The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Sicilian author Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) is most famous for his only novel The Leopard, published posthumously. I have an unread copy of The Leopard on the shelf–bought primarily thanks to the film version from director Luchini Visconti.

The Professor and the Siren, a slim volume of 69 pages from New York Review of Books, contains three stories: Joy and the Law, a short morality tale concerning an impoverished accountant, married with three children and saddled with debt, who receives a 15lb panettone at Christmas for being the most “deserving man” at work. The story reminded me of the wisdom of Alfred Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion–a large gift of charity (10 pounds in the case of Alfred Doolittle) makes a man “prudent, like; and then goodbye to happiness.” Alfred Doolittle understands that with a smaller gift of 5 pounds he can spend every penny with a clear conscience, but 10 pounds brings responsibilities. In the case of di Lampedusa’s accountant, he would have been better off if he hadn’t been selected as the recipient of the huge panettone.

the professor and the sirenThe third story, Three Blind Kittens, was originally intended to be the first chapter in a ‘follow-up’  to The Leopard. This story concerns the Ibba family, and the current head of the family, Don Batassano has just bought another piece of property from the Prince of Salina (the Salina family is the focus of The Leopard & the lawyer brokering the deal is the son of the man who worked for “Old Prince Fabrizio“). Don Batassano has a map with all the Ibba family land coloured in yellow, and he looks forward eagerly to his latest acquisition increasing those yellow bits. Batassano is an unpleasant man, careless of a peasant child and brutal to his own horse. Gradually we learn just how the Ibba family expanded their properties in unpleasant ways:

an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of laws, of implacability and also luck, daring as well.

Don Batassano’s father was illiterate  but “seduced the deaf-mute daughter of a local bourgeois, a minor landowner only slightly poorer than he was, and with the dowry obtained by means of the extorted marriage had doubled his own assests.” Thanks to loan-sharking, stealing, land-grabbing, and even murder the Ibba family fortunes rose.  The entrance of Garibaldi into the  political scene sealed the triumph of the Ibba family.

We see the unpleasant Ibba family at home, at dinner, with grossly obese Lady Laura in full bloom, an impressive figure “of lard alluringly fresh and firm.” Local noblemen from the oldest families, including the current Prince of Salina gather and bemoan the rise of the vulgar Ibba family, speculating as to the legendary (and exaggerated) vastness of the Ibba family fortune:

The castle of lies was extremely fragile, but so beautiful–made up of women’s thighs, obscene acts without names, great painters, and one 1,000 lire bills–that no one wanted to blow on it and make it fall.

The gem here is the title story, The Professor and the Siren, a story that blends myth with a love story. In this tale, set in 1938, a young man who finds himself unexpectedly womanless due to his own carelessness meets an idiosyncratic elderly professor at a corner café.

It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers. They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence. It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.

It’s in this café that our narrator, Paolo Corbera di Salina, “the sole surviving specimen” of the once noble family meets the elderly professor, a difficult man who initially keeps his distance, and treats Paolo badly. Over time, the two men develop a relationship of sorts, and the crusty professor expounds at length on his various pessimistic theories, but on the subject of women, the professor’s beliefs are even bleaker:

In, fifty, sixty years, perhaps much sooner, they will all die; so they are already diseased. And wretched as well. Some elegance they’ve got, composed of trinkets, stolen sweaters, and sweet talk picked up at the movies. Some generosity too, fishing for greasy banknotes in their lover’s pockets rather than presenting him, as others do, with pink pearls and branches of coral. This is what happens when one goes in for those little monstrosities with painted faces. And were you all not disgusted–they as much as you, you as much as they–to kiss and cuddle your future carcasses between evil-smelling sheets?

A strange statement, but then again, this is an elderly confirmed bachelor offering advice on the subject of women to a man 50 years younger. Underneath the professor’s advice, however, is a strange love story which took place in 1887 … .

It’s in The Professor and the Siren that the author’s talent seems to break loose–Joy and the Law is a pleasant little tale, Three Blind Kittens is a wonderful glimpse of shifting class structure in Italy, along with the resentments and unexpressed envy of the aristocrats who are unable to stop the decimation of their own historic privileges, but The Professor and the Siren is exquisite. It’s beautifully written, and di Lampedusa seems to be at once deeply in love with his subject, but also unleashed by his rich, vivid descriptions in a tale in which the author’s use of luscious language is matched by its exotic subject. Under the story’s sensual mystery of myth and passion, the story asks the question: is it better to have experienced a moment of such intensity that the rest of one’s life pales in comparison, or is it better never to have known ecstasy then measured against a lifetime of mediocrity? The answer … well that’s up to you.

Translated by Stephen Twilley.

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Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale

“I needed, as they say in California, some space. Or as we say in Texas, I wanted to be left the hell alone.”

Cold in July is a novel from American crime author Joe R. Lansdale’s backlist. Its release is in conjunction with the film version which features Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. After reading the novel, I don’t need to read the cast list to see who plays which role; it’s easy to guess.

The book’s premise is simple: Richard Dane lives with his wife and small son on the outskirts of the small East Texas town of Laborde. One night Richard’s wife, Ann wakes up after hearing the sounds of someone breaking into their home. Dane grabs his .38 and in an act of self-defense, kills the armed burglar. This should be the end of the matter, and local police Lt. Price reassures a troubled Dane that he had no choice but to shoot. The man is identified as Freddy Russel, a small time crook with a history of incarceration. Dane’s house is cleaned, and the remnants of the crime are washed away, but Dane is troubled, in spite of the fact he knows he had no choice but to kill the burglar.

Trouble begins when Freddy’s violent father, Ben, just released from Hunstville comes looking for revenge….

cold in julyLansdale’s crime novels frequently place the individual on a lonely path, seeking justice, vigilante style, without the aid of legal channels. The individual, outside of the boundaries of the law for various reasons then rounds up loyal friends, people he can trust, and then with a team in place, the action begins. It’s a throw-back to the Western idea of the posse, and Lansdale novels seem to tap into monumental archetypes. That scenario emerges here as Dane learns that he cannot trust the police, and seeking the truth, he forms an uneasy alliance with Ben Russel, an ex-con whose explosive temper is fueled by guilt.  They join with unorthodox PI Jim Bob Luke and a speedy investigation takes them right to the Dixie Mafia.

On the down side, there’s the sentimentality of saving the home and hearth which some readers may not mind, but the main issue is that there are just too many implausibilities which occur simply to move the plot along (the phone book? really?…) . I can’t give the examples I’d like to give as that would reveal too much of the plot, but I can add that one of the first implausible points that annoyed me was Dane as the owner of a marginal frame shop with two full-time employees in a town of 40,000. This just hit me the wrong way. He lives too well, doesn’t worry much about money (orders new locks, windows, a paint job & a couch without blinking), and then leaves the work to two employees as he takes off to pursue his investigation with a PI he hires for $300 a day.

But that brings me to the best part of the book–the character of the PI, Jim Bob Luke, a man who drives a blood-red Cadillac named the Red Bitch:

About two-thirty an ancient blood-red Cadillac about the size of a submarine pulled up directly in front of the door to Russel’s room. There were baby shoes hanging off the mirror along with a big-yellow, foam-rubber dice, and on the windshield was a homemade sticker that had six stick-figure humans and three dogs drawn on it and there was an X through each of them. The car had curb feelers and they were still wobbling violently when the driver got out and slammed the door and stretched.  

The entrance of the seeming laid-back Jim-Bob to the book added a lot of zest. He’s a well-developed character, always fully into his role, and that includes some racist comments.  He looks like a “washed-up country and Western singer,” complete with a “worn straw hat with a couple of anemic feathers on it.”  Here’s some dialogue to give a sense of the book’s style:

Jim Bob ordered steak and baked potato and all the trimmings, and when he took his first bite of steak he waved the waitress over and told her, “Honey, take this cow on back and finish killing it. Set the little buddy on fire for about three more minutes and then bring it back to me.”

While Jim Bob waited on the steak, he and Russel talked about old times, and laughed. Ann and I felt a little limp, as if we had gone to the wrong party.

When Jim Bob’s steak came back he thanked the waitress and ordered a Lone Star Light. “Got to watch my girlish figure,” and he went at his food with gusto, saying “Brain food.”

“Then you better eat plenty of it,” Ann said.

I looked at her. Russel looked at her. Jim Bob looked at her and laughed. “Ain’t that the damned truth,” he said. “Pass that salad dressing. The one that looks like someone threw up in the bottle.”

I’m a long-time fan of Lansdale, but this is not his best book. IMO the Leonard & Hap series is the best of Lansdale. That and Bubba Ho Tep, of course.

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Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

“In my profession, true relaxation is a necessity. I see and hear things all day long. Things you need to get off your mind at night. The fungal growths. The bleeding warts. The folds of skin between which things have gotten much, much too warm. The three-hundred pound woman you have to examine in a place you hoped you’d never have to go again.”

The Dinner by Herman Koch made my best-of-2012 list, and when I turned the last page of the book, I was very disappointed to discover that there were no other books available in English by the author, so you can understand my delight when I heard about Summer House With Swimming Pool.  Plus a big bonus on this book, it includes the added attraction of one of my reading obsessions: a holiday setting.

Summer House with swimming poolSummer House with Swimming Pool is narrated by doctor Marc Schlosser and the book begins with a deliciously nasty, claustrophobic, self-obsessed first-person narration which recalls Bernhard, or a sicko version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The not-so-good doctor, a general practitioner is obviously a seriously disturbed man, and that makes him an unreliable narrator.

Many of us have probably had doctors who’ve seemed unbalanced, but Schlosser is dangerous because, on the surface, he seems to be so stable. This is a man who loathes his patients, who grimaces at their ailments which he believes are mostly imagined, and yet his carefully developed professional mask has helped Schlosser built a large practice of loyal patients mainly from the “creative professions.” Schlosser paces his patients twenty minutes apart, “his selling point” as a doctor, but he barely bothers to listen to the litany of health issues, and confides that in his practice, “the key is not to worry too much about medical standards.”  While he knows that people line up on a waiting list to become patients, believing that he “makes time for each individual case,” Schlosser brags that “patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention.” He has a well-honed script to deter anyone from seeking a specialist, and a manner in which he encourages patients to keep coming to him while feeling good about their bad, unhealthy addictive habits. Repulsed by his patients’ bodies, he has fantasies of death during examinations:

Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and the infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there until it starts to bleed … Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly … No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park. The car in front has a green dragon’s head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red, infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted to their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It’s cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean waits.

One of the very best scenes in the book, and one that made me laugh out-loud concerns how Schlosser terrorizes patients prior to a rectal exam while appearing to reassure them as he slowly and methodically preps. Of course, any doctor with an attitude like this is a disaster waiting to happen, so it doesn’t come as any great surprise to discover that something has gone terribly wrong with one of Schlosser’s patients. A famous actor, Ralph Meier, is now dead, and Schlosser is accused of malpractice.

Meier, a larger than life, bon vivant, obnoxious womanizer, first came to Schlosser’s practice 18 months before because he had heard through the grapevine that the doctor “was fairly accommodating with prescriptions.” This, incidentally, is another way that Schlosser has built his practice.  A series of events brings Schlosser and his wife, Caroline into Ralph’s social sphere. When Ralph is introduced to Caroline, he doesn’t disguise his lust:

As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey,. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse or some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it were something edible, something that made his mouth water. Now there was also some movement around his moth. The lips parted. his jaws churned, I even thought I heard the grinding of teeth–and he breathed a sigh. Ralph Meier was seeing something delicious. His mouth was already anticipating the tasty morsel that he would, if given the chance, wolf down in a few bites.

The most remarkable thing perhaps was that he did all this without the slightest embarrassment. As though I weren’t even there.

Ralph and his wife Judith invite Schlosser, his wife Caroline and their two daughters (aged 11 & 13) to join them near the Mediterranean coast at a rented summer house. Caroline wants to decline, and yet strangely enough, Schlosser manipulates a visit which ends in complete disaster…

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a bit of a disturbing curiosity. It begins with an unreliable narrator, a nasty toxic, twisted doctor who indulges in violent fantasies involving his patients (and humanity in general), who references the teachings of a former university professor who was “later drummed out of the university” for his controversial studies, and isn’t completely honest about his motivations. These motivations become clear over time, and yet I still didn’t quite trust his version of events.  While the book was initially very funny, in a sick psycho sort of way, the plot spins in the doldrums for a while before it takes an unexpected, very serious turn, and the two parts of the novel don’t quite mesh smoothly. 

I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool, but I prefer The Dinner–a novel with nastiness that built relentlessly to the end. Both books examine the parent-child role–specifically the issues of protection and innocence. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, the male adults at the rented home, who include a visiting American film director with a taste for nubile young girls, engage in a summer of irresponsible, lustful juvenile behaviour which naturally ends badly. The motivations of all the characters are under scrutiny here, and while revenge may seem to be the dominant directive, troubling questions remain regarding Schlosser’s actions. We all tend to believe what we want to believe and accept the version of events that we like best, and perhaps this is what happened with Schlosser.  Unfortunately for the book, the Marc Schlosser we are left with at the end appears to have run out of steam and nastiness and this, in spite of the fact that Schlosser has finally had to confront the validity of his demented mentor’s misogynic ravings, doesn’t quite gel with the character revealed at the beginning. That said, I just read that Herman Koch has a third book soon to be published in English, and you bet I’ll be reading it.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garnett. Review copy.

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Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

“Your opinion of me worries me exactly as much as dandruff would a chopped-off head.”

Laidlaw from Scottish author  William McIlvanney’s is the first book in a series featuring Glasgow based police detective, Laidlaw–a man with a very definite philosophy about crime and criminals as well as an attitude that doesn’t make him popular with many other officers. With Laidlaw hot on the track of the murderer of a young woman, D.C.  Harkness is assigned as Laidlaw’s new partner. Harkness is fresh from under the wings of Laidlaw’s enemy D.I. Milligan who gives Harkness the warning that Laidlaw is a loose cannon, “less conventional,” an “amateur” who bridges the divide between the law and the criminal far too often.  According to Milligan, Laidlaw engages in “free-lancing,” and “becoming a traveler,” this rogue D.I.  goes deep into the city. Milligan doesn’t want Harkness, his protégé, to pick up Laidlaw’s bad habits. Milligan sees a huge gap between himself and the criminal world while he thinks that Laidlaw doesn’t see the same divide:

I’ve got nothing in common with thieves and con-men and pimps and murderers. Nothing! They’re another species. And we’re at war with them. It’s about survival. What would happen in a war if we didn’t wear different uniforms? We wouldn’t know who was fighting who. That’s Laidlaw. He’s running about no-man’s land with a German helmet and a Black watch jacket.

Harkness is initially loyal to Milligan and that makes him suspicious of Laidlaw and his tactics. Gradually, however, as Laidlaw and Harkness negotiate some of the shadier corners of the Glasgow underworld, Harkness learns why Laidlaw and Milligan despise each other. Laidlaw sees Milligan as a “walking absolute,” a man full of destructive “false certainties.” As the murder investigation continues, Harkness develops a grudging respect for his new partner and begins to question his own world view:

But there are two basic kinds of professional. Harkness saw that in a moment of self-congratulatory illumination. There’s the professionalism that does something well enough to earn a living from it. And there’s the professionalism that creates a commitment so intense that the earning of the a living happens by the way. Its dynamic isn’t wages but the determination to do something as well as it can be done.

Laidlaw was the second kind of professional. Harkness realized it was a very uncomfortable thing to be because, in their work, ‘well’ involved not just results but the morality by which you arrived at them. He thought of Laidlaw’s capacity to bring constant doubt to what he was doing and still try to do it. The pressure must be severe.

Laidlaw is an excellent, strong first entry for the rest of the series (The Papers of Tony Veitch, Strange Loyalties ), so thanks to Max for mentioning this book to me some time ago. The crime under investigation is the brutal murder of an 18-year-old girl who went out for an evening to a disco with a friend and never returned home. Her body is found, and her father, Bud Lawson, a bitter man  whose “face looked like an argument you couldn’t win,” wants revenge. Laidlaw deals with her hostile father, her grieving mother, the Glasgow underworld, and the murdered girl’s secrets. Laidlaw is an interesting character–a mass of acknowledged contradictions, and as a detective this sometimes makes him unpredictable. With a difficult home life, and wife Ena who “liked to bounce her ammunition off the children to get to him,” Laidlaw has secrets of his own.

laidlawWhile the novel is titled Laidlaw and Laidlaw appears to be the main character, Harkness, as a character slightly off the centre of this crime tale, is, for this reader, every bit as interesting as Laidlaw. Laidlaw is a man who’s approaching his fortieth birthday, almost mid-career, plagued with personal problems but bolstered by deeply ingrained philosophy. He’s already well on his life’s path. In contrast, Harkness is a brand new DC, and when the novel opens he’s spending Sunday afternoon with his long-time girlfriend, Mary and her family. While Harkness’s life may appear to be mapped out, in reality, it really isn’t; there’s plenty of time to change, and the partnership with Laidlaw introduces niggling doubts into Harkness’s mind about his perceptions of self and just what he wants from life. He’s already experiencing mild dissatisfaction with the future he knows he’ll have with Mary:

It was a nice place but it bothered him the way houses that have been made self-consciously attractive always did. The whole experience, the talk that had lost all awareness of its one arbitrariness, the carefully arrived at prettiness of the rooms, was like being trapped inside somebody else’s hallucination.

Laidlaw makes some fascinating observations on the subject of crime solution and asks how far should one be willing to go to solve a crime while also exploring the failure of the authoritarian approach.   

