As Green As Grass by Emma Smith: A dazzling evocation of what it is like to be young

A memoir which reveals the writer to have had the rare gift of being both susceptible to experience and clearsighted.

As Green As Grass: Growing Up Before, During and After the Second World War
Emma Smith
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £16.99

There is something both poignant and exhilarating about the late flowering of creativity that invigorates the careers of a few very good female writers. Molly Keane, Mary Wesley, Penelope Fitzgerald and Emma Smith have nothing particular in common besides their sex, their longevity and, possibly, a habit of making unobtrusively devastating observations, acquired over decades of living. Yet each produced a masterwork in her eighth decade – or, in Emma Smith’s case, her ninth.

Smith’s remarkable childhood memoir The Great Western Beach, published in 2008, was not her first taste of literary success. Her debut novel, Maidens’ Trip, which appeared in 1948 when she was 25, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and her second, The Far Cry, published a year later, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Both novels were semi-autobiographical. For Maidens’ Trip, Smith drew on her wartime experience of working on canal barges; The Far Cry was inspired by a trip she made to India in 1946 with a film crew.

After her marriage in 1951 and subsequent early widowhood, Smith moved with her two young children to Wales, where she wrote children’s books and, in 1978, a third novel, The Opportunity of a Lifetime. Yet it was the reissue in 2002 of The Far Cry, followed by the publication of The Great Western Beach, that relaunched her writing career. On finishing The Great Western Beach, with its distinctive, artfully artless style, the reader longed to know what happened next. As Green As Grass takes up where that memoir left off, with the departure of the Hallsmith family (Smith was born Elspeth Hallsmith) from their beloved home in Newquay, Cornwall, to the village of Crapstone in Devon. The reason for the move was Smith’s father’s promotion from the Newquay branch of the Midland Bank to a larger branch in Plymouth. A sense of unease pervades the opening pages. Elspeth and her elder sister, Pam, were to attend school for the first time; the chosen establishment was Moorfields, whose “particular purpose is to educate the daughters of officers and gentlemen. Our father . . . is merely a clerk in a bank. But we Hallsmith children have had it impressed upon us most forcibly all our lives by Daddy that in spite of his lowly employment he is – and we must never forget it – a gentleman.”

He was also a decorated war hero. Smith’s memoir is haunted by the intimation that whatever desperate action had earned him his Distinguished Service Order left an indelible mark on his peacetime existence. In Newquay, the Hallsmith children – the twins Jim and Pam, Elspeth and her younger brother, Harvey – had been able to escape the ominous atmosphere of home by retreating to the beach. In Crapstone, that was impossible. The simmering unhappiness of her parents’ marriage reached a violent climax when her father attempted to strangle her mother, after which he was sectioned and left the family home for good.

“There is no denying that life at home, in the absence of our father, has changed completely,” Smith writes. “The whole atmosphere has lightened and brightened . . .” By then in her teens, Emma began to fall in love alternately with books and with boys. Having left school in the summer of 1939, she found herself unoccupied. After secretarial training in London, she went to work for the War Office in Oxford. Soon afterwards, she began the canal-barge adventure that inspired Maidens’ Trip.

The war over, she felt in need of a change: “What sort of a change it may turn out to be I can’t imagine. I’m able to visualise only a blank horizon.” Over that blank horizon appeared the raffish figure of Ralph “Bunny” Keene, a film-maker who offered her a job and became her guide to a bohemian world populated by figures such as Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis and Philip Toynbee.

Smith seems to have had the rare gift of being both susceptible to experience and clearsighted. After a series of exactly the kinds of character-forming adventures that one should have in one’s twenties – a relationship with an older man, a trip to India, a summer love affair in France – she began to publish short stories, was taken up by a publisher and, after the success of her first novel, decamped to a hotel in Paris to write her second – where Robert Doisneau took the ravishing photograph of her, barefoot by the Seine, typewriter on her knee, that provides the cover image of her latest memoir.

Returning to England with a fierce case of writer’s block, she went reluctantly to a party on New Year’s Eve in 1950, met a man, fell in love and – in the space of four weeks – married him. “So that’s all right!” she writes, in the final sentence of her entrancing memoir, a dazzling evocation of what it is like to be young, quick-witted, hopeful and very slightly silly. It is much more than all right. And now, please, for the next volume.

Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)

The second volume of Emma Smith's memoirs begins with a move to Devon. Photo: Getty

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism