I have today started reading

ALL SOULS – A Family Album

by Frances Oliver (New English Library 1975)


My detailed reviews of the complete published fiction of Frances Oliver

All my previous real time reviews are linked from here: http://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/


Part One


” ‘The dead are our castrators.’ “


A densely-packed, allusive, elusive, Proustian slide-show of images and people in 1970 reflecting — via two of its scions (Leonora and her father Franz) — an Austrian family, its memories, its projections, its failures, its Freudian subtleties across a wild century of years beforehand. I float with only a geneaological sea-tree to cling on to…


“The dreams of buried young Werthers, thinks Mond, who has of course written a little poetry in his youth, the dreams of buried Werthers, ghostly and delicate as the hairy-legged centipedes that emerge from our drains, the drains of the unconscious.” (up to page 26), (10 June 10)


In many ways, I’m glad I’ve left ‘All Souls: A Family Album’ as the last to read of all the novels I think Frances Oliver has had published. (I have also read her autobiographical work – ‘Girl In A Freudian Slip: A memoir’). ‘All Souls’ so far promises to be the most experimental, impressions crowding in on each other with startling power. One needs to grow with Frances Oliver into this book. I genuinely believe her to be the Austrian Elizabeth Bowen, if I can be so forthright. I mean that as an intense compliment. A dynasty of people as houses, houses as people, fracture amid war, and a prose style to die for, which, even at its clumsiest, is simply meant to be clumsy at that point for linguistic or emotional reasons.


This book has viewpoints and time-lines at odds with each other in a poetic absurdity (including shrieking rabbits). But you know there is something (some cosmic force) that is going to emerge. Not Lovecraftian or Aickmanesque or Proustian or Bowenish or Byattian or even necessarily Oliverian, but something genealogical that perhaps the author herself is unaware of, or would deny (her not being a conscious Jungian I guess). One must not even try to transcend the ‘Intentional Fallacy’ here so powerfully at work. But I keep my powder dry … (only up to page 37 as I am!)


“Woodworm. Myrhh, frankincense, woodworm and gall. Woodworm.” (11 June 10)


Angles of time and place. Lenni (Leonara) in the house’s attic of papers and memories – and the alcohol she now drinks in 1970 – all those scrambled words with which she cannot cope. Words a world do make, a history, and I’m sure we, as readers today, will now do our best to bring this crystallisation of fiction-as-truth to light. We honestly believe that whoever created those words in the attic of time was writing more than just for show. Words are not only words but also things-in-themselves as well other things… “Clothes and books, still more letters in ribbon-bound bundles, albums and piles of photographs, mildewing high-button shoes, parasols with insects breeding in the frills, stacked paintings and picture frames, worm-infested, rodent-gnawed.” There is some sort of inversion in time here, the first is last, the last first. (11 June 10 – two hours later)


” ‘Christ, what have we got out of our lives, not even a good sabbatical year, some people at least get to poke around Greek islands picking up potsherds…’ “


Regrets and marital ‘conversations’ across time and space. Girls and old women who are the same people. A sort of agelessness


“…the old woman is talking about the grocery firm of Ludwig Hendel, where she gets her coffee. No longer an exclusive shop. Self-service. She says this word as if it were woodworm.”


“No story-book face like that could have much behind it. Or could it? Anyway, at the end it’s all gone and there you are a sack of sad throwaway bones and someone has to give you enemas.”


“God keep you well…”, your loving real-time reviewer. (11 June 10 – another 2 hours later)




Part Two


The butcher’s shop (cf ‘The Tourist Season’) and the Hansel & Gretel (cf ‘The Peacock’s Eye’) “Gingerbread hearts and houses…” and when, “At Epiphany three children come…”, Lenni continues to comb the attic memorabilia of words that represent her life – and the letters we write within the words – and the Winter Olympics 1971 compared to which the Football World Cup 2010 is equally discardable today as I write this… (11 June 10 – another 3 hours later)


This novel is a collage of time (across a European century) … a collage of a family, viewpoints, memories, essays, fictions, non-fictions (with footnotes) – retrocausal and premonitory of modernity even beyond the book’s contemporary modernity of 1971 where a pivot seems to be in place – and war and concentration camps and numbers of deaths needed to draw the optimum dismay – and, inter alia, “Epiphany tourists“… (up to page 76) (11 June 10 – another hour later)


Contemporaneously viewed Jewish angst of Anschluss and relativity of numbers again – and time paralells effectively accentuating the angsts themselves, i.e. retrocausally and premonitorily by dint of this book’s literary mechanics. One small general criticism – there is a sporadic use of the F word that, to me, seems out of place or grating. But that may be just me.


“Trouble with infantile nightmare fantasies, so many of them turn out to be real.” (12 June 2010)


Previous poetic absurdity resolves into nightmarish sense – regarding, for example, those shrieking rabbits. Supernatural visitation is explained, but isn’t everything in life a bit supernatural? Including the sight of the Statue of Liberty to fleeing Jews in 1939. (12 June 2010 – an hour later)


“Too many historians and political commentators approach their task with the naïve moral absolutism of fairy tales.”