Finally, an observation to all you crime writers out there. This book begins with chapter about an anonymous man, who turns out to be the killer, as he runs for cover. At this point in the novel, the reader has no idea what is going on, and to be honest the beginning doesn’t exactly pull you in. If anything it’s annoying, and as a reader, my advice to any crime writers would be to avoid this sort of vague opening from a panicked psycho.

NB: There are a few conversations in Scottish dialect that may present a bit of a challenge for foreign readers

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The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik

“Stefan Zweig–affluent Austrian citizen, restless wandering Jew, stupendously prolific author, tireless advocate for pan-European humanism, relentless networker, impeccable host, domestic hysteric, noble pacifist, cheap populist, squeamish sensualist, dog lover, cat hater, book collector, alligator shoe wearer, dandy depressive, café enthusiast, sympathizer with lonely hearts, casual womanizer, man ogler, suspected flasher, convicted fabulist, fawner over the powerful, champion of the powerless, abject coward before the ravages of old age, unblinking stoic before the mysteries of the grave–Stefan Zweig falls into the category of those who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment.”

That’s one of my favourite quotes from The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World because it illustrates the complexities and paradoxes of the subject.  Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a best-selling author in his lifetime lived to see “his own plunge from glory to darkness,” but currently his work is in revival. My first encounter with a book by Zweig included a brief intro which mentioned his death by suicide, and my impression from other pieces was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis. The New York Review Book’s edition of Confusionincluded an introduction written by George Prochnik which gave a much more complex explanation of Zweig’s suicide, so when I saw that Prochnik had written a non-fiction book concerning Zweig’s exile. I knew I had to read it.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World is a fascinating title which can be read two ways. Is the exile of the title the many journeys Zweig took all over the globe when he left Austria and attempted to find a new home? Or is the Impossible Exile Zweig himself? 

The Impossible exileThe book’s introduction opens with scenes of Zweig in 1941 living in the Brazilian village of Petropolis. Immediately, there’s a central paradox–a paradox that haunts both the book and Zweig’s life. On one hand, Zweig in a letter “asserted ‘we feel extremely happy here,’ “ and yet simultaneously he “burst out in astonishment: ‘I would not have believed that in my sixtieth year I would sit in a Brazilian village, served by a barefoot black girl and miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends, conversation.’ “  This was, of course, just a few months before Zweig killed himself by poison in February 1942, joined in death by his second wife, Lotte, a woman 27 years his junior. 

Why did Zweig, who successfully fled the Nazis, and who was living in the safety of Brazil chose to kill himself? It’s a haunting question–especially when we try to tally how many other Jews (most did not have Zweig’s privileges–wealth, fame and influence) could not escape and were exterminated. Zweig didn’t flee with only a battered suitcase; he left his home and his much-loved library in Salzburg, going into self-imposed exile in 1933; “the book burnings and the banning of his work in Germany had begun to push him toward” the idea. He was fortunate, famous and wealthy, and yet, in spite of having a distinct advantage over fellow exiles, he did not thrive. This was a man who could have lived anywhere he wanted in North America, South America, Canada or England, but he never fit in, and each restless move seemed to erode a little more of Zweig’s psyche.

The Viennese grandparents of George Prochnik were on a “Gestapo  list” scheduled to be rounded up the following day when they were “tipped off” and managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938. A series of extremely lucky occurrences saved Prochnik’s family, and, after many nearly fatal events, the family sailed to New York. Family stories and experiences gave Prochnik the insight to write this book about Zweig with empathy and with the exception of views of Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, non-judgment. I mention the issue of ‘judgment’ because Zweig was the target of criticism. He continued to work with Richard Strauss “even after Strauss had been officially named the chief musical ambassador for Hitler’s regime,” and Zweig was “accused of cowardice for his continued unwillingness to demand international action to save Germany’s Jews.” At the same time, the author cites “abundant evidence” that Zweig, who loathed and avoided conflict, helped innumerable exiles to the point that he’d become a “one-man welfare office.” Snippets from some of Zweig’s letters reveal a man whose sympathy was vanishing as he bemoaned pleas from  “the latest flood of refugees [as] mostly second-rate beggars who’d delayed their escape too long.”

Discussing his own heritage, Prochnik ruminates on the difficulties of adjustment faced by exiles in a new country, “the sudden, radical disequilibrium in their social worlds,”  and that  exiles “move through their new world, [and] scatter around them the aura of past lives like powder from beating wings–in this case, the splendor and toxins, the black iridescence of pre-Anschluss Vienna.” Prochnik makes this comment about Zweig: “His story is particularly revealing for what it says about the predicaments of exile that aren’t resolved when freedom is regained.”  So for Zweig, escaping the Nazis wasn’t enough to give him the buoyancy to survive, and this reminded me of Anna Seghers’ wonderful novel Transita story about refugees stuck in Marseille desperate to get passage on a ship.  The narrator says that the refugees seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

The non-linear book follows Zweig through various periods of his life, his youth, the “honeymoon phase of his exile,” designation as an “enemy alien” in Bath, his move to America, the incongruity of the cosmopolitan Zweig marooned in small town America, and throughout it all, his continuing battle with pessimism and despair.  At one point, Zweig contemplated moving to San Francisco, but then flipped his thoughts to Salt Lake City, but these non-decisions only serve to argue that the destination was superfluous–just another stop on an endless journey. Included are some amazing photographs which underscore Zweig’s diminishment and alienation in the American landscape.  

