, behind an invisible wall. She exists within an area some few kilometres wide, but outside of that the world has become inanimate. The few people she can see have become still like statues, and there is no hint of life elsewhere. Judith Robinson pitched it as a hopeful story of resilience and I was curious to try it out.

The woman has shelter and supplies of food and tools, stocked by the cabin's owner, a prepper. The forest contains deer and there are several other hunting lodges within walking distance where she is able to obtain more supplies. She also has companionship in the form of a dog, Lynx, and later, most fortunately, a dairy cow. These two animals and her cat Bella become the most important part of her life and the responsibility she feels towards taking care of them motivates her to stay alive. She plants potatoes and beans, learns to forage for food and churn her own butter. She measures out her days through tasks to be completed.

There is an undercurrent of menace that never goes away. Even when things are going well you are achingly aware of how vulnerable she is, the smallest slip might lead to injury, or eating the wrong food might poison her. It's the sort of book that leaves you wondering what it was the author wanted you to take away. Haushofer has allowed her character just enough so that she is able to survive, leaving her in a sort of indefinite state of isolation and survival. The idea of femininity is repeatedly touched on in different ways, at one point the woman muses on the purposeless she felt once her children had grown and left home, at another how if she had been trapped with a male companion she would inevitably have ended up looking after him. Through fighting to sustain her own life she is bound to nurture the lives of the animals in her care, the deer in the surrounding forest and perhaps it is something about this interconnectedness with nature, about living in harmony with the natural world instead of exploiting it, that's important. Nothing is obvious in this mysterious book.

I'd say go and chat to a friend after reading, but I think what this book was trying to tell me was not to fear solitude, to know that we carry within ourselves everything that we need. A fascinating read that would be great for book club.

Buy The Wall from

Further reading: The Martian by Andy Weir is another potato-based story about survival. Meanwhile Jenny Offill's Weather is a novel that looks at climate change anxiety and whether hoarding lighters in a backwoods cabin would make you feel better or worse.The Wall also made me think of Death in her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh, a very different, darker than dark story of a woman living in isolation by a lake. Also, now I come to think of it, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, where a woman in her 80s, living in an isolated cabin, investigates the mysterious death of one of her neighbours. The Wall was made into a film starring Martina Gedeck that is by all accounts excellent.

The 2021 Hay Festival

Another upcoming literary festival

It's rare you hear the phrase 'thanks to Covid', but if you're looking for silver linings then the digital version of the Hay Literary Festival feels like a total gift. Hay-on-Wye is a book-town that lies on the Welsh/English border in Herefordshire. Every year I dream of going but struggle to carve out the time. But now, thanks to their online platform you can now watch any event from their programme for free for 24 hours from the time of event. And for a modest fee you can subscribe to the Hay Player, where you get access to their vast archive of talks from festivals past. This year's digital festival starts on May 26th. Have a browse of the week-long programme and get some dates in your diary. There's every kind of author event, but the one I won't be missing is Anna Jones talking about her new book One Pot One Planet with lockdown cocktail-king Stanley Tucci.

A favour – could you email Ron Charles?

I'm fond of Ron Charles, the Washington Post's esteemed book critic. His newsletter is an enjoyable treat in my inbox at the end of every week. It turns out he's looking for a good books podcast and I'd love for him to discover ours. I think he'd like it. But obviously I can't tell him so, how would that look? But you, however... If you're a fan of the show and wouldn't mind taking two minutes to share that fact with Ron Charles you can do so here. If I could just get him to listen to one, I'd die happy.

What to Listen To

Don't miss our most recent podcast episode on Mrs Death Misses Death by Selena Godden. An experimental novel that considers every aspect of the fate that awaits us all might not immediately appeal, but listen in to find out why it's an unexpectedly life-enhancing read.

What to watch

I'm still catching up with the talks from the London Library festival. Whether by accident or design they are currently available on YouTube for those with the links and so, dear readers, I pass a few on to you – let it be our secret.
Around the World in 10 Books with Scott Pack and Judith Robinson.
After Vienna with Edmund de Waal and Tom Stoppard
Stefan Zweig in London, with Philippe Sands, George Prochnik and Daria Santini
Friends in Times of Trouble with Simon Schama, looking at great literary friendships.
A Room of One's Own, a dramatisation of Virginia Woolf's famous essay

What Kate is reading:

Real Estate by Deborah Levy, and finishing How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. I might then start Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller as I'm working my way through the Women's Prize shortlist in preparation for our upcoming podcast. But as is often the way when my reading becomes a bit too programmed I may have to take a dive sideways into something unexpected.

What Laura is reading:

I’m delving into my latest book club book, Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan. Until last month, Altan was trapped in a Turkish prison – Kate and I encountered him there in his I Will Never See the World Again, a collection of essays smuggled out by his lawyers during his imprisonment for trumped charges pushed through by President Erdogan. (We discussed that one on episode 48.) Now, I’m getting the chance to read one of his best-known novels, the first in his Ottoman Quartet. Osman lives alone in a delapitated home in modern day Istanbul, but he is never lonely. His long-dead ancestors haunt him, a persistent Chorus intent on regailing him with stories of their glittering, dangerous lives in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. So far so good. I’m enjoying it, though the pace is more leisurely and lyrical than the historical romps I usually love.

Thanks so much for subscribing and we hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of almost 100 (we're nearly there) episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

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