Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Best Book You Never Read

We watched Reds last night — an excellent film, and not merely because I coveted each of Diane Keaton's turn-of-the-century costumes and hats (except for the babushkas at the end).  Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were spectacular. And I was surprised to see Dame Rebecca West on camera several times, interviewed as one of the many colorful witnesses to the era. She is the author of my favorite book, or books, called "The Cousin Rosamond Trilogy." The books are The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamond, which was still unfinished at her death, although with enough of an outline for her editors to complete the rest of the story in a reasonably satisfying summary. For years I almost never saw these titles in bookstores, although they're easy to find online. But The Fountain Overflows was recently reprinted by New York Review Books in paperback.

An Edwardian-era novel published in 1956, 
The Fountain Overflows is, as the jacket says, "A real Dickensian Christmas pudding of a book" (New York Times). It is a beautifully detailed picture of a turn-of-the-century London household as seen through the eyes of Rose Aubrey, one of the daughters in an artistically talented but impoverished family. The Aubreys and all of the other characters are colorfully drawn yet completely believable. Rose and her sister Mary are training to be professional musicians with their mother, a former concert pianist. There are touches of magic realism, because Rose and her mother share certain supernatural powers, which they take for granted and dust off only when necessary

Rose's pretty oldest sister, Cordelia, is a bad violinist and the only child in the family without musical talent — although she has a busy schedule performing in charity concerts because most listeners aren't as discerning as her family. But her mother and siblings regard her with as much sympathy and despair as if she were mentally defective instead of simply an amateur who "scoops" her notes.

Rose's father is a brilliant political journalist who prophesies World War I and writes persuasive pamphlets to reform British laws and unseat corrupt judges. But he can't hold a job, gambles all of his earnings on doomed business schemes, and routinely makes life difficult for his adoring family.

I won't give away any more of the story, because I hope you'll discover it for yourself. If you buy the first book, be sure to buy the others at the same time, so you won't finish one and need to run out to the bookstore at 9 pm as I once did,  brushing away tears and praying that they'd have the next volume. (They did; although it looks like the second volume, This Real Night is out of print.) I reread The Fountain Overflows almost every year around Christmastime because the Aubreys' holidays are so wonderfully described.

Over the years, I've been inspired to hear the music the family listened to and played, I've sought out foods they enjoyed (not the pork pie), and I've read some of the 19th-century books they read. Rebecca West was highly acclaimed for her novels and journalism in the 1940s and '50s and it's sheer bad luck that she's fallen into relative obscurity (except for The Return of the Soldier and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon) these days.

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