Gradually through the author’s steady, thoughtful and measured words, a picture emerges of a man who lost his celebrity status, and who felt increasingly out-of-place with the outside world much “less accessible.” While other exiles saw an opportunity for “self re-invention,” Zweig, while materially all options were open to him, mentally he seemed boxed into a corner.  Plagued by his fear of aging (which he attempted to battle with hormone shots), and all-too aware that the Viennese society he’d known and loved had vanished forever, Zweig lost his identity and his world narrowed even as his travels expanded across the globe, fleeing from the ever encroaching arm of Nazi Germany. He “never ceased to be amazed by his own ejection from the Olympus of European artistic celebrity into a miserable, nomadic existence over the course of a handful of years.” The suicide was clearly a measured decision staged and planned, and there’s the sense it was just a final gesture of disappearing from a world in which Zweig had already faded from view

Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibility in times of crisis: the debt owed one’s fellow sufferers relative to the debt owed one’s muse; the role of politics in the arts; and the place of art in education. His tale also raises questions of how we come to belong anywhere–of responsibility to family and ethnic roots relative to ideals of cosmopolitanism

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How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier

Reviews of Pascal Garnier’s novel The Panda Theory claimed the book was funny. I thought it was bleak, but humour is a very unpredictable thing, so when the same thing was written about How’s the Pain? I didn’t expect the novel to be funny at all–but it is. I’ll qualify that by saying that the book isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s full of morbid humour with a central motif of death and decay. This is how the book begins:

The sound coming from somewhere in the darkness was barely audible, but it was enough to shatter his sleep. The drone of the moped grew louder until it was directly beneath his window, grating on his nerves like a dentist’s drill boring into a decayed tooth. Then it faded into the distance, leaving nothing behind but a long rip through the fabric of this sleeping city. He hadn’t opened his eyes or moved except to twitch his mouth in annoyance at the buzzing mechanical insect. Lying flat on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, Simon could have been a recumbent tomb effigy. One at a time he opened his heavy eyelids, gummed together like the rusty shutters of an old shop. He groped for his glasses on the bedside table, but could barely see any better once he had them on.

So this is Simon, a middle-aged man, who’s travelling on business. While staying in Vals-de-Bains, he meets a young man named Bernard who, after losing two fingers from his left hand in a factory incident(while drunk), is staying with his alcoholic mother temporarily. Simon meets Bernard when both men are in a park watching a wedding and the photographer who “had no qualms about destroying the flowerbeds or tyrannizing his models to ensure that this would truly be the most beautiful day of their lives.”  Bernard strikes up a conversation with the stranger, and their exchanges reveal the central cores of their personalities. Simon is a pessimist who sees the worst in everyone, and Bernard, an optimist and a perennial loser, lives lightly. Even though Simon is a loner and avoids people, there’s something about Bernard that he finds appealing. Perhaps it’s his complete guilelessness, or perhaps Bernard reminds Simon of his younger, directionless self. The two men strike up a relationship, and Simon who claims to be an exterminator who owns a pest control business employs Bernard as his driver for two days….

How's the painAs the two men travel to their destination, thanks to Bernard’s generous heart, an ad-hoc family coalesces around Simon–whether he wants it or not. And the drive, and perhaps even the friendship with Bernard bring back some troubling memories to Simon–how he was a directionless young man until he joined the army, his formative years in Algeria, his love affair with a woman named Safia, and his last act of friendship towards an army comrade.

That’s as much of the plot I’m going to give away, but I have to mention Bernard’s hopeless, alcoholic mother, Madame Ferrand; there’s a whole chapter devoted to describing the trajectory of her life and her pathetic career as a serial failed shopkeeper. At age 35, she dumped her 2 year-old fatherless son, Bernard with her parents and moved to Vals-de-Bains where, with her “meagre savings,” she opened a millinery shop called Chez Anais. Over the years, the shop transformed into various manifestations, all of them failures, and it’s through her life that we see the living example of Simon’s beliefs: life is awful–and most people should be put out of their misery. Of course, though, we have the ‘right’ to put ourselves through the misery of our choosing, and in this case, Madame Ferrand’s misery is alcohol soaked.

She leant against the doorframe for a moment, her cartoonish kohl-lined eyes judging the distance between herself and Simon and sizing up any obstacles to avoid on the way. Then, like a bull charging the matador, she puffed out through her nose and lunged forward with her hand held out, her face split by a smile reminiscent of a gash made by a machete in a watermelon.

‘Enchantée, cher monsieur, enchantée! You’re most welcome.’

Simon caught her just in time to stop her tripping over a fold in the rug and smoothly kissed her hand. The patchouli oil she had splashed all over herself could not disguise the lingering smell of rum.

While this is a crime novel, it’s also inherently philosophical. It’s through his relationship with Bernard that Simon’s views about life are at once endorsed and paradoxically challenged. Bernard is kind, but naïve, hopeless and a magnet for all sorts of trouble, but at the same time, Bernard’s buoyancy, careless optimism and sheer gullibility open him up to life–like a wound exposed to further attack, and yet, at the end of the day, who would you rather be? Financially successful Simon, whose negativity has led to isolation, or loser Bernard, a man who lives lightly and shrugs off worries?

There’s a wonderful scene when Simon is waiting at an aquarium for a business meeting and he watches a shark in a glass tank.

The shark was drowning its sorrows inside its glass cage. It turned this way and that for no apparent reason, taking no notice of the opaline jellyfish and shoals of multicolored fish swimming out from clumps of soft seaweed. There was not much to choose between aquatic and life on earth; either could be equally boring. The proof was in the amphibians which had dithered between the two for thousands of years without ever making their minds up, or the valium-drugged crocodiles whose sleepy eyes peeked above the surface of muddy pools. Like Simon, who stood watching them, all these creatures seemed to be on standby, waiting for something that was always just out of reach. Over-excited kids pressed their noses against the glass, ganging their horrid chubby little hands against the walls of the tanks. Their shrieks ruined the silence of this other world. From the looks on the faces of their harassed parents, it was clear many would gladly throw their offspring to the piranhas. The world might well end in the same murky green waters that spawned humanity.

I liked The Panda Theory enough to explore more of Pascal Garnier’s work, and I’m glad I did because How’s The Pain? is superb. At 163 pages (my copy) this entertaining, highly-recommended, lean tale should appeal to fans of Jean-Patrick Manchette–not for its tone, but for its style. This is a frame story, and I’d recommend going back and re-reading the opening chapter again after finishing the book. Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Emily Boyce.

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The Voices by F.R. Tallis

“Places have atmospheres, certainly, and I suppose that powerful, emotionally charged events might leave some kind of impression–a kind of memory. But as for the dead coming back to meddle with the affairs of the living? I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing.”

