Sunday, 8 January 2012

Susan Hill: Howard's End is on the Landing

Susan Hill is considered to be one of the best contemporary authors, so  a book about the books she liked to read was a very intriguing prospect. Her house, like mine, is full of them, higgledy-piggledy in every room and piled on the stairs.   Howards End is on the Landing is subtitled 'a year of reading from home' and promised a trawl through her bookshelves, reading the books she'd never managed to get round to as well as re-reading old favourites. I love books about books and hoped to find some new recommendations, or authors I'd missed and I began to read with great anticipation.  But I have to say that the book was a disappointment.  Susan Hill seems to read very few contemporary authors - or perhaps they just weren't featured.  W.G. Sebald gets a look in, but most of the books discussed are classics or youthful enthusiasms from the fifties and sixties.   She dismisses Jane Austen as boring, but without saying why and is definitely not going to have another look.  Anything not printed in a serif font is unreadable, Poetry is another no, and oddly, she thinks Alice Munro's short stories are all the same.  I suppose I have to give her the credit for her honesty.

The way the book is structured enables memoir, so it's a trawl through Hill's life as well as her library.  And, though this should have been interesting, it wasn't.  There is very little personal revelation here, and a great deal of name-dropping.   What young aspiring author still at university wouldn't love to go to a party with TS Eliot and find Ian Fleming draped across the mantlepiece.  And how good it must be for your career to be able to pop round to C.P. Snow's house and get him and his wife Pamela Hansford Johnston to sign your London Library application!   Hill seems to have had the address file any would-be author would die for.

I know a lot of people, including DoveGreyReader, have loved this book, so I'm sorry I couldn't join their number.  Susan Hill says that when a book isn't enjoyed it's wholly the fault of the reader, so it's obviously mine!   I didn't like the tone of voice it was written in and didn't find inspiration, or a real passion for books, within the covers, though I read it to the end.  And having now read some rather guarded reviews in the heavyweight press, I suspect there are others out there who agree with me. But if you love Susan Hill's work and you share her taste in books, then this will definitely be for you.

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