Just before moving house a few of weeks ago, I had started doing the keyboard equivalent of jotting down ideas about ‘middlebrow’ reading for this blog. I was going to recommend a few books that I’ve recently read but realised that middlebrow is a highly subjective term. That was around the time we had thought contracts had been exchanged on the buying of one property and the sale of another, but they had not and we hadn’t heard from our solicitor in days. It looked like everything was going to fall through.
Back to the blog. What is meant by middlebrow has changed in connotation over the years. For modernists like Virginia Woolf, middlebrow was pejorative, reserved for aspiring intellectuals and cultural poseurs. The post-modernists, I guess I fit in best with that grouping if it doesn’t get me trolled, give middlebrow a more neutralised power as part of the general culture, accessible and culturally significant as an art form.
Moving house is stressful and all encompassing. It permeates all thoughts. While I was reading Little Fires Everywhere, a social satire by Celeste Ng, the subplot about a mother and daughter living a nomadic existence, going from one town to the next, became the main plot because it involved moving. The real main plot for those of you not moving home revolves around the Richardsons, a suburban American family run by a stereotypical 50’s era mother (though the story is set in the 90s). Their lives, brimming with secrets and intrigue, are rocked by the arrival of an artist, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl and a court case involving the adoption of a child abandoned by its mother. The different threads come together in this study of identity and motherhood.
Contracts were finally exchanged and moving day was just a few days away when I found a quote to use in my blog. Ezra Pound once said: ‘Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’ I’m assuming ‘great literature’ refers to highbrow, keeping with the literary banter of the day. Interesting, but ‘charged with meaning’ could mean many things, such as colourful metaphors or turns of phrase or it could signify language that is meaningful in the context that it has created and described. The house we’re moving to does not have a functioning kitchen. Cooking food and eating are meaningful. My mind drifted around design plans and buying a stove and hob, avoiding the meaning of meaning.
Moving day went smoothly despite Covid restrictions – everyone wearing masks, doors and windows open, social distancing with the broadband installer and movers. That is, everything went smoothly until we closed the windows and turned on the heat. Nothing – no heat in a house that had been empty for six months. To make matters worse, that February afternoon it was 7C, and it would be five days before we would have a working boiler.
During these chilly days huddled around a portable electric heater, I thought about the other middlebrow read that I was going to recommend, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, much of which takes place in the cold. Lacroix, a wounded British officer, has returned from the Napoleonic Wars haunted by an atrocity that occurred in a Spanish village. Once he has recovered, he is ordered to return to fighting, but instead flees to Scotland. His travels include arriving in Glasgow, where he is mugged on the street and his boots are stolen. All I could think about is feet numb with cold. In the meantime, a kangaroo military tribunal decides that Lacroix is to blame for the killings in the Spanish village, and soon he is being chased by two comically inept officials. The story develops along the lines of thriller and romance, peppered with comic moments and Lacroix’s sagacious reflections.
Three weeks on from our move, the new kitchen has been installed and David has laid down wood floors in two of the rooms, including my office. With books on the shelves and boxes unpacked, I continue to read good fiction, middlebrow and highbrow, I suppose.