In 2013, I read and enjoyed The Sleep Room, so when I saw that British author F.R.Tallis had written a new novel, I knew I had to get my hands on it. But first a story….

About twenty years ago, a relocation seemed imminent. As it turned out, the move never happened, but the search for a new home led to a bizarre experience I’ve never forgotten. With only weeks, as I thought at the time, to find a rental, pack up and move, I drove to this small, rural area in order to check out a few houses. I saw a handful–most were disappointing with a range of problems, and then, the very last house on the list seemed promising. The rent was fair, and unlike the other houses, this one, on the outside at least, seemed to be in a good state of repair. I met the real estate agent in front of the house which was located on a remote side road. We went inside, and there was the usual bland living room and kitchen. Then I passed into the hallway, and something happened….

A chill and a heavy feeling of dread passed over me as I turned into the first bedroom on the right; I felt as though I was about to see something horrifying, but, of course, the room was empty. As I stood in the doorway, I knew that something terrible had happened in this room. I quickly passed through the rest of the house, went into the back garden where I experienced the same feeling, and then returned to the living room. There the real estate agent, with a stack of rental apps in his hand, said, “before we go any further, I have to tell you that a murder took place here…” Let me ask you: would you move into this house?

If you reject my experience, then The Voices will probably have no appeal, but if you accept my story, then F.R.Tallis’s macabre tale of things that go bump in the night is for you.

The voicesThe Voices takes place in London in the 70s as a married couple, Christopher Norton and his pregnant wife, Laura, meet an estate agent at a Victorian house located near Hampstead Heath. The house appears to have been uninhabited for some time, and in spite of substantial need for repair, the Nortons fall for the house, buy it and move in. The house may be a long-term project in terms of repair, but it seems perfect, and one of its selling points is a large room on the top floor which Christopher, a composer, can use as a studio. It’s on this first day, that Laura, standing and gazing into the overgrown garden sees something. This is the moment when the couple should have RUN, but no, instead they buy the house, move in and Laura gives birth to Faye.

Over time, Christopher and Laura begin to grow apart. Christopher’s career stalls, and he sees another friend, a man who opted for a less commercial career, receiving the sort of recognition he craves. Christopher writes and creates film soundtracks, and while he was once in Hollywood, now the jobs coming his way are scarce and for minor films. In fact, at one point, he’s even passed over for Star Wars. In a funk, Christopher discovers some peculiarities on recordings he’s made inside his home studio. At first he thinks there’s an equipment problem or that the voices he hears are radio interferences, but as these options are ruled out, he becomes convinced that the voices on his tapes are paranormal activity. After reading the book Breakthrough: An Electronic Communication with the Dead by Konstantin Raudive, Christopher is convinced that the voices will be an integral part of a unique project that will make his career. He delves into the history of the house and descends into obsession as he attempts to capture the voices of the dead on tape.

The engineer shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

‘What do you mean, nothing?’

‘I couldn’t find anything wrong.’

‘But the voices…’

‘Yeah,’ said Kaminsky. ‘The voices.’ He lit a cigarette and nodded silently to himself. ‘I’ve been listening to them, and if you think about it…’ He hesitated and seemed uncertain as to whether to proceed or not.

‘Yes.’

Kaminsky continued. ‘They don’t sound anything like radio broadcasts, do they? She died last night; I’m a stranger here; Come, Tommy. Fate. In French, German, English. I mean, what sort of stations are we picking up here?’ It was true. The voices didn’t appear in an ongoing stream of interference, and it was difficult to imagine them in the context of an ordinary radio programme. ‘And why no music?’ Kaminsky added, foreshadowing Christopher’s own thoughts. ‘No records, no jingles, nothing.’

‘What are you suggesting?’ Christopher asked.

The engineer studied the smoke rising from his cigarette.’I don’t think these voices are radio transmissions.’

Meanwhile, Laura, a former top model, suffering perhaps from postpartum depression, experiences horrible nightmares. Growing apart from Christopher, she joins a feminist book group, and begins to reject her past life. As Christopher and Laura become estranged from each other, there’s a big question: is this just a normal turn of events or is the atmosphere of the house itself eroding their psyches?

She had only intended to stop reading for a few seconds to rest her eyes, but she found herself thinking about the past. It was happening more and more–memories would detach themselves from some deep, murky place of concealment and rise in her awareness. An image of an Italian couturier formed in her mind. She had thought about him a lot since being reminded of his existence by her old see-through blouse (which she had now given to Oxfam). Once again, it all came flooding back. The hotel, the black leather furniture and the floating forms in the lava lamp. She had absorbed enough pop psychology from magazine articles to know that the insistent return of these memories was symptomatic. It meant something.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to give away. With Christopher and Laura’s estrangement, combined with his feelings of anguish at a lost career, we’re initially not sure how much here is psychological vs paranormal. Over time the difference becomes clear, and author F. R. Tallis, a clinical psychologist, carefully and relentlessly builds dread as Christopher’s obsession grows and Laura begins to feel that there’s a presence in the house. There were moments when I wondered at the lethargy of this married couple, but then that’s explained by their twin paths: Christopher, happy to delve into the house’s dark past, and Laura, who has a tiny sliver of intuition, but she’s too deep in her own memories trying to get to some central truth to take action. Much is left to the imagination, and this just adds to the terror. There are some loose ends with the secondary characters, Sue in particular, and the storyline involving the house’s last owner is frustrating elusive, but overall this was a gripping, dark tale.

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Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

“I’ve had to deduce that women grow hard over time while men grow soft.”

A few years ago, I read Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound, the story of a woman who unexpectedly finds that she’s the guardian of a teenage girl. Bound explores the issues of obligation, responsibility and loyalty through the lives of its characters, and while I enjoyed the novel, I have to say that these short stories in the author’s latest collection, Funny Once, are truly superb.