One question: two people accusing the other of being crazy, why do we ask who is the one whose claims are correct? Why can’t both be crazy? And the rabbit-skiner once came as a child dressed as one of the Three Kings… (12 June 2010 – another hour later)


Part Three


Pieces of the family’s time collage, 1913 and 1897, a striking contrast, respectively, between a bony angular fifteen year old girl (with a dead animal she’s just killed) now at a posh tea-party and a hour-glass shaped girl in a beautifully set Jane Austen scenario of relationships where undercurrents are similar to the first scenario but more unstated…


And 1971: ” ‘Yes, for woodworm. We have it everywhere. In the furniture, in the floors, the picture frames, the shelves.’ / And now the socialists are in. And our chancellor is a Jew. Once it was Hitler, now it is a Jew. The whole postwar world is inexplicable.” (12 June 2010 – another 90 minutes later)


“You never know, afterwards, really, why you do anything.”


Skirting the anti-Semitism of Fate, this book wonders that if we sell the present do we simultaneously sell the past. Meanwhile, the future simply holds a difficult suicide. The cross-currents here become almost unbearable, as the reader realises the painful jigsaw emerging on the page of the mind. (13 June 10 – up to page 130)


In a timely manner, the book takes a brilliantly hilarious turn, with a tipsy Lenni trying to sell the crumbling family house in 1971 to Herr Zeitgeist (for a brothel?). (13 June 10 – an hour later)


Perhaps I’m late to the game, but I’m only now beginning fully to appreciate the ‘soul’ of this book. At times, grotesque, at others pathetic, but always deep-felt as a cross-section of nearly a century of years – as here we enter a ricochet or interface of the First World War tragedy with a tragi-comic scenario of the early nineteen-seventies (a time of innocence in retrocausal hindsight of what’s happend since 1971 that only today’s reader knows and the otherwise then freehold author of the book didn’t know) – each tranche of time steeped in the other. (13 June 10 – another 30 minutes later)


“Dr Mond turns, rises. They embrace clumsily, Leonora kissing him on both cheeks with damp cracked lips. Dr Mond, as always on seeing his daughter again, is filled with a kind of appalled wonder. How could my thin dreamy child of the long fair braids have turned into this … this Knödel, this pathetic spaniel-face…”


Leonora (Lenni), 41 years old in 1971, is the cross-section of war and displacement (eg America and Austria), just aborted a future (literally)… She is the texture of this whole collage, collages having margins but potential for more beyond its frame.


She almost recognises ‘The Peacock’s Eye’ type of hoax in memories, even if they are otherwise documented piecemeal in the attic…




“Lenni’s voice rings through the sleepy stuffy conditorei, through the fug of sugar, alcohol, perfume, smoke and slightly musty waitresses’ uniforms. The glasses tinkle, the meringues tremble.” (Cf. Elizabeth Bowen) (13 June 10 – another 90 minutes later – up to page 152)


We now float around this book’s sea tree (shown as a text frontispiece) – i.e. the tranche of 1960 where the elderly scion sisters are also at sea – a mist of memories and truly sad expectations of the impossible becoming possible in their dotage. This section is a possible highlight in the treatment of Pathos in Literature. It must be read in context. (13 June 10 – another 30 minutes later)


I have a sort of ‘frustration tolerance’ for this novel as I approach its closing collages of time (up to page 171), now with Lenni in 1947 with her ill-timed parents… One needs to be a Jungian to appreciate the Freudianism of this book, I sense.


I feel I have lived longer than I have. That I touch all parts of the 20th century (even though I was only born in 1948 in urban Essex).(13 June 10 – another hour later)






A remarkable scene – All Souls – cataloguing and candling each of the ‘jumble of the dead’ in the ‘stiffyard’ – within a monologue by Lenni worthy of the end of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and including a metaphorical concept worthy of Elizabeth Bowen. (13 June 10 – another hour later) (up to page 179)


“It is awesome and in a way wonderful how fathomless is the human id, full of surprises even into the seventies.”


The id or nemo? (Cf John Fowles)


Planting candles in a mass grave seems the natural progression from planting them at individual graves, but equally provocative to the feelings that numberlessness or nemonymity somehow blur. Lenni absolves the destiny that is us after the Holocaust.


Each segment of Frances Oliver’s text adds more to the jigsaw of time and tragedy. Tragi-comedy. (13 June 10 – another 2 hours later)


Part Four


“Stupid idea, wanting things to look as if they were still being used when at the time they were being used one’s duty was to keep them looking as if they were not,”


And it is as if there is a freehold or head-lease author (Frances Oliver herself?) built into the oldest person in the story (someone I have not mentioned yet in this real-time review, if I recall correctly) and one who pervades the house throughout the book – who is now conducting tours of the house in 1977 (this book, ‘All Souls’, was published in 1975!)…


A fitting end to the very fine (and, dare I say, criminally underrated) Frances Oliver canon of fiction (as I have personally experienced it in time and space).


Meanwhile, I remember Leonora’s “little apple trees“, hearing the apples crump one by one in the night as I sleep in her house, the family’s house…our house? We children of epiphany.


” ‘Yes, I realise Big Brother always watches, even those innocents on sabbatical.’ “


END (13 June 10 – another 45 minutes later)


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