I've been slowly working on Elizabeth Jane Howard's first book in the Cazalet Chronicles, The Light Years. I say slowly, as I could easily spend the afternoon (and however many succeeding afternoons until I finished) reading bits of the novel and then flipping the book over and picking up Howard's autobiography Slipstream. Whoever mentioned that EJH's fiction closely follows her own life story was quite correct. As a matter of fact I am trying not to read the autobiography too quickly, as I'm afraid some of the novel's plot might be ruined for me.
It's really fascinating stuff. This is the sort of auto/biography that I love reading--slightly confessional and extremely chatty. It's in no way dry history. She begins by jumping right into the story of her life as a child, and only later goes back and talks about her parent's history. Have you ever noticed that most biographers like to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the subject's parent's lives in great detail, before getting on to the matter at hand? Not, of course, that that isn't important. I realize it's necessary to study the formation (so to speak) of whoever's being written about, but that is what tripped me up in the Emily Post biography I had been reading. The first third of the book didn't seem to talk much about Emily at all.
In Slipstream Howard begins by recounting a dream she had as a young girl where there was a tea party in her church and she had to pass around a plate of rectangular sponge cakes with white icing and each was decorated with a crystallized violet. She had hoped there would be just one left for her, but the last was scooped up by a "large lady with a brown fur round her neck" and she felt the disappointment bitterly. Those same crystallized violets appear in the novel, as does her favorite meal, and characters closely resembling her own family.
The Light Years is followed by Marking Time, Confusion, and Casting Off. I'd like to get them all read by the end of the year so I can watch the BBC production, which I received one Christmas and still have not yet watched (I knew I wanted to reread the books!). It's strange to see the actors on the cover of the DVD case as I can figure out who's who, but in some cases they're not at all how I imagined them to look (why I prefer to read before watching). The story begins in 1937 and follows the war years until the end. Looking through the books, it's interesting that Howard dedicated the last to Sybille Bedford, another author I really must read (and will be curious to see if she shows up in the autobiography).
If after reading the Cazalet Chronicles, I've still not had enough of EJH, I can read a few other books that I've had on my shelves for ages by her. Although they don't appeal to me in quite the same way as her WWII books, they might be very entertaining as well. Has anyone read any of these? I've got The Long View, which moves backward in time from 1950 to 1926 and is a portrait of a marriage. The Odd Girl Out seems to be another portrait of a marriage, but a happy one that must withstand the appearance of a beautiful young woman who enchants the whole family. I found an old copy of After Julius at my last library sale. Julius died 20 years ago, but "over the course of a disastrous and revelatory weekend in Sussex, the influence of Julius slowly emerges" on his daughters and wife. She's got several other novels and collections of stories out there that I'll have to be on the lookout for as well. Yet another author whose work I want to read all of.