If there’s a common thread in the nine stories and novella in  Funny Once, then that common thread must be the unexpected links we make with people, and once again obligation, responsibility and loyalty are issues at play.  These stories are not about dysfunctional families, but rather it’s fractured families that are examined here. What sort of stew do you get when someone has been married 3 or 4 times, has children and step-children from various marriages, and old relationships with former in-laws? Move over the theme of dysfunctional families and instead let’s look at a very common scenario, at least in my part of the world, the crazy quilt of fractured families.

Funny onceIn Soldier’s Joy, Nana, a woman married to her much older husband returns home to Kansas following her father’s accident. There she meets a former lover,  a man who was a crucial factor in her much later marriage.  Nana’s husband is her former professor:

She and Helen had met Dr. Shock at an apex, his as a certified celebrity, theirs as nubile acolytes. He had then been a casual tenant of his attractive still-young body, but now was a fearfully vain and anxious one of the older model. For two consecutive years he had gone about claiming to be sixty-nine, not even consciously, so averse was he to the number seventy.

Nana and her husband  don’t have children, but they own dogs.

Lacking children, Nana and her husband had settled for dogs; their friends no doubt pitied their misplaced affection. This was the third pair of siblings they’d owned. First black labs, next Cocker Spaniels, now the Corgis–each set a slightly smaller breed. “We’ll die with Chihuahuas,” Nana had once told her husband.

“You” die with Chihuahuas,” he’d corrected her. “”I’ll die during the dachshunds.”

Nana’s parents have never really understood her marriage or why all of her education “led her no further than housewifery.” When Nana returns home, she discovers that her parents have become surrogate grandparents to the children of the neighbours, and that the neighbour is her first boyfriend. This difficult situation is fraught with might-have-beens and fantasies of a possible future. There’s a shock in store for Nana, but it’s not what you expect.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, and it’s hard to just pick a few favourites, is The Village. In this story, Darcy, now middle-aged recalls how a car wreck she caused as a teenager led to a strange confession by her father of an extra-marital affair with a woman named Lois. He begins with the sentence “sometimes people do things that other people might call mistakes.” Circumstances lead to Darcy meeting Lois, and she becomes one of the formative people in Darcy’s life. When Darcy goes to Lois’s funeral, she thinks she’ll finally be able to acknowledge exactly what her father’s long-time mistress meant to her, but she learns otherwise. This is a wonderful, and curious story, as Lois is a shadow figure. We never actually meet her so we only see her reflected in the mirror of various memories. To one lot of people, Lois was a remarkable woman, while to her own family, she’s something else entirely.

In IFF a woman finds herself living with hairdresser Gloria, her ex-mother-in-law, detritus from the divorce from Nathan.  Gloria is Nathan’s stepmother, and while he’s moved on, and is about to remarry, there’s simply no room in his new life for his step-mother, and Nathan seems to think Gloria is an -ex too. Like unwanted baggage, Gloria is left behind, yet she and her former daughter-in-law share a bond that goes beyond the tenuous bond of a wobbly marriage.

In First Husband, Lovey now married for the second time, deals with her step-daughter, Bernadette, her “ex-husband’s youngest most difficult girl.” While her other step-daughters found Lovey “lacking,” Bernadette, was “needy” and formed a relationship with her young stepmother which continues in spite of the divorce and remarriage. Lovey and Bernadette share a complicated bond of loyalty and disappointment stemming from their relationships with the same man–Bernadette’s father and Lovey’s ex-husband.

When she married him, he was at the tail end of his fruitful handsomeness, it’s fulmination, at forty-five, still moving in the world with the confidence of a man who’d bedded a lot of women, all of them except the first few–when he was a beginner, when he was on the receiving end of a romantic education–younger than himself; he was a serial seducer. “Handsome men are dangerous,” Lovey’s mother had warned her. Lovey had been his third wife; perhaps she could have predicted that she would not succeed where those others had failed, but that was the nature of love, and of youth, and the combination, youthful love, to make one arrogant, or stubborn, impervious to the lessons of others.

If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything.

Now Lovey has moved on to a very placid, comfortable re-marriage to William, a doctor, but still the past intrudes through the obligations she feels to Bernadette. Bernadette was her step-daughter, and now she has children. Is Lovey a grandmother? Are these her grandchildren? And what of Lovey’s second marriage to William?

And she understood that William, too, had been disposed of, that his ex-wife had had a similar nuclear potency, and that he loved Lovey with the same conscious intensity of somebody exacting a kind of revenge, or, perhaps, simply forever behaving with the belief that his ex was paying attention, that he had need to prove he’d survive and thrive, the victor. A victor, anyway.

The novella, Three Wishes, follows the lives of the three Panik siblings, Hugh, Hannah, and Holly, and the story begins when they deliver their father, duct-taped into his recliner, to a nursing home. With their father in a home, the siblings return to their lives. Hannah, the only one who’s married, is the one who seems to have her life together whereas Hugh and hopeless single-parent, Holly are visibly stunted. There’s a great scene when the siblings enter a bar called Ugly’s:

Hannah had a nervy awareness of her femaleness, the way the den of men had vaguely stirred, straightened its collective spine–math nerds, slackers, divorced professors–when she and Holly had entered. Her older sister looked like a woman who knew how to have fun in the world, whose smile came from zealous desire, whose mind was worth investigating, who wouldn’t reject you without a test run.

His little sister looked like somebody who’d threaten to kill herself if you broke up with her.

Hugh, who’s been living in the ramshackle family home (with hippies next door), and works a marginal job, returns there and begins attending creative writing classes at night at the local college–”his current attempt to curtail his drinking.” Over time we learn that there should have been a fourth sibling, Hamish, who died, “animation suspended at age nineteen.” Even though he’s been dead for decades, Hamish’s shadow lingers over his siblings who never quite connect with their lives.

