Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Book of Months

Fiction ~ novel (kind of)
Published May? 1903
Approx. 56,000 words
(First read 15/12/2013)

I said in my introductory paragraph that I wouldn't pull any punches, that if I found something bad, I'd say so.  Well, The Book of Months isn't bad ~ it's atrocious.  
As with most of these books, I had no idea what to expect before reading this ~ I'm never even 100% sure whether it's going to be a novel or something else.  (See for example As We Are ~ opinion is divided as to whether it's fiction, current affairs, or ... well, something else.)  Well anyway, here's what happened when I picked up The Book of Months [this review contains spoilers, not that there's much to spoil]:
I see it's divided into twelve chapters, a month each, starting with January.  Fair enough, I think, it's a diary-type novel, nowt wrong with that.  The narrator starts off by moaning about the weather in London; then, it having become clear that he's an author, he recounts a couple of anecdotes of his daily life.  Then he goes off to Switzerland for a skating holiday.  At this point I'm starting to think Erm, who is this chap? ~ surely the resemblance between him and the author is more than coincidental.  The episode closes with the narrator befriending a little girl staying at the same hotel.  Hmm, well, maybe not then.
February (don't worry: I'm not going to go through every month like this) arrives and we're treated to a really quite heart-wrenching anecdote about a street newspaper-boy who the Great-God-Benson shows us just long enough for us to like ... then summarily kills off.  Please note: This is the only passage in the book worth reading ~ it lasts two or three pages.  Our narrator then goes to a house party where, one night, he goes 'rain-running' (the hero of Ravens' Brood does exactly the same thing), which is to say that he strips down to his pants and goes running around outdoors soaking up nature (etc.)  I say, this is terribly bold of EFB to admit that he's done this himself.
March is nothing but maundering waffle, in the unmistakeable voice of E F Benson (or is it?).  So is April.
Then comes May and [quote] "Dick Alington and I were very old friends: we had been at school together, and his father's house was next to ours in the country, the woods belonging to each running contiguous, separated only by the park paling."  The mystery deepens: I have no recollection of that name in EFB's biography ... and besides, the Bensons surely never lived in a property like that ...  Then, lo and behold, not only is there a 'Dick' but there's a 'Margery' too and [wait for it, another quote]: "Then quite suddenly I became aware that I had fallen in love with her."*
This is page 47 of 124.
It's a novel: the narrator is a fictional author who just happens to be exactly like the real one; and these people are characters.  Reader, I swallowed my own tongue.  Now I realize I might sound like a complete dullard saying this but up until page 45 I was convinced I was reading "A Year in the Life of the Author of Dodo".  It's not till one third of the way through the novel (p. 48) that we even find out the narrator's damned name (Jack).  It felt like a confidence trick ... or a cheap magic trick ... or a hoax ... or something.  And the worst of it is that at no point in the remaining 250-ish pages (counting this and the sequel A Reaping as one) do we ever really know who Jack is.
Well, that's the long and the short of it.  I should add that not only is Jack a complete and utter zero, but he must surely be the most crashing bore Benson ever created: he just rambles on and on and on and on and on ... about nothing ... for pages and pages and pages.  For example, virtually the whole of August (once the plot's been safely cleared out of the way) is devoted to him going to Bayreuth to watch Wagner operas and he describes their plots in minute detail ~ it was horribly, painfully, sickeningly, stomach-churningly, brain-rottingly boring to read.
So, my advice, steer well clear of this one.

Still and all, if you are that kind of masochist, the whole book is available online here.  (Don't say I didn't warn you, though.)

For the sequel, go to A Reaping.


*There follows the inevitable dull love triangle: Dick loves Margery too; Margery chooses Dick (as who wouldn't?); the narrator chooses to hang around suffering nobly.  Dick, like so many a doomed character, is mildly likeable, so Benson kills him off in the Boer War.  Margery dies of a combination of grief-at-the-news and childbirth.  The baby (for once) survives Benson's mad axe ... but thereafter vanishes off the face of the earth.

