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Escape with the novel by RC Sherriff: NPR


Escape with the novel by RC Sherriff: NPR

In spring 2020, the British newspaper The Guardian asked a group of prominent novelists, including Hilary Mantel, Marlon James and Kazuo Ishiguro, to recommend books that would “uplift” readers and “provide an escape” during the pandemic. Ishiguro proposed a 1931 novel titled The fortnight of September which he described as “life-affirming”, “delicate” and “magical”.

Fortunately, for readers who think like me – that when Kazuo Ishiguro raves about a novel, you’d be foolish not to pay attention – Scribner has just published a paperback edition for the 90th anniversary of The fortnight of September. Of course, Ishiguro pointed out to us a treasure, the one that was half buried by the sands of time.

This old powdery metaphor is deliberate because The fortnight of September is located by the sea. It is a lower middle class family, the Stevens, who live on the outskirts of London, making their annual two-week pilgrimage to the seaside town of Bognor Regis. The parents, who in the more formal custom of the time are known as Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, first stayed there during their honeymoon at a guesthouse called “Seaview”.

Over the years this guesthouse, run by a proud widow, has grown more seedy – its worn linoleum, its living room imbued with a “weak and sour atmosphere, as if apples had been stored there.” The Stevens’ three children – Ernie, who is still a schoolboy; Dick, 17, and Mary, 20, who both work, would definitely prefer one of the “newer residential hotels that hang string lights and broadcast their radio music across the roads.” But, to make such a change would destroy the illusion of an eternal return that visiting the same place every summer evokes: namely, that this place will always be there and so will you.

What follows, once the Stevens weathered the always stressful train journey, is a vivid collection of semi-major and minor moments: Mary’s first romantic hug with a young man; Dick’s attempt to overcome the blues he’s been feeling since he started working as a clerk, walking vigorously on the beach; Ms Stevens’ recurring fear of the ocean and its “large, slick slimy surface stretching to a nothingness that made her dizzy.” She keeps this fear a secret, of course, for the sake of the family. And, in turn, Mr. Stevens keeps his annual pub visits a secret, where the daring bartender, Rosie, has always “put him in touch with reckless instincts without the humiliation or danger of satisfying them.”

There’s enough period detail here to make readers feel like we’re relaxing with the Stevens in this sour sea-view lounge: the “fruit salts” and “blue-tinted sunglasses” that the family put away in their holiday trunk; the “steaming dish of chops and … tureen of sauce” they sit down for lunch. But beyond its Anglo look, The fortnight of September is an exciting reflection on time and especially how it changes shape in times like vacations – or even a pandemic – that aren’t bounded by normal routines.

There are so many places in this novel where the characters step back and become hyper-aware of time. Here is, for example, Sherriff’s omniscient narrator commenting on the Stevens’ arrival at Seaview:

They had reached the weird and eerie little moment that comes in every vacation: the moment when all of a sudden the tense excitement of the trip collapses and wears off, and you find yourself, vaguely wondering, … [w]if vacations, after all, are just a dull anti-travel climax.

You’re, in fact, fumbling around to change gears: you run for a moment in a neutral vacuum between the hissing slow speed of travel and the smooth, slow high speed of vacation – and in that moment of aimless non-control. , you’re responsible for … saying, like Mr. Stevens, rather lame – “Well – here we are.”

There is more than a hint of resemblance between The fortnight of September and Virginia Woolf’s time-conscious masterpieces, Mrs. Dalloway and Towards the lighthouse, which were published a few years earlier. But, there’s also a hint of Winnie-the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood magic here. Like RC Sherriff, Pooh’s creator AA Milne served and was seriously injured in WWI. It is therefore not surprising that after the war, the two traumatized men ended up creating stories set in timeless havens, where the little one enjoyed the pleasures of everyday life – like honey, a hot bath and a clear blue sky in early fall – are considered the gifts they are.