The characters here are aging and trying to come to terms with the mistakes in their lives even as they mull over the invisible crossroads that took them to unintended destinations. Even Ms. Fox, the bitter creative writing professor in Three Wishes doesn’t seem to know how she ended up in Kansas. Antonya Nelson’s stories are relevant to today’s family situations where the nuclear family is riddled with fault lines–multiple marriages and divorces, step-children, step-parents, & step-grandparents. We know that responsibility doesn’t end with divorce, and with great sensitivity and insight Antonya Nelson explores the reaches of loyalty which trumps legal obligation. This is a marvellous collection and comes highly recommended.

Review copy.

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The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

Review copy

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

“Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with a fifteen-year-old girl?”

Slated to be the blockbuster novel of the year, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair from Swiss author Joel Dicker is a complex and convoluted novel which examines the relationship between two authors against the backdrop of a crime that took place decades earlier. Most reviews of the book are glowing, and since the book won several French literary prizes, sold close to a million copies in France, and is named Amazon’s Book-of-the-Month for May 2014, most readers will come to the book with high expectations.

harryAt close to 700 pages, there’s a lot going on in the book–too much, but more of that later. The book’s synopsis is intriguing, and for this reader, the book was at its best in the beginning as the relationship between author Harry Quebert and his young protégé and former student,  Marcus Goldman is established. Suffering from writer’s block, Marcus, who’s a one-hit-wonder of a novelist, can’t write his second novel. Under tremendous pressure, partly due to the hefty advance that’s already mostly spent, Marcus retreats from the glitzy party scene in New York to his mentor, Harry Quebert’s idyllic beachside home in Somerset, New Hampshire. Marcus knows instinctively that if anyone can help him overcome his writer’s block, then that person is Harry. But shortly after his arrival, Harry is arrested for the murder of Nola Kellergan, a 15 year-old who disappeared back in 1975….

Marcus becomes involved in the case and is determined to write a book which will prove Harry’s innocence, but Harry, one of America’s “best selling and highly respected authors” (and pompous to boot) isn’t exactly helping his own case since he admits that he had an affair with the teen and that she inspired his best-selling second novel, The Origin of Evil, the book that served as the pinnacle of his career.  Marcus finds himself trapped in the flesh-market of celebrity and caught between loyalties: he can write a bestseller and betray his friend or he sink into obscurity, yet another has-been.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is touted as a cinematic novel, and while I don’t agree, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, with substantial cuts, made into a film. The novel is also supposed to be “tightly-plotted,” but the plot which moves between 1975 and 2008 meanders all over the place, leaving loose ends until convenient moments of discovery.  Other claims about the novel state that it’s a portrait of small-town America, and while the novel begins as a crime story, it clearly morphs into something else as the plot unfolds and becomes increasingly complicated. The missing girl turns out to be a local Lolita; then add corruption, gossip, nosiness, voyeurism, masochism, dodgy police officers, a reclusive billionaire, and the narrow dogmas of some backwoods religion to the mix. (To paraphrase from Out of the Furnace: “Church ain’t over ’till the last snake is back in the bag.”) Unfortunately the wild inaccuracies and implausibilities in the novel eradicate much of the novel’s intentions to portray the ambience and hypocrisy of small-town America.

There’s so much here that’s just off: At one point in the novel, Police Sgt Gahalowood is waiting for a crucial handwriting analysis. A great deal of the case against Harry hinges on the results, and the analysis doesn’t arrive and we’re kept waiting. When the results finally arrive, other story lines appear exhausted so that the timing seems plot driven more than anything else. Then much, much later, just as the plot appears to have been solved, another niggling little loose end drags us back in. The messy, bloated plot includes even a theoretical version of events. Then there’s the issue of implausibility:  Gahalowood allows Goldman to ride along repeatedly for the investigation, question witnesses and even shares crucial, trial-determining evidence. Then there’s the issue of the way witnesses are just sitting around waiting to spill the beans on vital pieces of evidence. Marcus steps into their lives, asks a question or two, and all these secrets all too conveniently pour out. Another problem concerns the female characterizations of two middle aged women–Marcus’s mother, and Tamara Quinn, the former owner of the town’s café. These two women are mostly caricature with the result that the scenes between Tamara and her husband are almost comic–a tone which jars with the rest of the book:

Satisfied with the arrangements outside, Tamara went into the house to monitor what was happening there. She found Jenny at her post in the entrance hall, ready to welcome the guests. But she did have to scold Robert , who was wearing a shirt and tie, but had not yet out on his pants–because on Sundays he was allowed to read the newspaper in his underwear in the living room; he liked it when the draft from the open windows blew inside his underpants because that cooled him down, particularly his hairy parts, and he found that very pleasant.

“Enough parading around  naked, Bobbo!” his wife rebuked him. “all that is over now. Do you really imagine that you’re going to walk around in your underwear when the great Harry Quebert is our son-in-law?”

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is an ambitious novel which tries to achieve several things. There’s a long buried crime, and a relationship between two writers–one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Then there’s an exposé on the hypocrisy of small-town America, and finally, there’s a hard look at American society and the fickle publishing industry, its savage focus on celebrity, the invasion of privacy, media manipulation, the disposability of authors, and the ephemeral nature of fame. I don’t like to slag off on any book, but The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is riddled with problems. So why did I slog through nearly 700 pages?… I wanted to know who killed Nola, the girl who was the living embodiment of, and also interestingly, the vessel of small town hypocrisy. Nola is dead when the novel begins, and yet somehow her image remains alive thirty-three years later. Through memories, Nola has left behind a series of representations, but are any of these memories correct? Or did people just see what they wanted to see? How did Nola become a reflection of various twisted desires? These are some intriguing questions which are unfortunately obfuscated by the bloated, convoluted and implausible plot.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair depicts a whorish American publishing industry while garnering glowing rave reviews and phenomenal sales. The American publishing industry is shown as the real villain here with authors only as good (or as interesting) as their last best-seller. There’s an irony here which did not escape me.

“People like you because you’re young and dynamic.  And hip. That’s what you are–a hip writer. Nobody expects you to win the Pulitzer prize; they like your books because they’re cool, they’re entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Here’s Stu’s review

Translated by Sam Taylor. Review copy.

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Filed under Dicker Joel, Fiction