THE CRITICS


The Book of Months is not, properly speaking, a novel at all; if we may coin an expression to fit this style of novel, we should call it "fictional autobiography." At the beginning the reader takes the book as a real description of the mental processes of Mr. E. F. Benson; but later on, when two love-stories are worked into the text, the same reader must conclude that the book is pure fiction. The earlier and less narrative parts of the book are the best reading, and the author when he describes his midnight outing in his friend's grounds to enjoy the full delights of the first night of spring is singularly successful in getting the young man's joie de vivre "over the footlights." There is a delightful optimism about the book which renders it very pleasant reading, and some of Mr. Benson's theories of life are shrewd enough to give food for reflection. As a whole, The Book of Months is well worth reading.
~The Spectator, 02/05/1903
 
It is full of charm ~ real, persuasive, penetrating charm ~ the charm of a wayward, irresponsible, winning personality. There is sentiment, and sometimes sentimentality; but there is an underlying manliness, which renders even the most sentimental reflections strong and unaffected. The book is, above all things, sympathetic. Many notes are sounded, and in all of them there rings the sincerity of real feeling and purpose … [we] recommend it unreservedly to all sorts and conditions of readers.
~The Daily Chronicle, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Juggernaut
 
The book contains fine work, notably the beautiful word-pictures of 'Spring in April', 'Capri in September,' and half a dozen others, which in themselves make it well worth reading.
 
~The Athenæum, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater and Sheaves
 
It is an uncommon and a charming book.

~Illustrated London News, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater

Mr. Benson, the author of Dodo and many other novels which have been severely criticised and widely read, now turns to a new field. These little prose essays, one for each month, record the out-of-door experiences and the reflections of a London man-about-town. In a measure, they suggest the work of Mr. Richard Le Gallienne, but they are in a manner simpler and less affected. A single reflection may be quoted: "The man who rings a bell for a small child who cannot reach it has done his duty and his part in the world's work far better that day than any philosopher who thinks a great deal and does nothing." A slender vein of humor and a considerable knowledge of society may be found beneath the surface of Mr. Benson's writing. The book is put in holiday dress with elaborate decoration in colors.
 
~The Outlook (US), 28/11/1903
Certainly, Mr. Benson is here at his best: quaintness, originality, some powerful descriptive passages, and very human nature gives an intimacy and charm.
 
~Daily News, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
The author reveals himself a keen observer and the possessor of a poetic fancy, expressed in vivid incident and sketches of human nature and scenery in all parts of the world. It is a book to be taken up at any time, and opened at any part.
 
~British Weekly, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
In some of the twelve episodes which Mr. Benson gives us in this volume he goes deep to the foundations of joy and sorrow. Much of the book is narrative; one or two of the stories are deeply and poignantly melancholy; other parts of the book are throbbing with vitality and the delight of life. Passages of descriptive writing, gay and sombre, occur which are wonderfully good work.
 
~Vanity Fair, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
 
It expresses the thoughts and feelings of a sane and mortal man; it reveals him in his private moments, and it throbs with his pleasure and his pain. It is all eminently natural, and it is 'mind-narrative' of a kind that will win the sympathy of average people by awaking echoes of their own emotions. Add to this that in style it is scholarly, in many pages lofty and poetic, and there is no need to explain away a charm which will be instantly felt. Besides the arts of sympathetic self-revelation and moralising, Mr. Benson has the rare gift of humour, and a talent for description and for narrative.
 
~St. James's Gazette, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater
 
The charm of the book lies in its perfect sincerity, and no one will take it up but will find in it something which will bring him into closer relation with himself, and inspire in him a greater sense of the joy of life.
 
~The Bookman, quoted in the endpapers to An Act in a Backwater

And finally: I can only conclude from this that all these people were reading some other book of the same title, by an author of the same name.
The Book of Months [(April 1903)] is an agreeable if rather desultory book which is difficult to categorise, being neither a novel, diary, collection of essays, autobiography, nor a gardening book, but an amalgam of all of them; a record of experiences, both material and emotional, with the thoughts to which they have given birth, within the space of one year.
The critics were caught off guard by this change in tempo and direction and did not know what to make of it. Most of them praised it highly, in a rather surprised kind of way; only the Saturday Review, never a fan of E. F. Benson, spoke of “these maunderings on lumbago, and the gibberish he talks in his bath, and above its dreary humour, its wilted sentiment, is the amazing insensibility with which the thing is done.”
~Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd in E. F. Benson As He Was, 1988

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